Shafiq R Khan


Often deprivation leads villagers towards Naxalism

Bihar has many regions, which remain poor, backward reflecting the absence of a development pattern, which would take benefits to those stricken by poverty and resourceless. Perhaps, it is this, which has pushed the people towards another force that offers an alternative although in this case the cure is worse than the disease.
Ironically today, Gaya where the Buddha attained Enlightenment and opened a way for all humanity to a life of peace and goodness is also a region where Naxalism has taken a hold on people's minds and lives.
Those struggling with issues of sheer survival turn away from the existing system to seek justice and equity through joining hands with the Naxals.
It may be hard to zero-in on what makes it happen but what is discernable is the extent of deprivation coupled with a lack of basic services to ensure the health and well being of people in rural areas.
What happened in one of the villages in the region illustrates this. The village Bhoop Nagar, Ams block, some 50 km from Gaya town is just another village on the map where people eke out a living as agricultural labourers and by cutting wood from the forest and selling it.
Women of Village
They offered their labour to big zamindars in return of some food and clothes. After land reforms, instituted in 1956, one of the landlords Banihar Prasad Bhoop settled many of these labourers on pieces of land that he gave up in during the period. Thus the name 'Bhoop Nagar'.
It was 1995 in this village that one of the villagers developed a problem in his legs and began to walk lame. Those in his household gave the traditional 'maalish' or massage but that did not help. Gradually, the number of people with a similar condition increased in Bhoop Nagar.
It was a disturbing pattern and the villagers were out of their depth to deal with this. They perceived it to be the work of some 'evil spirits' and as an attempt to exorcise these, took recourse to godmen and mantras.
By this time, a couple of years had elapsed and the unknown, dreaded affliction had taken its toll on the villagers. Those afflicted look way beyond their age, often their teeth are broken and hands and legs take on a contorted sinuous look. The scenario is akin to what poet Akbar Allahabadi described "Seeing senility at a very young age".
What was really happening in Bhoop Nagar was that a disease called 'flurosis' caused by contaminated water was taking root. This is when the lack of medical facilities became glaring which even for common diseases like cough and fever was missing for which people had to go long distances to reach a health centre.
In modern day India, this is a cause to hang our heads in shame. A scenario in which an entire population is afflicted with a disease brought on by unsafe drinking water is bad enough. The lack of medical facilities to combat and cure it is really the proverbial last straw on the camel's back as far as the villagers in Bhoop Nagar are concerned. What is unacceptable is the response of the authorities, at best weak and naturally ineffective.
The first thing that strikes one about the response is the time-lapse. Several years infact passed before they woke up and during the time, many of the children had grown into young adults, all under the spectre of the disease.
The Indian Institute of Hygiene and Public Health undertook an in-depth analysis, thoroughly testing the water to catch every possible contamination. The report was sent to the district administration but here too, the policy response was poor.
The then district officer Brijesh Mahrotra merely sent a letter to the village headman of Bhoop Nagar, Balaki Manjhi detailing the findings and stating that flurosis had affected the village.
This was followed by building a primary school in the village, which no doubt was essential and a step forward in development but was far removed from the action required to meet the challenge of flurosis stalking the village. Infact if the situation was not so tragic, it would be laughable.
What added insult to injury was the headman; Balaki Manjhi himself was suffering from the disease. Infact it has wracked his body. His body has bent with his spinal cord shrinking. His own routine and daily life is compromised and he needs help. Infact it is his wife who has taken charge of his duties. To expect an afflicted person to take steps to help others amounted to a lack of sensitivity and a complete disconnect with the ground situation.
The point is who is listening and who is taking action? Shakeel Ahmad Khan, the local MLA, visited Bhoop Nagar when he was the Minister of Power. His approach was rather drastic and suggested that the entire village be relocated in another area to remove the population from the source of contaminated water.
This was communicated to the village headman and through him to the villagers. The response from them was also equally strong. They refused to move from their ancestral land and a slogan, which went up, was 'We will live or die, but we will stay only here.'
What are these people to do, where are they to turn?
The EMPOWER PEOPLE feels that in such a situation Naxalism lures the villagers, promising an answer to the deprivation and neglect they face.
At one level, the Union Government is pledging resources and policy attention to wiping out this scourge from regions afflicted by it. On the other hand, it is neglecting its people to such an extent that they are pushed to the wall, thus willy-nilly creating a situation where people are left with little hope to seek answers within the system.

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