The polling booth in Govindpur isn’t quite the definition of a booth. Over the past few days, with the help of villagers, election officials who crossed the Kosi on a boat — like everyone must do, given that it is an island, cut off by the ever changing river — erected a makeshift structure of cloth, bamboo and a tarpaulin roof. But the impermanent nature of the structure is not unusual for Govindpur. Follow Bihar elections LIVE updates
Behind the polling booth number 152, is a row of close to 150 houses, all made of thatch and straw, built over the last month. Because, while the villagers still call this Govindpur, the Govindpur they lived in, which had brick houses and a primary school, was swallowed by the river this monsoon.
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In July, The Indian Express had visited Govindpur village as Bhagalpur faced Covid-19, returning migrants and the wrath of the monsoon, and found a “diyara” — a village that has turned into an island because of the river surrounding it — in deep distress. At the time, as the river rose, villagers pulled down their homes in order to try and save the bricks at least.
Their fears soon came true. The Kosi engulfed where they once lived, and they rushed to embankments on the other side. The school went first, collapsing into the river, then went their homes.
Mukesh Kumar, a resident, points to where they once lived, now a flat piece of land next to a deceptively calm river. “You see that land that has nothing on it, 500 metres away. That was where our homes were, where our school was. We couldn’t save anything, even the bricks. So, after the waters receded, we came to this side of the river again, because many of us were driven away from the embankments, and started living in these temporary structures. This is our destiny,” he said.
Yet, that has not stopped an election. So, on Tuesday morning, as parts of Bihar voted in the second phase of polling, Govindpur had a booth set up as well: a tent in an open field, with a row of election officials sitting behind two tables. Two women anganwadi workers were armed with an infrared thermometer and sanitiser, and handed out gloves. But the voters came without masks.
“No resident here has a mask, but we are allowing them to vote. After all that they have faced, we cannot take this away from them. In any case, this is an island, a containment zone in itself in a way,” an election official remarked.
By 10:30 am, of the 346 registered votes in Govindpur, 112 had already been cast. While most of these were residents living in the thatched huts on the island, there were a few who had taken a boat from across the river.
One of them was Munia Devi, who waited for the wooden boat being used to transport voters to come to the side of the embankment called the Trimuhan Ghat. “Jaldi aa,” she shouted into the distance. “I have to vote but there are other things too. Poor people don’t have free time. There is a lot of work,” she said.
There was another boat at the ghat, with fluorescent life jackets, and a big SDRF sticker across it, manned by two SDRF personnel. That was primarily used to transport government officials through the day, including SSB personnel.
Every resident of the Govindpur diyara is from the Musahar caste, one of the castes sub-categorised as Mahadalits. With limited sources of income, and hit by the lockdown, there are worrying times ahead.
“There is no money and no employment. We lost most of our bricks because we couldn’t transport them in time. How will we ever find the money to build our homes again? And even if we do, we are still on the diyara. What happens if the river turns next year, and demolishes that too? We are worried for our children. At least they went to school whenever the master came. When that structure has been destroyed, where will they go to school? Nobody ever gives us answers,” said Mukesh Kumar.
Through the day, boats came and went, and people from Govindpur voted. But in everyone’s mind, whatever party they may have voted for, the primary issue was the same. Even before employment, what they wanted first was a permanent address, a “sthayi ghar”, and a permanent identity.
“Jo bhi sarkar aaye, ek hi haath jod ke binti hai. Sthayi makaan de dijiye. (Whichever government comes, we have only one request: give us a permanent house). Every year, we live in fear. We cannot spend on anything else because we always fear our homes being washed away. Debts have piled up. A month ago, our Govindpur was there. Today it is here. Tomorrow, we only want it to be one place, across the banks, where we can live in peace and without fear. Only then can we do anything for our children,” said Ramanand Rishidev, a resident.
Mahender Rishidev, another resident, is now 55 years old, and has voted in every election he can remember. For three decades, the demand has been the same, he said. But a lifetime has passed, and nothing seems to change.
“When I was 5, my parents carried me to the embankment when our village got submerged. It happened when I was 10, and then 20. There were some years of peace when the Kosi seemed calm, and we built homes, even the school. I am 55 now, and my home is gone again. I had to carry my grandchildren in my arms. Has anyone ever listened?,” he said.
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