Millennium Post

Will the new CM deliver?

On 13 July, Hemant Soren was sworn in as the 9th chief minister of Jharkhand, a state that is just 13 years old. What does this frequent change mean for development? A visit to remote villages in Dumka and Godda provided the answer.
The tribal population in Jharkhand is 26.2 per cent of the total. It is a forested state where Naxalism is an issue. Getting to Godda and Dumka districts in the Santhal Parganas  division is a challenge. One option from Delhi is to take an evening flight to Patna, and in the wee hours of the morning, catch the Jan Shatabdi to Jasidh junction and check into a hotel in Deogarh, seven kms away. From Deogarh city it’s a 2-3 hour drive to villages in these districts.

Deogarh derives its name – the abode of gods and goddesses – from the various temples in and around Deogarh, the most important perhaps being Baidyanath, a Shiva temple, one of the 12 jyotirlingams. Every year during the month of shravan, millions converge in the city, waiting in serpentine queues to offer water of the Ganga. ‘During shravan, there are around one lakh people visiting the temple. On special days, this number can shoot up to three lakh,’ informs Kaleshwar, who works with the an NGO and is a resident of Deoghar.

This time, just prior to shravan, beginning 22 July, a visit to the temple in the wee hours of the morning was dismaying. The by lanes leading to the temple have open drains on either side, next to which is a water supply line. People are collecting water in their containers and it is alarming to see the pale brown colour of the opaque water. In the temple itself, the water offered is clear as water should be, and hopefully clean. ‘When the person who practises the best governance – God – is unable to do something about this, what can we ordinary mortals do?’ jokes Niraj Kumar from the same NGO, committed to working with tribal groups to claim their rights.

Badi Kalyani is a village around 20 km from Godda headquarters, in the midst of undulating beautiful topography. There are 925 households in the village, comprising of predominantly Santhals, OBCs and others. This is one village where no civil society agency has ever worked. We encourage a few villagers to come and talk to us, predominantly on sanitation. They arrive willingly with mobiles in hand. According to Census 2011, 36.6 per cent of rural households have access to mobiles.
We experience a sense of déjà vu, realising how little has changed.

The members of the village water and sanitation committee (VWSC) are unaware about their selection. The jal sahiya, a village worker, appointed by the state government as a front line worker on drinking water and sanitation has been trained for repairing hand pumps.
The monsoon has not been kind. This is the 4th year in a row that monsoon has uptil now played truant. This has led to migration of around 40 per cent of the villagers. They do have job cards under MGNREGA, ‘but these are with the contractor’ we are informed. They have been getting around 50 days of work, with little idea of what the contractor is billing. The question as to why their cards are with the local contractor elicits no response.

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the tribals have lost their confidence in questioning, and trusting and the voiceless as they are, they continue to accept things as they are, signing on any document they are asked to.
The discussions then veer towards sanitation. Is there a toilet in the village? The villagers were unanimous in their answer: No. Did they realise that some of their health-related suffering is due to inadequate sanitation? Some heads bobup and down in affirmation. Do they know about a government rural sanitation programme called the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) which supports, amongst other things, the construction of household toilets? The answer was ‘no’ again.

Did they know that under NBA, each household is eligible to Rs 10,000 for toilet construction, and that collectively there is almost Rs 1 crore that they could access for household toilet construction? You can hear a pin drop in the silence that follows this revelation.

Then a few people speak up at once. ‘We want to change, we want to access government funds, can you help us?’ they ask. We leave, promising to come back later in the month, to help them help themselves, through  collective decision making in the gram sabha. But Mohanpur village, one of the 10 villages in Kanjvi panchayat of Dumka district offers hope.

In this panchayat, this NGO is helping the villagers move towards self-reliance, by demanding from the government the drinking water and service provisions that are theirs. The jal sahiyas are trained and an access centre in the panchayat forms an important interphase between the people and the governance institutions. All the job card holders have their cards and their bank accounts. ‘This is our right why should the card be with someone else?’ they question.
The stark contrast between the two villages highlights the information and knowledge gap.

How can this gap be bridged? By the government themselves, by NGOs, or, the use of mobile phone technology to transmit information and messages? While outreach through human resources is a challenge in terms of volume, given the mobile penetration in rural areas, the use of this option could dramatically change the scenario of people being informed of what is due to them. They could then engage with the government for getting their due.

Irrespective of tenure, will the new chief minister deliver? On water and sanitation, issues vital for health and dignity? In the previous government, Hemant Soren was responsible for the drinking water and sanitation portfolio. And had held discussions on a citizens’ charter on drinking water and sanitation when the government fell. Let’s hope that he carries his experience forward and gives drinking water and sanitation the due space and importance this state needs.
If there is any state in need of improving its drinking water and sanitation, it is Jharkhand. A rural household toilet coverage of 7.6 per cent really hurts. And when this coverage further plummets to 3.73 per cent for STs and 2.8 per cent for STs in santhal parganas, sanitation is practically non-exsistent.
The author has been working on sanitation for more than a decade
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