Sunday, 7 February 2016

From the Middle of Nowhere

Even though renowned as the land of reformers such as Chanakya , Buddha and like, Bihar is undoubtedly the most under developed State in India. Be it by the rampant political anarchy or by the curse of incessant floods, Bihar raises eye brows at those who seek a tad of development there. Dr.Santhosh Rajagopal depicts the vignette of one of Bihar’s remote village where he had a mission as a delegate from W.H.O.
First written 2006
The Baghmathi river was flowing surreptitiously quiet, as she had never been in spate, as if the fog that enveloped her early in the morning was perhaps the only thing dangerous about her. Her vast fertile banks, enveloping villages of Chandauli, Ganeshpur and numerous other hamlets teeming with people were separated from her fury by just a sand bund. It was about 7 in the morning and fog was omnipresent. The temperature was near freezing and no amount of warm clothes would prevent even the bravest from shivering. A convoy of vehicles appeared out of the fog. They have traveled atop the bund taking dangerous turns and swerves that sent the occupants on a macabre roller coaster ride. I was riding the first vehicle whose driver seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in rocketing through the most improbable of roads.
On a mission
We were in Bihar to help out in the Polio Eradication Drive, then hopefully in its last legs. The officer sitting behind me had been there for barely two months, but seemed to have taken in even the local dialect. The driver informed us that when the river was in spate, kilometers of water would be the only sight there. The bund then became a Noah’s ark, keeping the villagers alive till the river spent out her fury completely.
The vehicles drew up at the depot where the vaccines were then ready for distribution. One by one, the vaccinator teams took delivery of their quota of the Oral Polio Vaccine and set off on their rounds ,on foot, deep into the riverine wilderness.
A touch and go
Some hours passed and it was time to monitor the activity of the teams. We were eight doctors and an equal number of Volunteers. My area was a bit in the interior, informed my guide. I hitched a ride on a bike of one of the volunteers. As it meandered its way up the slope of the bund, one bike preceding us got caught in the quick sand and crashed-, luckily ,no injury. We traveled on the bund which was roughly twenty feet wide. In many places people were living on it, which made it even narrower. Their buffaloes mowed and bleated as we played trapeze between them and the waiting river.
We asked around for directions, occasionally consulting the map ,and the gospel of the eradication Drive – the Micro plan. The microplan lists all human habitations in a given area.While in Bihar it is as good as a Google map.
The bike jumped down from hedges, and raced through slush, as I held on for precious life. Most of the time after descending the bund, we were traveling through backyards and fields. Roads, on which the toughest of off -roaders would have a fit, were made every year, my Volunteer informed me. Every year around June, the river makes mincemeat of them. The numerous islands of treacherous river sand on the roads testified to the correctness of his statement. After about 8 kms of that ride ,we came to a small school. We parked the bike and began hunting for the vaccinator teams.
We passed a few houses covered by them already and checked their work. There were no electric poles, no telephone lines, the only link with civilization as we know it were the three bands on my cell phone which told me the nation’s oldest telecom operator was around.(Thank God for that).
We met Arvind, a supervisor. He was about 50 and lightly built, that morning he had set out on a cycle with a vaccine carrier in search of his teams, and bumped into the babus. (us).He wanted to learn from how we worked, he informed us cheerfully. We wanted to see his teams, which were working about 4 km away. The path had water bodies and slushy areas, so walking was the only option. After a bumpy bone rattling ride, I was only too eager to accept that .We waded through the fields and walked atop bridges made solely of decaying vegetation. All around were the hinterland of our great country and I was benumbed by the primitiveness of it all. I took out my cell and called home. I cheerfully informed my wife that I was calling from the middle of nowhere.
Heart of India
We met a team made up of an elderly gentleman and a kid barely out of his teens. The lad was holding geru (a type of ink), to mark the visited houses; the senior was going about giving drops to children. Children were everywhere, dressed in nothing more than rags, eating out of full but flea infested plates, crowding into single room huts set one within the other, riding the omnipresent buffaloes. I remembered a remark of one of my colleagues about a place “swarming with kids”. The team was vaccinating the kids, marking their fingers and houses as well as managing formats, which had increased in number that time around. I watched ,as the old gentleman, obviously semi-literate, fumbled with the papers. We went around colonies of what the supervisor calls the lowest caste in Bihar. These are the Mushahars- literally, ones who eat rats. Later I learnt that the female literacy among them was 0.1%.There should be no castes, I meekly suggested, he agreed readily but went on about why they were the underdogs.

As walked along he cautioned me on dangers of walking in the fields, and I politely informed him that I too came from a village and was no stranger to walking on fields and narrow bridges made of felled coconut tree trunks back home. He insisted no village can be as backward as his, and I reluctantly agreed. It was 4 PM and I suggested we could have a tea. Arvind promptly disappeared into a rather better looking house and reappeared with ginger tea of the best quality. He was the local Compounder, he informed me and the respect showered on him as we passed made it clear that he was more close to being a doctor in the locality. I had no illusions about any one  of my professional brethren setting foot there, in what the Mahatma would have called the heart of India. Somehow during my entire stay I kept remembering the Mahatma, might be because Champaran, where he began his “career” of Satyagrahas was close by.
Back through the dark

It was about 5 PM and time to wind up. Tired from the long walk, Arvind offered us seats in another courtyard. As we settled down he waxed eloquent on how things could never change there. I strongly disagreed, and said it can be changed, provided we aspired to. Which suddenly made me think, what were all those kids aspiring to? They seemed to be contented with riding buffaloes into the fields, hang around with gur made from sugarcane, and tearing up and playing with posters of the just concluded elections. No entrance exams for them, no scholarships, no pencils or sharpeners, no schoolbags either. – Just the predictable grind of a rural farming life, with the most primitive of implements.
We were offered Dahi,(curd) and I accepted. I refused the big cup, settling for half as much, only to regret later. I remembered we had skipped lunch, which explained the nectar like taste of home-made dahi.
As the sun was quickly disappearing into the enveloping fog, we made haste and I dreaded the prospect of return through the route. Luckily we could find an alternate, slightly less dangerous path. As we came in, the rest of the team was getting a bit worried about us. As I approached, my local colleague asked me how the activity was. The dahi was elixir like, I told him as we bundled on to the waiting 4 wheel drives on our way back.
As we rode into the darkness, I remembered an argument I had with my brother-in-law working for software major in Bangalore; on how much time India would take to become a developed nation. Ten, he had said. Fifty, I had wagered, fresh from a similar trip to rural UP. I called him up on my cell. “I have changed my mind on that”, I informed him. It would be hundred years…..” .The connection broke off, as if to reinforce the statement.
After several rounds of deployment to the capital Patna and the national capital,I finally revisited rural Bihar in 2010.By this time the government had changed .The first sign of better tidings as I entered  a rural Primary Health Centre in Madhubani district was the drone of a generator that was ensuring 24 hour electricity supply.I was in for yet another surprise- at 7 PM a delivery was happening in the PHC! This was unthinkable in Bihar where some PHCs resembled cattle sheds once.I was told by a visibly irritated doctor that the villagers have given up home delivery since the “money” came. He was referring to the Janani Suraksha Yojana which gave a sum of money for hospital deliveries .I told him we should be happy since they can have safe deliveries. He looked at me and made a statement that has me speechless. ”Sir, if some complications happen at home and the mother dies, at least we doctors will not get the blame. Now we get blamed for everything.”
We are so happy to blame politicians for everything that goes wrong. As I returned to my place of residence- a PWD guest house still with no electricity or water- I reflected on this statement .Nothing came to my mind except the proverb-“You can take a horse to water…….”

No comments:

Post a Comment