Friday, October 1, 2021

Elephants at Luchki ghat


July 1987

Luchki ghat lies to the east of Ambikapur, the headquarters of Surguja district. The ghat road is 7 km long, winding between two high hills, and is the main route out from Ambikapur to the east.  The ghat has many scattered hamlets, and one small reservoir.

I first heard about the elephants in early July when I was on my way to a health worker training camp at Tongo-Ghagra which lay beyond the ghat. We had to take a 38 km detour over bad roads and were told the reason – the tribals has blocked the ghat road with a tree in protest against the Collector’s inaction regarding a herd   of wild elephants which had been menacing them for a week. The elephants had come there from further east – from around Jashpurnagar. They had smashed huts and destroyed crops and the authorities had not done anything about it so far. The tribals wanted permission to kill the elephants if necessary. It was a herd of seven – five adults and two calves. Subsequently the Collector had visited the area and had persuaded the villagers not to kill them – he would make arrangements to capture them.

Now, a week later, our hospital (Holy Cross Hospital, Ambikapur) had been requested to assist in delivering health care to the affected villagers, and a nurse and I went out to Luchki ghat. The hill to the north of the road had been fenced off with high voltage wire, and there were prominent signs put up urging people not to touch the wire, and not to attempt to graze cattle inside the fencing or to try and pick mushrooms on the hill. The plan was to isolate the elephants on that hill and then get tame elephants to help capture them.

We drove to Rai, and then walked four km to one of the affected hamlets. It rained all the while, and the nurse and I were wet by the time we reached it. A group of people had gathered near the primary school building as they had heard that we would be there. Several old people whose houses had been destroyed completely were housed in the school building – they had established themselves in separate groups under those areas of the roof that did not leak. Rain water which came in was being collected in what vessels they had in an attempt to keep the room dry, but it obviously had not done much good. William, a village elder, took me around the hamlet. It had a desolate look about it with no people around, the only sound being that of rain.

We went to William’s house which was a short way up the hillside and had been the first to be attacked by the elephant ten days ago. There was a large hole in the back wall where an elephant had smashed through and a corresponding hole in the front wall where it had exited. The corn crop had been trampled and destroyed, and the ragi that had been planted had been destroyed too. William and his family had rushed out in panic when they had heard the elephants approaching, and along with the rest of the villagers, had raced down to the reservoir and waded out into neck-deep water. They stood there all night, praying that the elephants would not follow them there. Parents carried little children on their shoulders all night as they stood there, and the incessant rain made matters worse. Fortunately the elephants (after having had their fill of corn) had retreated into the forest at dawn. From that night on, the men took turns to stay up at night, beating drums and making enough noise to keep them away. So now the menfolk were an exhausted lot.

What had the municipality done? They had been given money as compensation, William told me, to rebuild their huts, but now the mud was too wet to build with, and the families had spent a lot of the money buying seeds to plant their crops again. They families were out in open, most of them having rigged up a sheet of plastic between the trees and sheltering there. Till the rains let up in September and the sun was strong enough to dry the mud, they would be unable to build their homes. The elderly from among the families had been put in the school building.

Most of the people had fever, and several children had pneumonia. Malaria was rampant as usual.

I spoke to the primary school teacher and asked – didn’t the presence of the villagers living in the school building disturbed the routine of the children? Not at all, he replied – I have only five children attending this school. Seeing my surprise he explained. This school had upto 50 children coming here before the reservoir was built. After that, many families had to relocate. They could not move up here as this hill was already occupied by people, so they have moved away, I am not sure where they have gone. Only the families left on the upper slopes send their children here. And as there are so few children in this school, why should the Government spend money in maintaining this school building? The verandah is alright, so I teach there. The people inside do not disturb me not at all.

That was the first of many visits to Luchki ghat that season. The huts have been rebuilt now. The elephants have all been captured, except for one female elephant who when trying to escape, ran into the fence and got electrocuted to death. I am not sure where the elephants were escorted to and whether they returned in later years.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Jaising Baiga of Tilaidabra

I met Jaising Baiga of Tilaidabra village in Chhattisgarh on a hot, humid afternoon earlier this week. I had gone to his house to see his daughter Jyothi, who the health worker in the village described as "kamzor", or weak.

Jaisingh Baiga with his wife and daughter in their hut
Jaising Baiga and his family in their hut
Jaising works in Pratapgarh in a brick factory and had just returned after seven months of work there. He was asleep under a thick blanket when we reached his hut, but his wife insisted on waking him up. I asked him about his job. He works in a brick factory there for 12 hours each day, he said, cleaning out the ash from the kilns after the bricks are baked. The bricks themselves are made by labourers from Bihar. For his labours he earns Rs.9000 per month, and he supplements this with headloading for trucks, which earns him an additional Rs. 3000. He spends Rs. 2200 on food for himself, he said. So does he send the rest home, I asked him. He said he was paying off the advance given by the contractor to the family when taking him to Pratapgarh, as well as the interest. So he has now returned only with a small amount of money. No, he did not have to return during the lockdown in 2020 as it is a very large brick factory and work continued even during the lockdown.

Two other Baiga men from his village also work there. 

Their mud and tile hut is falling to pieces, some of the tiles on the roof missing in one corner. In another corner the broken tiles had let in the rain resulting in the corner being washed away and leaving two walls in danger of collapsing any moment. He will be here for four months now during the agricultural season before returning to Pratapgarh later in the year, he said.

Jaising is extremely thin, as is his wife Meena who works as an agricultural labourer in Tilaidabra and nearby villages. And their daughter Jyothi is severely underweight for her age.

The Anganwadi building in the village is dilapidated and a hazard to enter, and the anganwadi worker lives far away and comes to the village once a month to distribute the month's allocation of dry rations to the children enrolled at the centre. 

I had gone to enquire about the young child, to visit the family, to ask about her diet and health, and to advise the mother if necessary, on what she needed to do to improve the child's nutritional status. 

After meeting the family and talking to Jaising, I left without offering any solutions. I found I lacked the courage to do so. 


View of Tilaidabra with Anganwadi centre in the foreground

Tilaidabra Anganwadi centre.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Ambikapur, 1987


It was the transistor radio that kept me sane that year.

It was 1987. I was fresh out of internship, and had opted to work in a hospital in a remote area for a year, before thinking of specialization. I had a room in an empty ward of the Holy Cross Hospital, Ambikapur in Madhya Pradesh. During the day, the crowded outpatients kept me busy, and before that the morning rounds that had to be conducted in the wards to check on patients. On duty nights too I would remain busy in the evenings as well as sometimes through the night. The Sisters were welcoming and gracious, and glad of an extra hand to help. I ate in a small room off the kitchen – delicious home-made food, mostly rice, daal, and vegetables.

It was in the evenings that I got lonely, missing my colleagues at Vellore, and my family. The sisters would retreat to their convent, and the other doctors to their families and homes in Ambikapur, and I would be left to my own devices. Except on the days I was on call, I would speak to no one from 6 in the evening till about 9 the next morning, and at 23, it drove me crazy. Those were the days before email and internet and cellphones and the STD booth for long distance calls was nearly 2 km away from the hospital on the edge of town. I did not have access to a library for reading material.

I paid the handsome sum of Rs. 700.00 for a Philips transistor radio from my first salary, and it brought the room alive. From being a large bare hospital room, it became a place where there was music, news and conversation. I listened to the All India Radio (English and Hindi and even the Sanskrit news bulletin to try and remember my elementary school Sanskrit), to the BBC, to the Voice of America, as well as broadcasts in a few languages I did not understand. Vividh Bharti and the Srilanka Broadcasting Corporation were my favourite stations for songs, and Vividh Bharti had some lovely instrumental and vocal classical music as well.

My interest in surgery was encouraged by the Medical Superintendent who was a plastic surgeon herself, but like most surgeons in rural India, conducted surgeries of all kinds. Under her guidance and I soon learnt to do minor procedures by myself and to assist in the more major ones like intestinal and gastric perforations, or in Caesarean sections. What a thrill it gave me to see a patient who had been admitted in pain recover fully; or a mother and baby recovering well after the C-Section. The well-planned and sychronised, orderly world inside the operation theatre also appealed to me.

But outside the operation theatre I was plunged into the chaotic, untidy, real world. The emergency cases (and almost all who came outside regular hours were emergencies) were all critically ill – an unconscious child with tuberculous meningitis (the coverings of the brain), a pregnant woman with malaria and jaundice, a comatose man with severe malaria, a pregnant woman with eclampsia (seizures due to high blood pressure in pregnancy) – the list went on. These were terribly poor patients, who had been brought several kilometers on a cot to the nearest main road before being brought here in a bus or more often in a jeep that had charged them exorbitant rates. It was obvious in their thin and wasted bodies- both of the patients and their relatives; the tattered clothes they wore; the patient, almost fatalistic attitude with which they waited for care. Many of these patients died within hours of admission in spite of our best efforts, while others would have a long and slow recovery. Malaria and tuberculosis were the most serious and frightening problems I saw, in all their various forms and degrees of severity. I felt helpless and often lost – how could so many patients just come to the hospital and then die? Could it not be stopped? Why did someone not diagnose it earlier, or why did they wait till their illness became so severe?  

All these questions led me, at the end of my year there, to apply for my post-graduate studies in Community Medicine at my alma mater in Vellore.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Mubarakpur by-pass, Bhopal. Lockdown Day 53.

A lot has been written about the lockdown in the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, and I skip reading many such articles now. A surfeit of medical, non-medical and epidemiological articles in the papers, on email, and on WhatsApp makes me sick of the virus and the disease. The fear of the virus has been overtaken by the guilt, the worry, the helplessness of seeing lakhs of our fellow citizens - men, women, children, elderly , handicapped - trying to reach home any way they can. I am in awe of their endurance and determination, even as I am ashamed that we have brought them to this - forcing them to walk, cycle, hitch a dangerous ride - at the height of a scorching Indian summer, just because we as a nation did not care enough to plan better or to execute a plan to get them home in dignity. 

I learn from a friend about an organization in Bhopal that is helping citizens walking home on the highway outside the city. The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in Bhopal has been active since the day following the lockdown (over 60 days now), feeding people who have lost jobs and their means of earning a livelihood. These include daily wage labourers, rag-pickers, the disabled, among others. At present they cook and distribute over 10,000 meals a day. 

The city is under a strict lockdown. My colleague and I have lockdown passes for work among the slums in Bhopal. We go one afternoon to observe the work being done by the Jamaat volunteers at the Mubarakpur bypass and to see whether and how we can help. We reach the highway at 4.30 pm . The worst of the heat of the day has passed, but it is still extremely hot and oppressive, like being in an oven. The hot air stings my eyes and dries my lips in no time. The highway has no trees left after six-laning, and a few thorny shrubs on the roadside offer patchy shade, if any. The Jamaat volunteers have put up a small shamiana on the roadside,and food and water is spread out on tables under it. As it is the month of Ramzan, all the volunteers are observing roza, and do not consume even water during the day. Frankly, this level of discipline amazes me: to not drink water through the day in this scorching heat and to continue to work, requires a level of will-power and faith that I am afraid I do not have.

I have taken a few first aid kits with me to the highway: bags with ORS packets, dressing materials, Band-Aid strips, paracetamol tablets for fever, a bar of soap, and a bottle of Savlon. My colleague has brought along packets of biscuits. We wait in the scorching sun, feeling self-conscious. We look like who we are - privileged enough to live through a prolonged lockdown (it is day 53) without a problem; to be able to hire a taxi to take us from our homes to this highway.

A steady procession of trucks (large and small), small pickup vans, autorickshaws, motorcyles, all go by. Today the traffic is mostly from Gujarat, though there are quite a few vehicles from Maharashtra too. Each is packed beyond capacity by workers returning home, sometimes with families. 

As the vehicles stop at the Jamaat stall, the volunteers on the ground rush to them with packets of food, biscuits, and sachets of water. Throwing up sachets to reach men sitting on the roof of the truck above the driver's cabin; or in the truck (the driver would rarely allow the passengers to alight) has been honed to a fine art by the volunteers. Since there have been many people on foot whose slippers had broken or had worn out, a sack of new footwear in all sizes is also available for those who needed a replacement pair.

I go up to the driver of any vehicle that stops, and hand over the first aid kit, explaining what each item in it was for. In all cases, they listen attentively and store the kit carefully, and I sincerely hope they will not need to use it.  One has heard of so many road accidents and deaths of the returning workers. In most such accidents, my little kit will be of very limited use.

I soon run out of the kits I have taken with me, and spend the rest of the time talking to some of the people who I meet. Most of the vehicles from Gujarat are from Surat, and I feel a kinship with them, recognising many of the places they work in: Ved Road, Anjani, Diamond Nagar.

Komal Prasad and other textile workers from Surat head to Allahahabad
This mini-truckload of textile industry workers - weavers, embroidery workers, textile market workers, are headed from Surat to Allahabad (nobody calls it Prayagraj). Komal Prasad who is seated is older than the others, spends his day folding sarees in the textile market and says he will not return to Surat. Eighteen years there is enough, he feels. The rest of the men say they will return as soon as work resumes. Komal modifies his statement - well, maybe next year, he says, but certainly not this year. 
None of them has been paid since March - not even for the 24 days before the lockdown on March 25th. Their names appeared on the list of train passengers four times but each time they were told it was a mistake - they are convinced the tickets were sold to someone else at a higher price. They themselves have paid Rs. 1500 each to an agent to get a ticket. Now 48 of them have each paid Rs. 3500 for standing (and occasionally sitting) in this mini-truck for the journey home. 
I tell them about Aajeevika Bureau, the organization that works with migrant labour and provides legal support in issues like non-payment of wages, or compensation for injuries; and about their office at Katargam Darwaza in Surat. Komal and two of his friends note down the number of the office and of the co-ordinator there. When they return they may visit the office to ask about how to get their pending wages, and any other problems they may have. 

Nallasopara to Sultanpur by road. The Jamaat stall in the background
These two friends set off on a motorcycle from Bombay to Sultanpur. The person in the helmet works at wiring buildings in Nallasopara, and informs me they will return to Bombay once things "settle down". They have been on the road since the previous evening. 

More textile mill workers from Surat's Diamond Nagar head to UP.
Meanwhile, several other trucks passed by from Gujarat, like this one. These textile workers live in Diamond Nagar in Surat, and are headed to Allahabad. 60 of them have paid Rs. 3100 each to travel in this truck.The day after they left, fellow workers in Diamond Nagar protested about wanting to go home, resulting in a police lathi-charge in which a worker from Odisha died.

Anand, walking from Kalyan to Damoh.
Anand looks remarkably cheerful for someone walking with his family from Kalyan to Damoh district in Madhya Pradesh. When I saw him he was barefoot as his slippers had broken on the way. Perhaps his cheerful look is because he has got a brand new pair from the the Jamaat stall. 

The Jamaat is very well organized here - tables with water sachets that have been chilled with ice; fresh food brought in every few hours, with spiced puris and pickle packets provided for dinner as well. The young volunteers are tireless, and the stall runs day and night. Sometimes there is a treat - someone in the city donates bananas or cucumbers and so these are distributed as well. 

The heat grows more oppressive as the sky grows overcast. I perspire freely and take a drink of warm water from my water bottle. It does not quench my thirst. A sudden heavy shower begins just as this truck from Surat arrives. The passengers try to shelter under a tarpaulin sheet while also collecting water and food. Everyone collects as much water as they can. 

These images are repeated many times - autos from Gujarat, as well as a truck full of workers from Gujarat that comes through the checkpost at the Mubarakpur bypass. Almost all are going to UP and Bihar. 

Chandra Bhan (in yellow gamcha) and his friend head from Ahmedabad to UP.
Chandra Bhan and his friend are both diamond polishers who work in Ahmedabad, now heading home to UP on their motorcycle. We will return, said both, when things are more settled, and we know what is going to happen. Things are very uncertain at present.

Muskaan and Rubina with their father Kamal Hassan.

As it gets dark, I meet Kamal Hassan and his two daughters - Muskaan and her older sister Rubina, all headed from Kalyan to Gorakhpur on their motorcycle. He says he is very fortunate that he has his own means of transport. His wife died some years ago, he tells me. 

I am relieved to find only two families still going home on foot in the time I am there. Apparently the previous week, the majority of people were walking home. Now they are in their autorickshaws (from Surat and Bombay), motorcycles, small pickup vans, trucks. What is better - to risk your life standing in a crowded truck, baking in the sun for three days, with a likelihood of fatal accidents, or to embark on what should be considered a death walk in the summer heat, dodging police checkposts, uncertain of where you will find water and food? Why am I even asking myself these questions? A person will take the best option he or she has. Lucky enough to have family who can send across money to buy standing room on a truck? - it is quicker. Too poor to do so? - you walk. 

The past few weeks find me distracted. How can I help more directly, in addition to monetary support to organizations that are providing food and drink to the people migrating home? How has the lockdown affected them - physically, emotionally, mentally, and how can I make amends? My big regret from today is that I did not take down any of their mobile numbers, so I cannot find out whether or not they reached their homes safely. 

The biggest migration since partition, is what some have called it - this movement of our workforce, of the drivers of our cities, heading back to their villages.