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Indian town makes gains but is 'tragically the same'

JOHN STACKHOUSE returns to Biharipur, which he profiled
through the 1990s when he was The Globe's New Delhi correspondent

Monday, February 19, 2001

BIHARIPUR, INDIA -- When a cool winter fog begins to rise from the village's narrow dirt laneways and the migratory birds sing to a new day, there is something profoundly different about Biharipur.

There is something tragically the same, too.

The difference lies to the north, on the edge of a cow pond where children defecate in the morning. On a field once cultivated by the village's landlord, there is a new school. It's the culmination of a decade-long struggle by the landlord, Rajinder Singh Yadav, and one of the first significant public investments in Biharipur.

The tragic similarity lies to the west, on a dirt track that a work crew is busy rebuilding as part of a public-works program.

The project is meant to bring income to the village during the lean winter months, and is directed by Ram Singh, one of the village's Dalits, the people once known as untouchables.

Mr. Singh, 32, was elected last year as village pradhan, or chief, the first time a Dalit has held a position of power even though they represent about half Biharipur's population.

It would be a revolutionary change -- except that his election, the road project and just about everything else of importance in Biharipur continues to be controlled by Rajinder Singh Yadav, the middle-caste man who built the school.
Over a period of years, as India's political power shifts to the lower castes, Biharipur has gone from backwater to a place of equal-opportunity programs, government work schemes, international aid and local democracy.

But all the changes are still shaped by the power struggle between the well-meaning Rajinder -- who is not only the main landowner but also schoolteacher and political broker -- and the lower-caste peasants who balk at joining his campaigns.

Meanwhile, illness and disease still stalk Biharipur's 800 residents, while the whims of weather shape their lives. Last summer, flooding destroyed most of their crops.

Even the school, which is to officially open this month, is not what it was supposed to be. Despite its 150,000-rupee budget (about $5,000), financed by the World Bank and the Indian government, the mortar between its bricks is already crumbling, and the mandatory cement floor hasn't materialized. At least there are three classrooms, a teacher's room (which resembles a tool shed) and an outdoor water pump.

"This might look like a small thing but it's historic considering the obstacles I faced," Rajinder, 45, says proudly.

His effort to get a school for Biharipur goes back a decade, when he started teaching in the neighbouring upper-caste village of Sonora. Few lower-caste families were willing to let their children go there, where they might feel intimidated.

He wrote letters and lobbied local officials but almost lost hope when a violent caste dispute erupted in Biharipur over the school's location. The Dalits felt Rajinder was trying to profit from building it on his own land.

Construction finally began last year, after Rajinder's brother was elected district youth president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist group that holds power nationally and in the local state of Uttar Pradesh.

Birendra Pal Singh Yadav, 32, now has an official house, an official car with a red light on its roof and the power to influence any official decision in the area, including his brother's village.

Soon after Birendra's rise in the BJP, rape charges against Rajinder's eldest son, Satya Prakash, were dropped. The charges had been made during the 1999 fight over the school's location; a group of Dalits had filed complaints against both Rajinder and his son. The dispute threatened to destroy the village, and ended most hopes for a school -- until Birendra won his political post.

"Our uncle is a leader now," Satya Prakash, who is being groomed to become village landlord, says nonchalantly. "He took care of it."

Around the time the criminal proceedings disappeared, Rajinder also engineered the political defeat of a Dalit opponent, who was seeking the post of village pradhan, which for the first time was open only to a member of the lowest castes, under a new state law.

With Rajinder's support, the other Dalit contender, Mr. Singh, an uneducated farmer with a criminal record, won by 385 to 28. But that appears to have been the end of Dalit influence in Biharipur. Despite his new status, Mr. Singh keep a low profile.

"He's basically a criminal type but he's also illiterate so I still have to run the village," Rajinder says.

Although he once talked of leaving the caste-riven village altogether, the landlord has resumed his social work and has big plans. He recently oversaw a polio-vaccination campaign in Biharipur and six other villages. He opened a temporary school in his courtyard, where he and a second teacher hold classes until the new building is officially opened.

The children enrolled in the new school have ragged blue-checked uniforms, which Rajinder subsidized from his teacher's salary, and books, which he bought for every girl in his class. While only a few boys, and no girls, walked the one-kilometre route to the school in Sonora, 128 have signed up for the new school, 63 of them girls.

"There has been a big change in attitudes," Rajinder says proudly. "Families that didn't want to send their children before, who didn't think school was important, walk by here and see the children sitting in rows. They see the discipline. When we go to sports competitions, we come back and announce the winners to the whole village. The families see the school is doing something."

Enthusiasm, though, is not what springs to mind when class starts at 10 a.m., and only six children are in their places, sitting on jute sacks on a dusty floor in Rajinder's courtyard. Two are his own son and daughter. Not until noon are there 30 children, less than one-quarter of the number enrolled.

Still, Rajinder is encouraged enough to start up more projects. He wants the local government to brick the dirt ox-cart path that connects Biharipur with the highway three kilometres away, and install electricity and telephone connections.

Apart from his brother's support, he can count on his wife's seat on the district council. She was re-elected unopposed last year to a second five-year term, even though she had not attended a single meeting during her first term. Rajinder, who cannot sit on the council because of his teaching position, attends on her behalf.

Now that he has reasserted power in the village, he would like to get a middle school for the surrounding area but cannot persuade anyone to contribute to a $350 fund he says will be needed to grease the wheels of administration.

"Even those people who are willing to spend so much on a feast when their children are born, they won't give anything for something that will bring the village so much pride," he says.

Most of the Dalits would rather wait for the state government to bring development to the village than risk giving what little they have to their landlord.

Even Mr. Singh believes he can only do what local bureaucrats and the district council will allow. "Whatever the government says, I will implement," he says.

The project to expand the western dirt track is one such scheme. As part of a state-wide program, it pays 40 village men the official minimum wage of 49 rupees (about $1.50) a day for one month. The project was welcomed by those who lost most of their crops to last summer's floods, though many of the women say they have not seen the cash.

As Biharipur struggles with its first dose of development projects -- a floorless school and a muddy road -- its residents continue the fight against disease and tragedy.

In the early mornings, families huddle around small fires made of straw. Mr. Singh's aged grandmother, known simply as Amma, is so crippled by arthritis she cannot rise from her haunches, instead shuffling on her hands and feet to get to the door of her hut. A neighbour, Dalchand, whose daughter's wedding we once attended, struggles to rise from a bed of straw, weak from coughing and a running fever.

Manna, the village's only Muslim woman, says her husband died last year, leaving her to raise the five of their 10 children who survived infancy.

For 25 years, the village's only midwife, Bhagwati, has had to watch many of its young mothers die in childbirth. The latest was her daughter-in-law, Ram Muni, who bled to death after delivering her ninth child last year. The infant also died.

The village's sole Sikh family, its beacon of ambition, has had to scale back their plans after paying nearly $1,000 for medical treatment for one of their sons' wives, who fell seriously ill during childbirth.

Rajinder hears of such things and says he should add a health clinic to his list of priorities. But he's not sure his neighbours would be interested.

"That's the problem with this village," he says. "I have to do everything myself."

Meanwhile, fearing possible confrontation, he recently bought two rifles to go with the one he already had and ordered two revolvers. Asked how he got the licences, he smiles and says: "My brother."

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