Election In Pincodes: Tikamgarh seeks solace amid drought and loneliness | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: Tikamgarh seeks solace amid drought and loneliness

By, Chhatarpur/tikamgarh
Apr 13, 2024 12:51 AM IST

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, HT looks at some key constituencies across India which encapsulate the issues shaping the elections

Kallu Ahirwar walks slowly, his pace betraying his lack of purpose. It is 10am, and the 62-year-old’s feet kick up dirt from the unpaved path that runs through the tribal village of Nayagaon in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district. He ambles towards his two-bigha farm, but there is little point; it is March and there are no crops to tend to. All Ahirwar wants to do is eat away at time, waiting for the day his two sons, 26 and 30, and their families return to the village ahead of the harvest season. Around him are rows and rows of thatched huts. In most, there is either a lock dangling from the door, and some are firmly bolted from the inside -- many of Ahirwar’s age have simply lost the strength to step out of their homes. For nine months of the year, as younger men from the village move to different corners of the country in the hunt for some sustenance for their families, Nayagaon is haunted by loneliness.

A 2022 study pegged the unemployment rate for Tikamgarh at 4.31% for men and 9.94% for women, far higher than the national averages of 2.9% and 4.7% respectively
A 2022 study pegged the unemployment rate for Tikamgarh at 4.31% for men and 9.94% for women, far higher than the national averages of 2.9% and 4.7% respectively

Tikamgarh is one of the seven districts in northern Madhya Pradesh — Chhattarpur, Niwadi, Panna, Damoh, Datia and Sagar are the others -- that form Bundelkhand. It’s a region plagued by high unemployment rates, a crippling lack of industry, soil that is not conducive to agriculture, and a long-standing search for water. What this means is that, for much of the year, life in Tikamgarh can be unsustainable.

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Ahirwar’s elder son, Rajesh, first left Nayagaon on a rickety bus to Delhi when he was 17. All that was on offer was life in a foreign city, away from the warm ensconce of home, for a salary of 400 a month. Even that meagre income was more than Bundelkhand could provide. “Migration isn’t new for any of us. I once spent years away from home, and now my son does. Nothing has changed for years,” the senior Ahirwar said.

Less than 50 metres away, 61-year-old Ramkeshi Prajapati sits outside her bare, ramshackle hut, in the company of her 13 year-old grandson. Her husband died three years ago. Her son got married, and left like everyone else. The boy, Devkumar Prajapati, is sitting cross-legged near the rotting wooden door in a torn school uniform. He goes to the government middle-school nearby, but his dreams have already been coloured by reality. “What good will studies do? I think I will go out soon because even in our school, the teachers believe that the son of a labourer can only be a labourer,” he said.The stigma of migration is Bundelkhand’s identity, and fleetingly, once every five years, at the epicentre of its politics.

WHAT THE DATA SUGGESTS The numbers are damning. A 2022 study by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Good Governance and Policy Analysis(AIGGPA), commissioned by the Bundelkhand Development Authority, pegged the unemployment rate for Tikamgarh at 4.31% for men, more than double the state average of 2.1% and far higher than the national average which is 2.9%. For women, the unemployment rate was 9.94%, much higher than the state average of 6.4% and the national average which hovers around 4.7%.

Social activist Pramod Khare, who has worked in Bundelkhand for 15 years, says that the lack of natural resources, year upon year of devastating drought, and a lack of state support, have coalesced into a dangerous cocktail that forces outward migration. “There is no major mineral that can be mined. A majority of the soil is low in organic carbon, low to medium in nitrogen and phosphorus, and medium to high in potash. There is both poor soil quality and terrible connectivity with major cities, but successive governments have done little to set up industry here,” Khare said.

Right from when young men and women are in school, the only viable option is to leave for work. The AIGGPA study says that only 12.1% of students who completed their higher-secondary education went on to study at a level above than that. “This means that nearly 88% of people have negligible scope of employment in the organised sector,” the study said.

Rajshekhar Pandey, general manager of the Tikamgarh industries department, said that a developmental uplift was in the works, including a new industrial area built on 22 acres of land near Sinaura Khasi, and another spread across 32 acres, in Mohangarh. “As many as six industrial areas are to be developed in the coming years in public partnership mode. We are also promoting artifacts by pushing for GI tags so traditional art can contribute to economic development,” Pandey said.

But Bundelkhand’s faith is shaky. Its people have heard these promises before; and seen them broken before. So people do the only thing they can -- they leave; even if sometimes that means leaving their children behind.

Listless Kallu Ahirwar has little else to do but watch over his barren farm and wait for his two sons to return.
Listless Kallu Ahirwar has little else to do but watch over his barren farm and wait for his two sons to return.

RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS FOR MIGRANTS The building could easily be mistaken for an abandoned home. It has no plaster; its walls are peeling from the outside; there is no name plate, no board. But even at 10:30am, filtering across from inside the decrepit structure, are the voices of children.

On the other side of the door, they sit in a courtyard; inhaling dust from bags of sand and cement next to them, as if on a construction site. There are 31 in all, sitting cross-legged on a torn “tat-patti”(a long, narrow rug), books in hand. Among the 31, are siblings Radhika and Raja Ahirwar, 10 and 11 years old respectively.

In Harpalpur in Chhattarpur, the district which borders Tikamgarh, at least 40 unregistered schools have mushroomed to cater almost exclusively to the children of migrant labourers. Most of them offer no real schooling or facilities, but give a roof over their heads.

In July 2023, Radhika and Raj helped their father Deepak Ahirwar lock up their two-room hut in Tikagamrh’s Dikoli village, and boarded a bus to trundle the 95km to Harpalpur. He spent two days settling them in, paid 27,000 for the year for each of them, and then left for Noida. “I was compelled to admit them. No government has ever created residential schools where our children can stay and learn for the year. I can’t take them to the city because I can’t afford it. And I can’t leave them at home all alone. So this is the next best,” said Deepak.

The school where the Ahirwar children study is called the Gajanand school. There are four rooms for the 31 children, each with small boxes meant to store personal belongings. The beds are wooden and have no mattresses. Strings that criss-cross haphazardly from the walls double up as clotheslines. Several of the rooms have no fans. There is no peon, no warden, and there are no qualified teachers. Students study, but most of their day is daily chores; each one of them washes dishes, clean clothes, and sweeps the premises.

Ramkishore Dwivedi, the sole caretaker-cum-teacher of the Gajanand school, admits that it has no registration and no affiliation as a residential school. “But this doesn’t matter. People know me by my name and the quality of teaching. With me, these students become experts at the alphabet and numbers in a year,” Dwivedi said.

The parent of another ward who spends the year in Harpalpur, Imaliyakot’s Basantlal Prajapati, said that the schools have one overarching pull — the promise of a better life. “I have worked since I was a child, but I didn’t want the same fate for him. If I took him to Delhi, I’d be forced to get him to work to sustain himself. So I enrolled him at a residential school with the hope that there will at least be an environment of education better than at the construction site where I work,” Prajapati, who also paid 27,000 for the year for his child, said.

Locals say that most of these schools have come up after Covid, but district administration officials say that not a single private boarding school has been registered in the district in the last few years. “There are no boarding schools in Chhatarpur. I have given no such permissions in the recent past. I will look into the matter,” Chhatarpur district education officer MK Katariya said.

For much of the year, as younger men from the village move to different corners of the country to work, Nayagaon is haunted by loneliness.
For much of the year, as younger men from the village move to different corners of the country to work, Nayagaon is haunted by loneliness.

POLITICS IN BUNDELKHAND Both Chhattarpur and Tikamgarh are assembly segments under the Tikamgarh parliamentary constituency which goes to the Lok Sabha polls in the second phase on April 26. In many ways, there have been two clear epochs in its electoral history. Between 1952 and 1971, Tikamgarh was a Congress bastion, as much of India was, except for a five-year aberration between 1962 and 1967, when Kure Mate, the Praja Socialist Party candidate, was the member of Parliament. It then ceased being a constituency between two delimitation exercises between 1971 and 2009. Then it was reborn as a seat reserved for Scheduled Castes, and in three successive elections, has voted the same party, the BJP, and the same man, Virendra Khatik.

The district has a sizable Scheduled Caste population at 25%, 4.7% tribals, and 3.67% Muslims. Khatik’s draw, BJP leaders say, is not his big-ticket development agenda, but his accessibility. In a poor region, he is constantly available, they say -- the quintessential politician that is “sukh-dukh ka saathi” (there in good times and bad). So influential is Khatik that in June 2021, when there was a Union Cabinet reshuffle, he was made the minister of social justice and empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, Khatik has been named once again as the BJP candidate, and will be up against 42-year-old Pankaj Ahirwar, the vice-president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress’s Scheduled Caste wing who began his sojourn with the party as an NSUI leader in 2004. Polling day is weeks away, and like clockwork, migration is back on the political agenda.

Pankaj Ahirwar says his campaign will focus on the lack of change in 15 years under the same member of Parliament. “They have done nothing to generate employment locally, or to improve the social standing of the poor. It is people from the scheduled castes that have to migrate the most, and it is them that face the brunt of social atrocities. Before every election they promise an industrial park, but on the ground, the situation is only worsening,” he said.

The BJP, however, argues that the past five years have brought a clutch of initiatives to mitigate the crisis. They point to the laying of a foundation stone of the “Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India” campus across seven acres in Tikamgarh; a Vande Bharat train from Delhi to Khajuraho flagged off on March 2024, the Tikamgarh medical college where the foundation stone was laid in September 2023, and the construction of roads and bridges across the district.

“In the next decade, Tikamgarh will emerge as an affluent district. The Ken-Betwa Link project will end the crisis of water, and several irrigation projects will change the face of agriculture in Bundelkhand. The Congress-led state and central governments did nothing for 60 years and they are now showing false concern. Voters are wise and they can see that change may be slow, but it is continuous,” Khatik said.

But for villages in Tikamgarh, these promises mean little, and the social compact between politics and change appears to stand broken. Election season does serve a purpose though – a free ride home, funded by political parties soliciting their support. Thirty-two-year-old Santosh Ahirwar, who works in Noida, is already yearning for Dikoli village, and the embrace of the family he left behind. “When the elections come around, political parties call us, and bring us home by sending buses, or four wheelers, or simply paying for our tickets. Nothing will ever come of their promises, but at least it gives us a chance to come home. Think of it like a festival, a time when everyone is home,” Santosh said.

More than 620km away, Dikoli is preparing too. If nothing else, for its solitude to be broken -- like it is, every elections cycle.

This is the fifth in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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    She is a senior reporter based at Bhopal. She covers higher education, social issues, youth affairs, woman and child development related issues, sports and business & industries.

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