Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Village Diary

By Satyan Mishra, founder, Drishtee

(Opensourced, with his permission! He wants to let it 'fly' - so pass this on as much as you can!)

A monsoon morning in any part of India is as beautiful as it gets. Perhaps it is the smell of wet earth which refreshes or it could be the sight of the cloud laden sky. Being driven on such a morning into the countryside of North Bihar with a chain of thoughts is an experience worth sharing. More so as the past and future run alongside as two lanes on the same road; one on which we are driving and the other one, broader and more promising, being laid fresh. But wait! Before I get philosophical about development let me tell you that I am headed to our project village in Madhubani, for the second time in the same week. That is where the Pollution Control Board has suddenly decided to make a visit and inspect the site where we are putting up a state-of-the-art bamboo gasifier plant to produce 25 kW electricity to bring to life the aspirations of the community.

Bihar's first rural BPO has been setup in the heart of the village to allow young girls and boys to work and compete with their urban counterparts. Ten village youngsters have so far found employment. There is scope for many more if the pilot succeeds. Jobs inside the villages would result in reverse migration and the growth of the market within the community, which should lead to the revival of a dying economy. Here I go again talking of development and future, while the present seems to be hidden under the dark monsoon clouds.

Why has the safest electricity producing technology manufactured at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) with emission levels well within the Euro II levels, all within fancy acoustic enclosures, in the back of beyond village where the average income of a family is less than one US dollar a day, suddenly come under the stern eyes of the Pollution Control Board of an otherwise a sleepy state? Well to answer that question let us go back a week in time.

I had just returned from a trip abroad to receive a notice, under the Section 144 of CrPC, from the district authorities of Madhubani. It was in my name and stated that I can’t visit my home and the site of the BPO and the gasifier in the village Sauarth because there is a threat of riot with my implicit involvement, at the site of the gasifier. In that sleepy village where I have tried hard to shake people from their deep intoxicated slumber on the issues of development, self reliance, social values, what could have happened so suddenly to threaten peace.

I had two options in front of me. The first one was to stay in my air-conditioned office and send my lawyer and a senior Head Office team to represent me in the court of the Sub Divisional Magistrate at Madhubani. The other option was to carry my half unpacked luggage to the village to oversee things myself. The latter option was more tempting to the entrepreneur in me though it meant the defiance of the Section 144 notice slapped on me. I was in front of the District Magistrate the next evening to see a group of villagers gathered in front of the office, to show their support for the project in general and towards me in particular.

During the previous 24 anxious hours, I got a download on the entire story of how one family of bureaucrats had turned the story of unadulterated village development into a juicy family soap. Our next door, non-resident neighbours in the village, the undeclared first family of the village, had made their 'routine' yearly, week-long tour of the village in my absence and within the realms of their unlimited wisdom had declared the renewable, tested, certified and perhaps the best gasifier technology in the world as dangerous on account of causing health hazards, compared it to the famous 'Union Carbide' factory in Bhopal which had caused innumerable deaths.

Since many villagers were not aware about that incident, the hot rumour also included doses of possibilities of earthquakes and 'hot volcanic kind eruption' from the small gasifier. The usually entertainment starved villagers were in awe of the multifarious yet benign looking equipment. But the general reaction was somewhere between fear and excitement for the gasifier which was yet to start. The final touches to the acoustic enclosure had to be provided before the Section 144 was slapped.

At the exact scheduled time of the meeting, the District Magistrate who also is an IIT K alumni, called us. Within minutes of hearing the case, he admitted slackness on the part of concerned officials and agreed to withdraw the notice on the date of the hearing. The admission of mistake and clarity of assurance was either due to his honesty which reflected in his eyes or due to the large group of villagers peeping from outside, who believed more in development and less in the 'earth quake story'. Victory of sorts meant that work had to resume soon by the engineers from Delhi who had mercifully agreed to wait till the drama was over.

The news-hungry media have invaded every corner of the country and Madhubani is no exception. The story caught on to them and the weekend was spent between men, media and machinery.

There was relief and expectation in the eyes of the villagers, knowing little about yet another twist in the tale being round the corner. I left the village for Delhi with mixed feelings on the possibility of replicating such projects in the state as the pilot was proving to be a huge drain in terms of resource and personal energy. I was greeted at Patna with another bombshell. The Pollution Control Board at the behest of a complaint filed by the patriarch of the 'First Family in the village' had swung into action against the symbol of development which had not yet started, to prove its own credentials. The Board (Pollution Control) has anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 such generators (mostly operating on diesel or kerosene which is non renewable) within its jurisdiction. A normal complaint for the fortunate can take in excess of a month to be looked into. The normal remedy is to suggest an enclosure or vibration pads, which our gasifier already possessed. But to move within 2-3 days of a complaint requires some strong push.

By this time, it was clear to me that the path to development in the state of Bihar needs much more than a change in government. It is the attitude of people which has to change. The individuality and selfishness within the rich and powerful has reached levels of obscenity leading to strong resentment within the poor. It is not hard to believe why the Naxalite ideology is finding deep roots in the existing system. While the state talks of attracting NRI investment, it is a mere pawn in the hands of a very small group of people who use the machinery to settle personal scores.

Well, it is difficult to remain upbeat always in the face of such frustrations. While such a small spirited effort acquires painfully slow momentum, there is a strong and harsh force ready to nip it at its bud. The Zamindaars might have shifted their base from the village to the cities but the Zamindari system continues remotely, virtually in various forms. These thoughts are nauseating in this country where time is in short supply. We need to do things quickly to save us from an impending disaster, maybe a civil war which is clearly visible on the horizon.

Talking of horizon, the monsoon morning is still in its rich splendour. The Sun has taken a day off it seems. The air still smells of wet earth. I need to breathe deep to come out of the dark thoughts and look up ahead to counter another challenge. What could the Pollution Control Board inspection team look into a technology certified by the best in the world... is the thought on my head as I enter my beautiful village where development is knocking on the doors from inside. If you can hear the knocks, come out of your own doors and help open these doors!

Copyright © 2007 Satyan Mishra. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. You are free to share this work with others, in any form, provided this copyright notice is kept intact.

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