I grew up in the tribal districts of Orissa. In places like Koraput and Keonjhar where my boyhood was spent, the nearest railhead was a day’s journey from home. The tribesmen made a living by cultivating the slopes of the mountain, gathering forest produce and tending their animals. Many who lived high up in the mountains were seasonally disconnected from the district administration during the monsoon and the pigeon mail was the only way to contact the marooned. There was a place called Telkoi in Keonjhar where the lone Public Health Center had only two medicines: one for dysentery and one for constipation. The reason was simple. The tribesmen ate mango and jackfruits in every form – from the time they were small to the time they ripened, they ate the seeds and of course, the mango kernels as well. As a result either they had lose motions or none at all. When the government tried to demonstrate them how to cultivate the Taichung rice, they watched intently until the rice formed milk and then they simply sucked it and did not let the rice wait until harvest. That was forty years ago.
After I grew up, at 25, I visited the Simlipal reserve forest in Mayurbhanj and stayed there for a week. My guide was a forest guard who had brought his bride from the village haat and was living-in with her. He had not been able to save up the bride price to pay the father-in-law yet, so they remained unmarried. They were raising his nephew whose father was serving a life-term for murder he had not committed. The man had simply surrendered to the police and agreed to the allegation because that was a more peaceful thing to do. The alternative would have been exposing the women and the children. Fast forward to 2009. Not much has changed in Koraput and Keonjhar and Lalgarh. The veneer of development has been replaced with that of law and order.
The idea of India is very urban. The idea of progress is very urban. The idea of government is very urban. The idea of civil society is very urban. The places I talk about fall in the penumbra of our urban consciousness even today. When we think of people who live there, we see them through the eyes of a government that has the same empathy that the British rulers felt for the urban populace. They are them, they are not us. That is why Korput to Lalgarh evoke thoughts about insurgency more than they do about development. That is why silently, the patches of ungovernable areas within the country are growing while we are making our cities gated communities.
In the tiny places I lived in, the annual budget exercise of a central or a state government meant nothing to people. It came and went; in the few educated homes the passing item of interest was the excise duty on consumable from cigarettes to cement and later on, it was the personal income tax slab. Decades after, the middle-class mental poverty has expanded just as government receipts, spends and deficits have.
India needs change at the level of her soul.
The people who are in-charge of the budget, those who go spend the money and the rest of us who fill our stomachs with it until the next year, need to believe that the country outside the cities need to be included. That they are us.
Before you think I am a cynic, I must tell you that my staple diet is hope. That is how I have come from where I was to where I am today. There are two things I want to tell you in closing.
When I was in the US for the first time in 1990, I met a grand old man who said he used to be a Peace Corps volunteer teaching people how to raise poultry in Madhya Pradesh in the 1950s. He chuckled while recollecting that the volunteers had to “go” to the fields with lanterns at night. I immediately told him that a lot has changed since then. But after that patriotic refrain, sobriety returned to me with the realization that outside the cities, even today, there is no sewage system. And drinking water does not come out of a tap.
Every policy maker in India, every bureaucrat, every businessman must read a book titled Paraja – this is a novel by Jnanpith winner Gopinath Mohanty. Fortunately, an English translation by Bikram Das is available today. It is the story of a tribal from Koraput whose life is in the clutches of petty government officials, moneylenders and the police. The story is set in the early days of post-independent India. Decades after, his lot has not changed. Only his innocence has been lost.
On that note, goodbye until the next budget.