The young rebels of Jhumra hills

Babita Mahto, who has been with this Local Guerrilla Squad of CPI (Maoist) a year, said that joining the party gave her a sense of purpose and immortality.

“So many women in the Mahto community kill themselves due to the stress from dowry, tilak [social ceremonies]. If I die at home, my parents will mourn for some months; we had a daughter who died, they will say. But here, there are so many of us who will remember — there was such and such didi [older sister], our comrade; she died for the people.”

An article based on this and other interviews with Maoist rebels in this area appeared in The Hindu.

Those who will serve time in prison

If instead of of being hanged by the neck
you’re thrown inside for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, your people,
if you do ten or fifteen years
apart from time you have left,
you won’t say,
“Better I had swung from the end of a rope
like a flag”-
You’ll put your foot down and live.
It may not be pleasure exactly,
but it’s your solemn duty
to live one more day
to spite the enemy.

Part of you may live alone inside,
like a tone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
must be so caught up
in the flurry of the world
that you shiver there inside
when outside, at forty days’ distance, a leaf moves.
To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
is sweet but dangerous.
Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
and for spring nights,
and always remember
to eat every last piece of bread–
also, don’t forget to laugh heartily.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
to the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
ten or fifteen years inside
and more —
you can,
as long as the jewel
on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose it’s luster!

–Nâzım Hikmet, Some Advice To Those  Who Will Serve Time In Prison, May 1949 (found while interviewing him.)


vo log bahut Khush_qismat the
jo ishq ko kaam samajhate the
yaa kaam se aashiqii karate the
ham jiite jii masaruuf rahe
kuchh ishq kiyaa kuchh kaam kiyaa

kaam ishq ke aa.De aataa rahaa
aur ishq se kaam ulajhataa rahaa
phir aaKhir tang aakar ham ne
dono.n ko adhuuraa chho.D diyaa



Jharkhand: Schools serve as security camps, military barracks

This article is from July 2014 on presence of security forces in school buildings in Jharkhand before and after the general elections.

High School for SC-ST children in Tiskopiya village in Bokaro where CPI(Maoist) blew eight classrooms in in 2009 after security forces stayed there during the elections. photo-Manob Chowdhury

High School for SC-ST children in Tiskopiya village in Bokaro where CPI(Maoist) blew eight classrooms in in 2009 after security forces stayed there during the elections. photo- Manob Chowdhury

In recent years, as the presence of security personnel in Jharkhand has multiplied, schools and civic buildings have frequently become the theatre of conflict between the paramilitary forces and the rebels. In the absence of large, concrete structures inside densely forested districts, security personnel use civic buildings, schools, anganwadi for accommodation, and camps. For instance, April 4 onwards, in Palamu, CRPF’s 157 Battalion deputed in Chatarpur before polling made barracks out of the government middle school building cordoning off the school with concertina wire and converting its roof into a watch-post. It was the same in several other districts.

Four days after the second phase of polling for Lok Sabha elections got over in Jharkhand on April 17, the CPI(Maoist) blew up panchayat bhawan in Rajabar in Koderma. The building had been used as a temporary camp by one of the 212 additional units of the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) deputed to keep watch in the state during the Lok Sabha elections. Recently, on June 25, the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a Maoist splinter group active in western Jharkhand, called for a bandh in all schools in Khunti district citing CRPF’s continued use of school buildings to station troops here. There are instances of classes being disrupted, and overall, this exposes schools to the risk of becoming civilian targets of CPI(Maoist).

In 2008, Ranchi-based activist and school teacher Shashi Bhushan Pathak filed a PIL in Jharkhand High Court objecting to school buildings being turned into temporary and permanent security camps. On the High Court’s orders, Jharkhand police furnished a list of 40 schools in 13 districts where it had set up pickets and security camps, including primary, middle, high schools, hostels, schools for visually disabled children. On November 21, 2008 the Jharkhand High Court ordered security forces vacate all school premises by January 2009. Senior police officials say they have since complied with this order.

Investigations in West Singhbhum and Latehar, however, reveal the CRPF continue to camp schools buildings temporarily and have even converted parts of schools buildings into permanent camps. Villagers pointed out instances where first schools had been occupied temporarily during elections, and then the same camps being turned into permanent camps later.

In Chotanagra in West Singhbhum, a CRPF camp and a thana function at one end of the ground of the Upgraded High School and Residential School for Scheduled Tribes. The school is one of two residential schools catering to tribals villagers from 56 forest villages in Saranda.

“This space used to be a maidaan where people came to play sports from all over. In 2004, the Border Security Force camped here before general elections and then the CRPF set up a permanent camp,” said Ajay Sahu who runs a grocery shop across the road from the school. A wall in the center of the playground was built a few months back, taking away the students’ access to the playground.

“Sometimes the jawans would come to the school to fill water from the handpump, and when the special forces CRPF’s CoBRA, Jharkhand Jaguar visited, they camped in the school at night. Parents of children from Sonapi proposed a wall be built to discourage this as adolescent girls live in the hostel,” said a school teacher requesting anonymity. A CRPF jawan filling water from the school’s hand-pump told this reporter that the jawans had no option but to use the school’s hand-pump, as the camp had an Aquaguard water filter but electricity failed regularly.

Bombings, demolitions; schoolchildren suffer

In retaliation for the security forces making barracks out of school buildings in the last few years, the Maoists have bombed dozens of schools all over Jharkhand. In Tiskopia in Bokaro the rebels blew up eight classrooms of a high school for SC-ST children after the CRPF stayed in the school for 45 days during the elections in 2009. School staff recounted seeing iron doors, windows, sports materials, books lay scattered all around the school building, and classes were held under a tree for the next two years.

Upgraded Middle School Salve village in Garu block in Latehar district where Maoists demolished a freshly constructed boundary wall in 2013 objecting to it as schools are often used as barracks by security forces. photo-Manob Chowdhury

Upgraded Middle School Salve village in Garu block in Latehar district where Maoists demolished a freshly constructed boundary wall in 2013 objecting to it as schools are often used as barracks by security forces. photo-Manob Chowdhury

The same year, in Banbirwa, Kone and Saryu in Latehar, they planted bombs and demolished portions of the school building at night soon after they were used by CRPF. Last march, the rebels demolished the nearly-built boundary wall of the Upgraded Middle School in Garu in Latehar. Schoolgirls who watched from a distance recounted watching the rebels break the wall with their rifles soon after school had got over late afternoon: “Dhakol dhakol ke tod diya. Hum ne Master ji ko duur se aate dekha, aur chilaye, ‘Masterji party aayi hai, bhago!'(They broke it bit by bit. We saw the school teacher approach and shouted out, ‘the “party” (Maoists) are here. Run!’). Vishram Oraon, the village Shiksha Samiti member whom the rebels beat up for allowing the construction of the wall, said security forces had camped at the school during panchayat elections of 2010.

In several villages, paramilitary personnel camped temporarily inside classrooms as permanent camps were built in the immediate vicinity of the school. Now camps exist cheek by jowl with schools.

In Latehar’s Saryu village, a CPI(Maoist) “liberated territory” till 2009, the government high school staff recounts the rebels would hoist a black flag in the school on republic day. As paramilitary operations to oust the rebels began, the CRPF stayed in the school innumerable times, even as Maoists warned the school staff against letting security forces camp there. In 2009, the rebels blew up the middle school building a kilometer away. Now, a permanent CRPF camp has been set up across the high school playground, while the ground serves as a helipad for the camp.
Over 360 students of classes till VIII study in the school, and 87 senior students, including 50 girls. “If additional forces come they still stay in the school but not more than three days at a time. Sometimes they come during school hours to take water or borrow chairs and tables,” said the school principal Chandrashekhar Singh, while he supervised the construction of a boundary wall. “If a wall had been built earlier, perhaps the helipad would not have come here?” mused Mohammad Hakimuddin, a farmer.

Upgraded Middle School  in Marangloia in Latehar where Jharkhand Armed Police have set a camp since 2008 in a part of the building even while the school runs in the other part. photo-Manob Chowdhury

Upgraded Middle School in Marangloia in Latehar where Jharkhand Armed Police have set a camp since 2008 in a part of the building even while the school runs in the other part. photo-Manob Chowdhury

In another block Balumath in village Marangloia, the only government middle school catering to ten villages in Marangloia has served as Jharkhand Armed Police(JAP) camp for the last six years. Police personnel occupying the classrooms complained of being cramped for space as over 100 of them live in five small classrooms. The earthen courtyard of the school was being used by mining firm Abhijeet Group to park JCB excavator machines. After the Maoists set fire to the group’s vehicles in 2012, district officials gave permit even to the Abhijeet Group to park vehicles next to the JAP camp inside the middle school.

“The police came to stay in the school when I was in class VIII. We would find it difficult to go to the toilet because there were no toilets and we used the fields. The jawans would use the fields too. Now they have built a toilet,” said Sangeeta Kumari, who is now studying for a Bachelor’s in Arts at the Ranchi University. The schoolchildren and the security personnel still share a hand pump for drinking water.

Police, maoists deny responsibility

Jharkhand has a rural literacy level of 61 percent; female literacy in rural areas in 48 percent. The dropout rate in middle school is very high at 48 percent. A report by Human Rights Watch on militarization of schools in Jharkhand and Bihar identifies that government’s failure to ensure necessary infrastructure for the police violates communities’ right to education as schoolchildren must bear with overcrowding and manage in temporary spaces, and girls’ education suffers.

Officials either deny, or disagree. “Normally, we stay in the open to avoid staying in schools. Or, we stay in schools which we find abandoned, where no teaching is going on. For instance, in one school where we camped, 100 students were enrolled but there were shrubs growing everywhere,” said a CRPF commandant in Latehar. “To my knowledge there is no CRPF camp running out of a school, or disrupting classes in any way,” said Jharkhand’s Director General of Police Rajeev Kumar.

The CPI(Maoist) cadres acknowledge that bombing school buildings as part of “People’s war” has put rural children at a disadvantage but put the onus on security forces’ practice of staying in school buildings.

They cite rare instances where the party has helped rebuild bombed schools in their defence. “We demolished the high school building in Tiskopia after the CRPF stayed there 45 days during the 2009 elections. But we contributed when the villagers pooled funds to rebuild it in 2011,” said Rakeshji who leads local guerrilla squads in Bokaro’s Jhumra hills referring to a non-government school for SC-ST children in Gomia block. When asked to confirm, staff at the school were apprehensive of both acknowledging the rebels’ role in rebuilding the school building even as they expressed anxiety over the possibility of the school being occupied by security forces a second time in future elections.

The curious case of the alphabetically accused

On January 30, 2015, the Supreme Court while hearing a Special Leave Petition for bail for two jailed Maruti workers, Sunil Kumar and Kanwaljeet, gave the Haryana government two weeks to respond why the workers should not be granted bail. SC had on 17 February 2014 declined to hear the workers’ bail plea as eye-witnesses were still being examined. It asked the Haryana court to complete examine eye witnesses by April 2014, though the local court later missed this deadline. Below is a report from August 2014 on the legal case against a majority of the workers.


Co-workers, families of jailed Maruti workers marching to Haryana Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda on August 3, stopped on the way by the police in Rohtak. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

The Hindu

Manesar (Haryana): On Thursday, 147 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in Bhondsi jail will be waiting patientlyfor the decision of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on bail plea of two of the 147 workers. They have been in jail since two years after manager Awanish Kumar Dev was killed in an instance of rioting in Maruti‘s Manesar plant on 18 July 2012. The rioting in July 2012 was preceded by months of strikes by the workers demanding an independent union in 2011 that had caused a loss of over Rs 2500 crores to MSIL, India’s largest automobile manufacturer.

While all 147 workers have been charged on eighteen counts, including rioting charges, and under Section 302 of IPC for murder of Mr Dev, a pattern has emerged from the evidence against the workers. In case of 89 workers, the Haryana police cited the testimonies of only four labour supply contractors hired by the MSIL. Each contractor has testified to witnessing workers indulge in violence such that the names of the workers allegedly seen rioting fall in an alphabetical order.

Rioters seen in alphabetical order

Court documents show witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav has named 25 workers such that all workers’ names fall in the alphabetical range of A-G. Another witness contractor Yaad Ram testified that he saw 25 workers rioting all of whose names fall in the next range G-P. Witness Ashok Rana names 26 workers who were allegedly rioting whose names range from P-S.The final witness Rakesh of Tirupati Associates who supplied 900 contract workers to MSIL testified to allegedly seeing 13 workers whose names, continuing the alphabetic sequence, are in the range S-Y.

On July 5 in the district court, all four contractors failed to identify any of the 89 workers named by them. “The management had originally named 52 persons in the FIR, mainly from the union’s body. The police picked up another 100 workers over the next two-three weeks and assigned 89 names alphabetically to the labour contractors with there being no other witnesses. They did not produce any witnesses at all against another 11 workers,” said defence counsel RS Hooda commenting on the evidence against 100 of 147 workers.

Special Public Prosecutor KTS Tulsi declined to comment on this pattern of the testimonies. Witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav who has named workers with names ranging from A-G told The Hindu that his firm VGR Engineer Pvt. Ltd. supplied 700 workers to the Manesar plant in July 2012, and at present it supplied 600 workers to MSIL’s Gurgaon plant.

Car doors’ recovery

As rioting weapons, the police show they have recovered 139 car door frames and iron rods from workers weeks after the incident. For instance, they show Maruti Suzuki Workers Union’s head Ram Meher was arrested 13 days later on August 1, 2012. The Recovery Memo records that a car door frame over 2 feet in length, with sharp metal planks welded at both ends allegedly used as rioting weapon was found inside his bed in his residence in Ashok Vihar, 25 km from the Manesar plant. Similarly, they show Sarabjeet, the Union’s General Secretary, was arrested on August 1, 2012 and a car door frame recovered from inside Sarabjeet’s bed at his Laxman Vihar house, 22 km from the Maruti plant, was the alleged weapon.

Inside Bhondsi jail, 15 km from Gurgaon, Ram Meher said the pattern was repeated for several workers. “The police say we hid and carried door frames for kilometres, in some instances till another district. How could have we? The police planted these and showed arrests after many of us surrendered,” said Ram Meher.

“The alphabetic order of witness is a matter of probability. It is less probable but not impossible. I cannot comment on other details as I was not the DCP in charge at that time,” said DCP (South) Gurgaon Vivek Sharma.

The District Court in Gurgaon has already rejected the workers’ bail plea thrice, most recently this June. The High Court turned it down in May.

Jharkhand polls: In Jharia, Nirsa, coal leaves a mark on polls

The Hindu

At the tri-junction at Govindpur, Mahendra Mahto paused to look both sides before continuing pushing his cycle. Mahto, in his 20s, wearing a shirt and trousers and open-toed sandals, had six sacks weighing 40 kgs each of coal tied to both sides of the cycle. He began walking, pushing the 250-kg load five hours earlier at 6 am. At Govindpur, he joined six cyclewallahs who were waiting for everyone in their group to catch up. They sold the sacks to dhaba-owners, tea-shops at Rs 50 a sack at the market, before cycling home to Godhar.

Mahto had hesitated before speaking about his journey from Godhar coal mine, 17 km away, till here. After the central government nationalised coal in 1971, digging coal by hand and using it in small quantities as household fuel, or selling it in the open market is illegal. Thousands of landless families, a majority of whom are dalit and OBC, pushing cycles loaded with coal every day in Jharkhand’s coal-rich areas are a criminalised community, and live and work in perpetual fear of being jailed for their livelihood.

Coal traders, however, have prospered. In Dhanbad’s Jharia, which will go to polls in the fourth phase of elections in the state on December 14, the two main candidates, representing BJP and Congress belong to the “Singh Mansion”, said to be the richest family in the coal business in Jharkhand. The BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, the son of the sitting MLA Kunti Singh and former MLA Surya Dev Singh is set for a face-off with his paternal cousin, Neeraj Singh, the Deputy Mayor of Dhanbad.

The Singhs are accused of controlling the loading of coal in trucks and at railway slidings, and of demanding a tax on every tonne loaded, in collusion with Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) officials. They are accused of running syndicates which bid at electronic auctions and keep prices low. Every year, upto 20 million tonnes of coal is estimated to be diverted.

Sanjiv Singh, BJP candidate in Jharia, at Hurriladih mine where 19 workers died when the mine flooded on 14 September 1983. photo by Manob Chowdhury

Sanjeev Singh, BJP candidate in Jharia, at Hurriladih mine where 19 workers died when the mine flooded on 14 September 1983. photo by Manob Chowdhury

“Not a single trader can say we have stopped them from doing business. In fact, we help whoever wishes to do business in coal here,” said BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, as he sat in his SUV after addressing a rally at Bhaura grounds, Jharia. Sanjeev Singh was one of the accused in the murder of Suresh Singh, a rival in the coal business who was gunned down at a wedding in 2011. “The police was not able to prove that I was even present in Dhanbad that day,” pointed out Mr Singh, as his villagers and mine workers walking on the road offered salutations everywhere Mr Singh went. Both candidates claim ownership of Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS), a trade union set up by Sanjeev’s father, former MLA Surya Dev Singh, through which the family is said to influence coal loading and transportation.

Congress candidate Neeraj Singh said that after training in engineering, he worked in Kolkata and Ranchi before returning to Dhanbad. He began public work in Jharia by taking up the cause of contract workers of BCCL to get wages and hours of work in parity with BCCL’s permanent workers. “When BCCL tried to move families living on top of Jharia coal-fields, I backed their agitation for rehabilitation and courted arrest,” said Mr Singh, as he finished addressing his supporters late in the evening at Lodna.

A few kilometers away, in bastis in Bhandora, Jayrampurmod, Jagdorha, in the midst of Jharia’s mines, the landless cyclewallahs, too poor to find temporary jobs in the mines, had begun returning home after another day of evading arrests and harassment.

Villagers and mine workers at Congress candidate Neeraj Singh's election rally in Jharia. photo by Manob Chowdhury

Villagers and mine workers at Congress candidate Neeraj Singh’s election rally in Lodna near Jharia. photo by Manob Chowdhury

NIRSA: At late noon, there is hectic activity in the open-cast coal mine at Dahibadi. Workers can be seen loading trucks before they slowly make their way up the massive open quarry. A hundred meters away, at the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL)’s Basantimata colliery all is quiet except ocassional sounds of a water
pump from underneath the ground.

Gopal Singh, the attendance clerk in shift ‘A’ says 104 mine workers are 1500 meters underground. There are six hours more to go before the shift ends. Both Singh and Birendra Ram, the Haulage Operator, working nearby seem to turn philosophical when they speak of work. “This is a place of pure darkness,” says Ram. “Workers find a new life every time they emerge from the mine. It is a relief for all of us once the full shift comes out,” says Singh, in his late 50s. Every BCCL employee seems to recount the histories of mine accidents from decades ago. “Nineteen workers at Hurriladih took jal samadhi, the mine had got flooded, on 14 September 1983. It was the same at Gajritand. In Chasnala, the entire shift, 370 workers, died underground.”

At Basantimata colliery, a few meters from Singh’s small cabin, there was an accident just last year. On November 13, 2013, three workers Harilal Hairjan, Litti Sau, Sitaram Manjhi, died when a portion of the mine’s roof collapsed. The sitting MLA Arup Chatterjee of Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) spent six hourse inside the mine coordinating the rescue efforts after the body of a BCCL manager had remained trapped a day after the three workers’ bodies had been removed.

Nirsa goes to polls on December 14 in the fourth phase of elections in Jharkhand. The MCC’s Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BKCU) and the rival Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS) both compete for cadre membership and workers’ votes. Both MCC and BKCU were founded in early 1970s by AK Roy, a founder of the Jharkhand Movement. Nirsa is the one of two assembly seats in Jharkhand the Left has been able to hold on to for the last two decades. JMS was set up by former MLA Surya Dev Singh, whose son Sanjeev Singh is contesting from nearby Jharia on a BJP seat. BJP candidate in Nirsa is Ganesh Mishra, a RSS functionary.

The rivalries between the two parties erupted in clashes between MCC and BJP on December 11 in which MCC wrker Machan Ravidas was killed in hours before the MCC was to hold a rally at Pithakyari, a few kilmeters from Basantimata. “For us, this is a fight against growing corporate clout here and for the rights of people of Jharkhand as Comrade AK Roy envisioned,” said Sushanto Mukherjee Central Committee member of MCC.

On social security and pensions in a 60-plus republic

India’s growth story of the last two decades has had one recurring theme: that the pattern of economic growth is accentuating insecurities. Yet, there continues to be a deep divide over whether the gains from growth ought to be ploughed to achieve social security for everyone. Social security has come to be linked to job benefits, trying it to one’s status as a worker in the formal or the informal economy when, fundamentally, it originates from the notion of ensuring everyone protection against vulnerability and deprivation.

In the Constitution, Directive Principles Article 41 asks the State to “within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.” Article 42 says the State shall make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity benefits.

India does not yet explicitly recognise a national minimum social security cover. In recent years, including with an intervention by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, the government moved forward to providing nutrition, and beginning 2006, employment support to the poor through MNREGA.

Economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze distinguish two aspects of social security – “protection” and “promotion”. While the former denotes protection again a fall in living standards and living conditions through ill health, accidents, the latter focuses on enhances living conditions, helping everyone overcome persistent capabilities deprivation.

A close look at India’s record in providing social security shows that while only a fraction of citizens enjoy any “protection” at all, these are being further eroded with the current pattern of economic growth. Among provisions aimed at “promotion”, social security through nutrition, work entitlements for all, are threatened with fund cuts and further shrinking.

The poor and pensions

In 2011, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on the official poverty line, the Planning Commission estimated that based on the Tendulkar Committee report 30 percent of the population live below the official poverty line. Several debates followed on how the poverty line ought to be defined. But what has remained absent from both public discourse and laws is a more crucial question: how do these 35 crores people on survive Rs 32 per person per day in urban areas and Rs 26 per person per day in rural areas? What do they do in contingencies of health, illness, old age, and death, and how do they protect themselves from slipping into further poverty?

The government launched the first pensions program for the poor, the National Social Assistance Program, starting with of a pension Rs 75 per month, in 1995. Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme and Widow Pension Scheme, the central government contributes Rs 200 and Rs 300 per month respectively. Several states, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar provide between Rs 400-300 per month. Tamil Nadu provides Rs 1,000 per month.

A recent survey, which included pensions, found the leakages to be small, and found encouraging evidence that the scheme is reaching its intended beneficiaries. The Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes(PEEP) survey in 2013 by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) recorded that among nearly 900 rural respondents selected at random from the official pension lists in ten states, 97 per cent were getting their pension and recorded only one case of “duplicate” pension i.e. one elderly person getting two pensions. Majority of beneficiaries, 76 percent, however, said they received pensions in their post office and bank accounts after delays of over a month. Thus, while the pension amounts are meagre, they are crucial in supplementing the elderly’s ability to afford medicines, food, and other necessities.

A universal social security

The biggest gap, and one which may only widen, is in social protection for the working poor. The UPA government appointed the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) in 2004 to look into livelihood conditions and social security for unorganized workers – employed in the unorganized sector and those in the formal sector without any social protection. It found that only those in the formal sector, 8 percent of India’s workforce, enjoys social security. Over 91 percent of workers, over 39.5 crore workers, are in the informal sector.

The Commission highlighted that there had been almost no growth in formal employment since early 1990s and almost all growth in employment was in the unorganized sector. NCEUS’ finding that 79 percent of workers in unorganized sector lived on an income of less than Rs 20 a day made it evident that the gains of growth were bypassing the majority of the working population.

NCEUS proposed legislation for a national minimum security package for unorganized sector workers, social insurance, social assistance for life and health cover, old age benefits to all workers within a period of five years financed by the Centre and state governments, employers (where identifiable) and workers at a cost of less than 0.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product after five years. The UPA discarded the Commission’s recommendations for statutory backing to social protection. “NCEUS suggested a National Fund for this and a notional Rs 1500 crores was set up. It proposed that National and State Social Security Advisory Boards were to be created but only 14 states set these up,” says a senior government official.

India spends 1.4 percent of its GDP on social protection, among the lowest in Asia, far lower than China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and even Nepal (5.4, 3.2, 3.6, 2.1 percent, respectively). The NDA government has not yet indicated any support to the idea of legally guaranteed social protection for all workers. Officials say the government is proposing to issue a smart card, “U-WIN”, Unorganized Sector Identification Number, to every worker in the unorganized sector with a unique identification number for accessing social schemes. What these benefits will be, and what their legal guarantee is uncertain.

A doctor tells stories


Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, the story of a Santhali family over four generations, is remarkable for a deep and masterful observation of lives and descriptions of a tribal village – its tree groves, weekly markets, festivals, fights, and gatherings.

The debut author, a doctor with the government of Jharkhand, lives in Pakur, along the state’s border with West Bengal. Once or twice, in descriptions when Rupi and her husband Sido visit doctors to seek cure for Rupi’s mysterious ailment, the writer’s professional knowledge seem perceptible in the narrative. At others, the descriptions of the characters’ emotions of envy, loss, uncertainty are so natural, the supernatural seamlessly flows from them in the story.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 mean to you?

I think it means that something good is being expected of me. So I should try to work harder and write better books.

How did your closeness, or distance, from the lives of the people you were describing affect your writing?

The Santhal village, as I have shown in my novel, is how I have seen my village. I have always lived in a Santhal village. My village, Kishoripur – where I revised Rupi Baskey – and my hometown, Ghatsila – where I wrote Rupi Baskey – are just 40 km apart. We would always be at our village for one reason or the other every 10-15 days, or so. Sometimes I would be at Kishoripur in the morning and return to Ghatsila in the evening. There was no question of being close or distant here. I was both. What I have written in Rupi Baskey is from my own life.

How do you compare observing as a doctor to observing lives around you as a writer? Was there ever a temptation to diagnose Rupi’s ailment in the plot, or in your mind?

I remember, when I was working as a house surgeon at my medical college in Jamshedpur, my colleagues and I once saw a very fair young lady in a ward. Our immediate response was: Is this lady really this fair or is she anaemic? You wouldn’t get such a response from ordinary people; only from medicos. Doctors pay attention to the minutiae, the finer details. That is, I think, the beauty of being a doctor.
While writing Rupi Baskey, though, I felt neither as a doctor nor a writer. I did use my experience as a doctor in writing the childbirth scene in Chapter 1, but I never tried to consciously put my knowledge of medical sciences into my book. I was not comfortable thinking of myself as a writer at the time. In fact, I am not comfortable even now being called a writer. What you read in this book, was more as a person seeing an other person and then telling that other person’s story. And no, I never felt like diagnosing Rupi’s ailment. There would have been no mystery then.

What is your writing routine like? How did your novel come to be published?

The less said about my writing and revising routine the better. I am not a disciplined writer. Although, while writing Rupi Baskey I was a bit more focused than I normally am. Now, however, I have returned to my lazy ways. I don’t know when my next book or even a short story is going to come. I write only when I have something to write.
As for how Rupi came to be published, well, I sent the usual synopsis and first 50 pages to various agents and publishers. I had submitted to Aleph, too. My package was addressed to David Davidar. Two months later, I received an email from Ravi Singh – who was the publishing director of Aleph at that time – that Rupi Baskey had been accepted for publication. And I lost sleep after that.

Did you write the short story Adivasis Will Not Dance published in 2014 in The Dhauli Review before or after this novel? What was the thought behind it?

I wrote Adivasis Will Not Dance in 2013. I wrote it after there was the foundation stone-laying of a thermal power project in Jharkhand. I thought, thermal power projects located in other states take their coal from Jharkhand, hydroelectric power projects have their dams in Jharkhand, but people in Jharkhand do not have electricity. I find this tremendously unfair. In August, a neighbouring state stopped supplying potatoes to Jharkhand, which led to a rise in price of potatoes here, and potato is an essential food item. I wonder what the scenario would have been like had Jharkhand, too, stopped all the coal from here going to the thermal power plants in that state.

An interest, or love other than writing that you enjoy.

My favourite activities are sleeping and eating. I sleep a lot; I can fall asleep in buses, trains, anywhere. I am a glutton. I find eating therapeutic. If I am happy, I eat; if I am upset, I eat. At 1 A.M., when people are tucked into their beds, you could find me munching on a kaju barfi, chocolate, or potato chips, or stirring a glass of nimboo paani.
I love watching films.

I want to learn how to knit; but all I have been able to do so far is buy a ball of yarn (the end of which I was not able to find, so I cut the yarn at some random point) and a pair of no. 10 knitting needles, and save knitting videos on my YouTube.
I think I need to stop being so lazy.

Do you believe in ghosts, spirits, witches?
Yes, I do.

(:) An edited version appeared in The Hindu here.


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