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Midnight's children

Fifty years after the partition of India, its Hindu and Muslim offspring confront the challenges ahead. The wealthy and the widowed. In every corner of India, the situation in Biharipur plays itself out every day. The fact is, fifty years after its independence, the differences between the country's powerful and disfranchised, its richest and its poorest, is as big as ever.

By John Stackhouse
First published Aug. 4, 1997

Biharipur, India

She is midnight's mother; he is midnight's son. She has no name or title, other than the old woman; he has many, and none more important than namberdar, the chief.

They live only a few metres apart, but a world away, she in the depths of poverty and untouchability, he in the splendour of village power and rural wealth.

As India celebrates 50 years of independence, there can be no greater indictment of its progress than these two people in Biharipur - the richest and the poorest, the powerful and the disfranchised, the landed and the widowed. For they are not alone. In almost every corner of village India, there is a woman with no name and a Rajinder Singh Yadav.

Biharipur's woman with no name, for as long as she can remember, has been the target of development schemes, to aid the poor, uplift the illiterate, reach out to women, empower the dalits who were once known as untouchables. Yet for 50 years, the money and influence designed for the old woman have poured into the home of Mr. Yadav, village chief, landlord, quack, moneylender, schoolteacher and political mobilizer.

Despite Mahatma Gandhi's allegiance to the untouchables, despite Jawaharlal Nehru's pledge to the poor, despite five decades of the world's costliest rural development schemes, it has come to nothing for the frail woman with no name, who sits on a cot wondering when the latest bout of malaria will take her away. And it has come to so much for Mr. Yadav, who parks his new tractor and shows off the latest addition to his house.

It was not meant to be like this at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, when Mr. Nehru's crackling radio voice told a new nation, and the world, that India had met its "tryst with destiny."

The urbane lawyer, a Fabian socialist at heart, promised to strip India's wealthy landlords, the zamandaris, of their vast holdings. He also declared what was perhaps the world's first war on poverty, with a Soviet-like artillery of hydro dams, ports and sprawling steel mills.

Even after he died in 1964, successive governments devoted vast chunks of their budgets, often in his name, to aiding the poor. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, rose to power from a constituency not far from Biharipur on the might of a single slogan: Garibi Hatao, Remove Poverty. And then her son, Rajiv Gandhi, took over with youthful zeal, promising to catapult India's villages into the 21st century, with telephones and televisions and instant literacy programs.

How wrong they were, in all their brilliance, for the woman with no name.

Amma, as she is known to her flock of grandchildren - too many actually, for her to count - can barely walk without the support of a gnarled stick. She does not know her age, but knows she was a young bride at independence, "the time the Hindus and Muslims had their big fight."

Which fight was that?

"You know, the really big fight."

The really big fight is the only barrier the old woman remembers between colonialism and independence in this village 330 kilometres southeast of New Delhi.

Now in her 60s or 70s, but looking to be in her 80s, Amma hauled herself to the shade of a tree, and with her stick she pointed to all that has been given her. A big underground biogas plant - a machine that turns manure into cooking gas - sat out at the back, rusting in the monsoon as it has done every year since the government installed it there a decade ago without enough parts for it to work.

And over there, a nicely functioning handpump, donated by Unicef, on the other side of the livestock grounds, next to Mr. Yadav's house. He told the government officials where to install it; they obliged. His seven children use it, as well as the handpump inside their house. The untouchables get their turn when the Yadavs are finished.

And there, across the field, the site for a new school for Biharipur, promised so many years ago. So many times the old woman's grandsons tried to go to school in a nearby village - the one where Mr. Yadav teaches every morning - but they were beaten up by the upper-caste children. Her granddaughters did not bother.

"Why would they need education?" asked Amma, who has been inside a school only to vote, using her late husband's name, which still appears on the voting roll 10 years after his death.

All this was supposed to change in the year of India's Golden Jubilee. A new government in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, was sworn in last spring, and headed by a dalit woman who used to teach school. Mayawati, queen of the untouchables, promised land for her kind, as well as pucca roads and schools for every dalit village in the state.

The old woman and her sons have not seen the land, which is to be allotted from surplus state property, but they have their suspicions. And they are right. Mr. Yadav, who is one of the few literate adults in the village, has filed an application on the dalits' behalf.

Across the way, on the other side of a small swamp, Mr. Yadav and his family have enjoyed independence. When the local prince and lesser royalty in the district were forced to parcel off their land in the 1950s, the Yadav caste picked up many of the pieces. Young Rajinder Singh, born in 1952, received a high-school education too, and enrolled in the military, soon after its glorious victory over Pakistan and liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. When he was discharged from the army for undisciplined behaviour he returned to the land, and quickly found ways to acquire more.

Indian law prevents the acquisition of farmland beyond a few hectares, but Mr. Yadav has managed to put together about 20 hectares, listing properties in the names of his mother, wife, seven children and various other relatives. He and his teen-aged sons work the best fields; the rest they lease out on a sharecropping basis to the dalits.

Thanks to huge government agriculture programs and international research, the crop yields around Biharipur have tripled since Mr. Yadav's youth. Rice and wheat pile high at harvest time, and there are many new crops such as potatoes, mustard and onions.

But Mr. Yadav found farming too mundane. He used his caste quota to get a job teaching in the next village, and he learned some basics of medicine so he could become the local quack too, selling pills and injections that the government health centre, when it is open, never seems to have in stock.

Even in remote villages, success attracts success. When the government announced a massive nation-wide literacy campaign in the early 1990s, Mr. Yadav and his sons were invited to teach Biharipur's uneducated adults how to write their names. When the 10-week course was over, the Yadavs received a handsome honorarium and certificates, and Biharipur was declared officially literate. The dalits still do not know how to write.

Running a village was simpler in the 1950s, though, when caste and sex quotas were not an issue. Now, the elected head of the village development council - an alternative finally to the top-down Nehruvian model - must be a woman.

Because Mr. Yadav so dearly wanted the job, he nominated his wife, who won the village election hands down. It matters little that Ram Bedi Yadav almost never ventures out of the house. Her husband chairs all meetings on her behalf, and seems to be doing quite well.

Since the village election, Mr. Yadav has acquired a new tractor and shotgun, and he recently painted his brick house in pastel colours trimmed with his own maxims, including his favourite: All Problems are Man-Made.

Strangely, the council had no funds for the many mud and straw houses damaged in a recent monsoon storm.

Among the council's early achievements, Mr. Yadav noted, was an agreement with the government to give a 200-rupee ($8) monthly pension to elderly dalit women. The old woman with no name has not seen her pension cheque, though. She would not know how to sign it anyway.

Mr. Yadav said his money is hard-earned, and that he too is the victim of official abuse, like everyone else in Biharipur. For example, he planted potatoes on the government's advice, and was then turned away by the state-run potato warehouse, which said national production was too high. There were 800 kilograms of potatoes he had to destroy.

The next season, Mr. Yadav planted sunflowers - another government promotion - only to watch birds eat his crop. The experiment cost him 5,400 rupees ($216).

He then discovered the cash-strapped government had closed the local sugar mill, rendering his cane crop worthless. Mr. Yadav said the defunct mill owes him 55,000 rupees ($2,200).

"Since the British left, no change has come to this village," he said firmly. "You can say 60 per cent are poor. They rely on the 40 per cent who can do something." He paused to look around at the causes of such grief. "The main problem is population," he said. "If it continues to grow, it will be disastrous."

Such problems aside, Mr. Yadav plans to celebrate on Aug. 15. When Independence Day comes, he will load his seven children on to the tractor and head for a festival in the county capital, five kilometres away. There will be fireworks and sweets, and music till dawn.

When Independence Day comes, the old woman with no name plans to stay at home, on her tattered thatched cot, surrounded by her 20 or so grandchildren. At the stroke of midnight, when the summer air hangs heavily under a starlit canopy, she knows she can rest there peacefully, and wait for her own tryst with destiny.

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