Assembly Elections 2017: Uttar Pradesh

A Cry in the Wilderness

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What do women want? We listen to desperate voices, from labourers to rape survivors, in Bundelkhand

ON MAY 1ST last year, Nathu Lal died of starvation. It was a cruel summer’s day and drought had ravaged the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. Nathu Lal left his home in Mungus village, Banda district, in the late afternoon to collect the emergency relief packets being distributed by the state government to families most affected by the drought. The Samajwadi relief packet included rice, potatoes, dal, ghee and milk powder. Nathu Lal and his family hadn’t eaten for days. He had barely left the village when he stopped to drink water, collapsed and died. He left behind a family of seven: his wife Munni Devi and six children.

In February this year, weeks before Bundelkhand goes to Assembly polls in the fourth phase, it seems like nobody remembers Nathu or what happened to his wife Munni Devi. The thirty-something Munni has become the reluctant mukhiya or head of her household. We travel to Bundelkhand to track down a few women whose families made headlines in the last year, whose lives have altered forever, and those who remember the promises governments have made. We attempt to listen in to their demands, aspirations and visions of vikas. Among these women is a farm labourer coping with the drought, women who have lost husbands and children to medical negligence, long-suffering anganwadi workers whose demands have gone unheard again, and a rape survivor seeking justice.

What do they want from their representatives and their government? They tell us they want doctors, more schools and colleges, less inequality, basic incomes, non-agricultural jobs and, more importantly, justice. A 70-year-old woman in Chitrakoot district says, “My vote is worth a lakh rupees. It matters who I vote for.”

Nathu’s death, which became synonymous with the drought in Bundelkhand, made national headlines and jolted a slumberous government and administration into action. The Akhilesh Yadav government announced a slew of relief measures for the family, which included Rs 5 lakh in compensation, a pucca house under the Indira Awaas Yojana, a cycle, a solar lamp, and a job for Munni Devi’s son and wedding expenses for her daughter. For three months after the tragedy, Munni Devi patiently received visitors who were from the state government, the district administration of Banda, and various political parties. The district magistrate gave her Rs10,000, the current Congress candidate from Naraini assembly constituency gave her Rs2,000, and MLAs from the Bahujan Samaj Party gave her Rs 3 lakh and clothes. Neighbours and villagers also contributed.

When we meet her, she first tells us that she can’t sleep. Will she finish building the new house? Will the government give her son a job like they promised? Will they assist in her daughter’s wedding? Both children are still minors but Munni Devi is anguished that the government will not keep its promises. “Ummeed nahin hai, I have no hope,” she says.

Munni Devi’s fears are not unfounded. Mungus Purwa (her village) has been forgotten before. An Ambedkar Gram under the Mayawati government (2007-2012), it fell into neglect in the Akhilesh Yadav regime. The village of 400 voters has not seen a regular safai karamchari since July last year. On January 26th this year, a worker came to the village, only to clean the government primary school. Sewage washes the gullies and garbage covers it. The only source of employment for villagers here is palayan or migration. For the last decade, Munni Devi and her children accompanied her husband Nathu Lal to Punjab every year. Her 17-year-old son Dileep also migrates twice every year to Nasik, Maharashtra, to work in ice-cream factories. “He returned earlier this year but because of demonetisation his salary of Rs 10,000 is stuck,” says Munni Devi. In this campaign season, political parties are yet to come to Mungus Purwa. On the other hand, Aila village, the bigger, upper-caste gram panchayat, has already played host to a number of campaigners.

My husband and I used to migrate to Punjab every year. Now my son goes to Nasik for months. What we need is more jobs right here

Life after her husband’s death has not been easy for Munni Devi. “I live in tension. I feel like there are many problems I won’t be able to face. I worry about every little thing. The district magistrate has already changed. If the government changes too, will anyone remember us?”

SEVEN DISTRICTS AND 19 Assembly constituencies of Bundelkhand go to polls on February 23rd. Out of 57 candidates fielded by major political parties for the 19 seats, only 20 per cent have women candidates. The major parties together have fielded only 100 women candidates for 403 Assembly seats, many of whom are legatees of parivar politics. In the last UP Assembly, only eight per cent legislators were women, ie 35 women. It appears that political parties have learnt little from the strong show of female candidates in the 2015 panchayat elections, where 43 per cent women (10 per cent over the 33 per cent quota) were elected to the local government. Caste continues to dominate vote-bank calculations, yet women, who have better voting records, visible even in the first and second phases, have never been seen as a voting bloc. In this election, female candidates continue to be bound by domestic vocabulary of bahu, beti, didi or behenji. In party manifestos, they are a token presence. In election rhetoric and campaign rallies in Bundelkhand, women have remained conspicuously absent. In door-to-door, mass contact campaigns, candidates have rarely reached out to women in villages and small towns to ask them what they really want.

Shyampati, 30, is a mahila kisan (woman farmer) from Khutaha village, Chitrakoot district. IndiaSpend wrote about her in an article about the quiet crisis affecting women farmers in India in 2015. The piece revealed that more and more women cultivators have become agricultural labourers in the last decade. From 2001 to 2011, 24 per cent more women were engaged in farm labour as tenant farmers—just like Shyampati. Her large family of 12 members are not landowners, rather tenant farmers. Shyampati is currently working in the fields of others, sowing wheat, mustard and cucumber. She also has two buffaloes. Yet, she has to take on more work under MGNREGA to provide for the household.

Her daily routine consists of cooking for the family by 8 am, milking the buffaloes, cleaning the house and fetching water for the household. She makes five to six trips every day to meet the family’s water requirement. By noon, she heads for the fields, where she works on farms owned by others. In the evening she often patrols her fields to keep away stray cattle that might ruin her crops, just like they did with her rabri crop a few months ago. She hasn’t let her husband migrate to Punjab like many others in the village, fearing for his safety. “We’d rather have little to eat than lose him,” she says.

It is not just about me, it is about the village. Our village urgently needs toilets

Shyampati has five children—four girls and a boy, three of whom go to school. What does she want ahead of the election? She says, “It is not just about me, it is about the village. Our village urgently needs toilets.” Shyampati and her mother-in-law Keniya walk one to two kilometres for their ablutions. “The place has become so foul now that we have to change our clothes after we return,” Keniya says, with a shudder. We prod her further, what does she want for herself? “I want that, at any cost, my children don’t become farmers.” The village has a government primary and junior school, but Shyampati sends her eldest child Roshni to a school that is five km away so that she can study further. Roshni walks to school every day, an hour each way. “Jisko chaith kaatna padta hai, usko pata chalta hai kheti kisani me kitni mehnat hai (Only the one who spends a summer in the fields, sowing and harvesting, can know what hard work farming is),” she says. So far, no party or candidate is listening to Shyampati of Khutaha village.

On the campaign trail, following candidates of various political parties in Bundelkhand, we notice that the door-to-door campaign in villages is restricted to only a few households. Generally, the candidate arrives with his or her coterie in the village and goes into a huddle, mostly with the males of the village, including the pradhan, kotedar (ration shop owner), block and zila panchayat members. On many occasions, when people have approached candidates with their problems and demands, they have been simply passed on to us journalists. Where then can Shyampati go? Whose door can she knock on?

In June last year, Lalita’s family from Badokhar Bujurg village, Banda district, made an alarming request to the district magistrate. Her family of 12 members made a collective plea for ichhamrutyu or euthanasia. Lalita’s husband, Rati Ram, was a liver cancer patient. Her husband’s two brothers had medical problems too: one has mental health issues and the other is physically disabled. Unable to endure the hardship, the family, in-laws and children included, wanted to end their lives. The district administration went into a tizzy and the local media made headlines of ichhamrutyu.

We didn’t get the house or ration card as promised. Does my vote matter at all?

At Badokhar Bujurg, on a February afternoon, we wait for Lalita to return from her fields. The 35-year-old, hesitant and quiet at first, tells us that her husband of 20 years was diagnosed with liver cancer three years ago. The family first made rounds of the government and private hospitals in Banda and Chitrakoot to no avail. Rati Ram was once poked and prodded by a compounder at the district hospital who sent him home with stomach medicine. The family then sold 12.5 bigha (more than two acres) of land and two buffaloes to pay for his treatment in Kanpur and Lucknow. After they had spent nearly three lakh rupees, the Lucknow Cancer Institute told them that further surgery and treatment would require an additional Rs 3 lakh.

So, at the end of June last year, scores of residents of Badokhar Bujurg climbed into a tractor trolley with Lalita, Rati Ram and their family. They marched to the collectorate to give their appeal of euthanasia. Lalita’s appeal and demand list included that the government and district administration give medical attention, a tricycle for the physically challenged brother, Samajwadi pension and an Antyodaya poverty line card. The administration and the chief medical officer exchanged a flurry of letters, in which they found the family eligible for help under the Mukhyamantri Swasthya Suraksha Kosh. This was in July. On August 2nd, the family renewed their appeal with the administration and the government. Nineteen days later, Rati Ram died. “Ummeed thi ki koi sarkari madad milegi, isliye lekar gaye the…We hoped the government would help us,” says Lalita. After Rati Ram’s death, Lalita and her family have issued one last appeal which reads: “We hold the government and the district administration responsible for Rati Ram’s death. Don’t make us any more promises, just give us the benefits we deserve.”

Lalita hugs her sons when we ask her what she wants for her future, “I don’t know…I have no future but my sons do.” Ankit and Sankit fish out their report cards of Class 4 and 2 respectively and proudly display their top ranks. “We went everywhere, we tried everything but nothing came of it. Does my vote matter at all,” asks Lalita.

I want my legislator to work on reducing the gap between the rich and the poor

IN THE 2017 UP election, rural healthcare, especially for serious illnesses like cancer and mental health, finds few mentions. The Samajwadi Party manifesto mentions providing cancer specialists and mental health counsellors to rural areas but in Bundelkhand, where the average doctor to patient ratio is 1:1lakh, is any political party making a concerted plan to attract doctors and nurses to fill the huge void at the top of the rural health pyramid?

Take the case of Manikpur Assembly constituency. Here, the doctor to patient ratio is far worse than the national average; just one government doctor for a population of over 200,000. There are no gynaecologists or female doctors. The much-touted ambulance service, introduced by the current SP government, has failed to reach all parts of the constituency, like Giduraha village, the remotest corner of Chitrakoot district. Giduraha is so far-flung that during the August floods in Bundelkhand, it was cut-off from the mainland for over a month. The village witnessed an epidemic of water-borne diseases and many pregnant women were stranded without access to the lone government health centre.

Twenty-six-year-old Sushila Pintu was the only pregnant woman rescued by the district administration during the floods. Nearly full term, Sushila travelled on a bike, an inflatable dinghy, a shared auto and an ambulance to reach the government community health centre, only to be referred to the district hospital, which was another 30 km away. When the district hospital couldn’t deliver her baby because of complications, Sushila returned to the health centre where her baby was born, lived for a few minutes, and then died.

In February, nearly six months after our first visit to Giduraha, we return to find Sushila Pintu pregnant again. Despite suffering from bouts of morning sickness and occasional fever, she works as a tenant farmer for a daily sum of Rs 100, 12 hours every day. The village has seen some election activity but Sushila has missed out on this. “We never hear or see any prachar (campaigning) because we are in the fields all day,” she says. In fact, there are few women in the village who have been part of the jan sampark sessions held by candidates. “We are not targeted by political parties,” says Shubhrani, the village’s ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) who had helped in Sushila’s delivery. “You ask us what we want… tell me, does the government or any party address inequality? I want my legislator to work on reducing the gap between the rich and the poor,” she says. “Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers protested for a month last year, what came of it? The government refused to make us permanent and increased our wages by only Rs 200. This came into effect in October but we are yet to get paid.”

Out of the 57 candidates fielded by major political parties for the 19 seats in Bundelkhand, only 20 per cent have women candidates

The Chitrakoot anganwadi union is mulling over a possible boycott of the elections. While the 2,000 anganwadi workers of the district may not carry out this threat on February 23rd, it does reveal how little attention parties, governments and candidates are paying to rural health infrastructure and its reform. Not just healthcare, but even violence against women as an election issue has found few takers among candidates and political parties who continue to harp on the ‘bijli, sadak, pani’ development model. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh tops the list for crimes against women, where a rape is recorded every 15 minutes. We travel to the village of Anathuwa in Banda district, to meet with SV, a rape survivor, who is now fighting a solitary battle for justice. SV’s fight is particularly symbolic in patriarchical Bundelkhand, and in Uttar Pradesh.

Married off in 2010, the 23-year-old is currently pursuing her BA. After she faced continuous harassment by her husband and in-laws, she moved back to her home in Ananthuwa in 2013. The next year, she joined a local non-governmental organisation called Vidhyadham Samiti as a social worker. One of the requirements of the job, SV says, was to work late hours and sometimes stay back at the office. “It was on one such day that the head of the organisation, Raja Bhaiyya, raped me,” says SV. “He continued to mentally and sexually harass me. On one occasion, he told me that he had made a video and he would circulate it if I didn’t keep quiet. I didn’t even tell my mother about it for a long time. Many women employed by the organisation faced similar harassment but nobody dared to raise their voice.”

On February 25th, 2016, SV broke her silence and walked into a police station in Banda district to file an FIR. “Mujhe laga ki ghut ghut ke marne se achha hai ladke mare…I thought it is better to fight and die,” she says. Initially, the police station refused to register the FIR. Raja Bhaiyya Yadav is a well-known social activist beyond Bundelkhand. Some of the projects at his NGO were funded by the international organisation ActionAid. Almost a month later, an FIR was registered. By that time, SV had become the target of a nasty campaign mounted by local activists, NGOs and friends of Raja Bhaiyya Yadav, many of whom were women. Even Sampat Pal, the Congress candidate from Manikpur Assembly constituency and commander of Gulabi Gang, gave Raja Bhaiyya a clean chit. On March 8th, (incidentally International Womens’ Day) protests were taken out and slogans rang out against SV in the district. “Naari nahin tu naagin hai” was one such chant. Friends and well-wishers who supported her were slapped with counter charges. “They took out a certificate calling me character-less and even asked my village to sign on it,” says SV, “I had two options: I could die or I could fight. I chose to fight. Dabe aur ghute hue logon ka pata nahin hota kab koi bada kadam uthade…you never know when the oppressed will turn around and raise their voice.”

In the initial FIR, the police filed charges under Section 376 (attempt to rape) the punishment for which is not less than seven years or a life term which can extend up to 10 years. However, in the final FIR, prepared in March, the charges have been watered down. Charges under Section 376 were modified to Section 354 (assault or criminal intent to outrage the modesty of a woman) which attracts a sentence of one-five years plus a fine. “I don’t know who changed the charges. This was done without my authorisation or consent,” says SV. It appears that the accused in the case has tampered with the FIR and still sends threats and offers of settlement. “He sends word asking me to settle in Rs 1lakh or Rs2lakh. My mother wants me to, but I can’t,” SV says.

SV’s case is currently under trial in Banda district. Suspecting undue influence of the accused on the district administration, SV is trying to get her case transferred. She has also written to ActionAid, telling them of the sexual harassment, asking them to take action. Apart from an acknowledgement and terminating the contract with Vidhyadham Samiti, ActionAid has done little else. She lost her job and with that, her livelihood. She is now entirely dependent on her elderly, frail mother who is a daily wage labourer. People in the village taunt and scorn her. Even the job she found at a small property dealer in the neighbouring district went away with demonetisation.

More than anything else, including personal safety, SV wants financial security. She worries about paying bills, especially the lawyer’s fees, completing her studies and supporting her family. She wants a “chota-mota job”, stressing repeatedly on chota-mota, where she might go unnoticed. “The government has done nothing for me or my mother. I have no faith in these institutions. But I hope that the judge, the court will give me justice.” Out of the 30,000-odd crimes against women reported every year in Uttar Pradesh, SV is just one case. But her battle is important in Bundelkhand because along with her, more than 10 other women from the same organisation were subjected to harassment by the accused. If SV speaks, perhaps, their stories might be heard. However, this issue finds no place in the poll rhetoric of political parties in Bundelkhand.

In Mungus, Munni Devi harbours no hope that the government (present or incoming) will keep its promises. In Badokhar Bujurg, Lalita’s hopes from the sarkar were dashed. In Giduraha village, Sushila Pintu is unmoved by the sound and the fury of the most crucial election in the country. The anganwadi workers plod on, currently employed in election duty, while their demands go unmet. SV reposes no faith in government institutions to deliver her justice. But are political parties or their candidates hoping to win the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections even listening?

Read The Missing Patriarch by Kumar Anshuman