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Angst in land of rooftop Patton tanks

india Updated: Mar 18, 2009 00:58 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
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At 63, Nihal Singh is being forced to play John Wayne in a Punjab village.

Reminiscent of the American movie icon, Singh, a former seaman, looks dandy in a yellow shirt with an Italian revolver dangling from his waist. His wife Gurbux is the sarpanch (head) of the village. "These are rough times," she says.

The revolver is a multi-purpose advertisement of his power - and of the uncertain character of an 'NRI village' like Kheradona in Kapurthala, where governmental neglect has meant that it's every man for himself.

Singh is ever the lone ranger. "Why shouldn't we look after ourselves," he asks. But in Kheradona, Kapurthala, 20 kilometres east of Jalandhar, things are beginning to fall apart.

A bridge lies unfinished on the edge of town, a gym lies incomplete at its centre. Thanks to the slowdown, funds have stopped flowing in for construction.

The roads, bus stops and schools - all maintained by money sent home by sons of the soil from around the world - are crumbling.

Governments long withdrew from villages pampered by Western expat money in Punjab. "Education Minister Upinder Kaur is our MLA," says Hari Singh, a 36-year-old railway employee. "When we asked for help with roads and schools, she said, 'This is an NRI village. Why do you need donations?'"

Villages all along the Doaba belt - the heart of Punjab's Green Revolution till 1960 and now also the NRI belt - have similar complaints.

"The road that connects the bus stand to our village school was started with NRI money," says student Tirath Brar. "But now we need a second layer of concrete and neither the government nor NRI donors is coming forward to help."

Village officials say NRIs invested a total of Rs 1,000 crore in 2006-08. Since last year, though, that figure has dipped to under 300 crore in Doaba.

The power equations are changing and traditional political patronage could be making a comeback as sarpanches jockey with mainstream political parties, trying to get their villages the best deals in exchange for support.

'Sarpanch' Nihal Singh is playing it by ear. So far, his clout has been largely dependant on his ability to rustle up NRI funds from friends like Sardar Kundan Khera, a well-to-do grocer in Southall, the UK.

"Over five years, I have brought in crores," Nihal boasts.

That doesn't help mason Balwinder Ram (25), who has been building water tanks for NRIs' houses in the shapes of Patton tanks and footballs or topping them up with figures of horses and giant cellphones.

Born into a family with robust sounding names - his brother is Palwinder, his father Raminder - he veered off the beaten track and named his son Nishant.

"I didn't want him to stick out," he says. "I thought we were going to Canada."

Last year, thanks to the publicity his work had generated among NRIs overseas, he was getting eager calls to take his art to Canada.

The calls stopped around November. "Thankfully, the slump has not affected our Kabaddi Gold Cup, for which NRIs give Rs 35 lakh to the local club every year," says Balwinder Singh, trusted visa consultant and 47-year-old sarpanch of Sandhu Chatha village. "What will happen next year? Who knows?"