When Rahul came knocking

For dalits of Semra village, Rahul Gandhi's visit was like manna from heaven. It forced government officials to fast track development work

Pradeep Kapoor Semra (UP)

A fairytale is unfolding in a non-descript village of Semra in Uttar Pradesh. On January 14, 2009, the hopelessly poor dalit residents of this village, 30 km from Amethi, were visited by farishtas (angels). They seemed to have dropped some magic dust on a village that had not seen any development.

They were no ordinary farishtas of the kind that descend from the skies. They were Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi and British Foreign Secretary David Milliband, who decided to stay in Semra to experience the hardships of Indian village life.

Ten months later, change seems to be sweeping this dusty village. A metal road is being speedily laid. Chotelal, owner of a tea stall on the road leading to the village, said, "Construction work on the road has accelerated during the past three months." "Rajiv Gandhi had flagged off the kuchcha road by using the spade or phawra. Now, his son Rahul is turning it into a metal road through Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana."

A huge neon-sign board has been set up. It flashes description of the road.Electricity poles, too, have been erected along the road to bring power to the villagers of Semra. The manifest change is visible in the life of dalit widow, Shiv Kumari. It was in her house that Rahul and Milliband spent a night. An excited Shiv Kumari opened the door for this correspondent to show with pride the room where her bhaiyya Rahul Gandhi and Milliband had spent the night on two cots and ate the food she had cooked.

Wiping the tears that welled up in her eyes, Shiv Kumari remembered how patiently the young leaders had heard her and the other members of the self-help group. She had told them about her tragic life - how she had been widowed a few years ago and how she had to bring up her five children alone on a measly daily wage of Rs 25 per day. A moved Rahul had picked up her youngest son, three-year-old Sunil, in his arms and hugged him.

Rahul had promised help then which came a few months later when an NGO began building another room in her house. Her father, Ram Kishore, and brother, Heeralal, both construction workers, are also helping out Shiv Kumari. She is also getting a widow pension. Even the ration for her family has improved after Rahul visited Semra.

Shiv Kumari complained about corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). She alleged that she received only Rs 600 of the Rs 1,200 that was due to her. The rest, 50 per cent of her wages, was held back by the village pradhan. Later, however, she was told by the pradhan that she would get the entire money and also that she did not have to work at all.

Another dalit woman, Shivkala, who is also a member of the self-help group, said that women have begun to assert themselves. The likes of Pooja Bedi, film actress, are also helping them build their resolve and confidence. Bedi has assured that the villagers will soon be able to get interest-free loans to build pucca houses.

Nankau, a dalit youth, said that although Semra has been adopted as an Ambedkar village, there has been no development. Neither did people get old-age pension nor did they benefit from any government programme. Yet, villagers had enthusiastically participated in the 2009 general elections. Voter turnout in Semra was about 68 per cent.

Local political activist and social worker, Jagdish Piyush, has been working here for the past three decades. He said that Rahul's visit to the dalit basti in his Lok Sabha constituency has brought them  closer to the Congress. "Now, government officials have been forced to fast track development work," he said.

Interestingly, Rahul's visit has been welcomed by opposition parties, too. Senior BJP leader, Kalraj Mishra, told the media that such trips and close interaction between politicians and dalits should be encouraged.

Prominent dalit activist and former IG of police, SR Darapuri, told Hardnews that Rahul was reaching out to those who had never been looked up by anyone before. "He is doing what Gandhiji did by touring India to get first-hand information of the ground reality," he said.
Darapuri further said that Rahul was exploiting the dalits neglected by the complacent BSP supremo Mayawati.

While dalits in UP are happy with Rahul's periodic visit to their houses, there is a growing rage against copy cat visits by various Congress leaders. On Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary, the state unit of the Congress instructed its leaders to follow Rahul's example and spend the day with the poor and the oppressed.

Congress leaders followed the directive of UPCC president, Rita Bahuguna. While Bahuguna cooked rotis for the dalits, some MPs and Union ministers from UP made a mockery of the programme. They took along with them cooks, guests, mosquito nets, coolers and other luxury items and the media, too. Branded as "dalit tourism", their conduct attracted the ire of the party leadership. Both AICC President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul conveyed their unhappiness about the shoddy manner in which Gandhi Jayanti was observed by sycophants of the UP Congress. Minister of State for Petroleum Jitin Prasada was an honourable exception who lived without fanfare at a dalit house.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2009