There are few villages in Saranda that are as remote as Rongo, a village of five hamlets in Raidih panchayat. Not only is Rongo the largest village of the panchayat with the hamlets spread over a seven-kilometre median, it also happens to be the sitting mukhiya (panchayat chief) and panchayat samiti representative’s home turf.
So, it is intriguing to be told that this village runs the risk of becoming a virtual island every monsoon, cut off from the rest of Saranda and the block office at Manoharpur (only eight kilometres away). A stream, bone dry in Chottanagpur summers, is revived by the rains and threatens to wash away the ‘arterial’ road of clay and murum (a local soft rock) that connects Rongo to Arwakocha, the nearest neighbour downhill at a distance of 3.5 kilometres. At a chance meeting with Susanna Cherwa, the 34-year-old woman who represents Raidih in the panchayat committee (an elected body which liaises with the block office), Governance Now came to know that this road was built by the people of Rongo who also repair it every year before the monsoon. “Banaya bhi grameenon ne, theek bhi grameen hi karte hain (It was built by the villagers, it is also repaired by them),” were Susanna’s exact words.
“Shram daan se banta hai, koi sarkaari madad nahin hai (it is constructed/repaired with people’s labour, there is no government aid),” she had added. It was no afterthought. She had intended to make it clear that her village was not one that would leave things to the chance occurrence of good governance. Here was a village that not only built its own road but undertook its maintenance as well!
This year, after a four-day spell of unceasing pre-monsoon showers, Rongo folks were on the road with shovels, picks and spades. ‘Shram daan’ was on. Clouds covered the afternoon sky as children, young men and women and the old worked on digging a nallah along the 3.5 kilometre stretch down the slope of the hill, placing rocks by the edge of the road on the slope to form a rudimentary guard-wall and making a rock base for the road where it crossed the stream.
Susanna’s husband Luther cycled down the road with his kudali (spade) looking to join one of the four groups villagers working on the road. Most of the men were digging and scraping the sides of the road while the women were carrying the dislodged soil and rocks to cover the pits that had appeared on it. Others dug a shallow drain by the outer edge of the road. “This way, there is no water logging on the road. The water will flow down the drain,” Luther explained.
As we approached a work site, some looked up and smiled at Luther even as they kept digging. A young girl, 16 years or so, stood with a kudali in her hand. It has barely been a month since Susuma Cherwa got to know that she had passed the matriculation exam. She was a student at the St Augustine high school in Manoharpur. She says she has been contributing to the shram daan ever since she was twelve years old.
“The road was built about 15-16 years ago,” Luther said. That year, there had been a cholera epidemic in the village. "We had to carry those who had been taken ill to the hospital at Manoharpur and there were no roads. Four men would bear the person on a cot and walk down the narrow path down the hill. That was when the village decided it had had enough – it needed a road," he added, "the government never heeded our request for one. So, we built it ourselves."
That is when it struck me. Susuma was able to become a matriculate at a time when the number of girls dropping out of schools nationwide remains distressingly high because her village chose to lay a road when the government didn’t. Susuma’s coming to shram daan for the last four years could be her ‘pay it forward’. “Aage aur padhna hai,” she answered shyly as I asked her what she wanted to do in a few years. (“I want to study further.”)
Further down the road, another group of 11 was leveling the road with the soil dug out to make the drain. Chandu Cherwa scraped at the soil, paying no heed to our arrival. Chandu’s face, creased with lines of age, contorted from the effort every time she swung her kudali to fling soil from the edge on to the road. “I came here with others from my village to make a road out of a forest path. That was in my youth. Now, I am old. Yet, I come here every year to repair what I had built. The government should feel ashamed that I am working at my age while none of the sarkari people lift a finger in help,” she said in Ho as Luther translated. “Pachpan-saatth ki hain,” Luther added. (She must be around fifty five to sixty years old.”) Any realisation that Chandu is a woman of a diminutive physique, further diminished by age and lack of proper nutrition, is dwarfed by the greatness of her spirit.
At the end of the road, where Arwakocha limits begin, the stream that could wash away fifteen years of labour has dried – the Chottanagpur summer has been too much for it. Yashmani Cherwa, a 74-year-old matriarch who, along with her husband Nicholas, mobilised Rongo to build the road, squatted on the rocks, placing the heavier ones atop each other to make a foundation. A few young men lifted the ones that were too heavy for the women and children to bring for refurbishing the road. Three young women were carrying soil from a nearby dig (a man was striking at a mound with his kudali lifted over his head). “Abhi patthar pe mitti chadhayenge toh rasta bah nahi jayega,” our kind guide, Luther said explaining the repair work. It seemed that Rongo prepared for everything – the road had to have a rock base at the stream.
“We have asked the authorities many a times to help in the repairs. No one has ever listened,” Yashmani said in Ho. Someone in the crowd brings up Joba Majhi’s name, a former legislator from Manoharpur. She had been petitioned by the villagers to take up the case of the Arwakocha-Rongo road.
“I am Joba at the moment,” Yashmani half-joked. There is bitterness at the official apathy, but somehow it has not become disabling for Rongo. The village has not accepted its lot or resorted to sustained complaining. Instead, fifteen years ago and ever since, Rongo has chosen to take a simple act of governance into its own hands and see it to its best possible end.
A few hours earlier, I had got to Rongo on the pillion of a scooterette. The Arwakocha-Rongo road was a sturdy stretch of kaccha. The ride up the hill had been, more or less, smooth. As I reflected on the ride, the road suddenly seemed to be a rich symbol – of spiting the apathy of the government, of choosing to remain linked to the union (Rongo’s remoteness could have benefitted the Maoist who still have a strong grip on Saranda but the village built a road AND maintains it to remain connected to the state-run world), of tribal enterprise. But, most of all, it will remain as an enduring symbol of those who are the true bosses of a republic.