Last night I woke up crying. Crying from the nightmare of faces and voices of Indians that had come to me in my sleep. The people I had buried in my subconscious rose up to remind me that the India I saw was not always the India I reported. They were the hundreds of faces I had talked to or heard while travelling around this country in the past five years, covering elections and trying to sense the mood of the people. The mood was singularly focused on who was going to win; "kaun jitega, kaun aage hai" was the answer we all wanted.
As I was mentally preparing myself for what I thought would be another grueling 25-30 days on the road to capture "kaun aage hai", my sub-conscious seemed to have had enough of the banality and conjured up each of those faces. One of the faces is a poor, landless villager in the hovel he calls home, in a Dalit basti some distance from the upper-caste village in Barabanki outside Lucknow, a dense settlement where the stench makes you gag. Each day, he said, he walked to the village in the hope that some farmer would choose him for work on his field, pay him Rs 100 and perhaps add some foodgrain so that he could feed his family. Some days he did get work.
On the days he didn't, he returned home and sat with his family wondering about the next meal. His gaunt and prematurely ageing body told the story of his life, like many others in his village and in thousands of villages across India.
In my nightmare, his eyes haunted me most. Dull, hopelessness, lifeless.
That hopelessness was perhaps best exemplified by the three men who sat on a "thela" or cart next to the bus stop in a small town in eastern Madhya Pradesh. More faces from my memories.
Each one has a "pauva" (a quarter bottle of country liquor). They enjoy the fruits of their labour. Labour, they said, wasn't difficult to find here. But it was exhausting work and this was their reward. What of their families? They look at you with sad smiles, as if to ask, what of them?
The evening drinking session is no isolated example. In almost every village in Uttar Pradesh, you will find villagers who, by evening, are drowning in their sundowners. From these somewhat inebriated folks, you can sense the anger and frustration. What they are afraid to say in sober moments comes pouring out. Like the fact that the cow slaughter ban has destroyed them (the owners) and also the Dalits who tanned the skins. They say: "In the name of God we have given up our Rs 10,000 per cow, and in the name of God we have no idea where it is now."
The caste equations that most of us city types forget, rise to the surface and the trader (the local grocer or the buyer of wheat at the mandi) bears the brunt of their anger.
Then one sees the faces of the women in a village outside Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh from our travels in November, before the polls. The women were seemingly better off than those in Barabanki. The village had a paved road, a couple of hand pumps for water and electricity, but again, there were no jobs for the landless. The women seemed happier and certainly very hospitable; one ran a small shop from her house to supplement her income and offered us tea.
The story was familiar. The men had gone in search of work. That they hadn't returned today gave the women hope that the men had finally scored jobs.
When you ask them about tomorrow and what change they see coming, the smiles disappear and are replaced by the weary look of those who have suffered for generations; what hope do we Dalits have, they seem to ask.
When you ask the villagers about MNREGA and whether the 100 days of labour comes to them, they shake their heads. The 100 days are in the hands of the patwaris (district officers) and so is the amount of "dehari (daily wages)" he will give. They grin and tell you, if you can get even three-fourth of what the government promised, then be happy. You just don't fight the patwari, because he controls the 100 days of assured labour.
I see faces from a village in Fatehabad, 40 km outside Agra. The women point to the dirt road that we have just taken and which runs through the village. When will this be paved, they ask. While tending to their cattle, they say they don't really believe it will ever happen.
Further up the village, women laugh when you ask them about the gas cylinder; they have applied many times, but the patwari hasn't forwarded the papers. The same is true for the Kisan Yogna. Why?
The same story of corruption repeats in the distibution of rations. A set of people, from the patwari who signs entries in your ration card to the "bania" who hands over your subsidized grains, are part of the circle of corruption.
It is not that there hasn't been visible change in the villages of India. Almost all villages have 18 hours or more of electricity, some access to water, latrines, many villagers have gas and a few even have pucca houses.
But the fact is, real poverty hasn't disappeared.
The villages of Telangana do not match those of Goa or Kerala, and those of Madhya Pradesh don't meet the standards of Telangana. The villages in western UP remind you of the villages of Punjab in the early 1980s, while those in eastern UP may be better off than those in neighbouring Bihar, but that isn't saying much. Of Bihar, the less said the better.
Real poverty, which is not measured on some confused Tendulkar line (nothing to do with the cricketer but the economist who headed a committee that defined poverty as less than Rs 26 per person per day) but by hope.
Hope in the eyes of millions who eke out a living each day, that they will soon be able to share in some of the wealth, in the lifestyle we take for granted. Work, income, savings, and general well-being.
As we set off again to divine the mood of the people, one wonders, when will people ask us, "Hum kab jeetenge (when will we win)?"
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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