Under a blazing sun one recent afternoon, Brij Lal, in his late 30s, led three other men lugging spades and axes up a steep hill in North Chhattisgarh’s Ambikapur district. A few years ago, the government built a check dam down in the valley. Brij Lal and the others are digging a narrow, winding canal, hoping to somehow raise the water from the dam to their fields.
“Our fields are on the hills; the stop dam they have built is at the bottom. Without the canal, water will not reach our fields,” Brij Lal said. The government should have thought of this, he says — they’d even told the government officials supervising the work on the dam. But no one listened. “So we are doing this ourselves.”
Brij Lal is a Pahadi Korva, a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” (PVTG), so designated because of their abysmally low development indices. There are 75 PVTGs — earlier known as “primitive tribes” — in India; seven of them live in Chhattisgarh.
The Pahadi Korvas largely inhabit remote hilltops in four districts of the state. According to government records, there are fewer than 38,000 members of the tribe remaining. The hamlet in which Lal lives, atop a hill in Govindpur, has 104 other households. Their lives are virtually untouched by the government, even when an election is close. “Because we are Pahadi Korva, and there are so few of us, no body cares. Not the government, and certainly not political parties,” says Lal.
A kilometre away, next to the village panchayat bhawan, about 15 members of the community have gathered at the home of Ram Korva along with Bisheshwar Singh, who belongs to the NGO Chaupal, which works for the uplift of tribal people. Ram is upwards of 70 years of age, and both he and the rest of the individuals gathered in his home have always voted in elections. But in the 18 years since the formation of Chhattisgarh, they have had no contact with their political representatives, they say. Amarjeet Bhagat of the Congress, their MLA for 15 of these 18 years, has passed by Govindpur thrice in this time — but he has stopped only once, for half an hour, when he came to inaugurate a panchayat building along with his supporters. “We tried to talk to him about our problems, but he cut a ribbon and left. We have a BJP Member of Parliament, Kamalbhan Singh Maravi, but we have not met him either,” Ram said.
Had the politicians listened, Ram said, they would have been told of the plight of the 18 families who had lived on and farmed their land for three generations, but who had been suddenly told five years ago that records showed the land belonged to someone else.
“We don’t know who took money and inserted other people’s names. But I have lived in my home and tilled my land since I was born. My father did the same, and so did my grandfather. The government came and mapped the land, and told us it belonged to someone else. There have been hearings, but they have stuck to their stance. But this is our land, we will never leave. But what happens to us if they come and throw us out?” Ram said.
In 2015, the day he began his 13th year in power, Chief Minister Raman Singh launched an 11-point programme for PVTGs, including land for the homeless, clean drinking water, and health facilities. Sporadic evidence of government intervention dots the landscape — solar-powered borewells, and some pucca homes built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Says Netram, a young Pahadi Korva, one of the few who have completed school: “Look at the homes. Only a handful have been built, the others are incomplete. Contractors have eaten all the money. Most of the borewells don’t work; the ones that do produce dirty water. So many of us still drink from a dhodi (a natural well). When they were digging the borewells, we told them we knew our land, and that the wells would produce no water. The officials told us we knew nothing, built them anyway, and left.”
Had the politicians listened, Netram says, he would have told them that even though a road had been built to the village several years ago, ambulances from the 108 service often refuse to travel here. Those who fall ill are carried on makeshift stretchers to road, where ways to reach the closest healthcare centre in Batauli, 17 km away, are pondered.
The residential school that children from the tribe attend in Govindpur, is only until the primary level. “The children are given food, so parents send them there. But above the primary level, there are government day schools, and children drop out. Most young people in our village study till the primary level, and then help in the fields. The fields are small, and only suffice to feed the family. Without schooling, there is no employment. We need a residential school up to a senior level. Only then will things change,” says Netram.
With land holdings that barely ensure subsistence and no disposable incomes, a failure of the rains triggers the inevitable cycle of despair and debt. North Chhattisgarh will vote in the second phase on November 20. So far, not a single politician, local party leader, or a political agent has come to the village. In 2013, 2008, and 2003, they had come two days before voting, offering money, alcohol and chicken. The villagers had accepted what they gave.
But this time may be different. “When the agents come, we will tell them to sign a pledge on a stamp paper that they would fulfill our basic needs. Or at least that political leaders will come to talk to us. We will vote for the party that does this. Is that too much to ask?” says Mann Sai.