This region in Bundelkhand has been largely left out of policy discussions on development.
The recently-elected MLA from the Manikpur constituency, R.K. Patel, is quite the charmer. Originally from Karwi, the district headquarters, he has won elections many times over from his constituency and, as is the fashion, stands from the political party that catches his fancy at the time. This assembly election he ruffled some feathers, jumping to the party of the season, the BJP, and then making the decision to contest from the Manikpur constituency. Manikpur has a high SC and Adivasi population, and, more to the point, a dominant Kurmi population – Patel’s caste, and that of the numerous Robin Hood-styled dacoits who have had the region in their thrall for decades, exploiting the opportunities that extreme poverty and deprivation provide. Navigating the Manikpur landscape, especially villages in the higher, more remote and forested reaches of this undulating, eerie region, you could be frozen in a time long gone. The only change is perhaps a much scantier forest cover, the only source of livelihood for the Adivasi communities of Manikpur. The black-armband protests that greeted his ‘betrayal’ notwithstanding, Patel won the seat with a comfortable majority and since, has been a regular fixture in villages streets and at local wrestling matches, making a big deal about setting Manikpur’s record as a shockingly-neglected region of Bundelkhand right.
In June this year, Patel made a highly-publicised trip to Kharaund in Manikpur, with an entourage of reporters, to lay the foundation stone for the non-existent village road, between the largely upper caste Kharaund and its hamlet Gardhi Khurd, inhabited by largely Dalit – Khatik and Raikwar subcastes – residents. Rs 18 lakh had been sanctioned for this road under the Bundelkhand Development Fund in the previous fiscal year.
On a misty, autumnal morning in early December, we made our way along the banks of the Valmiki river (flowing from Banda’s Ohan river, and becoming Bardaha as it enters Chitrakoot and then Valmiki, which flows through the Gadhi Khurd hamlet of Kharaund panchayat). A bridge built in 2006, under the Bundelkhand Development Fund, serves to connect this hamlet with Kharaund. This bridge is the main thoroughfare to the neighbouring Aichwara village, where the nearest school is. The bridge lasted one summer and then collapsed in the monsoon of 2006, and has remained in a state of rubble since – funds for Bundelkhand’s development notwithstanding. The thoroughfare is now a combination of rocks and logs of wood, used by children to go to school as well as by the rest of the village. Rajni, a high school student from Gadhi, said she crosses the river using a log of wood at least twice a day, and has fallen in many times. Om Prakash, stepping out of the river after his bath, told us that the bridge lasted barely 2-3 months before it broke. “All the villagers use this as a thoroughfare, farmers transporting their crop, residents when they need supplies, to get their wheat ground, for medicines and any small errands.” Sumitra (50), added, “If the river is flooding, then the children are unable to cross the river, they have to go around from Kharaund, a distance of 2.5 km.” And along a road whose defining feature is the foundation stone.
Sitting in a blind spot as far as the discussions on development and infrastructure go, the inhabitants of Gadhi over the past decade have made numerous complaints to their MP and MLA. “They come, they take photos, make promises and then nothing ever happens,” says Sundarlal, with infinite patience. In fact, the only time in a decade when the media has taken cognisance of the collapsed bridge is when reporters in Patel’s entourage took a picture and shared it on Facebook.
Gaulal, a mason from the village who had worked on the bridge, said the bridge was made with ridiculously little cement. “If the adequate proportion of sand to cement is 3:1, we were using 20 parts sand to 1 part cement. We had to keep saying that this was not enough, and then they would increase the proportion sometimes to 16 parts sand to 1 part cement. In some parts, we just used sand and plaster.”
Patel wasn’t available for comment, surprisingly, since he is usually quite sociable with the media. We did manage to meet his spokesperson Shakti Singh, who looked like he had stepped out of a movie about Bundelkhand’s politicians – moustache waxed, hair dyed – who said the bridge “gave way in the monsoons due to improper materials. The honourable MLA has done a recce of the area and spoken to people who live close by and are having trouble crossing and so on. We’ve applied for the rebuilding of the bridge from the Bundelkhand Development Fund and hope it will be released soon. We think the budget necessary is between 16-20 lakhs. It would have been much less the last time, which is why the bridge fell.”
Between photo ops and politicking, we hope this doesn’t turn out to be just water under the bridge.
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.