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The broken bridge and smelling gutters

Ganesh Nadar continues his series on life in an Indian village

It was 8 am in the morning. The river bank tea shop had the usual crowd. "On 31st July come to the Panchayat office at 10.00 am," Ponsunder told Ganesh. "Why?" queried Ganesh . "That day they accept the loan applications and sanction them. I am a member of that committee." "But, I am not," replied Ganesh.

"So what? Every committee is supposed to have a graduate. I'll tell them you are one." Ponsunder emphasised.

"Okay," Ganesh gave in, "But what am I supposed to do there?" he asked. "Just recommend loans for all our cousins," laughed Ponsunder. "Suits me," agreed Ganesh.

On the 30th morning Ganesh was walking down the river bank. The village leader MRG passed by on his bike. He stopped and said, "The block development officer is coming here tomorrow. I want you to write a petition asking him to repair this bridge."

"I'll say we can't go to our fields because of it," added Ganesh. "Why don't you let me finish? You talk too much," rasped MRG. "Tell them we can't go to the village graveyard, they give preference to graveyards," advised the leader.

"But our graveyard is at the other end of the village," insisted Ganesh. "Haven't you seen the three graves on the other side of the river? I'll even show them to you. Why do you have to argue? Just write what I tell you." MRG was aggressive.

"Okay," agreed Ganesh. "I have given Rs 300 from the agricultural society to the village clerk as lunch for the officers," said MRG and went on his way.

That evening Rajarathinam and Ganesh were chatting in the former's rice mill in Kurumbur. "Have you noticed the gutters? They are clogged on both sides, the entire street stinks. Write a petition and give it to the BDO tomorrow," said Rajarathinam. "For tommorow's lunch, MRG has given Rs 300. The village clerk says it's not enough," informed Ganesh. "Order from David Nadar's hotel. I'll clear the balance above Rs 300," assured Rajarathinam.

It was 10 am. The BDO hadn't arrived. A motley crowd had gathered outside the panchayat office, also near the river bank. Business was pouring for Chokku Pillai, the tea shop owner. He was smiling.

Ponsunder was surrounded by his cousins Kanan and Babu. Both wanted loans and Ponsunder stood advising them. They were soon joined by Ponsunder's brother-in-law, who also wanted a loan. Ganesh's cousin Kanagaraj too was applying. Ganesh assured him that the loan would be sanctioned. He also assured Rajan, a part time LIC agent.

At 10.30 am the IRDP (Integral Rural Development Project) officer arrived with his clerks and a peon. There were three ladies, one was quite pretty. They all went inside the panchayat office. An officer from the local State Bank of India was also with them.

The jostling crowd outside had now settled down in two lines. One for the ladies and the other for men. Everybody carried their ration card with them. The clerks distributed the application forms. The villagers filled them. The clerks numbered the applications and the villagers went in one by one.

The officer asked everybody nearly the same questions. "What amount are you earning? Why do you need a loan? Will you pay back on time?" He also said, "IRDP loans have a very poor collection record." The villagers groaned.

Ganesh had written two petitions the night before. The broken bridge petition. The dirty Kurumbur gutters petition. The front door was crowded, so he entered the office through the back door and gave the petitions to the officer. The officer asked Ganesh to sit and read the petitions. Ganesh explained the problems to him. The officer nodded sagely and said he would forward them to the BDO.

Ponsunder was sitting at the other end of the room. He gestured to Ganesh to join him. "Stupid, those petitions were for the BDO, not the IRDP officer. This guy sanctions loans. He doesn't repair bridges or clean gutters," he explained. "But he said he'll forward them," retorted Ganesh. "You wait here and when the BDO comes, take those petitions from this guy and personally give them to him." Ganesh nodded and watched the proceedings.

Selvam gave an application. The officer noticed his ration card had an IRDP stamp. "You are already an IRDP beneficiary," said the officer. "No, not me, my brother Ratnam," clarified Selvam. The bank official consulted his ledger. "He took a loan last year and has not paid back a single rupee. Where is he?" he queried. "He has shifted to Madras, I don't know where," said Selvam.

Ponsunder nudged Ganesh and indicated towards the back door. Ratnam was peering anxiously. Selvam's application was rejected.

Most of the loans were for bullock- carts, cows, goats, cycles and petty shops. The BDO walked in at 12.30 pm. He was wearing a safari suit, much in vogue with Tamil Nadu bureaucrats.

Ganesh retrieved his petitions and handed them to the BDO. He read the petitions gravely and summoned the village clerk. "Have you made arrangements for our lunch?" he asked.

"Yes sir, from the best hotel in Kurumbur," he replied. "Don't worry about lunch. When in our village, you are our guest," said Ganesh.

"See, I don't have any funds to clean the gutters. For that you should approach some voluntary organisation. This is a PWD canal, why don't you approach them for the a bridge?" said the BDO.

"We would have approached the PWD if we wanted a big bridge for cars. This is only for pedestrians," explained Ganesh. "But there are no funds in this year's budget," insisted the BDO. "If you want to help us, I am sure you'll find a way," continued Ganesh.

It was 1 pm. The BDO called the clerk again. "You have to go and collect the lunch?" he reminded. "Yes!" said the village clerk. "Take my Jeep," said the BDO. It seemed the man had not eaten breakfast.

The lunch arrived at 1.30 pm. The IRDP applications continued pouring in. The BDO said, "Now we'll accept applications only after 3 pm." He ordered his staff to close the front doors. The officers and the BDO ate first. Next, the clerks and the peon. The village clerk, watchman and Ganesh served the food. Ganesh made sure everybody, particularly the pretty clerk, had plenty to eat.

After lunch, the BDO, two of his officers and Ganesh got into the jeep and went to see the broken bridge. Ganesh explained, "See this side is our village, all the fields are on the other side. When there is no water we walk on the river bed, but when there is water we walk an extra mile just to get to our fields. It's worse when we are carrying fertilisers."

At that point, two women carrying huge bundles of hay came down the river bank and walked up to our side. Ganesh was happy with their timing. It looked stage managed, but it was not.

The BDO and his officers chatted for a while. Finally he said, "We are not allowed to build wooden bridges anymore. I'll recommend a concrete bridge at a cost of Rs 200,000. In ten days time there is a district meeting. We have a scheme called the District Decentralised Projects. I'll get this sanctioned under that scheme."

They went back to the Panchayat office. The IRDP applications poured in till 4.30 pm. By 5 pm they were sorted. "We have received 250 applications," announced the bank officer, "We have sanctioned 104 loans."

The peon brought a book to Ponsunder and asked him to sign. "Why the hell should I sign? You didn't ask our opinion before finalising the loans," objected Ponsunder. Ganesh also intervened, "On what criteria were the loans passed?"

"There were too many application for bullock-carts. We rejected all of them. For milk cows, the rule says the loan is only for societies. So before asking for loans, ask your people to form societies. We've passed all the other loans. For sewing machines, cycle-vendors, petty shops, pandal decorators, goats and wet- grinding machines," the officer explained. But Ponsunder walked out in a huff. Ganesh stayed behind to see the BDO off.

The village clerk informed him that the lunch cost Rs 580. Ganesh told the village clerk to collect the remaining Rs 280 from Rajarathinam. Both MRG and Rajarathinam were very happy with Ganesh.

A week before the proposed district meeting, the BDO was transferred.

"Rs 580 wasted, " Ganesh told the village clerk.

"Why don't you go and meet the new BDO?" MRG advised.

Ganesh Nadar

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