Friday, 21 February 2014

Chronicles of a Failed State

The recently completed Shaheed Path in Lucknow - an elevated 6-lane expressway that allows quick access from the airport to eastern UP - is a driver's delight. If you're travelling to Faizabad, for example, the road can get you speeding towards your destination, bypassing Lucknow city almost completely, in a matter of minutes. If your visit is during the waning winter season, you will be enthralled by the miles of mustard fields on the way - the enchanting yellow atop green stretching for as far as the eyes can see. You can do your business in Faizabad and be back at the Lucknow airport to catch an evening flight, carrying with you an idyllic portrait of rural India, and feeling smug about improved infrastructure in the state of UP.

Venture a little within the state, and you will quickly realize how deceiving this idyllic portrait can be. Barely 40 kms from Lucknow, within the Lucknow district itself, is the Mal block. On 19 Feb 2014, I made a visit to Mal to understand the employment situation among village youth as part of an Edulever project. Accompanying me is Anjani, a social worker with the NGO Vatsalya, which has been working in this area for the past several years with a focus on the Girl Child. On the way to Mal, Anjani talks about the grim scenario surrounding the demographics of females in this area - the curse of female foeticide is rampant: in a survey done by Vatsalya in mid-2011 in eight districts of UP, the Child Sex Ratio came out to be only 625 in children under 1 year of age. He went on to describe how the practice of selective abortion flourishes as an industry with the connivance of the state officials. Shockingly, people are willing to pay upto Rs. 1 lakh to get a female foetus aborted. And the "doctors" in order to make the quick buck are known to have aborted male foetuses as well declaring them to be female! Anjani shares all this with disarming casualness, attending to routine calls during his narrative.

Taking a narrower road along the mustard fields, we presently find ourselves in the village of Roodan Khera with close to 200 households. A row of mud houses stands along the dirt path that bisects the village. We meet Kaushalya, mother of five, and member of a self-help group (SHG) formed by Vatsalya to promote small savings for livelihoods. The SHG has 15 members, and has managed to accumulate a fund of Rs. 15000 to help them in times of need. Kaushalya and other women of the village are adept at "chikan" work, the thread embroidery work Lucknow is famous for. Middlemen from Lucknow visit the village to get work done from the women. For a Kurta that would sell for at least Rs. 1000 in the market in Lucknow (with the salesman often gloating about the "hand-made" work on it), Kaushalya gets paid a measly Rs. 15 for doing the entire Kurta.

We move on to another nearby village, Kerora. The discussion with Anjani has moved to the health of the Anganwadis - the backbone of early child care system in India, part of the ambitious ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) scheme of the government. Each village (and also urban slum) is supposed to have an Anganwadi, with 2-3 workers assigned to it, providing basic nutrition and health services (including immunization) to children below 6 years of age. The Anganwadi workers are paid Rs. 1500, and given a monthly grant depending on the number of children in the village. At the Kerora Anganwadi, a decrepit two-room structure, Sunita is the older of the two workers on duty when we visit. The children have just left: they are supposed to be there from 9 am to 1 pm. Sunita informs us that they served cooked Arhar daal and chawal (lentils and rice) to the children today. For the provisions, Sunita gets a sum of Rs. 4500 as her monthly grant. By a recent court directive, this money now gets credited directly to her bank account. However, in a practice that prevails across the entire state and perhaps even in other states, Sunita is forced to pay half this amount to the officials who do the rounds, and the collected booty supposedly finds its way to the top of the ladder through a well-oiled mechanism. Refusal to pay would obviously incur the wrath of the officials, and Sunita dare not take a chance!

It is past 2 pm, and time for us to leave. The village is a picture of desolation. A large number of buffaloes line up the path, lazy and oblivious to our presence in the village. Anjani talks of the rampant alcoholism in the villages around, of how certain households earn their livelihoods by brewing and selling the country liquor made of rice and mahua, an Indian medicinal plant. Even the children in these households are engaged in this occupation, though Vatsalya's intervention has curbed this malpractice. The village has a government school, but most parents prefer to send their children to the low-cost private schools that have sprung up across the countryside. A wise decision - the neglect of the government school system has ensured that even though teachers in these schools are paid salaries that are ten times of their counterparts at private schools, the quality of learning remains abysmal in the government schools. During our visit we could see several young girls on bicycles returning from their schools, the only picture of promise in an otherwise gloomy scenario. Before getting into our car, we walk past a broken mud house - which stands almost as a representative of the Failed State around us.