In the summer of 2014, Narendra Modi crisscrossed India, addressing a record number of election meetings which were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. He promised to reshape the country and improve the lives of Indians, winning a historic mandate for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Four years later, what is the effect of his ideas and the impact of his government? Over the next few months, Scroll.in aims to bring you some glimpses of this by revisiting places Modi went to during his 2014 campaign. We start with Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh, which hosted this year’s Panchayat Day celebrations, where Modi, as prime minister, outlined his vision for rural development.
A day before the big event, Radha Bai Dhurwey was coached on how to walk on stage, greet the prime minister and accept the award from him at the right angle for a picture.
Narendra Modi had come to Mandla on April 24 for the annual National Panchayat Day celebrations. Dhurwey was one of the two sarpanches from Mandla who had been selected to receive an award from him. Asked what for, the elected head of Medhi village said disarmingly, “I don’t know, they did not tell me.”
Ninety km away, in Linga Mal village, Amravati Vatiya, the other sarpanch who was selected for an award, remembered TV cameras coming to her village two days before Modi’s visit and asking her the same question, to which she had no answer. Tongue-tied, she heard some officials quip: “Write down a note for Madam, she isn’t able to speak on her own.”
The mystery ended the next day, when during the rehearsal of the event, she was handed a mock certificate. It said she was being recognised for the successful implementation in her village of the Ujjwala Yojana, the central government scheme which provides free cooking gas connections to poor families. Vatiya said she had little to do with the scheme. “The agency supplied the gas tanki [cylinder] and the district officials oversaw their distribution.”
Unlike Vatiya who has studied till Class 5, Dhurwey cannot read, otherwise she would have discovered from her certificate that she was being recognised for the implementation of the Saubhagya Yojana, the central government scheme which provides free electricity connections to poor families.
Both the schemes were showcased as part of Modi government’s Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, a hurriedly conceived nationwide campaign which began on April 14 and ran till May 5.
Gram Swaraj means Village Self-Rule, but the campaign was anything but that.
For 20 days, 1,200 officials of the central government were made to put aside their regular work and dispatched to oversee the “saturation” of Modi’s seven flagship schemes in 16,850 villages around the country. The aim was to ensure every eligible family in these villages was given a cooking gas connection, an electricity connection, one environmentally-friendly bulb, bank accounts for all family members along with accident and life insurance, and immunisation shots for children.
In Mandla, three villages were selected as part of the Abhiyan – Medhi, Linga Mal and Paudi Bhawarda.
Asked why these villages had been picked over others, Sujan Singh Rawat, the Indian Administrative Service officer responsible for rural development in Mandla as the chief executive officer of the District Panchayat, said, “That even I don’t know. The names were selected by the Centre.”
Rawat speculated that villages which had nearly completed their targets were chosen to ensure the Abhiyan’s success.
In Medhi village, for instance, Dhurwey’s certificate of award, which lay in a corner of the panchayat office, stated that of the 263 households in the village, 260 had existing electricity connections. Only three had been given new connections under the Saubhagya Yojana.
“The electricity department officials spent some days in the village and seemed to have installed more connections,” said Mann Singh, the panchayat secretary, “but they never gave us a list, so we don’t actually know.”
The seat of a powerful Gond kingdom five centuries ago, Mandla is now best known for the Kanha Tiger Reserve, which draws eager tourists from faraway cities every summer. Off the tourist circuit, the vast majority of Mandla’s 11 lakh people live by gathering forest produce and growing rice and millets on small, unirrigated farms. With nearly 60% of its people belonging to Gond, Baiga and other tribal communities, the district comes under the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule. A law passed in 1996 gives panchayats in the Fifth Schedule Areas special powers over their land, resources and developmental projects.
But these powers remain largely on paper. For all the talk on decentralised governance, under-resourced panchayats in India have been ruled by executive fiats from governments under all political dispensations. The Modi regime has simply strengthened the Indian State’s centralising tendencies, say officials, visible in its audacity of naming an entirely top-down campaign as Gram Swaraj Abhiyan.
In Medhi village, three overworked panchayat staff members – the secretary, the employment assistant and the office peon – are responsible for meeting the administrative needs of 1,300 people. They knew little about the Abhiyan, barring what they had been asked to do: hold eight meetings in the village and submit photographs as evidence. The meetings were presumably held to raise awareness of Modi government’s flagship schemes – one of the stated aims of the Abhiyan. But the panchayat staff had a hard time gathering enough people on each of the days. “Now tell us, why would people come so many times leaving behind all their work?” asked Shatrughan Jhariya, the office peon.
In Linga Mal village, the panchayat was equally ill-informed. In their enthusiasm to meet the target of saturation, the officials gave free gas cylinders even to those families otherwise ineligible under the Ujjwala scheme. Word spread that even the electricity connections were being given for free. Only after the officials left did people discover that those not categorised as poor would be charged Rs 500 for the connection, to be paid in ten instalments as part of future electricity bills.
Such was the lack of awareness that even Vatiya, the sarpanch, got a new electricity connection, despite having an existing one. “Had I known about the Rs 500 charge, I would not have got the connection,” she said. The deputy sarpanch, Bhargav Prasad, interjected with a laugh: “Maybe that’s why they did not tell anyone? After all, their aim was to complete their targets.”
In April 2014, Modi had travelled to Mandla as part of his pre-election blitzkrieg. He began his speech by claiming a special relationship with its people. “The water that you drink, I have grown up drinking the same water,” he said, invoking the river Narmada which flows through the district. “You are the mercy of Mother Narmada, my Gujarat too is at her mercy.”
Four years later, he repeated the same lines, even though the river lay shrivelled after a season of poor rains. The Panchayat Day event was held against the backdrop of a stunning Gond palace built in the 17th century in Ramnagar, 20 km from the Mandla district headquarters. Modi praised the bravery of Rani Durgavati, the Gond dynast who was defeated by a Mughal viceroy, much in the same way he did in 2014. He even spoke snatches of Gondi.
“It was all a waste,” rued Ajay Jhariya, a businessman in Ramnagar and a self-professed Modi fan. “There just weren’t that many Adivasis in the crowd.”
The Adivasi Mahapanchayat, a network of community organisations, had asked its members to stay away. Some of the grievances were local – for instance, allegations of corruption against an official in the Tribal Welfare Department. But there were larger anxieties too.
“What the Congress could not do in 60 years, Modi has done in four years,” said Sudesh Parate, a district panchayat member. “He has taken away our rights. Our educated class now says don’t vote for the BJP.”
On April 2, in northern Madhya Pradesh, Dalit groups had staged protests against a Supreme Court order diluting the atrocity law which penalises crimes against Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The protests were met with upper-caste violence, resulting in nine deaths. The same day, away from the spotlight, thousands of Adivasis marched in Mandla for the same cause. Their anger was directed against the Modi government for its failure to challenge this judicial order, as well as another one which curtailed reservations for Dalits and Adivasis in promotions in government jobs.
“Modi is an RSS man,” a retired Gond teacher burst out at a tea shop. “If the Congress is saap naath (snake king), the BJP is naag naath (cobra king).”
The BJP has ruled Madhya Pradesh for 15 years. But Modi’s ascendance has accelerated the Sangh Parivar’s cultural agenda, said Rajendra Dhurwey, the young spokesperson of the Gondwana Students Union, which swept university elections in the state last year.
“The Congress looted us. But the BJP is worse, it is carrying out cultural aggression,” he said. “They want to change the name of Rani Durgavati University to Deen Dayal Upadhyay University. They want to make us Hindus.”
Less than 2% of Mandla’s population is Muslim, but two days after Modi’s visit, Hindutva groups managed to raise controversy over the marriage of a young Adivasi woman, Saraswati Vanvasi, with her Muslim classmate and friend, Saddam Hussein. The young couple had known each other for nine years; Vanvasi had signed an affidavit in February, giving up her rights over her ancestral property; they tied the knot at a mass wedding event organised by the administration. Still, their relationship was recast as love jihad, with Hussein accused of misleading Vanvasi in a bid to convert her.
A month later, when this reporter visited the house of the couple, the family was grieving: Hussein’s father, a driver, had died of a heart attack. “He could not bear to answer everyone’s questions,” said Naseem, Hussein’s mother. “Out of the blue, we are all over the papers, for no fault of ours.”
“Who are we to say the fiza (atmosphere) has worsened since Modi came,” she said, “we are small people, we just want to live in peace.”
In 2014, Modi used a large part of his speech in Mandla to criticise the Congress. Some of the barbs reappeared in his 2018 speech, but the focus was on rural governance. In what seemed to be an enunciation of his own thinking, he asked: “Would there be any sarpanch who does not wish to use his five year term to complete 5-15 good projects?”
If Mandla is an indication, the Modi government wants to complete four projects on priority: the delivery of electricity and gas connections, and the construction of toilets and houses.
Electrification is a popular, pragmatic and achievable goal – it builds on the work of the previous government. But the adoption of cooking gas is more complicated.
At the far end of Linga Mal village, late morning, Shyamvati Udde sat sorting tendu leaves with her two daughters. Of course, they had a cooking gas connection, she responded, but they weren’t using it.
“This rice gruel,” she said, taking the lid of a vessel, “if you cook it twice on the gas, it will run out.”
The family had received a free gas cylinder and stove under the Ujjwala Yojana in August 2016. Both now lay in different corners of the room, wrapped under bundles of cloth, like precious possessions. Food was being cooked on the wood-fired oven. The family had not sought a single refill, the card issued by the gas agency showed.
“We cannot afford refills,” said Udde’s daughter. “The government gave us the cylinder, so we took it, but since then it has become more difficult to collect firewood. The forest guards have become more demanding. They say, go use your free gas.”
A study commissioned by the government to assess the impact of a pilot project of the Ujjwala Yojana pointed to the likelihood of poor families being unable to afford cooking gas, even at a subsidised price. But the government did not wait for the study’s findings and scaled up the scheme. Data shows cooking gas consumption has not increased in pace with the new connections.
But the most ill-conceived project seems to be toilet construction under the Swachh Bharat Mission. In village after village in Mandla, toilets are lying unused, in a state of disrepair, converted into dumps, crumbling away.
“There is no demand for toilets,” said an official, who requested anonymity. “The villages here are sparsely populated, with enough open space, and water is scarce. People just don’t see the need for toilets.”
Despite that, the administration is building toilets with missionary zeal. At last count, 148,814 toilets had been constructed in Mandla – one toilet for seven people. With Rs 12,000 spent per toilet, the expenditure has already crossed Rs 178 crore.
“The money is totally going down the drain,” said an official who requested anonymity. “As a taxpayer, I hate to see that, but I cannot do anything. There is immense pressure from above, it is the Prime Minister’s pet project.”
The greatest political capital for the Modi government could come from the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, which gives financial assistance to build a concrete house. The assistance has doubled from Rs 75,000 per rural house under the previous government’s Indira Awas Yojana to Rs 1.6 lakh.
Sensing the scheme’s popularity, the Madhya Pradesh government is getting the names of the prime minister and chief minister painted at the entrance of every house built under the scheme.
Of the 21,735 rural houses sanctioned under the scheme in Mandla last year, officials claim nearly 18,000 houses have been completed.
But in the villages, it was rare to find an occupied house. In many cases, the structure was complete, but the doors and windows were missing. Some house owners said they had run out of money for the finishing touches. But an official gave another explanation: villagers had ample space to build a new house without bringing down their old house, he said. “Even when the old house is fine, they are building the new house, thinking the government is giving money, let’s take it.”
Particularly in the summer, the new concrete house was far less hospitable than the old house, which was cool, by virtue of being made of mud and limestone.
An unexpected fallout of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is a rural banking logjam.
One morning around 11.30 am, a large crowd sat waiting outside the branch of the Central Bank of India in Mawai block. The branch, which services 52 panchayats and more than 6,000 accounts, was yet to open its shutters. The manager has gone to the neighbouring district of Shahdol, 170 km away, to get cash. “After the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana started, on average, Rs 10 lakh are being withdrawn every day,” said Pawan Kumar, the assistant manager. With barely any deposits being made, the bank runs out of cash every 2-3 days, he said.
Mandla has very few bank branches – five of its nine blocks have just two branches each. With all government subsidies and payments routed through banks, the system was already under pressure, and the housing scheme seems to have been the last straw. Villagers travel long distances to withdraw small amounts and often spend the day waiting in queues, only to find the cash has run out.
To ease the pressure, banks have outsourced small payments to banking correspondents, who were expected to be nimble and mobile. But since the internet network in Mandla is poor, they tend to cluster in the block headquarters.
“The Modi government talks of decentralisation,” said Bhupendra Varkade, the deputy head of the Narayanganj block panchayat, “but its real legacy is centralisation through digitisation. Our people can’t cope.”
In the block headquarters, among the crowds gathered outside the bank was a 60-year-old man named Koundi Parte, who wanted to withdraw Rs 20,000 from the first installment he had received for his newly sanctioned house. The previous day, the bank had redirected him to the banking correspondent agency, stationed in a shop next door. Since the agency needed Aadhaar to authenticate the payment, Parte was asked to go back home and bring his Aadhaar card. His village lies 12 km away and each trip costs him Rs 30.
Linking his account to his Aadhaar number was not enough. For every payment, the agency would have to scan his fingerprints. If they matched, the maximum he could withdraw per transaction was Rs 10,000. “How much sand, gravel, cement can I buy for that amount?” he asked, standing outside the shop, waiting for his turn, as the temperature touched 43 degrees celsius.
“Have you ever heard Modi talk of the Forests Rights Act?” asked Naresh Biswas, a social activist who works with the Baiga community. Passed in 2006, the law recognised the customary rights of forest dwelling communities and created a mechanism for them to get formal land titles. Its implementation was patchy even under the United Progressive Alliance government, said Biswas, but under the current government, it has been completely ignored. “All collectors are busy building toilets,” he said. “They couldn’t care less about people’s rights.”
Even the non-governmental organisations that helped Adivasis navigate official red tape to get their land titles have fallen silent. “There is fear of being targetted by the government,” he said.
At the far end of Mandla district lies Amaravar village on the border with Chhattisgarh.
Nine Baiga boys from the village had travelled 60 km to Ramnagar to perform a traditional dance for the Prime Minister.
The only thing that one of them, Hiralal Marawi, remembered from Modi’s speech was his claim that every poor family would have a pucca house by 2022.
“What Modi says he does not do,” said Marawi. In his village, everyone was still waiting for the houses.
A smaller disappointment was that the Rs 2,000 he had been promised for the performance was yet to come into his account.
A short distance ahead, Gauthu Singh, an older Baiga man, had a different view. Asked what he wanted from the Modi government, he said he wanted a patta, or land title. “If we have land, we will earn enough to build our own house.”