Friday, September 27, 2013

Orissa, a decade on.

Relentless. That is the word that occurrs to me when I think of development in Orissa over the past decade. I had lived here for 11 years, and moved to Madhya Pradesh in the beginning of 2004. Now, a decade later, I am back here on work, going to the same districts I used to visit so often when I worked with UNICEF.

Bhubaneswar is unrecognisable from the medium-sized town that I used to know. True, it was expanding even then, but it was a controlled expansion, with four storied apartments being the tallest buildings to be seen in the city. Now it has grown beyond recognition, and what used to be one end of town is now the heart of the new city. Flyovers, widened roads, lots of bright lights - all make me feel more of a stranger here than I thought I would. What is lovely, however, is the very large number of trees in the city - one would never imagine this to be the same place where practically no tree was left standing after the super-cyclone of 1999. Taxi drivers, hotel attendants, auto-rickshaw drivers - all tell me that they would vote the present state government back to power. There is little tolerance to corruption they say, and the Chief Minister has a clean image.

Breakfast at a Chandikhole eatery
I head out north towards Cuttack and then on the highway to Balasore. The highway, which was started as part of the golden quadrilateral during the time that Mr Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, is thankfully complete, and there are none of the annoying bypasses we used to take, nor the clouds of dust from the road under construction.

 We bypass Cuttack and on to Chandikhole for a quick breakfast, after which we turn west towards Jajpur. On this road there is not a single hill left - each one has been ravaged for stone - and stone crushers line both sides of the road that we take. The day we drove there, being Vishwakarma Puja, all the crushers were silent, some decorated with garlands of flowers. If the earth could speak, she would protest this savaging, I am sure. The hills are left as jagged, ugly pillars of stone - were these too difficult to cut down? or will they, too, vanish in another year or two?
View of a hill on the road to Jajpur
The road to Keonjhar has been extended from here through what was once dense and pristine forest. It is a wide gash in the forest, with signs in at least two places warning of elephant crossings. What made the state make a road right through an elephant corridor, I wonder. The forest is almost gone on either side. The road is bad in parts where it is still under construction, the recent heavy rains having made the whole soil slushy. It is now possible to reach Keonjhar town from Bhubaneswar in four hours. The road was made for the mining activity, I am told. The trucks get the ore from Joda-Badbil to the steel plants coming up (Tatas, Jindal's, Essar).

The new road to Keonjhar through what was pristine forest
However, after the Orissa Government banned what it considered illegal mining by private companies in 2010, the mines at Joda and Banspani are in limbo. As a result, there is no traffic of iron-ore laden trucks on these roads through the Keonjhar forests. Those who invested heavily in trucks now face a problem repaying their loans.

The effect of the mining ban is also visible in Keonjhar town. Once an attractive small district headquarter town, it had boomed with the mining industry, with lots of garish hotels having sprung up. Most of these now stand nearly vacant, and the town has a depressed, dull air about it. The economy, which had come to depend heavily on jobs and activity generated by mining, is now in the doldrums.

Far away from the district headquarters in Saharpada block, I visit a creche bring run by an NGO in Kucheibeda village. The people are landless here, and the village is deserted when I reach there in the early afternoon, with the adults having gone out to the forests to collect minor forest produce. Children under 3 are all asleep in the creche, and a quick look at their weight charts shows me that all of them are malnourished to varying degrees.

Their life has certainly not changed for the better in the past decade.

Monday, September 16, 2013


In Uttar Pradesh, I was told by two persons (one a vehicle driver, and the other a cook) - that Raju Bhaiyya is a saviour of the poor, that in his village and panchayat he does not allow anyone to go hungry. He gives generously, and even provides the money for marriages in very poor households. For them, he is a Robin Hood.

The driver was also certain that Narendra Modi is the only hope left for the country. According to him, every village square talks of the upcoming elections and of Narendra Modi, and if BJP gets any votes, it will be because of this one man. We need a Hindutvavadi like him, who can protect us, or else we will be ruled y Mughals again. But, he said glumly, it is possible that the party will use Modi to get votes, and then not make him the Prime Minister.

This morning Javed the taxi driver who drove me to the airport in Bhopal was equally definite that the BJP has made a mistake in naming NM as the prime ministerial candidate, that they will lose 40% of votes they would otherwise get. Madhya Pradesh will vote for Shivraj Singh Chauhan, but for his good work here, not because he is BJP. Though the party does count for something, the person is important - hence the loss to BJP. Once a person in a high position has a slur on his name, it is very difficult to get rid of it. Governing a state is one thing; governing a country such as ours with such a diverse population, is another ball game altogether. 

The taxi driver at Bhubaneswar airport is all praise for Naveen Patnaik. He has done a good job here, has zero tolerance for corruption, he says. If work in any government department does not get done in a fixed time, you can register a complaint and it is attended to. Officials and politicians are wary now. The BJP may get a couple of seats, he predicts, but not many more.

The man who came to repair the TV in my room at the hotel saw me tuning into the news channel and lingered to talk. Politics in India is such a mess, he confided. Since you too speak Oriya, I can speak freely with you. Patnaik babu has been here for three terms - and things are going well. Why disturb it? Different people including teh BJP want to displace him and come to power, but they want to do it for selfish reasons and nothing else. Naveen Patnaik will leave if he is defeated - it is no skin off his nose. He does not have a family to cater to, nor has he made millions for himself during his tenure, unlike other politicians have. If then we beg him to return, will he? And who will be in the soup then?

Varied viewpoints, all among men in their 20s and 30s.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fast food in Faizabad

4th September, 2013

The air-conditioner has been gurgling and whining since last night, interspersed with bouts of hissing when it actually works. The voltage fluctuates constantly in this hotel – I suppose it is the same all over the town or maybe all over the state. Anil informed me that in his village which is about 3 kilometers from Faizabad, the power situation is vastly improved now, and they get power 7 hours a day.

My tacky hotel room with a large hole in the air-conditioner.
So the night has been spent alternately sweating it out in the humid air (the fan stops too, when the voltage drops) while listening to the assorted noises in the room, and sleeping fitfully when the voltage is better. But at least there was no power cut. I think the hotel has a generator that it uses during scheduled power cuts.

This hotel with its four floors is perhaps the tallest building in the newer part of this green, fairly clean town of Faizabad. Nearly  half the town is the cantonment area (Cobra training centre, I read on my way to the Guptar Ghat two days ago).  Another large part is taken up by Government offices and homes for the bureaucrats as this is not only the district headquarters but also the divisional headquarters. The large central market area is busy and brightly lit, with fairly broad streets, but no chaotic traffic. The town was most prosperous during the reign of Shuja-Ud-Daula, the third Nawab of Awadh (Faizabad was the capital city of the Awadh empire). There are some beautiful monuments that I did not get time to visit. This part of town has small houses, with a mixed community of Hindus and Muslims, all living together in harmony. They are quite fed up with the issue of the temple at Ayodhya, and want only to be left in peace.

Anil insists on treating us last evening to pakodas as we pass through Gosaiganj, a busy market town a few kilometers away from Faizabad town. We eat potato, brinjal and onion pakodas served piping hot with a green radish chutney in a leaf plate. In spite of the hot and humid weather, we enjoy the spicy snacks as we drive back from the training centre at Chachikpur village. A short distance later, he stops and tempts us again with hot corn on the cob – and who can resist that? After that, Tasneem and I are just too full to try anything else. Ok, we’ll have satalla tomorrow, he says as he drops us back at the hotel. He keeps his word – we stop at Gosaiganj again today, and he dashes across the busy road to get us bowls of satalla  - a spicy mix of  pakoda and chaat that stings and brings the tears to your eyes. Tasneem  has hers with a sweet chutney. I promise myself no more snacks as I need have a proper dinner tonight at least, having skipped it yesterday after all the snacking on the way back.

Anil in the Faizabad market, tempting us with dahi batasha and tikki.
But Anil is not through yet. He drives straight into the market place of Faizabad and says we just cannot pass up the chaat at a special stall there. Out he gets, and first brings up bowls full of golgappa filled with yoghurt and spices (which he calls dahi batasha). And tops it up with a around of tikki garnished with spicy chutneys. I have both these snacks, conveniently ignoring my promise to myself a few minutes ago. Sated and happy, we get back to the hotel after a long day at work, and a happy hour eating snacks.

Tomorrow Anil leaves for Benares for some other work. His parting words to me are of regret: You are not coming to Benares, he says, you will miss the special chai that is available at a particular dhaba on the way.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Ayodhya sunset

Sunset over the Sarayu river with the bathing ghats of Ayodhya to the left

5th September, 2013.
I reached Ayodhya too late to see much of the town. However, the bridge over the Sarayu river at Ayodhya provided a breathtaking sight at sunset, with the river shimmering gold, and an air of calm over the scene. The many policemen on the bridge and the police vans at all the roads into the town struck a discordant note.

I could not but think how deceptive this calm is: this was the site of one of the most violent and defining moments of our country in recent times, perhaps the one place where events began a downward spiral of suspicion, hatred, violence and increasing fanaticism of both major religions.

The town itself is ancient, with some spectacularly beautiful old buildings and temples, the buildings unfortunately neglected and in a poor state of repair. The narrow main street is crowded in on both sides by shops and buildings, with even narrower lanes leading off it, where the townspeople (as opposed to pilgrims) live. Most shops, of course, sell items for worship - coconuts, incense sticks, cubes of camphor, flowers, items for prasad, prayer books. You cannot turn in any direction without sighting a temple. The Hanuman Garhi temple is one of the more famous of these, but I did not have time for a visit.

A view of some of the temples of Ayodhya from the Sarayu bridge.

As I stood on the bridge, my thoughts were, funnily enough, about my grandmother - someone I had not thought about for years. A pious and simple woman, she had led a difficult life as a second wife to my grandfather, uncared for by her sons in her old age. She however, never got bitter, but always insisted on seeing the good in everyone, as that is what her faith had taught her. How she would have loved to visit Ayodhya! I have come here for you, ammamma, I told her in my mind. Can you see what I see? - the beautiful river, the people bathing on the ghats, the temples? The temple bells are not ringing at the moment, but they will, soon. You believed in God as a manifestation of all that is good - and you were able to distil all the love and keep out the hatred. Unfortunately, many of us today don't do that - it is easier to hate than to love someone who is not like us.

Driving through the town towards Faizabad, we passed the barricaded Ram Janmabhoomi - strong metal fencing painted in  yellow and topped with barbed wire. Policemen outside and inside it. There was thick shrubbery and many trees behind the fence - I am told it takes almost an hour of walking to reach the site of the demolished mosque. Security checks take another hour on the way.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Faizabad diary

2nd September, 2013. Lucknow to Faizabad is about two hours by road – a very good four-lane road which is a pleasure to drive on. The flatness of the land never ceases to amaze me, having lived most of my life in Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – all places with hills and forests and water bodies. Cultivated rice fields on either side, mango groves (the best Dussehri mangoes in the country, the driver informs me), we cannot travel two two kilometers without passing a habitation. The Ghagra river runs on our left, just out of sight, with only an occasional glimpse of it visible. The road from Lucknow airport joins the national highway going to Faizabad and on to Muzaffarnagar. At this junction there are still police barricades in place, put up last week to stop the sants and mahants from congregating in Faizabad / Ayodhya for the proposed chaurasi-kosi parikrama. The sants have been arrested. Yesterday a contingent from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh made an attempt to enter Faizabad and they, too, are now guests of the State. It’s a win-win situation, explains Anil who is driving me – the BJP consolidates the Hindu vote by raising the issue of the temple once again; the SP gets the Muslim votes by not allowing the parikrama to go ahead. Me – I don’t vote, he says, how do I choose between crooks and charlatans?

Monsoon clouds over the Sarayu river at Guptar Ghat.
We drive though the cantonment at Faizabad to have a look at the Sarayu river. This is the name of the Ghagra river as it flows past Faizabad and Ayodhya. At the Guptar Ghat the river is in spate and the current strong. I am sad to see the water so muddy – sure sign of deforestation and erosion upstream. It is here that Lord Ram entered the water and never came out, explains Anil – he attained Samadhi. I wonder whether Ram drowned by accident, while my friend suggested later that evening that he may have committed suicide in remorse and sorrow at Sita’s passing. Either way it sounds irreverent, but then Ram is not one of my favourite persons in Hindu mythology.

Stone idols on the steps leading down the river. The shivling I recognize. Who is the woman?  
More fascinating than the story is the old temple built on the banks of the river here, the little stone idols on the steps leading down to the river, the paintings on the ceiling of the entrance to the temple. It is run down and neglected, yet its beauty comes through. There is serenity here, and calm, and well worth a visit – and an unhurried one at that.

One of the paintings on the ceiling of the entrance to the temple.
Idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman in the temple.

The Sarayu in spate.  The dark bar on the horizon is an island in the middle of the river.