Price rise leaves the common man gasping

India’s economy might be shining, most Indians’ is not. Everything is going up, save incomes. The government says the nation’s economy has the capacity to absorb the price rise. As you will see in these stories from across the country, the people we spoke to for this special number on price rise say their economies are at breakpoint.

ajay

Ajay Singh | April 24, 2010


After the tragedy
After the tragedy

As many as 78.2 crore Indians will be living on less than two dollars (or about Rs 100) a day by 2015: that is the grim forecast of a World Bank-IMF report. While the Indian economy is booming and growth estimates for the current fiscal are pegged above 8 percent, the aam aadmi (or the common man)  is finding it difficult to survive the relent rise in food prices. Here we reproduce, from our print edition (April 1-15),  a series of reports from around the country on the daily struggles nearly three out of four Indians wage every day.

Growth sounds like a bad word here:
Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ is played out in all its pathos in Pratapgarh where 63 people died in March 2009 in a stampede for freebies and poor relatives perversely hope the tragedy will secure them future meals


By Ajay Singh
Rani Devi Patel, 40, has become a faceless statistical figure in the records of Kunda police station in Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. Like 62 others, she was crushed to death in the stampede at the Kripalu Maharaj trust’s ashram at Mangarh village on March 4. She had gone to collect freebies that the trust had promised to distribute on the death anniversary of the Swami wife. But her story is unlike that of the others.

At the age of 16, she got married only to be rejected by her husband. She came back to her uncle Bindeshwari in Kusemar village, adjacent to Mangarh. She found another companion who, after a few years of living together, turned her out. Rani was left to fend for herself for over a decade. On March 4, she found, in the distribution of freebies by the trust, an opportunity to lay her hands on something for survival. Freebies included a thali, a gamchha (cotton towel), one laddoo and Rs 10. For a woman living the life of a rejected outcast, that meant a lot.

But she died outside the gate when thousands pressed her frail body against the iron gate of the trust and ran over her. Yet, in her death, the much-despised Rani has become the darling of her two unknown husbands, her brother and an uncle who are all running around to claim the compensation for the deceased. In her death, Rani will fetch around Rs 5.5 lakh to her rightful heir. In a queer twist of irony, now all of them swear by the woman who they spurned forcing her to live the life of a destitute. The compensation has not been disbursed because of the dispute among the various claimants.
Even more poignant is the death of Kavita Yadav, an 18-year-old girl of the same village. She was very young when her mother was killed by her father Kamlesh, who was subsequently sentenced by the court. She was brought up by her maternal uncle Rajaram. On March 4, she skipped her school to collect the freebies. However, her body was brought home by Rajaram who performed the last rites. But as compensation for the deceased was announced, her father Kamlesh resurfaced to claim his right over Rs 5.5 lakh.

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Perhaps novelist and master storyteller Premchand could have found many plots for his famous story ‘Kafan’, had he been witness to the events leading to the stampede, the subsequent evolution of human relations and the role of the state. In his original story, Gheesu and his son Madhav, the two protagonists of the story, feast on the donation collected from villagers to perform the last rites of Madhav’s wife, Budhiya. They reject any pangs of remorse while drinking and eating and also bank on society’s magnanimity to do the needful for the deceased. The tragedy at Kunda only highlights the increasing number of economically marginalised Gheesus, their over-reliance on patrons and the subsequent degradation, humiliation and even death.

In fact, there is a concerted move to wish away the tragedy at Kunda in Pratapgarh as God’s will. Over 70 percent of the population of the district which is categorised as “economically marginalised section” have been successfully persuaded to forget the event. But many narratives of the stampede at Mangarh unequivocally prove one point—no tragedy is serious enough for the state to merit introspection. As the township has returned to normalcy, those who witnessed the stampede have added their own colour to the story.

According to Gayadevi of Bidhasin village, she had gone to the Kripalu Maharaj trust early in the morning on March 4 along with Bharati Devi, her neighbour. Both had initially gone to the hospital run by the trust where Bharati Devi was to get her eyes examined by experts. The trust provides free treatment to the rural poor who cannot afford to visit private medical centres. Both women could not resist the temptation of visiting the “bhandara” where freebies were to be distributed. “At around 11 am, Amar Bahadur Singh, a contractor employed by the Kripalu Maharaj trust, ran amok in the crowd and started flailing his lathi on people,” she said, adding that the stampede was the result of the clash between people and the ill-equipped trust staff. Following the ensuing melee, Bharati Devi’s crushed body was later located in the hospital. Bharati Devi was an anganwadi worker and belonged to a reasonably well-off family. Her family owns 10 bighas of land which is good enough for the sustenance of the family.

Then why did Bharati Devi go to collect freebies? The question is answered by Gayadevi’s husband, Sadashiv Patel, a farmer who owns 11 bigha of land. “I told my wife not to go there as it was demeaning but she went there with Bharati Devi,” he said, adding that Kripalu Maharaj had initiated this “despicable and worst” practice of offering doles on various occasions. “Every time they announce doles and food, people throng their ashram in large numbers,” he said. In his view, since women could not resist the temptation, they went with their children too in order to maximise their gains on freebies. However, Sadashiv Patel’s views are regarded as too radical to find an endorsement from his neighbours. The family of Bharati Devi has got Rs 1 lakh from Kripalu Maharaj’s trust and Rs 2.5 lakh from the state government while Rs 2 lakh from the centre is still awaited. Though Bharati Devi’s death is mourned by the family, none of the family members speaks against the temple trust and the administration for obvious reasons.

Five kilometres away from Bidhasin lies another hamlet called Mia Ka Purwa. The village inhabited largely by Muslims and Kurmis is not keeping pace with India’s 7% growth. On March 4, most of the Patel women rushed to Mangarh village with their children in tow to get doles from the temple trust. But they returned with three bodies of children. Two brothers Rabi, 5, and Sunil, 10, were holding on to their mothers till they were finally crushed by the wave of people pushing their way inside the trust premise. Ramesh, father of Rabi, talks fondly about his lone son who is no more. But he also seems content with the Rs 5.5 lakh compensation he is expected to get. “There is no use filing an FIR against anybody,” he says. Ramesh and family members of the other victims still look up to Swami Kripalu Maharaj aka Ram Kripal Tripathi as their benefactor.

“The swamiji had given Rs 10,000 with each body for final rites,” says Ramesh. Obviously villagers give the impression of being grateful to the swami for his gestures. On his part, the swami understood the limitations of the poverty-stricken people and offered money and assurances immediately after the tragedy. Apart from Rs 10,000 for each body, disciples of the swami fanned out to all villages and gave assurances to family members of the 63 victims that the trust would take care of them in every possible manner. This effectively tranquilised people’s anger over losing their near and dear ones.
Apparently Swami Kripalu Maharaj’s rags-to-riches story in Pratapgarh has become a legend of sorts. Coming from a humble brahmin family Ram Kripal Tripathi learnt Sanskrit and made forays into the vast business of spiritualism. In the 1990s, he made a mark by his extempore religious discourses which attracted influential and rich people across the country. In the early 1990s, the swami started building an ashram in his birthplace, Mangarh, to spread his area of influence in the district where he was still a non-entity. His trust bought huge tracts of land to build charitable hospitals and ashrams. One disciple at the trust office pointed out that the swami’s earnest desire was to make Mangarh an ideal village. The sprawling ashram inhabited by some foreigners and exotic-looking disciples has overawed villagers who are still beholden to the feudal past.

Perhaps Pratapgarh is the only district in India where people still refer to the feudal families as “Bade Raja, Majhle Raja and Chhote Raja”. Though official records describe it as one of the most backward districts, four feudal families have ruled the roost here since independence. The legendary Dinesh Singh, who served as foreign minister in Indira Gandhi’s regime and continued as union minister even during the PV Narasimha Rao regime, belonged to Kalakankar estate. His daughter Rajkumari Ratna Singh now represents the Lok Sabha constituency. Then there are two other feudal estates, Bhadri and Benti, which are aligned by matrimonial alliances to the family of Raghu Raj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiyya. This young feudal lord who is a Samajwadi Party legislator is feared by all for his ferocity and cruel ways of crushing his adversaries. In the Mayawati regime, he was even charged with murdering his rivals and feeding them to crocodiles reared in an illegally occupied pond. There is another feudal family that belonged to the Pratapgarh estate which is lying low these days.

There is no denying the fact that people of Paratapgarh invariably look up to these feudal families as their patrons. What is curious is the fact that the institutions built by the state since independence have only perpetuated the clientele-patron culture in the region where hapless and marginalised people tend to seek doles from these fiefs. For instance, the district magistrate and the superintendent of police only play second fiddle to these rajas who continue their stranglehold over their subjects. The state, meanwhile, seems to have abdicated all its social and administrative responsibilities and virtually merged its identity with that of the feudal families.

In such a milieu, the emergence of Kripalu Maharaj was seen by people of Pratapgarh as an apparition of a benign benefactor. Since the swami’s growth in the region coincided with the rise of the Hindutva forces in politics, the Kripalu Maharaj trust commanded overweening influence on the state as well. This is amply demonstrated in the trust office where the swami is seen with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a photograph. In the past one decade, the swami’s trust has emerged as a new spiritual fiefdom which co-exists with the other feudal lords of Pratapgarh district. In effect, the existence of the institutions of the state is just an optical illusion. There are neither good government healthcare facilities nor good colleges and schools in Pratapgarh, said an IAS officer who served as the district magistrate in the district. “This is one of the worst poverty-stricken districts of the state,” he said.

According to Bimlesh Kumar Tripathi, pradhan of Itaura village, next to Mangarh, Swami Kripalu Maharaj is god’s gift to the people of the region. Tripathi, who is closely associated with the swami, points out that in the past  decade, the trust hosted 40-odd such bhandaras. “The maharaj (as the swami is known) gives financial assistance to any poor person who comes his way,” he said, adding that many people were offered assistance for marriage of their daughters. There are many stories doing the rounds in Pratapgarh that the swami offered assistance to people for treatment of serious ailments. “He is like god to us,” said Tripathi who was the first to reach the site where the stampede took place. “It was  god’s will where humans cannot do much,” he said.
None of the families which lost their relatives in the stampede lodged even an FIR against the trust or Kripalu Maharaj. Even the administration arrested three office-bearers of the trust just for record’s sake and they were let off by the court the next day. With the administration and political leaders trying to shield the ashram, trust and the godman, people’s faith in the swami’s clout is further reinforced.

Significantly, 61 of 63 victims belonged to OBCs and Dalit castes while only two girls were identified as brahmins who are believed to have accidentally strayed into the area for fun. That the centre’s rural employment programmes have not ameliorated the lot of landless peasants is evident by the records which show a constant slide of the district in development indices. Given the poor performance of the NREGS in the entire state, Pratapgarh is no exception as landless peasants comprising over 70 percent of the population live in miserable economic conditions. Ramesh, who lost his son Rabi, said that he earns Rs 500-1,000 a month depending upon the casual jobs he get.

There is neither any industry nor any developmental project to provide jobs to villagers, admit district officials. This is why women and children thronged to the ashram on March 4 to get freebies. That the distribution of freebies has found social acceptance in Pratapgarh is demonstrated by the fact that all schools in Kunda and adjoining regions were closed to enable students to go there. This explains the presence of 23 children among 63 victims of the stampede.

As the tragedy is gradually fading out, there are reports of people beseeching Kripalu Maharaj against discontinuing the practice of distributing freebies. The anger and sorrow of losing precious lives has been effectively tranquilized by heavy doses of cash, clout and assurances to the rural poor. Like Gheesu and his son Madhav in Premchand’s Kafan, people seem to be accepting degradation, death and humiliation with a spiritual equanimity in an India
that is the world’s second-fastest  growing economy. Except that talk of growth almost sounds like a cruel joke  in  Kunda.

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