Even though renowned as the land of reformers such as Chanakya , Buddha and like, Bihar is undoubtedly the most under developed State in India. Be it by the rampant political anarchy or by the curse of incessant floods, Bihar raises eye brows at those who seek a tad of development there. Dr.Santhosh Rajagopal depicts the vignette of one of Bihar’s remote village where he had a mission as a delegate from W.H.O.
The Baghmathi was flowing surreptitiously quiet, as she had never been in spate, as if the fog that enveloped her early in the morning was perhaps the only thing dangerous about her. The vast fertile banks of her, enveloping villages of Chandauli, Ganeshpur and numerous other hamlets teeming with people were separated from her fury by just a sand bund. It was about 8 in the morning and fog was omnipresent. The temperature was near freezing and no amount of warm clothes would prevent even the bravest from shivering. A convoy of vehicles appeared out of the fog. They have traveled atop the bund taking dangerous risks and sent out the occupants on a macabre roller coaster ride. I was riding by the first vehicle whose driver seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in rocketing through the most improbable of roads.
We were in Bihar to help out in the Polio Eradication Drive, then hopefully in its last legs. The officer sitting behind me had been there barely two months, but seemed to have taken in even the local dialect. The driver informed us that when the river was in spate, kilometers of water would be the only sight there. The bund then became a Noah’s ark, keeping the villagers alive till the river spent out her fury completely.
The vehicles drew up at the depot where the vaccines were then ready for distribution. One by one, the vaccinator teams took delivery of their quota of the Oral Polio Vaccine and set off on their rounds deep into the riverine wilderness.
A touch and go
Some hours passed and it was time to monitor the activity of the teams. We were eight doctors and an equal number of Volunteers. My area was a bit interior, informed my guide. I hitched a ride on a bike of one of the volunteers. As it meandered its way up the slope of the bund, one bike preceding us got caught in the quick sand, luckily no injury. We traveled on the bund roughly twenty feet wide. In places people were living on it, which made it even narrower. Their animals mowed and bleated as we trapeze between them along the waiting river.
We asked around for directions, occasionally consulting the map and the gospel of the eradication Drive – the Micro plan. The bike jumped down hedges, and raced through slush, I hold on for precious life. Most of the time after descending the bund, we were traveling through backyards and fields. Roads, on which the toughest of off -roaders would have a fit, were made every year, my Volunteer informed me. Every year around June, the river makes mincemeat of them. The numerous islands of treacherous river sand testified to the correctness of his statement. After about 8 kms of that ride we came to a small school. We parked the bike and began hunting the vaccinator teams.
We passed a few houses covered by them already and checked their work. There were no electric poles, no telephone lines, the only link with civilization as we know it were the three bands on my cell phone which told me the nation’s oldest telecom operator was around.(Thank God for that).
We met Arvind, a supervisor. He was about 50 and lightly built, that morning he had set out on a cycle with a vaccine carrier in search of his teams and bumped into the babus. (us).He wanted to learn from how we work, he informed us cheerfully. We wanted to see his teams, which were working about 4 km away. The path had water bodies and slushy areas, so walking was the only option. After a bumpy bone rattling ride, I was only too eager to accept that .We waded through the fields and walked atop bridges made solely of decaying vegetation. All rounds were the hinterland of that great country and I was benumbed by the primitiveness of it all. I took out my cell and called home. I cheerfully informed my wife that I was calling from the middle of nowhere.
We met a team made up of an elderly gentleman and a kid barely out of his teens. The lad was holding geru, to mark the visited houses; the senior was going about giving drops to children. Children were everywhere, dressed in nothing more than rags, eating out of full but flea infested plates, crowding into single room huts set one within the other.
I remembered a remark of one of my colleagues about a place “swarming with kids”. The team is vaccinating the kids, marking their fingers and houses as well as managing formats, which had increased in, number this time around. I watched as the old gentleman, obviously semi-literate, fumbled with the papers. We went around colonies of what the supervisor calls the lowest caste in Bihar. There should be no castes, I meekly suggested, he agreed readily but went on about why they were the underdogs.
As walked along he cautioned me on dangers of walking in the fields, and I politely informed him that I too came from a village and was no stranger to walking on fields and narrow bridges made of felled coconut tree trunks back home. He insisted no village can be as backward as that, and I reluctantly agreed. It was 4 PM and I suggested we could have a tea. Arvind promptly disappeared into a rather better looking house and reappeared with ginger tea of the best quality. He was the local Compounder, he informed me and the respect showered on him as we passed made it clear that he was more close to being a doctor in the locality. I had no illusions about any one of my professional brethren setting foot there, in what the Mahatma would have called the heart of India. Somehow during my entire stay I kept remembering Mahatma, might be because Champaran, where he began his “career” of Satyagrahas was close by.
It was about 5 PM and time to wind up. Tired from the long walk, Arvind offered us seats in another courtyard. As we settled down he waxed eloquent on how things could never change there. I strongly disagreed, and said it can be changed, provided we aspired to. Which suddenly made me think, what were all those kids aspiring to? They seemed to be contented with riding buffaloes into the fields, hang around with gur made from sugarcane, and tore up and played with posters of the just concluded elections. No entrance exams for them, no scholarships, no pencils or sharpeners, no schoolbags either. – Just the predictable grind of a rural farmer life, with the most primitive of implements.
We were offered Dahi, and I accepted. I refused the big cup, settling for half as much, only to regret later. I remembered we had skipped lunch, which explained the nectar like taste of home made dahi.
As the sun was quickly disappearing into the enveloping fog, we made haste and I dreaded the prospect of return through the route. Luckily we could find an alternate, slightly less dangerous path. As we came in, the rest of the team was getting a bit worried about us. As I approached, my local colleague asked me how the activity was. The dahi was elixir like, I told him as we bundled on to the waiting 4 wheel drives on our way back.
As we rode into the darkness, I remembered an argument I had with my brother-in-law working for software major in Bangalore; on how much time India would take to become a developed nation. Ten, he had said. Fifty, I had wagered, fresh from a similar trip to rural UP. I called him up on my cell. “I have changed my mind on that”, I informed him. It would be hundred years…..” .The connection broke off, as if to reinforce the statement.