Three-fourths of rural India lives on less than Rs 5,000 a month earned by its breadwinner, as per the recent Socio Economic and Caste Census. In Chhattisgarh, that holds true for 90 per cent of rural families.
You can count Ishwar Nirmalkar and his family of five among them. For Nirmalkar though, whose village Boria Kalan is located just 15 km from Chhattisgarh’s proposed new capital city Naya Raipur, Rs 5,000 is a misleading benchmark — forever out of reach.
Nine summers ago, the family borrowed Rs 60,000 from the man for whom Nirmalkar worked as a cattle-grazer, for the wedding of a son and daughter. Nirmalkar’s wife Birhja Bai says after paying regular installments for five-six years, they were told all they had repaid by then was mostly interest, with the principal largely intact. So she borrowed Rs 20,000 from her brother, while her daughter-in-law Rashmi got Rs 10,000 from her family to pay some of the loan. Three years hence, the money due is still over Rs 20,000.
Birhja Bai admits she has lost count of how much exactly they have paid the “bada aadmi”, as they call the lender.
This isn’t the landless family’s only loan, or even the only time they took one to pay off interest of the other. Their son Nauhar Lal Nirmalkar, the sole member with a stable income, borrowed Rs 10,000 from a cooperative bank several years ago to open a small paan kiosk. After paying Rs 300 monthly, he still has to pay over Rs 1,000.
It was a century ago that novelist Premchand wrote in Godan about a family getting consumed by the loan taken for purchasing a cow. Birhja wouldn’t be surprised if that’s their story. Listing all the family’s pending payments, including petty ones like Rs 300 to the vegetable vendor, Rs 500 to the kirana store and Rs 900 to the village doctor, the 55-year-old says, “These will end with my death.”
Nauhar, 37, who has studied up to Class XII, earns around Rs 4,000 per month from his gumti (kiosk). The only other income comes from daily labour Birhja and Nirmalkar can find on farms of others during harvest season.
They do not have a toilet at home and since they don’t have a BPL card either, are not entitled to many of the government benefits. Though Chhattisgarh claims to have expanded food security to the maximum, Nauhar says, “Kai baar gaya. Banaya hi nahin gareebi rekha card (I went several times. I could never get it made)… If we had the card, we could have received something under the Indira Awas Yojna for constructing a home.”
Now that the rains are here, the family lives under constant fear of their kuchcha house, made of mud and cow dung, collapsing. Only last year, says Rashmi, a wall had given away.
Nauhar’s elder daughter, six-year-old Tanya, is hearing and speech impaired and needs a cochlear transplant. Doctors at the Raipur government hospital have told him the operation would cost lakhs. He doesn’t think he can ever arrange that money.
Sitting in the courtyard in her mother’s lap, Tanya quietly stares at the dark sky above. An old poster of Rani Laxmi Bai hangs on the wall. Nauhar bought it years ago. “I had big dreams for my eldest daughter, but…”.
His younger daughter Pragya is 3 and goes to an anganwadi. Birhja keeps hoping for a grandson but Nauhar hasn’t told them that Rashmi has had hysterectomy. Two children were all he could afford, Nauhar says.
It’s past 7 pm and Nirmalkar is not back yet. He left in the morning for Raipur to search for work in any construction project. Tonight they might have vegetable curry, Nauhar jokes. But Birhja believes it won’t be any different from other days. They go to Raipur routinely, but such is the glut of unskilled labourers in Chhattisgarh that they are seldom lucky.
Nauhar had also tried his hand at working in Raipur earlier. Nirmalkars are traditionally dhobis, an OBC sub-caste, and he had set up a small thela (cart) to iron clothes. Within days, the existing washermen in the Raipur locality had driven him away, he says.
That’s another reason the family prefers the village and its support system to the alien city. The family still shudders remembering the time Nauhar was on bed after an accident last year. Villagers, hardly better off than them, had chipped in with all they could, Rashmi says.
“Raipur has no place for us,” she is certain.
Around 8 pm, Nirmalkar arrives. The 60-year-old walks in slowly, his muted footsteps confirming what Birhja feared. He has lost count of the number of such days he has spent seeking work in Raipur the past few months.
The creases on Birhja’s forehead deepen. Next month is the family’s biggest festival, Hariyali Teej, when all married daughters visit their mother’s home and are given gifts. She has four of them.
Birhja would have to do what she always does: give them the clothes she and Rashmi receive from their own maternal homes. “Aise hi chalta hai (That’s how it is),” smiles Rashmi.
In turn, Nauhar’s eldest sister Kalyani, among the few washermen families still in the traditional work, often hands over clothes she’s left with to her brother’s family.
All talk eventually revolves back to the Rs 20,000 owned to the “bada aadmi”. He contested for sarpanch seat and lost, but the Nirmalkars have little doubt about his clout.
They know their only choice then might be to sell the “ancestral home” they live in. Comprising three kuchcha shacks and a courtyard, it can fetch them around Rs 50,000. Once the loan for two marriages a decade ago has been paid off, they would have just about enough to erect a jhuggi to live in.
The struggle towards Rs 5,000 a month will start all over again.