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Palamau, Ardh Satya and the Activist Life: Vikrant Dadawala

July 9, 2013

This is a guest post by VIKRANT DADAWALA: “We have lost a lot”, says Manoj-ji, president of Vikas Sahyog Kendra. “Aadmi ko ek bar aag choo jaye toh woh ekdam se peeche ho jaata hai.” (If fire touches a man once, he flinches every time)

I am standing outside the Vikas Sahyog Kendra office in Daltonganj, Palamau. It is the end of my first day as an intern with the organization. Manoj-ji is trying to give us, three interns, a sense of why Vikas Sahyog Kendra does not have a signboard. “Niyamat Ansari and Lalit Mehta’s murders shook us badly”, Manoj-ji says. “We’re no longer as fearless as before.”

I am little disappointed, unreasonably so. It is evening but still mindlessly hot. My first impressions of Daltonganj take in its bareness – unfinished buildings, loudspeakers blaring bhajans, the ostentatious houses of minor bureaucrats and contractors standing like castles against the dry summer wind.

Vikas Sahyog Kendra’s office is in one unpainted building in a row of unpainted buildings. Its employees and activists are unobtrusive and work silently on their computers all day, typing reports in Hindi. What could they be doing in here that could get anybody murdered?

“Aapko Palamau samajhne mein abhi time lagega”, I am told. (You will take some time to understand Palamau)

I settle into the office. I am assigned readings on the political economy of Palamau district. I try to add them to the many Palamaus in my head already – from Mahashweta Devi’s stories of a cruel and bloody feudal order unshaken by independence; from P. Sainath’s investigations of sarkari failures and indifference; and from Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri in which the forests of Palamau (ironically enough) feature as a refuge from the troubled Calcutta of the late 1960s.

I am assigned to an action research pilot reporting to the Supreme Court Commissioners under the ‘right to food’ case. The overall objective is enabling government to deliver to the poorest. In Palamau, we are working with Parahiya (a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group) and Bhuiya (a scheduled caste) community members to help them, the most vulnerable and marginalized in one of India’s most deprived regions, to access public services as entitlements rather than as charity.

The sordid patterns we document are not unexpected – thekedars withholding job cards, middlemen controlling developmental projects, widespread malnourishment in children despite the presence of aanganwadis, absentee schoolmasters and long broken down drinking water sources.

Garibi ke peeche hamesha shoshan hota hai”, says Jawahar-ji, a senior founding member of VSK. “That oppression may be invisible but it is always the real cause of deprivation.”

Jawahar-ji’s austerity and the cliched yet real nature of the sacrifices he makes to live the samaj sevak life trouble me. But no ‘oppressor’ seems worried by our participatory planning sessions with the marginalized.

The Parahiyas are living in a time of great and rapid change in their lives. Our action research pilot is dwarfed by the great immanent changes that have caught them in their grip. Languages and cultures are dying and forests are becoming too sparse to live off – even as Parahiya families no longer necessarily starve whenever there is a draught; even as young men from the forest dwelling Parahiya jaati begin to seasonally migrate to as far as Chennai to work as labourers.

Returning back from a Parahiya village, one day, I am riding pillion on Deolal-ji’s bike. We are still deep in the forest. We are taking a rougher and quieter path as a detour. Adivasi men and women carrying loads of wood on their heads stare at our intrusion with deep suspicion. I am afraid. We have just been interrogated by a heavily armed dasta of guerilla fighters of the Tritiya Prastuti Committee – a naxal splinter group that is rumoured to be assisted by the police in their bloody war against the CPI (Maoist).

At every turn, I look out for figures in combat fatigues. We have run-ins with them on three successive days. What is the good of your holding meetings with the villagers, they ask us. Gaonwalla unpadh hai par barbar nahi. Aap padhe likhe hai toh DC aur BDO ke brasthachaar khilaaf aandolan kyun nahi ladte? (The villager is illiterate but not a fool. If you are educated why don’t you fight against the corruption of the DC and BDO?)

The last time we meet them, I am sitting on the edge of a charpai in which a wounded fighter with a bandaged head sleeps beside his gun. What answers can you give anybody in such a situation? We nod in agreement to whatever they say and, a little ashamed, denounce their pro-contractor role and extraction of levies from development projects angrily once we are safely back in Daltonganj.

The Daltonganj we retreat to is a rough town, ruled body and soul by a dabang nexus of contractors, state officials and politician-gangsters. When I think over the summer in my head, and the not infrequent evenings of boredom and restlessness in it, CPI(ML) Liberation slogans on the walls and the May Day morning of IPTA songs shine through like reassuring beacons. What I am reminded of most in Daltonganj is Hindi writer Uday Prakash’s bleak description of Kotma town (in his novella Aur Ant Mein Prarthana). Like Kotma, Daltonganj seems to offer only a cruel, largely unliberating vision of modernity to its citizens. A modernity that has little to do with development.

Like Om Puri in Ardh Satya (and like the rest of us), Vikas Sahyog Kendra’s staff also live ardh-satya lives: “ek palde pe napunsakta,ek palde mein paurush, aur theek tarazu ke kaante par arch satya”. (Impotence at one end; machismo at the other; and the half-truth exactly in-between) I hope to remember them as they are, ordinary folk with ordinary aspirations, not heroes standing outside of their milieu. Ajay-ji, office caretaker and odd-jobs man, who brings up an enormous family of dependent siblings and children on his minimum wage salary. Shubham, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences graduate who is going to quit VSK after two great and productive years when he gets married this November. Jawahar-ji, who surprised us when he raised his fist like a comrade during May Day celebrations at Sadiq Chowk. Deolal-ji, one of the few people in Palamau who wears a helmet, an ageing man driving his motorbike over paths fit for a dirt bike, braving all kinds of dangers. It’s all part of the job, it’s nothing exceptional, nothing to alienate one from or elevate one above one’s fellows. It’s a tough job, but which job isn’t?

Vikrant Dadawala studies Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This is a piece about his experiences interning for a summer with Vikas Sahyog Kendra (an NGO) in Palamau, Jharkhand. Vikas Sahyog Kendra has been working for social change in Palamau for close to two decades now.

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