On Thursday morning, the villagers of Ladwari in Uttar Pradesh's Bundelkhand region were embraced by the long arm of the State. They didn't quite know how to react.
We'd returned to Ladwari to tie up loose ends in our documentary on hunger in the region. The previous day, our broadcast story on how drought-hit farmers there were filling their stomachs with long-abandoned grasses and weeds, had launched the UP government into action. But alarmingly, their response was to try and cover up the whole crisis. All was well, the Tehsildar said after visiting the village; tradition, and not hunger, had set a new dietary trend.
In these parts, one rarely gets a glimpse of the sarkar. Three years of successive crop failures and the near-collapse of government safety nets hadn't moved the administration to attempt a rescue before.
But the next morning, we entered a completely changed Ladwari. In the village's central courtyard, bathed in warm sunlight, a crowd of old men gathered around a spectacled official who carefully filled out their pension forms. Another sat nearby, examining the NREGA job cards of the younger men.
Two other officials, stiffening at the sight of the camera, told us that the District Magistrate was expected that afternoon.
Halkan Khushwaha, the wily Pradhan who had blamed the administration for their problems just last week, now defended the Tehsildar and said she'd witnessed a idyllic and well-fed village the previous day. Bhairon Prasad, a young outspoken farmer, and a few others lashed out at him, saying the officials hadn't been inside a single home. The pradhan's pencil moustache could hardly handle the strain of it all.
One official, sensing the scene heating up, quickly made a few calls and told us he had to make arrangements for the DM's arrival, before speeding off on his motorcycle. He rode back a little later with an assistant balancing plastic chairs over his head.
Even the ration shop owner, six kilometres away in the neighbouring village, shut his shop and rushed to Ladwari to report to his superiors. When we had spoken to them last week, the villagers had complained that their ration supply was sometimes erratic.
The Deputy Commissioner for NREGA in Lalitpur, DN Dwivedi, was officiating that afternoon. "We'd have started NREGA works today in the village if we could," he told us. "It's just that these men would rather start tomorrow." What would the work be, I asked. "Oh you know, digging bunds, wells." Prasad and the other men's job cards had been blank for the past year. UP had only been able to provide each working household 24 days of work in 2014bagainst the 100 days guaranteed by the Act. Dwivedi didn't have an answer for why he'd chosen to come that day when the village hadn't seen him ever before.
As we walked out of the village, Prasad and Chukkhi, a gentle, old presence among the villagers, joined us. "They've never spoken to us like this before- without shooing us away," said Chukkhi. "I don't know when we'll see them next."
That evening, another man called from Ladwari saying their cheques, part of the state's relief package, had finally arrived, six months after a survey had been completed. The other villages of Bundelkhand still await the same benevolence.
(Manas Roshan reports for the show Truth vs Hype on NDTV 24x7.)
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