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Participatory Democracy
by Paromita Goswami
(Chandrapur, Maharastra, India)

Bade Babu heard SDO Saheb put down the phone and decided not to enter the boss’s cabin just yet. He knew – he made it his business to know – about every little thing that happened in the office which included a full knowledge of the ongoing troubles. This was the sixth phone call in the last four days from the Additional Collector Chandekar Madam demanding to know why the documents required for auction of sand ghats in the taluka had not been submitted. Bade Babu looked at his watch, “Yes, today is already eleventh of September. The Collector office must be aiming for the auction in the first week of October. No wonder Bai saheb is calling up every day.”

There was a late afternoon lull in the office. Bade Babu stretched his legs under the ancient wooden table, leaned back on his wooden chair and closed his eyes. He needed to apply his mind on this matter. There was a time when the government was all-powerful, the Mai-baap – the government was a parent and people were like babies, unable to think for themselves, unable to talk sense, unable to wipe the snot from their noses! Those were times of clarity - the parent was the parent and the child was the child. But things have changed. Now we have all this nautanki this charade of local self-governance, decentralisation, grassroots democracy. Bade Babu’s forehead crinkled up in deep furrows. He was not against democracy but he was totally against the nautanki – such an utter waste of time! Now in the name of democracy and empowerment the child is treated with undue deference. Gram Sabhas of utterly nondescript hamlets are ‘empowered’ to take this and that resolution! For instance they are empowered to issue No Objection Certificates for the extraction and transport of sand in their jurisdiction. It is like putting a box of matches in the hands of the blathering infant!

And who had handed over the matchbox? At this exasperating thought Bade Babu’s eyes flew open. He saw a hesitant junior clerk waiting with some files in hand. Bade Babu grabbed the papers, corrected a few spellings, glared at the clerk and then scribbled his initials at the bottom of each page. After the clerk had scurried away, Bade Babu shifted in his chair and closed his eyes again. He was irritated at the invisible high and mighty officials sitting in the distant state capital who gave such undue importance to villagers,  conjured nonsense  policies out of thin air - such as allowing Gram Sabhas to meddle in the crucial issue of sand mining. Did they care that because of them one single ridiculous village bearing the name Jhilgaon was playing errant? It had refused to give the NOC thereby bringing the auctions of all sand ghats in the district to a grinding halt. 

Bade Babu glanced briefly towards SDO Saheb’s cabin. The snatches of conversation told him that Saheb was busy with visitors. Bade Babu sighed and went back to his rumination. He wondered what had come over the Jhilgaon villagers. It was absolutely uncharacteristic of village people in this backward area to defy authority. They were a laid back lot, very cooperative and open to give and take. And as long as they remained laid back and cooperative things got done. But now something had gone wrong. Jhilgaon had not deposited the NOC and it had created a kink in the system.

Bade Babu had spent his entire working life in this one taluka office – not counting the two miserable years that he spent in Jivti. The very memory of the remote godforsaken place sent a shiver or two down his spine. In the last thirty years he had never heard of a village refusing to comply with orders. Usually the administration could count on the full support of the Sarpanch and Panchayat members. And with a little help from the contractors, development work moved smoothly without a glitch. Who had provoked the Jhilgaon villagers to mutiny? Last month some paryavaranwadis – self-declared environmentalists - from the city had organised meetings but as far as he could remember these people had not yet visited Jhilgaon, but then (he sighed with his eyes closed) who could tell where these paryavaranwadis went?

A bell tinkled and Bade Babu quickly wiped his face, picked up the bundle of files on his table and entered the cabin. After the files were duly perused and signed, the SDO looked at Bade Babu.

“What do you know about Jhilgaon?” he asked.

“Saheb, I know Jhilgaon rather well…” Bade Babu began.

“Do you?” asked the young SDO intently, “what is there to know? I went there yesterday and there was nothing to know as far as I could see.”

“Yes sir. I thought, if you want, I could try for the NOC…,” Bade Babu continued.

The SDO looked up towards the wily old man, irritated at his unkempt presence. 

“Hmmm. Yes yes, you should try….” he muttered.

Just then a group of local journalists entered the room. Bade Babu returned to his chair, laced his fingers on his ample tummy and closed his eyes. SDO Saheb had gone to the village, but apparently nothing had come of that trip. Saheb’s driver had reported (in strict confidence of course) that there were hardly any people in the meeting. Bade Babe felt sorry for his boss. Like most officers born and brought up in the great metropolitan cities he hated the hinterland. The poor man divided his time between dull office work and desperate phone calls to the secretariat, hoping to find a way out of this wilderness. 

Bade Babu forced his mind to drop the topic of the SDO’s career situation and focus on the task at hand. He needed the SDO’s signatures on his applications, he needed to put his service book in order and for that he needed his boss’s attention. Bade Babu shifted his thoughts like other people shift furniture – slowly, carefully. He decided to visit Jhilgaon the day after tomorrow, the first Saturday after Ganpati Visarjan. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced that this was the best day to go meet the villagers, find out what was bothering them.  Once he had diagnosed the trouble he would proceed with the cure.  Bade Babu had great confidence in his abilities of persuasion.

Thus, on Saturday late in the evening Bade Babu arrived at Jhilgaon on his motorcycle and went straight to the house of Devidas. He had lived long enough in the taluka to know that on the first Saturday after Ganpati Visarjan important local leaders threw a feast for the entire village – spicy hot chicken curry served with rice and yellow kadi. Devidas tucked a wad of paan into the recesses of his mouth and smiled broadly. Bade Babu was a VIP after all, straight from the sarkari office.

“Arey Sa’ab! Ya ya! Aat madhe ya ji! Welcome sir, please come inside,” said Devidas leading Bade Babu into the newly constructed sitting room with fresh pink tiles and large posters of roses on the wall. Bade Babu returned the smile and greetings and congratulated Devidas heartily on the grand feast. A colourful shamiana had been set up where the entire village had gathered – the women led by Devidas’ wife and daughter-in-law were serving food, a large group of children were dancing to blaring Bollywood music.

Bade Babu immediately felt vindicated - he had come to the right place at the right time. The room was full of people who welcomed him and offered him the centre chair, the one with a pillow cushion. The conversation veered from the paddy season (the government should pay a higher bonus to paddy farmers) to the forthcoming Panchayat elections (Bandu Bhadke should allow his wife to contest) to the collections to be made for the natak company (this year we must negotiate for two record dances). Bade Babu participated keenly in the conversations and laughed loudly at the jokes. He looked around, making mental notes of all the men. Devidas the leader of the farmers and Bagde Patil with his firm grip over the Mana Samaj were the key players. Gangadhar Bhau ‘managed’ the Adivasis although young upstarts were demanding a share in power. And the Telenge community was led by the wheezing old Dandewar with his fondness for uncouth language.

Devidas’s son Manoj and his friend Praveen sat listening intently.Soon large steel plates of rice and chicken arrived.  

At an opportune moment during the dinner Bade Babu opened the topic of sand mining.

“Arey, I heard there is some problem about the sand mining NOC,” he began

“Hmmm,” growled Dandewar, removing a bone from between his teeth.

“Ah that…” said Bagde Patil, as if he was least concerned.

“Actually, people have decided…” started Devidas, but Bade Babu raised a palm to stop him.

“People, what people?! Arey, bhai,  all of you are the real decision-makers of the village. Heh heh! You all are the nete-mattabbar!” Bade Babu moved his hand in a circle. There was laughter in the room and Bade Babu felt very comfortable.

“Okay, ‘people’ means we are all included in that,” continued Devidas with a smile, “People have decided we will give the NOC after we get Rs.22 lakhs.”

“Twenty two lakhs!!” Bade Babu was stunned. His fingers carrying a ball of kadhi-bhaat to the mouth, returned back to the plate. “Twenty two lakhs??” he wondered aloud. 

“Nahi mhanje, that is what the government owes us…” said Praveen.

Bade Babu turned his head towards the other side and repeated in a flat tone, “The government owes you??” His mind was in a whirl. What was the village coming to? Where did they hear this nonsense? When did the government ever owe anyone anything, leave alone these bumpkins? 

“The sarkaar owes us twenty two lakhs from last year’s sand. We plan to build an Adivasi Samaaj Mandir…” began Gangadhar and immediately all hell broke loose. Everyone started to loudly discuss better ways to spend the money. Praveen agreed with Gangadhar but others did not – Samaj Bhavans can wait! 

“The drains need repair…”

“Ward number three needs a hand pump …”

“The internal roads needs paving…”

Suddenly old man Dandewar let out a loud burp and an expletive simultaneously. “Shut up all of you and listen to me!! We are not giving the motherfucking NOC (Burp!!) till the motherfucking government gives us the twenty two lakhs!” So saying Dandewar held his glass in his left hand and poured water over his right hand. The water puddled on the empty plate underneath.

Slowly it dawned on Bade Babu. The villagers had learned about the government’s new guidelines for sand mining (which motherfucker told them?).  The Gram Panchayats were to get a quarter of amount earned in the auction. He did the math quickly in his head. These idiots were probably right. Last year more than 4000 brass sand was extracted from Jhilgaon ghat which meant the auction price must have gone up to around Rs.90 lakhs, deduct the royalty and what was the share of the village? Yes, twenty two lakhs give or take some!

Bade Babu smiled genially and changed the tone. “Arey Baba, why didn’t you put your demand when Saheb came for the Gram Sabha yesterday. After all such a big officer came to your village, one of you should have told him. By now the matter would have been solved.”

At Bade Babu’s words Manoj started laughing. “Saheb did not even sit for ten minutes. He came to the Gram Panchayat office and left almost immediately. Said something about the attendance falling short of the quorum.”

Bade Babu felt defensive about his boss. “You know Gram Sabha means all villagers should be present. Our Saheb is a very kind man. He wants maximum participation in the village. He wants decisions to be made in a proper way.”

“First your Saheb should give us the twenty two lakhs in a proper way,” said Praveen in a taunting nasal tone. Bade Babu controlled his desire to reach out and slap him – ek kanakhali!

“Yes, no motherfucking NOC without the motherfucking twenty two lakhs in the panchayat account,” added old Dandewar for good measure.

Bade Babu was fuming inside. He did not know exactly what bothered him – was it the language of the villagers? Their audacity? Bade Babu beamed at the host and thanked him profusely for the excellent dinner. Then he raised his hand in the general direction of the other guests who returned his gesture. Bade Babu was aware that the Gram Sabha was over – the real Gram Sabha.

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