Every day, Gudiya Ahirwar does the 2-km walk multiple times, carrying water on two pots back home from the nearest tap, shielding her face from the scorching sun with a dupatta. The 18-year-old is a Class 10 dropout who wanted to study further but had to step back after her mother left for Delhi to work at a construction site following her father’s death.
Today, she fetches water, cooks and washes utensils while her two brothers go to college. But on May 6, she will finally get a chance to give voice to her dreams, when she steps out to vote for the first time in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh — a Lok Sabha constituency in the Bundelkhand region, where water shapes lives.
“I want the government to bring better colleges and solve the water crisis. I wanted to study further but the boys here don’t fetch water, so I had to drop out,” she says. Nearby, the one-acre plot where her family once cultivated wheat in Shivrajpura village lies vacant and cracked. With Tikamgarh battling a drought-like situation for years, Gudiya says her mother followed others who migrated for work. “In Delhi, she earns Rs 300 a day while daily wages are Rs 100 here,” she says.
Gudiya’s neighbour Sonam Yadav is lucky. She’s the only girl from the village of 1,500 residents to reach Class 12. “I want to do nursing, but there are no good colleges here,” she says. Unlike boys, she says, girls are not allowed to move out for education. Sonam’s friend Reena Yadav, for instance, dropped out of Class 8 and is getting married this month. “After marriage, my work will remain the same… fetch water, do chores,” says Reena.
Since 2009, when Tikamgarh became a Lok Sabha constituency, the predominantly Ahirwar voters have favoured the saffron. In 2014, the BJP won by a margin of 2.1 lakh votes.
Vikas without water
In contrast to Gudiya’s village, is Tikamgarh town with two lakh voters and showing rapid signs of “vikas (development)”: brick houses, private schools, a railway station. “The biggest challenge we face is migration of youngsters, first for education, then for jobs,” admits MP Higher Education Minister and Congress leader Jitu Patwari, who is on the campaign trail here. Left behind are mostly women, children, elderly and cattle.
But again, say residents, the root of these problems lies in lack of water. Set on a rock, Tikamgarh’s water levels have been dipping since 2007, and a package announced by the then UPA government in 2009 is still pending. Also pending, say residents, is the demand for a medical college.
Of the 12 colleges in Tikamgarh district for over 400 villages, only one offers post-graduate courses. “Of the 4,500 students, 40 per cent are girls, but most drop out by the final year, for marriage or housework,” says Ravish Ahirwar, administrator at the PG college.
Students complain that the faculty is not permanent and the standard of education is poor. But at the parking lot of the PG college, Akhilesh Yadav, a B.Com student, is clear about the elections. “Now, I travel 45 km to study. And I plan to take up an MBA course, for which I will have to go to Sagar, Bhopal or Indore. But my first vote will go to the BJP. Our village school got classes in 9 and 10 after they came to power,” says Yadav.
This time in Tikamgrah, BJP’s six-time MP Virendra Kumar Khatik will face Kiran Ahirwar, a newcomer from Congress, which came to power in the state after dislodging the three-term rule of the BJP under Shivraj Singh Chouhan. On the roads, the campaigns run on the promises of Modi and Gandhi.
The students say they watch news on TV channels — “when there is electricity” — and WhatsApp. “I have only heard of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Modi brought AIIMS to many cities. If he brings one here, Tikamgarh will develop,” says Diksha Jain, a final-year BSc student.
Outside the college, the nomination of Malegaon blasts accused Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal is not an issue. But cows matter — despite poverty, several farmers cling to their cattle. And in the town, a statue of a cow feeding a calf stands prominently near the collector’s office, next to one of a soldier.
No money for Ujjwala refill
Fifteen km from town, a gas cylinder gathers dust in a corner of Kiran Adivasi’s partially built home in Machi village. She says it was obtained under the Ujjwala scheme, but she has no money for a refill. “Also, I have received only Rs 1.2 lakh so far under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to build a permanent house,” says Kiran who dropped out of school after Class 8.
Official figures show that of the 51,000 people eligible under the PM Awas Yojana to receive Rs 2.5 lakh as subsidy for affordable housing in Tikamgarh, only 29,200 have benefitted. Kiran alleges that even to register for the scheme, she had to pay a “commission of Rs 30,000” to local officials.
But even for her, Elections 2019 is all about water.
BJP candidate Khatik argues that the much delayed Sujara dam will resolve the water crisis in 600 villages, including in Tikamgarh. “We are asking people to vote for Modi, for development,” says Khatik’s daughter Nivedita.
But Kiran is unmoved. “My husband moved to Delhi after our marriage for work. I see him once a year. If this village had water, he would have done some farming, looked after our three children,” she says. “All my life, I have lived with this water crisis. In 2014, the slogan was ‘Abki Baar Modi Sarkar’, this time we will give a chance to another party.”