issue 200 - October 1989
Return to Bhagyanagar
Andrew Bulmer left Bhagyanagar in 1975. We asked him to return
to the village he once knew so well - and he leapt at the chance.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Travelling back to the village was a bit like meeting a lover after a long time apart: excitement mixed with a good dose of apprehension. During the two-hour bus trip on the final leg of my journey from Nepal there had been much to think back on.
I recalled that my stay 15 years ago with the people of Bhagyanagar had not been easy. It had been a particularly stressful time for them. The October 1971 cyclone had brought wanton destruction. A breech in the banks of the Kharusan river had flooded their houses. Crops had been totally destroyed and animals killed. Only because people crowded into a nearby brick shelter and concrete-roofed house was no-one killed.
And me? I was new then to Asia and brought to the village by idealism. I had been so fortunate in my life, when so many others hadn't, and I wanted to help. Eventually I had found myself on this very same road to Bhagyanagar. The years to come were to teach both my body and my spirit about the realities of living in a demanding climate and an alien culture. I laughed and got angry as many times as I fell ill.
The bus wouldn't stop on the village side of the river, just as it wouldn't 15 years ago, so I had to retrace my way along the 200-metre bridge.
Seeing the clusters of bamboo and coconut trees in the distance, it was difficult to believe that I had spent three years amongst them. My past lay hidden like their houses. I knew I was a different person coming back. But what of life in Bhagyanagar? The name means 'Place of Good Fortune', and was given it in a hopeful gesture after the cyclone. Had the good fortune come to pass?
The children playing on the road by the village barely glanced up from their games in the dust as I passed by. But figures in the distance going about their daily tasks turned, one by one, stared, stopped, conferred and then came towards me. Soon a crowd of men and children had gathered, jostling one another with elbows and chatter, shouting out namaste and beaming broad smiles. My tension had gone and it already felt good to be back.
The young men immediately took control of this unexpected situation and took me to the Balbatika centre (a day school for young children), sat me down and began asking all the most important questions: 'How are your parents? And Karen and David?' (they even remembered the names of my sister and brother-in-law!). 'You look thin.' They didn't mention the wrinkles but I told them that I was now a father of two, with another coming, and maybe that was the reason. 'You will then have the family planning operation?' 'Well, we'll see,' I replied.
Debendra became the spokesperson, arranging for food and drink, as his English was best - he told me he was now a graduate and, what is more, of Orissa's most prestigious university. I remembered him as a young boy whom I took to his first day at a boarding school for Harijans. He must have done well there, to say the least. He was the only graduate in the Harijan section of the village. (Harijan means 'Child of God', a name given by Mahatma Gandhi to the Untouchables, people traditionally considered so lowly as to be beneath the caste system.).
Coconuts and caste
At a glance I could see that the rhythms of daily life hadn't changed. That could have been predicted, since they are tied so closely to the repetitive demands of climate and agriculture. But nature had brought growth. The village was mature with vegetation and less like the building site that I remembered. And the coconut trees which we had planted stood tall and strong. Until we came to the village in 1971 no Harijan was allowed to plant coconut trees. 'You'll die if you do,'warned the Brahmins. But they went ahead anyway. No-one has died and as a result the Harijans now reap the benefits of growing these trees. So there were two positive signs so far: Debendra's education and the coconut trees.
Everyone vied for the opportunity to feed me, not because I was thin but because of the villagers' tremendous sense of hospitality. Debendra's organizing and diplomacy skills were tested to the limit, planning my meals schedule. It would result in something like this: I would drink a tea with a few biscuits here, a pre-tiffin (breakfast) there and a proper tiffin at another house. Then, a few hours later, half a midday meal in one house before being whisked off to another where, of course, huge mounds of rice appeared and persistent servers thought that, because I refused their second helpings, I didn't like the food. There was no way I could win.
Then I heard that Dasbabu, the overall leader of the community, was returning to the village from the nearby town of Jajapur after conducting negotiations around his daughter's marriage. I was happy to hear this, because he spends most of his time in Cuttack, where he works, and not in the village, his ancestral home. The next morning Dasbabu called me to his house. Before I left, the young men insisted 'You must eat all your meals here with us'. 'But if Dasbabu invites me to eat there,' I replied, 'then as an old friend I must.' 'Yes, but only one meal!' was the retort.
Dasbabu's is one of the three Brahmin families living on the Bhagyanagar site, all the others being Harijan. Brahmins form the top, priestly, caste and even now no Harijan is allowed in the house of a Brahmin: not only that, but if a Brahmin touches a Harijan, he must have a ritual bath to cleanse himself.
The cultural norms of the area still separate and subjugate people into castes. The young men's insistence that I shouldn't stay with Dasbabu was significant: they were looking to see on which side of the caste divide I would settle. In the event there was no contest. I had made up my mind and, though Dasbabu invited me to stay with him, he was busy entertaining representatives of the bridegroom's party, who were returning the visit he had made the previous day.
Dasbabu's house, or the shell of it, was the one that I had stayed in all those years ago. On entering it that morning, I found that I could hardly fix a nostalgic memory on anything. The building had been plastered and painted, the mud floor had turned into a smoothly polished concrete one and two new extensions to the building meant that I couldn't even tell which of the rooms had originally been mine. There were ceiling fans, a colour television complete with video, upholstered furniture, fluorescent lighting and a refrigerator. A sturdy wall protected an impressive flower garden with trees shading the house. City life had come to at least part of Bhagyanagar!
In the annex, but not in the house itself, the fathers of my young friends sat on a long bench looking in. 'The younger generation is not as co-operative as these men were,' said Dasbabu. 'That is why I don't get involved in their affairs. If they need my help, I give it, but that is all.' A few days earlier someone had asked for a small loan to start a shop in the village and he had given it.
Living without land
'Would you like a house like Dasbabu's?' I asked a gathering of villagers in the Balbatika Centre that night. Yes, it was everyone's ideal but there was no way they could ever achieve it. 'We don't have land; that is the main problem.' And it is true. The men sitting around me were all farmers. The kerosene lamp lit up their strong frames and dark, weather-beaten skins. They were sons of the soil with their identity, knowledge and skills all tied up in working the land. Yet none of them owned more than 1.5 acres. Most were tenants of farms in the neighbouring village of Bilipada and, though land is unevenly distributed, no-one in Bilipada exceeds the Government's ceiling of 30 acres of non-irrigated land.
'If there is no way you can obtain more land,' I asked, 'has the irrigation scheme brought more productivity'?' I was told the pump had been installed by the Government on Bhagyanagar land and had worked for about three years. But because farmers in Bilipada benefited most from the irrigation water, some people (no names were mentioned) damaged the electrical pump. As a result the Government had taken the pump away and the system had not been working for five years. So a development opportunity had been lost. Bilipada farmers attributed it to a wrong siting of the pump: the Bhagyanagar landless blamed it on an unjust distribution of land.
'One important improvement has been the development of the peanut crop,' said Debendra. 'There is a big market for it in Calcutta and in March, at harvest time, everyone has money.' Dasbabu later confirmed it: '400 kilos an acre at 12 rupees a kilo brings in nearly 5,000 rupees ($300) an acre,' he said, like one who knew his sums. Several small peanut-processing factories had also sprung up in nearby Kwakia bazaar.
'Is there any other way that those of you without land can improve your life?' I asked. They told me that six men now pedalled cycle-rickshaws. They could earn up to 50 rupees ($3) a day, except during the monsoons when everyone was farming and the roads were difficult to travel on. This gained them a regular income throughout the year.
Ratho, another landless villager, said that he was able to buy a cow with a government loan and subsidy. However, it emerged on talking it through that the officials administering the scheme had pocketed most of the subsidy themselves. The abuse of the scheme was on such a scale that both the District Collector and the Member of the State Legislative Assembly had come from the city to make enquiries. But the local officials were several steps ahead. They offered a package of incentives and threats to the people and were so successful that not a single complaint was brought against them by the time the enquiry was made. 'Then that is your fault for not speaking up,' I said. 'What to do? We are only poor villagers, was his reply.
Everyone recognized this as a blatant example of injustice but whereas the older generation accepted it as part of life, the younger ones were angered by it. But would they stand up against such corruption if they were the ones to gain by it? I wondered to myself.
I mention this because the way forward that the villagers are deliberately taking is one of educating their children, in the hope that they might secure government employment and thus occupy those very posts that invite corruption. The state of Orissa provides generous job quotas for schedule castes (the Government term for Harijans) - it is only a matter of their gaining high enough academic qualifications. There is a stipendiary system that enables every Harijan to see his child through school and college. In my walks about the village, I came across small groups of children studying in early morning tutorials (privately paid) and evening group classes (sponsored by the Government). There were Adult Education classes held in six-month blocks for both men and women. All of these were an improvement on the opportunities for villagers in the 1970s.
What I didn't see, though, was any significant change in the status of women in the village. There were many schoolgirls wanting their photographs taken but their open faces will be covered behind the sari as soon as they marry. The dowry system is thriving. The newly married bride leaving her home loses all inheritance rights to her parental property. The custom of avoidance between a man and his younger brothers' wives (brother can mean anything from uncle to cousins) is still strictly observed. This took a comic turn when I photographed the wife of Debendra's younger brother with her baby. I wanted to photograph her face but she had to cover that in his presence. So in the end Debendra had to give her instructions while standing with his back to her.
It is indicative that the women and not the men have the family planning operation even though it is known to be a more serious operation for them. Though I was pleased by the grace and kindness shown to me in so many ways by the women, I came away with an overall impression that their situation had not changed.
Battling along the road
I had now spent four nights in Bhagyanagar and my time was at an end. I had asked so many questions and received so much kindness. No-one would accept payment for all the meals that I had eaten. Before I left I was told by everyone that I had to come back again, but this time with my family: photograph's were simply not good enough.
It rained heavily as I got into the rickshaw to go to Kwakia to catch the bus. Just beyond the village the electric transformer stood, a source of power and light that had been installed way back in 1974 but is still not used by the villagers except for Dasbabu's house and another Brahmin's television, 'We are too poor to pay for street lighting. It costs 300 rupees ($19) a household,' my friends explained. This may be so but it may also be that they hadn't been able to agree among themselves to have it, or that it is simply not a priority for them. There was no time to find out.
So Bhagyanagar, have you become the place of good fortune that was hoped for you? I think actually your 'fate' was somehow' sealed before 1974, by an anonymous engineer who decided that the bridge to cross the Kharusan River should pass by your village. My impression is that in the long run the national highway with all its attendant activity will draw you in its wake and ensure your future.
For my rickshaw puller, still battling against the rain, life is harder than for the truck drivers overtaking him; and others in his own community are moving along the road of 'development' more quickly than he is. But I can report that over the last 15 years there has been progress.
Andrew Bulmer works for the Church Missionary Society in Nepal.
The National Highway from Calcutta to Madras passes nearby.
A primary health post 10 miles away.
A saw mill and two rice mills in Kwakia, the town five kilometres away.
An electricity transformer, as yet untapped.
By 1989 (as well as the above)
In or near Bhagyanagar: irrigation; a rice mill; and a primary health post over the river with one doctor, one nurse, one compounder and two emergency beds.
In Kwakia: another rice mill and two saw mills; two cinemas; a regional development bank; a ground-nut peeling and packing workshop; a video shop; two motor repair garages; and an ice-cream factory.
Cost of living
Food is cheaper in relation to wages, which suggests that people are better off and may reflect the fact that India has in that period become self-sufficient in food. But land prices have risen much faster than wages, putting real security way out of reach of the poor.
The Bhagyanagar story began with Dasbabu, the Brahmnin who originally invited Andrew and his team to the village. He was the source of the villagers' security and their insecurity: he loaned or granted money in times of crisis but in return benefited from their respect and obedience. The villagers preferred this relationship of obligation to independence.
Dasbabu is still the boss in Bhagayanagar but nowadays takes on a more laid-back attitude to village affairs: 'Since you left, I've been too busy in my work in town to get too involved here,' he says.
The memory I have of Dasbabu from those days was of him speeding around Cuttack town on his solitary scooter, committed to one or another of his ventures. They seem to have borne fruit, since he now owns three properties, four scooters and two buses there, all acquired within the last 15 years. This impressive accumulation has inevitably raised some questions. 'Malicious allegations!' he says. 'Jealous people asking how I could earn such money on a government salary.' He began showing me an inventory (drawn up by his lawyer) of the 'white' money he had.
Dasbabu has an engaging personality. He combines the obvious 'Mr Fixit' role that has brought him his wealth with that of an iconoclast. His active part in trying to uplift the Harijan community (and himself) by inviting us 15 years ago to rebuild the village, is in stark contrast to other Brahmins who still stay safely hidden in the bamboo groves with their purity intact.
'What to do?' he says. 'In this country, if you are poor it is a crime. If you get rich, it is also a crime.' And lying back with a smile, he glances over towards the colour TV in the corner of the room.
There are subdivisions within the Brahmin caste and Chari belonged to one of them: her dead husband used to conduct religious ceremonies for the Harijans of the area. But because she was widowed, the community no longer supported her and she eked out a living for herself and her two children by selling her cow's milk together with any wood or cow dung she managed to collect.
Chari Bewa's children are now both educated. Her son is still studying and is two years beyond matriculation. Her daughter, Subasi (meaning 'sweet scent') failed her examination. She has been based at home for the last 10 years, collecting water, doing the cooking and waiting to get married. But time is running out. 'We cannot afford the dowry,' says her mother. 'Young men expect 12,000 rupees ($750), including a television. Where can I get that? We have no land and I'm a widow. If I have to, I will go to Dasbabu.'
Their only bargaining chip is her education. As a result she is not allowed by her mother to supplement the family income by helping her in the fields, since to be seen doing it would mean she had become an illiterate villager again.
Nor does Chari allow her son to do field work. 'He has taken up the priestly tasks of his father,' she says. But he only earns pin money for it - 60 rupees plus some cloth, rice and fruit for each wedding. 'I owe it to these orphans to make their life as easy as possible,' says this diminutive woman.
The son of the Harijan village President, Sarat was then 18 and still at school, alternating between thoughts of a government job and staying in the village to work on his father's land. The second course would have been unusual and encouraging - and leadership in the village community would probably have fallen to him
Sarat has turned out to be a very conventional young man. He completed his studies and married a girl chosen for him by his parents. They saw each other for the first time on the fourth night of the marriage ceremonies and now have a son.
Sarat has been working in his father's fields but in August was due to move to a clerical post in Cuttack. As a Harijan he benefits from the Government's reservation scheme for these 'backward classes' and is thus assured of his job: there were only 40 eligible candidates from his category for 100 posts, whereas there were 5,000 higher-caste Hindus contesting the remaining 80 posts.
In the evening he takes classes for the village children and perhaps acts a model for their future.
Kirtana was regarded as the poorest man in the village - but he was fiercely proud and once he had lost his land still refused to work on someone else's. Instead he carried on his own trade as a basket-weaver. 'Land,' he said, 'is my one problem. If I had a little land then I would be fine.'
So much in Kirtana's life has stayed the same. He is still the poorest man in the village. He still has no land. Tied up nearby, as before, is a solitary cow which he cares for on a 25-per-cent basis (the rest of the proceeds go to the owner). He continues to make baskets.
One thing was forced on him, though. The cyclone of May 1982 tore off a section of his asbestos roof. 'I couldn't afford to replace it,' he said, 'so I put up my own, with bamboo. II cost me 300 rupees ($19)'. He is resentful that no aid was given to him - another villager was given 3,000 rupees to repair his house because, says Kirtana, he knew a member of the Orissa state parliament.
There have been two additions to his life since I left. One is a rickshaw, which he hires for four rupees a day. This works out at 1,460 rupees a year for a rickshaw worth just 2,000, so he could have bought ten rickshaws with the money he has given the owner over the last 15 years. But he said loans were too complicated - this was easier. He brings home about 10 rupees a day after eating his meal in the bazaar and paying for repairs to the rickshaw. Others earn between 25 and 40 rupees a day.
'I'm not as strong as I used to be. Before I could pull 30 kilometres, now only half that.' He finds the village roads with their mud ruts, gullies to cross and general hostility to smooth travel a great strain. Maybe that is why he has to interweave the stationary activity of basket-weaving with the strenuous one of rickshaw pulling.
Kirtana has given up on owning any land for himself. He concentrates his energies on survival and focuses his hope on the second addition to his life since my departure: a son, now quite as tall as his father and doing well at school. His son's name means 'meteor' or 'money'.
Malatie and her husband were prepared to make sacrifices so that their children might get a decent education: they were paying for two of them to attend a special boarding school for Harijans. From 4.30 in the morning until nine at night her day was spent on hard household work.
Malatie looked at the photographs of each of her children with equal pride. Things seem to have gone well for them. Her eldest son still has the job he had then in an electronics factory 300 miles away; her daughter, who was a giggly schoolgirl 15 years ago, is now the mother of three boys; and her youngest son is now also married and works the family's half acre of land with his father.
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