A doctor tells stories

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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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Tribals torn apart by religion

The Hindu
Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened

Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Photo by Manob Chowdhury


Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh, believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.

Jharkhand SPOs and their families under attack from Maoists

In response to a Public Interest Litigation, in July 2011, the Supreme Court while asking the State to disband the Salwa Judum, ordered the Chhattisgarh government to desist from using SPOs in countering the Maoists. Following the July order, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was briefly paused, but resumed after a Bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in November said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh, not to other States. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though senior police officials put the current number at 3,000. Police officials cite the State Police Acts to justify use of SPOs.

A squad of CPI(Maoist) on March 21 night opened fire at a social gathering in Khunti, 30 km from Ranchi injuring two villagers and set fire to a jeep. The tribal villagers said they suspected the rebels targeted the family and friends of Raila Dhingra Munda for his work as a Special Police Officer (SPO) gathering intelligence for the Khunti district police. Before this, Mohammad Sajjad, a 30-year old SPO had lost his right leg while assisting Assistant Superintendent of Police (Operations), R.S. Mishra defuse an Improvised Explosive Device in Chatra last week.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

On Saturday, Mara Munda, Raila’s younger brother who had been shot in his right thigh and had fractured his bone lay in Rajendra Institute of Medical Institute, Ranchi’s orthopedic intensive care ward.
“We had invited more than 400 villagers to celebrate the “kaan chhedni” (ear piercing) ceremonies of both my sisters. At 8 30 pm I stepped out of our courtyard and heard a gun-shot. The next moment I had fallen. There was panic as everyone tried to flee, I cried out for my friends to pull my body inside the house or I would have died,” recounted the 20-year old with effort as his father Sande Munda who spoke only in Mundari looked on.

The Maoists had killed his oldest brother Rupu Munda who also worked as a SPO in a market in Adki in 2010, he said. He said the rebels numbered around sixty, and after shooting at him and his neighbour Birsa Munda, 40, in their legs, they had set fire to a Tata Magic jeep that Mara had started been renting to ferry passengers from the village to Khunti town since four months back. “They set fire to the soundbox (speakers) too before they left,” he said.
Mara’s older brother Raila, who works as a SPO, was away in Khunti when the incident happened. The family’s neighbours first brought the injured to Khunti Sadar Hospital, and then to Ranchi in the morning.

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Villagers in Hembrom in Adki block said the police had not even visited the village since Friday night, going no further than a concrete road 500 meters from the village. District police officials said the investigations were on.“Our search operations are on for the Maoists,” said Khunti’s Superintendent of Police Anish Gupta.

Raila Munda, Mara’s brother said he had started working as a SPO in 2008. “I finished matric exams and started working for the police because the Maoists had terrorized our entire village, coercing us. The police officers, the previous Sps Manoj Kaushik, Tamilvanan paid me Rs 3000 or so every three months for information. The Maoists killed my older brother in 2010 and now they did this while searching for me, and the police did nnot even visit my house yet,” said Raila Munda on the phone from Khunti.

Since 2010, Maoists have killed at least 16 persons in Adki and Tamar in Khunti and the adjoining area Bundu in Ranchi targeting them for acting as SPOs for the police.
This report in The Hindu here.

A previous post on Maoists’ violence against SPOs and their families in Khunti here.

Baarish mein nadi mein Latehar patrakaar

Was reporting in Latehar in west Jharkhand earlier this week. Crossing Koel on foot here and then crossing Chaupat river a few meters beyond this point is a routine on all trips to this part of Latehar as there are no bridges close by. But now in monsoon the river swells up and is in spate. Here Manoj Dutt, contributor to ANI from Latehar, gets by with a little help from mischievous friends as I follow the gang on foot.

Kids from Dhomakhar in Kotam panchayat in Latehar help us get Koel-paar.

Kids from Dhomakhar in Kotam panchayat in Latehar help us get Koel-paar.

Aur doob gaye toh? Across the Koel in Latehar.

Aur doob gaye toh? Across the Koel in Latehar.

nichodna etc. nadi paar.

nichodna etc. nadi paar. the motorbike sputtered and coughed long on new ground

aaj ki nadi kamaai. next!

aaj ki nadi kamaai toh done.

When public health schemes turn anaemic

Since 2010 when the central government discontinued the supply of medical kits containing Iron Folic Acid, vitamin A, zinc tablets and Oral Rehydration Solution packets under National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to states, village anganwadis and health centers have turned anaemic pregnant women and adoloscent girls away.

These are essential for reducing anaemia and birth defects which affect 69.5 percent women and girls between 15 and 49 and over 70 percent of all children below five in Jharkhand – the highest levels of anaemia according to National Family Health Survey 2 and 3 done in 1999 and 2006.

“There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets,” says Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

“There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets,” says Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Over six lakhs, or nearly 12 percent, of children below six years of age in Jharkhand suffer from severe malnutrition. Children born underweight due to anaemia among women is a significant factor. Under a central scheme, 100 IFA tablets are to be given all pregnant women and weekly IFA supplements are to be provided to all adolescent girls between 16 and 19 years of age. Recently, adolescent boys have also been included in the scheme.

“District civil surgeons were asked to procure this but some bought expensive non-generic IFA tablets and exhausted funds. A month back the tender process was completed and now those will soon be supplied to all districts,” said Dr Praveen Chandra, Director NRHM in Ranchi. In 2011, former health minister Bhanu Pratap Shahi, former health secretary Pradeep Kumar and other department officers were named as accused in a Rs 130-crore NRHM scam related to purchase of medicines. The CBI is now investigating the case.

The state Social Welfare, Women and Child Development (SWWCD) website shows a budget of Rs 2.53 crores for purchase of “medicine kits” but officials in Ranchi say this meant only for purchase of first-aid. The department launched the Rs 70 crores Jeevan Asha program last month with focus on reducing malnutrition but this too does not have a component especially for IFA tablets.

At Khunti

More than two years after she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Shanti Oraon, an adivasi farmer in Bhandara village in Khunti district has been unable to resume working in the fields. “She has breathing trouble, and could not start walking even after she turned two and a half years old. I must stay at home with her all the time,” she says of her infant daughter lying wrapped in a bedsheet on the floor. Across the road from Shanti Oraon’s house, Pooja Devi watches her one-year-old play with a plastic bangle in her mouth. “She weighed less than three kgs when she was born. She falls ill often even now,” she says.

Bhandara lies a little over 30 kms from Ranchi, the state capital, and is on the outskirts of Khunti’s district center and market. Despite good connectivity with roads and easy accessibility, Bhandara and the adjoining villages Belahatu and Chikor have not received supplies of IFA since 2009.

Shanti Oraon recounts that during her four pregnancies she received IFA tablets, each costs less than 20 paise, only before the birth of her second child more than four years ago but none before the birth of three of her children. “There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets to give them,” said Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara as she prepared a meal of rice and soyabean nuggets for the seven children below six years of age who turned up for lunch that afternoon from among the 89 enrolled as per the anganwadi charts.

“Over 3/4thd of girls between 15 and 19 are not in schools so there must be focus on how to reach them. In our surveys we have found that even when pregnant women get IFA tablets there are beliefs that these tablets can make your child darker – because the iron tablets can make the stool darker. Encouraging women to take tablets will require regular counseling,” said Job Zachariah, Head UNICEF Jharkhand.

Read the full story in The Hindu here.

‘We were used as human shields in Latehar against Maoists’

Adivasi villagers at Amvatikar have accused the CRPF of beating them and using them as shields as they were forced to search for security personnel’s bodies in the Katiya forest in Latehar district on January 8. Eleven security personnel were killed in an encounter with Maoists on January 7.

Fifteen security personnel – four were yet to gain consciousness – were treated for bullet wounds at Apollo Hospital in Erba on the outskirts of Ranchi.

Vijay Turi, a farmer from Amvatikar village in Latehar district was also being treated at the hospital for injuries in his eyes, on his face and hands. He is the only one among five villagers to have survived when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) stitched into the abdomen of Baijnath Kisku of CRPF’S 112 Battalion went off on Tuesday when they tried to lift the body as part of the police’s search party. An IED, consisting of gelatin sticks, detonator and battery in a container, found inside the body of a second CRPF jawan from 112 Battalion, Babulal Patel, was defused on Thursday morning when doctors doing an autopsy in Ranchi had noticed fresh stitches on Mr. Patel’s abdomen and alerted the police.

“There were 500-600 policemen all over the area. They came to our village on Tuesday morning and asked us for our help. They did not use any force against us, but it seemed there was no option but to go,” recounted Vijay Turi, speaking with difficulty through the bandages on his face. “Almost 100 of us, including many women and children, went as search party from my village and from Navadi village. In fact, there were more women than men. We took children because we thought we will be safe from the police doing anything to us if we take them with us. Ten of us at the front and got injured the most from the blast,” he said.

Villagers alleged CRPF demolished the house of Babulal Bhuian accusing his son to be a Maoist. (640x480)

At Nawadih and Amvatikar, villagers say the police used force

“The policemen made us walk to the hill and then they held some men in the front by the back of their neck; they held a gun to Ganu, my niece’s son,” said Bimli Devi. Ganu (16) had walked a few steps up the Bhaluwahi hill and was bending over the jawan’s body when the blast took place. Only the lower half of his body was recovered on Tuesday evening. He was the youngest among the four villagers who died.

“On Monday, we heard gunshots all day,” said Rajkumar Bhuian (70). “My older son Jogeshwar asked his wife and five sons to leave for Manika town with my younger son Suneshwar. On Tuesday, I was in the forest grazing cow and found out only in the evening that the police had taken Jogeshwar to search for the bodies. I found only his gamchha (small towel), his chappal, and three ribs.”

‘I found bones, and his scarf’ from Anumeha Yadav on Vimeo.

Nawadih, Amvatikar, Chahal villages became the site of a confrontation between the security personnel and the PLGA in a chase that began near Gaya in Bihar on December 9, when companies of the PLGA’s military commission, led by their leader Arvind ji, started moving south of Gaya for Saranda forest in West Singhbhum in Jharkhand. Senior police officials supervising Operation Saamna say the CRPF intercepted the PLGA on Jharkhand’s border with Bengal and Odisha. The PLGA then headed north-west to reach Latehar in early January.

When the CRPF and the PLGA started exchanging fire a few 100 metres from Amvatikar in the morning on January 7, most villagers were at the bal samagam, where hockey matches and races were organised at the government school in Nawadih for children. “We heard shots all day. Next day, Pramod Sau from our village said I would have to bring my tractor to the police to carry bodies from Nawadih to Heregerha station. Some villagers were asked to sprinkle water on the school playground so that a helicopter could land there, other villagers, including women, were asked to walk to the forest to search for the jawans’ bodies,” said Mithilesh Sau. Five hours later, a blast occurred when villagers tried to lift a jawan’s body, killing four. “After that, the CRPF men abused me and asked me to look for the villagers’ bodies. I was scared to climb the hill. I spotted Pramod Sau lying with his face bleeding and carried him back,” he added.

In a handwritten note signed by Bihar Jharkhand North Chhattisgarh Special Area Military Mission spokesperson Toofan, Maoists said they had sewn a time-bomb inside the trooper’s body to maximize casualty among security forces.

The report from the the hospital in The Hindu. Detailed report from Amvatikar and Nawadih in which villagers alleged they were used as human shields here. Villagers were unable to resume their lives and work days after the encounter. A later, 24 Jan report here.

Why and how cash transfers may not work

Imagine you just received a heads-up. From January, your salary will be credited to a bank account your employer recently opened for you. But you do not know the details of this bank account and have no idea when you will find out. The news also is that from now on your parents can withdraw their monthly pensions by walking to the new ATM recently set up in front of their house. But every other time you or they try, the ATM says the PIN you have does not match. No one can tell with certainty when your new bank account will accept your claims or you given PINs that work – it could be weeks, or it could be some months next year.

This is the disarray the UPA government will put lakhs of rural households into if it goes ahead with its “game-changer” plan to shift beneficiaries to Aaadhaar-Enabled Cash Transfers (AECTs) for welfare payments in 51 districts starting January, when it is scrambling to scale this even in pilot blocks.

Jharkhand is one of the states where pilots for AECT for payments of MNREGA wages began in December 2011 in 12 blocks in four districts – Ranchi, Ramgarh, Hazaribagh, Saraikela-Kharsawan. Of these, in one block in Ramgarh district, the government has started AECTs pilots in pensions (Old Age, Widows, Disability pensions), scholarships, Kisan Credit Cards, and Indira Awaas Yojana as well. But visits to two of the four pilots districts show that a vast majority of beneficiaries still do not have the requisite bank accounts mapped with 12-digit Aadhaar numbers. Or they have ‘PINs’, in this instance their individual biometrics of their fingerprints, which do not work when they try to get paid via the new ATMs – their village Banking Correspondent who disburses the cash once the biometrics are matched with the UIDAI’s databases through a hand-held device/a micro-ATM.

According to the minutes of the first meeting of the executive committee on Direct Cash Transfers in the PMO on 9 November to discuss these “seamless transfers of cash,” secretaries of over 10 ministries concluded that “the tipping point for rolling out AECTs would be an Aadhaar penetration level of 80 percent of beneficiaries.” Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh in an article in The Hindu on December 11, 2012 also emphasized the prerequisite of 80 percent of each district’s population having an Aadhaar number and Aadhaar-enabled bank account before payments are started.

In Ramgarh district adjoining Ranchi, from where a live telecast of Aadhaar-enabled payment of MNREGA wages was streamed at a function organized by the Congress in Dudu near Jaipur on October 20 and which had been identified for full coverage by UIDAI for Aadhaar enrolment, enrolment is at less than 40 percent of the population of over 9 lakh. The number of Adhaar-mapped accounts is 18,883, i.e., less than two percent of the district population. When Jharkhand was chosen for pilots to pay MNREGA wages through AECTs last December, in an interview to the Economic Times Assistant Director General at UIDAI’s office in Ranchi PK Upadhayay had said that they planned to pay 174,000 MNREGA workers through this. A year later, officials in UIDAI’s office in Ranchi admit that this figure stands at 5000 – less than 3 percent of the initial target. The pilots have failed to scale up and give little indication of what to expect in the rollout announced for January.

Business correspondent Rajesh paying pensions through microATM in Dohakatu in Ramgarh. Dashay Bedia to the right ran into into authentication errors Photo Anumeha Yadav
In Ramgarh, a majority of the beneficiaries are in Dohakatu and Marar panchayats in Ramgarh block. Over 63,000 people enrolled for Aaadhar numbers in the two panchayats in Ramgarh block. Of these, only 2312 were “mapped” i.e., their Aadhaar numbers and their welfare details linked together. Of 4791 “active” job-card holders in the two panchayats, only 469 received MNREGA payments through AECTs. Fifty kms away in Ratu block in Ranchi, of 8231 “active” job-card holders in three panchayats, those paid through AECTs is even lower: 162.

“In the first phase of enrolment there were not enough machines. Also, in Ranchi district one of the agencies Vision Comptech Intergrator Ltd. tried to rush through enrolment by showing many people as having no fingers and captured only their iris. They misused a guideline that allows capturing of one biometric if the other is of poor quality,” revealed an official at UIDAI’s district office requesting anonymity. Arvind Prasad Deputy Director General at UIDAI’s Ranchi office confirmed that the company was asked to “update” biometrics in over 5000 such cases in Ranchi district which they finished doing only last month.

Amitabh Kaushal District Collector Ramgarh who has been awarded the National Aadhaar Governance Award two years in a row admits that the district’s administrative capacity is under strain and banks are not able to cope with the volume of transactions. Of eight banks on the Aaadhaar platform, five got added only last month. In Ramgarh and Ranchi, all accounts have so far been linked with the service area bank, Bank of India. “Initially many people turned up to enrol without their MNREGA job-cards. So now we have to physically go house to house to find every job card holder. In some places there was high enrolment but no BOI branch, in other places a branch existed but little enrolment,” says Mr Kaushal. He rattles off a list of other concerns – bank technology upgradation, internet connectivity in hilly areas, and availability, security and integrity of the cash-carrying Banking Correspondents (BCs).

At the panchayat bhawan at Dohaketu where most of the MNREGA payments recorded were made, the BC Rajesh Kumar tries to rush through filling beneficiaries’ bank forms online – he has been asked to submit them by December 15 – but runs into many interruptions. “The line (power) came back only at noon. Last week two days there was no power and then there were server problems,” he says. But at 3 pm, when he begins making payments to those who have queued up to collect wages for land-levelling work done in MNREGA in November, there is anxiety but palpable excitement too.

Of the seven workers who take turns to scan their fingers, the micro-ATM Mr. Kumar operates recognizes four’s. He pays them between Rs 300-200 from the cash he withdrew at the bank that morning. For two workers the micro-ATM lists errors repeatedly. One worker’s account has still not been mapped. Of four pension beneficiaries who turn up, three collect their payments within an hour. Dashay Bediya, a frail agricultural worker in a white shirt and dhoti, tries eight times placing different fingers in the hope that one will work and then goes outside the office and scrubs his hands. He returns and tries five times more getting more anxious and disappointed each time. “Come after 3-4 days. Put Vaseline or Boroplus and rub your fingers before you go to sleep,” Rajesh instructs him before sending him back. And so the question, can the ease of payments at the household or panchayat level not be better achieved through smart cards that require neither real-time internet connectivity, nor the creation of a massive centralised database like UIDAI’s that is harder to include those who missed enrolment the first time to?

Dohakatu has had such a bevy of bureaucrats, officials, journalists visiting for months that the sarpanch Kalawati Devi now keeps a stock of mineral water bottles at the panchayat bhawan. At the site of the second pilot 50 kms away in Ratu block, however, things have not gone so smoothly even during officials’ visits. A few days before October 2 when the Chief Secretary Jharkhand was to hand over pensions through AECTs at a function at Tigra panchayat, block officials and BCs tried frantically to make the fingerprints verification go through for 45 beneficiaries. It worked only in the case of nine. Since October 2, even these nine have not been paid through AECTs even once, their payments still going to their old post-office accounts. The only reason they are still able to get their pensions, however, is because the government has kept the additional option open to withdraw the money at the post-office using their old passbooks.

“Half of MNREGA workers’ fingerprints do not match. Maybe their fingerprints keep changing? In March I gave pension beneficiaries ID proofs to BOI so they open accounts and give passbooks. Then the bank manager changed in June and bank officials say they lost the documents. I gave the documents again in September but everyone is still waiting for passbooks,” says Tulsi Koeri the BC in Puriyo panchayat, Ranchi. In Tigra panchayat nearby, the BC Mahmood Alam says of 383 whose MREGA accounts were mapped with Aadhaar since last December, only 102 have got passbooks making it difficult for them to withdraw wages if they run into authentication or internet connectivity problems.

Neither Mr. Koeri, nor Mr. Alam has been paid their monthly salary of Rs 2100 since they were hired as BCs last November by United Telecoms Limited (UTL) that BOI outsourced the work to. Rajesh Kumar Ramgarh’s BC got paid for four months after the Collector Mr Kaushal intervened in June. Even he has not been paid the last six months.

“I spend at least Rs 400 per month on fuel for this work. In October at the PM’s video conference three of us were sent from Ratu, we paid over Rs 2 lakh those three days. There have been 18-20 functions with officials from Delhi, Bangalore, even America. But if I ask for wages, UTL says if you do not like the work you can quit. Could you ask them about our wages please?” asks Mr Koeri.

An edited version was published in The Hindu on 15 December here and here. A Hindi translation of the op-ed here on Right to Food Campaign’s website.
After the Supreme Court ruling that Aadhaar membership is not mandatory for accessing benefits, a follow-up report on thousands of students in Jharkhand government schools who missed enrolling for the scheme, and are unable to get scholarships.