Every day at around 4.30 am, the 600 residents of Ara and Keram, two neighboring townlets in Jharkhand’sJharkhand’s Ranchi quarter, wake up to a voice announcing the launch of the day.
Everyone in these townlets picks up a broom and cleans their surroundings for the coming hour or so. They use Bamboo contrivances as waste. Children are tutored by teachers, while others go about their daily work on their granges.
Once marked by poverty and alcoholism, these townlets are shining examples of self-reliance. In 2017, when the only public school in the area had just two” para” preceptors, residents pooled their resources together. They appointed two council graduates from their townlets to help scholars on a monthly paycheck of Rs.4000.
At the exact time, residents, particularly the women, came together to put total prohibition when they realised that drunkenness, particularly among the men who consumed locally- made hooch, was ruining families.
Eventually, the residents constructed 700 indigenously-designed loose
boulder structures (LBS) check heads worth Rs1.75 crore. About 180
residents worked non-stop for 75 days to build these check-leads to
conserve water, recharge groundwater tables and help soil corrosion. These
initiatives were undertaken with minimal public spending.
None of this would have been possible without the intervention of 1999-batch
Indian Forest Service officer Siddharth Tripathi, who for the past four and a
half years has served as Commissioner, MGNREGA, in Jharkhand.
With a master’s in civil engineering from IIT Roorkee, Siddharth began his stint in the Maoist-hit state at the turn of the 21st century.
“During my first posting at Chaibasa (West Singhbhum district) back in 2001, I saw grinding poverty for the first time in my life — of the type we only read about in books. As a forest officer traversing through the interiors of the Saranda forest, I saw villages without basic access to drinking water, healthcare, education, and nutrition., It was heartbreaking to see such abject poverty up close in these villages,” says Siddhartha.
After postings in Chaibasa and Hazaribagh, in January 2004, he was posted as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Koderma. Based on his administrative experience of dealing with poverty in Chaibasa and Hazaribagh, he began a battery of experiments across different villages in the Koderma district to develop a sustainable model which could one day make them self-reliant.
There was a lot of skepticism amongst my friends, batchmates, and colleagues when I discussed my experiments in addressing rural poverty in Jharkhand. They would often ask, “the Saare Gandhi Kahan Se Aayenge” (Where will you find so many Gandhis to develop IIndia’s6.5IIndia’s6.5 lakh villages?)” he adds.
In the initial six months, he facilitated the construction of a few irrigation wells and introduced a few modern farming practices. But progress was plodding and further decelerated by the rampant alcoholism across the village.
“Every household was engaged in the manufacturing and distilling of illicit mahua liquor in the confines of their backyard, which was transported in large cans to Jhumri Telaiya where labourers with wages to spend would buy them. I couldn’t convince residents to give up illegal hooch. The Unable to see any progress, I gave up this experiment, and moved onto another large village called Dhab” says Siddhartha.
For the coming 20 months, he’d spend his weekends at the Naxal-affected village, helping reinvigorate the institution of gram sabhas where issues about the town were bandied, and opinions are taken on the same, introducing prohibition of liquor and levy-driven experimental workshops.
Still, it all came to a halt after the brutal murder of a teenage boy by members of a high estate community.
“This boy was in a relationship with a girl from another estate, and her family members had boggled and hanged him. The departed boy’s mother was a widow, and in the FIR, charged under section 302 ( murder) of the Indian Penal Code. She had named the girl’s family and enough much everyone as she had a grudge against them in the village. Stewing police action, numerous residents fled the village for Jhumri Talaiya, while others left for big metros like Mumbai for work and to escape possible jail time. Seeing this exodus, I had to abandon this trial with a heavy heart. All my sweats had come to nothing” he recalls.
Success at Last
Still, the occasion arose for a successful trial in a remote Adivasi-inhabited village called Simarkundi girdled by 1800 acres of the jungle, which wasn’t really accessible by bike — one had to walk 7 km through a thick jungle to reach it. Villagers then were either employed as homemade labour in gravestone mining operations or the illegal felling of timber.
Despite over two times as DFO of Koderma, he hadn’t visited the Naxal-affected village yet. He urged officers in Ranchi to spend the unutilized Rs1.5 lakh in government-sanctioned finances devoted to the village. In one meeting, he asked the original range officer who frequently interacted with SSimarkundi’sresidentsSSimarkundi’sresidents about what they demanded.
What residents demanded desperately was drinking water well. They had to prize it by digging the dry swash bed near, which was also collected in earthen pots to pierce water. Working with original officers, they sanctioned the construction of a 30- base drinking water well at the cost of Rs.78,000. Wanting to see any progress on constructing this well, Siddharth visited the village for the first time in January 2006, bearing a two-hour journey.
Within six months of his intervention, residents freely gave up liquor through a resolution taken in their regular gram sabhas. There were about 40 homes with 35 acres of cropland which would earn an aggregate of just Rs 20,000 a time from husbandry when Siddharth first visited the village.
Now residents earn Rs 47 lakh annually from husbandry and confederated beast husbandry conditioning. In a village, where there wasn’t a single borewell from which one could drink, now there are vast tracts of
land irrigated. The IFS officer’s and the villagers’ intervention led to
improved farming practices which slowly but steadily transformed a village.