Of course I wasn’t afraid. I have lived 70 years, most of those in the forest. What is there to be afraid of?” Ratli Bai laughs. It’s two days since she shared the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and he bent down and slipped her feet into a pair of sandals. The small and frail Ratli Bai now sits on a cot in her hut in Bhairamgarh village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, her feet dangling off the kuchcha floor. The skin around her right big toe is peeling, her feet scarred by marks of thorns and as creased as her wrinkled face; the new footwear with its string of beads and shiny metal buckles already caked with dust.
But Ratli Bai is glad, she confesses. The jungle can be cruel, especially on the feet, and making a living dependent on the forest, she has little to protect them, against thorns, sharp stones or even snakes and scorpions.
Modi gave the sandals to her under the ‘Charan Paduka Yojana’, a Chhattisgarh BJP government scheme. Started back in November 2005, it entitled one male member per family of a tendu patta collector to free footwear every year. In 2008, this was extended to women; in 2013, women were allowed sandals instead of shoes. The turn of Ratli Bai, a tendu collector, came when the PM came calling — 10 years after women were included as beneficiaries.
Between her, her son Nathu, his wife and their four children, with whom Ratli Bai shares the two-room hut, there used to be just one pair of footwear. The sandals are Ratli Bai’s first pair. The other shoe is just a normal rubber slipper, nowhere as fancy as the one Modi gave her on April 14, Ambedkar Jayanti.
So today, as she walked 10 km to the banks of the Indravati river to collect the mahua seeds, and back, she preferred going barefeet. The sandals stayed behind, in a corner of the hut. A sheepish smile spreading across her face, Ratli Bai explains, “The chappals are nice, and everyone tells me to preserve them. If I take them into the sand banks and the water, they will be ruined. These slippers are not made for heavy use.”
Ratli Bai also insists that it is the first time any member of her family has got footwear under the Charan Paduka scheme. Mohnish Dewangan, a government-registered Tendupatta Samiti Prabhandhak, disagrees. “That is not possible. This scheme has been around since 2005… you must have received it.” Her response is strong and firm. “We have never received a chappal before,” she says.
There is little doubt though, in Bhairamgarh, in the region around or even Chhattisgarh, on the strong symbolism of the PM’s gesture. The photograph of Modi with Ratli Bai was shared widely on social media, and splashed in the regional media. With elections in the state in six months, some argue that Modi putting shoes on her feet showed his sensitivity and respect for the poor, women, elderly and Adivasis. Others call it little more than a photo-op. The Opposition has picked on it as a symbol of how, after 15 years of the BJP government, Ratli Bai can still dream of only a chappal.
An elderly villager, who is among the visitors, including journalists and officials, making a beeline to Ratli Bai’s hut since April 14, meanwhile, explains that despite the thorns and the sharp stones, Adivasis like them are not used to wearing footwear. “We are one with the earth. I enjoy feeling the ground under my feet. Bhairamgarh is on the highway and more and more is changing. The young don’t wear our traditional attire, such as the sari Ratli Bai is wearing. I feel we are losing our identity, and this chappal is another step towards that. But it is true that it will protect her from snake bites and thorns and stones. So maybe there needs to be a balance between the old and new.”
Ratli Bai doesn’t care much for such debates. She beams as the visitors ask to see her new sandals, and go on to enquire about how she felt when the most powerful man in India bent down at her feet, in front of thousands of people.
Ratli Bai was told she was the chosen one two days before Modi’s visit to Jangla in Bijapur, 25 km from her village. She believes the BJP zeroed in on her courtesy the party MLA from Bijapur, Mahesh Gagda, who is also the state Forest Minister and knows Ratli Bai. “He calls me bubu (bua in Halbi, the language spoken by tribals here),” she says.
A senior BJP leader, who doesn’t want to be named, explains why Modi putting sandals on her feet sends a strong message. “The PM had once touched the feet of Kunwar Bai of Dhamtari, who had sold her goats to build a toilet, in Chhattisgarh. This was another photograph that conveyed sensitivity,” he says.
Apart from Modi, on the stage on April 14 afternoon were members of the NITI Aayog, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and three of his Cabinet ministers, and Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes Nand Kumar Sai. About that moment with Modi, Ratli Bai says, “It felt very good. He said something in Hindi, which I didn’t understand. I think he was asking me if the chappals fit. I presumed that’s what he said and I replied yes.” It is the start of April, and dried mahua seeds, picked painstakingly in the last few weeks by Ratli Bai and her family, are placed on the ground outside their hut, drying in the sun. Beginning the start of May, it will be time to start plucking the tendu leaves, used primarily to make beedis and locally referred to as ‘green gold’.
Across Bhairamgarh and the forests in Bastar, the gleaming green leaves of the knee-high plant are beginning to bloom. As another season of work beckons, Ratli Bai smiles when asked if she would wear her slippers into the jungle. “I don’t know. They seem delicate. What if they break? Maybe if I don’t have to go near the river….”
Would she have asked the PM for something else? “They say he is giving gas connections,” the 70-year-old says. “I don’t want to cook on my chulha anymore.”