Kamal Mandloi hung from the big neem tree, the only one on the parched land, his body mottled with deep blue bruises, punctuated by great gashes. One eye hung from its socket. Strangely, the villagers of Chapria noted, the 21-year-old’s hands were neatly tucked into his pockets. His fiancée, Geeta (name changed), sat nearby, her clothes torn, her body covered in dried blood, unable to register anything that was being said to her.
This month, leaders from major political parties have fanned out across the dusty roads of Alirajpur, the district in Madhya Pradesh with the unhappy distinction of being India’s poorest, promising drinking water, schools and hospitals.
Local residents have waited decades for those words to turn into reality. Now, they have one more thing to wait for: justice for a young man who dared demand that promises be kept.
It’s been a bruising summer for Mukesh Rawat Patel, the Congress’s Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Alirajpur. Five surveys conducted by the party, he says proudly, named him the most popular politician in the area, ahead of six competitors —three of them kin. His pursuit of the people is relentless. “I’ve attended 80 weddings in the last 10 days,” says Patel. “Plus, I’ve attended each and every funeral in Alirajpur.”
Except, that is, Mandloi’s funeral.
The bruises on Geeta’s body are beginning to fade; her memories aren’t. According to her testimony, the young couple was returning home from Alirajpur town when they were stopped by a gang of men led by the village sarpanch’s husband, Phoolsingh. Phoolsingh’s son and men from the single Thakur family in the adjoining tribal villages of Chapria and Amba were with him. Geeta was raped by at least three men, she alleges, while Mandloi was beaten.
Three days before his murder, Mandloi had complained that Phoolsingh misappropriated funds meant for the villagers’ Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and Swacch Bharat entitlements. The police insist that Mandloi committed suicide after a love affair gone wrong. Local residents say the police hasn’t visited the village to search for the men Geeta has named —let alone question them.
In most parts of the country, politicians would have used the shocking tragedy for all it was worth to target the government. In Alirajpur, however, not a single politician thinks it’s worth their while to even visit the bereaved family.
Sixty-eight years after the elections were first held in 1951, Alirajpur has been found to be India’s poorest, according to the 2018 United Nations’ multi-dimentional poverty index (MPI). The index looks beyond economic aspects at 10 indicators such as nutrition, health, years of schooling, sanitation, housing and drinking water. In every election since 1951, politicians have promised to develop social infrastructure — but it simply doesn’t exist.
“What does a tribal farmer want?” asks Alirajpur’s former MLA, Nagar Singh Chouhan, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader who won the seat three times running since 2003. “A well, electricity, and that too free,” he says.
The shortage of doctors in Alirajpur is startling: out of the 44 posts for specialist doctors in the district, 42 are vacant. “People from outside do not want to work here,” says Dr Priti Rathod, the district programme manager for the National Health Mission. “The moment they get to know that they have been posted here, they apply for transfers. Or they don’t come at all.”
Education is doing just as badly. In Bardala village’s Ukla hamlet, 15 kilometres from Alirajpur town, young boys have saved phone numbers in their cellphones — but without names. The first and the last number of the 10s digits are used as a guide for memory, instead. No one here has ever been to school except one boy who dropped out in Class 5. He can barely read.
This isn’t, perhaps, surprising: Ukla has never had a school and the nearest one is a kilometre away on uneven terrain, which no one ever bothers to attend.
A few months ago, a mini anganwadi opened in the hamlet only to distribute take-home ration packets once a week. No hot cooked meals are prepared or served here for children up to the age of six, a legal requirement under the National Food Security Act.
In the next hamlet, five children come to eat food if it is prepared at the local anganwadi. Not one child can recite any poem or recognise numbers.
The primary school in Badala village, just a few kilometres away, shut down a year ago as it had no teacher. From this village of 150 children, only a handful can now afford education at the nearest privately-run school, 15 km away. The rest have dropped out.
In a district where 43 per cent of all sanctioned posts for school teachers and principals and 71 per cent of hostel warden posts are vacant, Mandloi and Geeta were exceptions. Mandloi was pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Alirajpur. Geeta had completed intermediate. She was filling forms to apply for a job of an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, a first from her village. After passing Class 8, both of them used to walk for more than 6 km to reach a high school. Both were first-generation learners.
Mandloi would often chat with the village teacher on how the students are learning. He would call the children in his family to encourage them to continue schooling. With a lettered person in the village, the power eco-system in the village was disrupted. Illiterate Phoolsingh’s authority began to be questioned. “People started going to Mandloi with their problems,” says Kavli Mandloi from Chapria village, “and Phoolsingh felt threatened.”
Then, on March 5, Mandloi filed a written complaint against Phoolsingh at the district jan sunwayi. He alleged that Phoolsingh had not passed on to villagers the Rs12,000 each family was entitled for building toilets. He was also alleged to have not paid MNREGA wages due for irrigation work. The poor families had spent out of their pocket; some had even mortgaged their land.
Why haven’t political leaders succeeded in bringing development to Alirajpur? Part of the answer might be the lack of real competition until recently. Ever since it won the Alirajpur Assembly seat in 1957—one of two in the district—the Congress had an extraordinarily powerful influence over political life in the region.
Mukesh Patel’s uncle, Magan Singh Patel, won the seat in 1980 with an extraordinary 54 per cent of the vote, and continued as its legislative representative until his death in 1999. Now, the nephew has taken his place, ending three successive wins by the BJP. In the district’s other Assembly constituency, Jobat, the Congress held power from 1957 to 1998, losing it to the BJP only in 2003 and 2013.
The Congress did not have power over Ratlam, the Lok Sabha constituency, of which Alirajpur is a part, only between 1971 and 1980. Dileep Singh Bhuria won the seat for the Congress five successive times from 1980 to 1996, and then switched sides to win it for the BJP in 2014. But Bhuria passed away the next year after which the Congress retook power in a by-election.
A second possibility, often voiced, is that the adivasi politicians from the region don’t have the heft to get things done in state and national capitals. But Kantilal Bhuria, the victorious Congress candidate for the Ratlam Lok Sabha seat from 1998 to 2009, served as a Cabinet minister in the second United Progressive Alliance government, and, at other times, as minister of state for agriculture, and consumer affairs, food and public distribution.
“Kantilal could have done a lot for this region, but he didn’t,” says Chouhan. “If you compare what the BJP has done in just 15 years for Alirajpur, to what the Congress did in more than 50, you’ll have to admit there was progress.”
But Congress leaders say the BJP was voted out of power despite its work on rural electrification and roads. “The reality is thousands of adivasis have to migrate out of Alirajpur in search of work,” says Mukesh Patel. “If there was development, they would be staying here.”
Leaders have a long list of reasons for the region’s poverty. Land laws, Nagar claims, are one key problem. “Land was once acquired here to set up industry,” Nagar says, “but people protested.” He doesn’t explain how industry would help a low-literacy population. Agriculture isn’t much of a solution either. “The land here is not fertile, which means that even if irrigation is improved, it is not sure much will grow,” explains district magistrate Shamim Uddin. Besides, there is a severe water shortage and this region is not rich in any natural resource. “No one wants to come to Alirajpur to set up an industry,” Uddin says.
With no employment or agriculture, no party has been able to stop large-scale migration across the border to Gujarat, where the wages for farm and construction labour are better. When the state elections were held last year, 15,000 people had migrated out of Alirajpur. Teams were sent by the district administration to encourage people to return to vote. The turnout was of 69.49 per cent. This year, the counting of migrant families is on. But as summer has arrived and water in Alirajpur is drying up, families are packing to leave already.
In the upcoming elections, the Congress has declared Kantilal as its candidate, once again, while the BJP has given the ticket to Jhabua MLA Guman Singh Damor. The election noise is absent in the villages of Alirajpur. Door-to-door campaigning by the parties has not started yet and in the absence of smartphones with illiterate villagers, proliferation of Facebook and WhatsApp forwards in rural areas is also minimal.
A day after this reporter questioned the police and the district collector on the murder, Geeta was given police protection. She was also taken to a magistrate to record her statement.
But on May 19, the turnout in Lok Sabha elections from Alirajpur may not include the 1,700 registered voters from Chapria and Amba villages. For the first time since Independence, the locals have a demand: they will only vote for a party which promises them justice.
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