Bridging the gap in Raghopur
Mint reporters fan out across the country for a bottom-up socio-economic review, using Indian Post’s six-digit PIN code as a metaphorindia Updated: Apr 16, 2009 09:49 IST
In a land of shifting sands, it may only be a miracle that Raghopur, on the outskirts of Patna, has at least a PIN code that does not change.
For Virender Singh, though, this token of permanence hasn’t helped. In the past two decades, his house was swallowed up three times by the overflowing Ganga. On many mornings after the floods receded, he woke up to count the toll of people, land and household belongings claimed by the river changing its course by many kilometres. But in his list of hardships, Virender Singh counts boat rides among the toughest. Raghopur, his home for the past 50 years, cannot do without a boat.
Bordered by the Ganga on two sides, the assembly constituency in Bihar can be accessed only through a boat journey, or when the river is kind, through a pontoon bridge. Between May and November, the bridge is inaccessible because of floods, an annual event in Raghopur, or strong river currents. This is no different from large parts of Bihar, where floods inflict the gravest damage on property and livelihoods every year. In August, Bihar, which accounts for 17.2% of the flood-prone area in India, faced its worst floods ever when the Kosi river changed its course. At least one million people were affected by the floods in three districts of the state, according to Bihar government statistics. By conservative estimates, floods have affected about 10 million people in the state over the last decade.
A bridge too far
A permanent bridge, for most people in Raghopur including Singh, remains a perennial election issue. They argue that the river can’t be tamed, but a permanent bridge can make all the difference.
This year too, ahead of the general election, the residents have revived their demand, first made in 2000. Even being one of Bihar’s largest assembly constituencies, with an electorate of 248,000 people, and being the pocket borough of a former state chief minister, has not helped.
The only concrete road in Raghopur extends from Rustampur to Fatehpur; the rest is interconnected through muddy alleys. In some places, sand from the river bed has been stocked to be sold as construction raw material.
For the residents here, the logic is simple. Much of what is built here is devoured by the floods. "Floods come like a demon. They damage everything," Singh says.
In Jiddupur village, which is part of Raghopur, the electoral alliance between Ram Vilas Paswan, founder of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls is the talking point. Expectations are that it would lead to consolidation of Yadav and Dalit votes in Yadav-dominated Raghopur. While Paswan is the LJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from the Hajipur constituency, under which Raghopur falls, the RJD is not fielding anyone in deference to the alliance. The ruling Janta Dal (United), or JD(U)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance has fielded former chief minister Ram Sundar Das, a Dalit, in the 23 April election.
Since 1995, when Prasad first contested polls for the state assembly from Raghopur, most of the estimated 85,000 Yadav voters have backed the RJD. In the coming Lok Sabha polls in Hajipur, the alliance would significantly boost Paswan, the favourite among scheduled caste voters.
Bhushan Rai, a resident of Jiddupur, too has traditionally voted for the RJD. In 2000, when the party fielded Prasad’s wife Rabri Devi from the constituency in state byelections, Rai didn’t shift his loyalties. "They are from the same party and one family. What difference does it make?" he asks.
Rabri Devi, a former chief minister, is now serving her second term as a member of the Bihar assembly from Raghopur. However, a bridge continues to be an elusive aspiration.
The pontoon bridge is supported by rusted iron girders rising but a few metres above the river, and not the usual concrete pillars.
As a result, not only is it unstable in normal times due to the differing load of traffic, but it crumbles during floods. Worse, the state government spends Rs25 lakh annually for its maintenance.
It is also symptomatic of underdevelopment. To access a primary health centre (PHC), one has to travel at least 12km here. With a population of at least 350,000, Raghopur has just one PHC, two additional PHCs and about a dozen health sub-centres. A building in Mohanpur built by Rabri Devi, who served as the chief minister of Bihar during 1998-2005, for a referral hospital still awaits inauguration.
At the Jorawalpur PHC, its only doctor has not turned up for days. In most schools, classes are not held regularly because of the lack of even a class routine. "All the doctors and teachers skip classes. They all live in the towns since there are no residential facilities here and find commuting to Raghopur difficult," reasons Chandra Shekhar Rai, head of Pahadpur East panchayat, or village council. He says he has complained twice about absentee teachers to the local education officer, but in vain. "He too lives in Hajipur," he adds in a faint murmur.
The conditions in Raghopur could well be the basis for reports released by the United Nations Development Programme, which in 2007 ranked India 126th among 177 countries in terms of human development, indicating a poor performance on three counts: living a long and healthy life, being educated and having a decent standard of living.
According to the Annual Status of Education Report released in January by Pratham, a non-governmental organization working in the education sector, 2.7% of children in the age group of 7-10 years and 6.3% of them in the age group of 11-14 years in India are not in school.
Just 10km away from Raghopur, the district headquarters of Hajipur is a picture of contrast. It has benefited from a steady dole of development initiatives by Paswan, who has won elections here since 1977 with record margins. In 1989, he won the distinction of being the politician who polled the largest number of votes.
Not only is Hajipur the zonal headquarters of the East Central Railway, it also has two national-level engineering institutes—National Institute of Pharmaceuticals Engineering and Research and Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology, set up by the chemical and fertilizer ministry led by Paswan.
Steel Authority of India Ltd, a public sector undertaking under the ministry of steel also led by Paswan, has adopted two villages in Hajipur to be developed as "model villages".
Winds of change?
The development tales from Hajipur have reached Raghopur and generated discontent. "We have not gotten anything. Not even a proper bridge," says Satyanarayan Singh, a farmer in Rustampur, throwing up his hands. To his despair, his brother Surya has a counter-argument: "Hajipur is now on the country’s map only because of these initiatives."
The change of regime in 2005, when the JD(U)-BJP alliance ended the RJD’s 15-year rule over Bihar, has brought hope that things may change. The state government led by chief minister Nitish Kumar has initiated desilting of the river and also set up a task force to check violence over land disputes.
Mobile courts have also helped settle property feuds. With the river changing course, at least 10,000 homes have been destroyed over the last decade. As the floods receded, lost lands often triggered violent property disputes.
Many admit there is now a sense of security in the area. Clearly, however, caste affiliations will still be decisive in the election.
But for the likes of Bhuli Devi, head of Raghopur West panchayat, "Lalu raaj", a common term used to describe RJD’s rule over Bihar, was better even if the local state lawmaker Rabri Devi has visited the constituency just once in her two terms here. "She is always the best option. She is after all one among us—a Yadav," she says.