The Far Valley

Through the seasons in a village in Melghat

01 August, 2014


"KORKU MADARCHOD!” the conductor swore, “Just squatting down wherever he found a spot.”

The abuse came without warning, followed by a hushed silence in the overcrowded bus headed into Melghat, a remote region of forested hills and river valleys in Maharashtra’s northern Amravati district. Crouched on the doorstep, an old man, his eyes lowered with embarrassment, struggled to grip his walking stick and raise himself onto his legs, which were too weak to carry his equally frail upper body.

“Quick, get out of the way!” the conductor yelled, “Stand up.” The old man dragged himself into the aisle, pushing his stick at the door of the bus with one hand, and clutching the seats with the other. Grappling with the stick, he wobbled onto his unsteady feet, only to be told, “Pay the fare and get to the back.”

The conductor pocketed the money without bothering to issue a ticket. The Korku was shunted to the rear of the rickety state-run bus. The aisles were crammed with fellow adivasi passengers—Korkus make up about three-fourths of Melghat’s population—but no one betrayed any reaction to the collective insult heaped on their tribe.

The old man happened to be going to the conductor’s native village. The conductor, who told me he was a Balahi, a dalit, had achieved upward mobility with his khaki uniform—a reminder of the authority of the Indian state, inherited from the British empire. Indian adivasis have a complicated, subaltern relationship to that uniform, and the Korkus, a geographically anomalous western offshoot of the eastern-Indian Munda tribal group, are no exception. I tried to elicit a complaint from the old man, but he only smiled and mumbled, “Sarkari aadmi hain”—he’s a government man.

State-owned buses are a common form of travel in Melghat, at least when the region’s roads are sound VIVEK SINGH

Outside, dark clouds hovered, but rain seemed a distant mirage. It was a grey, muggy morning in June 2012, and the south-west monsoon was living up to its proverbial vagaries. I had travelled six hundred kilometres from Pune, across an unending landscape of barren fields and dry streams, to the Satpura foothills, which rose, wrinkled and hairy with denuded teak trees, around the town of Paratwada. It was another hour to Semadoh, a picturesque camping site for wildlife tourists in the Melghat Tiger Reserve, one of India’s nine original such sequestrations. The protected core and buffer areas of the reserve sprawl across about 70 percent of Melghat, straddling the region’s two tehsils, the administrative sub-divisions of Chikhaldara in the east and Dharni in the west.

The tiger reserve put Melghat—the name suggests a “meeting of the ghats”—on the map, but the area is additionally notorious for its high malnutrition and child mortality rates, which become the subject of alarming stories in the national and international media every few years. I had visited to report here in 2006 and, intrigued by the complexities of life that seemed to underpin malnutrition on the social, economic and geographic margins of the Indian state, decided to return for a series of longer trips.

I was headed to Chilati, a village on the northern periphery of Maharashtra, barely ten kilometres from Madhya Pradesh. From Semadoh, it was a winding forty-kilometre, four-hour journey deeper into the Satpuras on the only practical motorable connection: a British-era gravel-and-mud road that twists north through the heart of the tiger reserve. The forest road becomes treacherous after the first showers of the monsoon, when the mountains are slick with mud and the otherwise serene Nadpa river swells around rocky cliffs before descending in a spectacular waterfall. Then, the already unreliable bus service from Paratwada comes to a complete halt.

One of about 320 villages in Melghat, Chilati is the base camp for Melghat Mitra, an initiative of the Pune NGO Maitri, which has sent students, professionals and pensioners to the area to volunteer in education and health-related activities for the past 15 years. (Melghat has about three hundred NGOs, but most of them are based around the accessible, urbanising towns of Amravati, Paratwada or Chikhaldara.) In 2001, Melghat Mitra contributed to a ground-breaking study of malnutrition in Maharashtra, which found that 12 of the villages around Chilati had the highest child mortality rates of anywhere in the state: 126 out of every 1,000 children born here died before the age of six. Besides the fact that it was a malnutrition hotspot, my decision to stay in Chilati was also rooted in certain practical considerations: I had the use of Melghat Mitra’s office and, crucially, its toilet—the only one in the village.

Chilati’s roughly four hundred inhabitants speak the Korku language, a subset of Mundari, along with elementary Hindi and Marathi. Roughly sixty single-room Korku houses of mud and brick spill toward the Nadpa, which marks Chilati’s western boundary. To the east of the main street are about twenty homes belonging to Lohar and Gond tribesmen. Cattle are kept in sheds that face the road, to protect them from predators such as tigers, leopards and hyenas. Along the main street are two squat, long-abandoned buildings, meant to serve as forest guards’ quarters. The signs of government presence are scarce: a peeling concrete building houses the primary school, and a solar-electricity unit provides limited power. A network of electric wires was installed in the early 1980s, but has only come alive thrice since then—for Rajiv Gandhi, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sonia Gandhi’s visits to Melghat.

The government solar unit in Chilati powers one streetlamp and a waterpump. VIVEK SINGH

About two kilometres away is Hatru, the largest village in a cluster of 15 in the Chilati area, and home to a thousand people. Hatru hosts the only regular event of significance for the entire valley, a Thursday bazaar. Every week, men, women and children dressed in their best, colourful clothes arrive in a steady trickle, carrying produce from farm and forest to sell or barter at makeshift stalls. The Korkus jostle with a handful of jhangdis, or outsiders: traders, middlemen, moneylenders and disgruntled government servants on what is usually perceived as a punishment posting. Women and children covet a profusion of cheap synthetic cloth, silver ornaments, aluminium utensils, plastic goods, toys, onions, mangoes, sweetmeats, tobacco and tawdry cosmetics. Men nod their heads permissively until the last paisa in their pockets is spent. They return home late, in high spirits, some men so drunk they babble greetings and expletives in the same liquor-soaked breath.

“Welcome to Chilati, welcome to darkness,” one of them joked as I walked back beside him on the narrow road between the villages one evening. He was drunk on the heady mahua liquor brewed by tribes across the middle of the country. “Sarkar ki maa ke chut mein mera lund,” he added cheerfully—a sort of foul-mouthed salutation.

MELGHAT HAS BEEN KNOWN AS the hunger bowl of Maharashtra since the late 1980s. The rainy season sees the highest child mortality rate here, when breastfeeding and parenting takes a back  seat to hard labour in the fields and travel becomes difficult. Haunting photographs of frail, anaemic Korku mothers holding marasmic children, their hair red due to protein deficiency, crop up in the media in years of particularly severe flooding or drought in the monsoon-dependent region.

Though the statistics are unreliable, an estimated ten thousand children died of malnutrition-related causes in Melghat between 1993 and 2009 (the 2011 population of the region was 303,480). By the late 1990s, Melghat had become a national symbol for malnutrition, just as Kalahandi in Odisha had for starvation in the previous decade. The debates on Melghat in the nation’s media, courts and legislative chambers painted a picture of official neglect and abandonment. Yet the focus on the symptom of malnutrition also overshadowed the underlying complexities of life in Melghat: historic restrictions on traditional livelihoods, increasing pressure to migrate for work, and the hidden role of the state’s various departments and ground-level architecture in perpetuating these conditions.

Before the monsoon arrives, the Melghat landscape is parched and food stocks begin to run low. VIVEK SINGH

With pressure mounting on the central government, in 1997, the Bombay High Court passed an interim order ruling, in line with the Constitution of India, that it was the responsibility of the government of Maharashtra to provide adequate food, health care and employment opportunities to the Korkus and other tribals in Melghat. The High Court’s directive added to an expanding array of top-down government schemes to combat poverty and its related ills. Maharashtra has the oldest employment-based social welfare programmes in India, including the model for the UPA government’s flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. NREGA was introduced early-on in Amravati, in 2006, to help curb migration by providing a minimum amount of paid work.

About 85 government programmes operate in Melghat today. There are indicators that they have helped curb malnourishment and migration, if somewhat unevenly. In 2011, the Indian Express reported on the region’s “NREGA success story with few parallels, an effort that has worked largely around what has come to be known as the Melghat pattern.” Since the mid-2000s, the government has used this phrase to refer to a combination of various welfare initiatives that they argue constitutes a nationally replicable welfare model. The newspaper claimed that “in all of Melghat’s villages, farmers had better and more frequent yields, borrowing from moneylenders had decreased, and there had been a 50 percent drop in migration.”

The region’s child mortality rate has also halved since the 1990s—last year, about 72 children were stillborn or died before the age of six for every 1,000 live births. Still, official figures can be unreliable: a 2008 study conducted by the state government-appointed Malnutrition Monitoring Committee found 5 percent under-reporting of child deaths at five Primary Health Centres in Melghat. The same study also revealed that over 25 percent of children in the region continued to suffer from mild or severe malnutrition—more than twice the rate in non-tribal areas of Amravati. While the state’s programmes have mitigated malnutrition, they have not yet created sustainable livelihoods across the region.

In Melghat, as in other places on the country’s political margins, the state often asserts its sovereignty through the regulation of natural resources and the administration of human ones. Historically, this has translated into stripping the Korkus of their claims to the forest, and a reluctance to invest in durable infrastructure and health facilities. Newer programmes and legislation attempt to right these wrongs, but on the ground in Melghat, mutual distrust between tribals and those social classes who fill the lower bureaucracy, medical and political offices continues to thwart well-intentioned schemes. In the environmentally vulnerable and socially liminal areas of India, the state often preserves the existing parameters of discrimination, and sometimes actively destroys existing ecological relationships, but only very rarely creates opportunities for self-reliance.

THE MONSOON RAINS ARRIVED in force on 22 July 2012, hissing across the teak woods, falling straight and hard, first in occasional showers and then in heavy torrents that beat down the standing crops, flattening them across the fields. Grain stocks from the previous season were already almost exhausted. Families ate whatever was available—mostly jowar roti and kutki, a local rice, with an occasional serving of dal. They supplemented this with edible plants and tubers gathered from the forest.

A month later, Chilati reported its first monsoon death, a newborn. Chotelal Mawaskar, the baby’s grandfather, softly narrated the course of events in the family home. The child’s parents, Devidas and Mitaye, stood nearby, visibly tense. “He was my son’s first child,” Chotelal said. “We could not reach the Public Health Centre at Hatru for the delivery. It was well past seven and pitch-black outside. The condition of the roads was bad due to heavy rain, and there was no vehicle available.” So the baby was delivered at home, by the village dai, or midwife, and an anganwadi worker.

A nurse from the PHC took the mother and child there the next day. “The doctor said Mitaye had blood deficiency and put her on saline,” Devidas said. Later, Hatru’s resident medical officer, Dr Bhasker Shembekar, told me that the baby suffered from hypoglycaemia, caused by an abnormally low amount of sugar in the blood. “He was born underweight, barely two kilograms, but the parents refused to keep him in the PHC,” he said.

“We were asked to stay,” Devidas told me, “but there was no staff, no electricity. No food. So we went to an acquaintance in Hatru, ate there and somehow passed the night.” Early the next morning, the family returned to Chilati. Devidas and Mitaye rode on his motorcycle, while the baby was carried home by his grandparents on foot. He took ill within a few days. “He had difficulty breathing,” Mitaye said. She also had problems breastfeeding. Late at night, Chotelal tried to organise a jeep from Hatru to take his grandson to the PHC, but none were available. Ultimately, the family walked the two kilometres with the baby.

The baby was kept on a saline drip for an hour or so. “Then we saw blood oozing out of his nose and mouth,” Devidas said. Shembekar told them the baby had a chance if he was moved to Churni, 35 kilometres away. Though the posts of gynaecologist and paediatrician at the rural hospital there were vacant, it had an incubator, electricity, and paved roads connecting it to larger towns. But one local ambulance was stuck in floods, five kilometres away from Chilati, at Domi. The other was parked outside the Hatru PHC, but had a flat tire. No one was available to repair it. “It was well past midnight, and still raining,” Devidas said. “There was no vehicle. The baby died.”

A family with a sick child at Churni’s government hospital VIVEK SINGH

For the record, Munna Devidas Mawaskar was born at home on 21 August and died during treatment on 26 August. (Munna—“little one”—is a name routinely given in PHC records to babies who die early.) There was some confusion over dates. The family told me Munna was born on 26 August, but hospital records said he died that day. Devidas said the PHC staff may have erred. The staff said that Korkus were terrible with dates. The family hadn’t sought a death certificate. “What use is a death certificate?” Devidas said. “We lost our child on the Panchvi”—the fifth day after a birth, which is usually celebrated with a ritual feast and the baby’s introduction to the village.

The Hatru PHC, which caters to almost nine thousand people across the 15 villages in the Hatru, Ektai and Rui Pathar gram panchayats, recorded six child deaths between April and June, mostly due to complications arising from low birthweight. The monsoons took that toll up to 13. “A medical emergency in the middle of monsoon is a disaster for a Korku household,” the grief-stricken father said.

That season, the rivers and streams kept rising, submerging bridges and culverts to a depth of more than six feet. In many places, people were stranded with meagre or no food supplies. Some 25 villages, including the cluster around Chilati, lost all contact with the outside world. Three bridges washed away on the Hatru–Raipur–Semadoh road, the most frequently used route, which runs through the heart of the tiger reserve. The Jarida–Churni road, the sole alternative out of the buffer area, was only repaired months after the rains abated. In August, I had been able to get through to Chilati for a second trip by waiting in Dharni until the skies cleared briefly, then catching a ride on a motorbike. But the roads made it impossible to return there again until November.

Devidas wasn’t sure if better infrastructure could have saved his son. “God knows,” he said. “The transport and hospitalisation may have required a few thousand rupees. The truth is we did not have that much money.”

If a newborn survives the monsoon, it might be all right, but there are no guarantees against childhood malnutrition. That season’s yields were low due to flooding, and the food supply remained irregular for rest of the year. The elected members of the Hatru, Ektai and Rui Pathar gram panchayats sought emergency assistance from the district administration. Meetings were held in Amravati and Semadoh, and promises made to restore roads and conduct surveys of losses. But no senior official visited the area. Instead, village patwaris, or accountants, and gram sevaks were ordered to conduct panchnamas, or inspection reports, to assess damages.

Jhapu Mawaskar of Khutida village told me no one ever came there for an inspection. His pair of bullocks were among the forty or so that had drowned in the area. “All my plans have washed away with the pair,” he said. “I don’t know how I will carry on.”

Melghat Mitra conducted a survey of the damage, and found that nearly four hundred acres of cash crops such as soybean, as well as food crops, had been washed away. Siltation had damaged 73 wells, submerging their diesel pumps underneath heaps of muck. In Bhutrum village, Shamlal Akhande was banking on getting Rs 20,000 on the open market for the six quintals of soybean he had planted. His farm was underwater for a week. The patwari determined Akhande’s losses to be Rs 5,000, at government rates. Suicides are rare here, but Akhande was almost at a loss. “I wanted to kill myself,” he told me. “But that wasn’t possible. There was no money for buying poison, and the well in my farm was choked with mud.”

The Korkus call it a paani kaal, a famine caused by excess rain.

“It was like never before,” Akhande said. “It was as if Bhagwan wanted to destroy the world.”


THE FORESTS AROUND MELGHAT are monotonous, with miles and miles of teak trees. When the British arrived here in 1853, they recognised the potential benefits of taming these hills for the production of timber that would fuel the expansion of the railways, in turn boosting trade across the subcontinent. Their efforts would include taming the local population, which previously subsisted on shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing and small-scale timber trading, and turning them into a viable workforce—or, as the remarkable anthropologist Verrier Elwin noted in the 1940s, “to civilise [tribal people] and make them useful members of the Commonwealth.” Disenfranchisement, first in the guise of forest administration and then environmental protection, still defines the relationship between the state and its subjects in Melghat.

I was keen to meet Bisram Jamunkar, one of Chilati’s oldest inhabitants, who had worked under the British as a young man. But, for the first several weeks of my stay, he, along with most villagers, seemed to be studiously avoiding me. I was not to be trusted—a jhangdi: the Korku word for all outsiders that indicates a keen awareness of their own status as “jungli” in the eyes of many other Indians, and  also reverses this gaze. I paced up and down the main street, nodding “Ram, Ram” to the men in the hopes of a breakthrough.

Each time I attempted to meet him, Bisram’s wife Remu told me he had gone to the fields with his son Babulal. When I reached the family’s unirrigated plantations of wheat and the local rice varieties of kodo and kutki, Babulal would say his father had gone to the jungle to collect brushwood for fencing. Finally, one hot afternoon, Bisram emerged from the forest, his shoulder drooping under the weight of an axe. He had been foraging for edible plants and tubers, away from the watchful eyes of the forest department.

Bisram Jamunkar, who is in his mid eighties, remembers cutting wood for the British as a young man. VIVEK SINGH

“Ram, Ram.” He accepted the familiar greeting. “My eyesight is poor. I am not able to see you clearly,” he murmured as he folded his spindly legs beneath himself to sit beside a jungle path. Despite his weak eyes, Bisram had no problems finding his way through the forest. He had lived here in his youth until he was accepted into Remu’s household as a lamjana—a prospective groom serving the bride’s family for up to 12 years as a bride price, a common Korku social custom. Though Bisram was circumspect the first time we met, over the course of several conversations, he began to tell me more about his life. Bisram told me he was about 85 years old, “give or take a year or two.” His eyes, though rheumy, twinkled, and his gaunt face was fixed with a permanent smirk. “I’ve seen the Angrez leave the country in their aeroplanes,” he chuckled.

The British Forest Act of 1878 banned slash-and-burn agriculture and restricted hunting, depriving the Korkus of their traditional livelihoods. The Korkus, now considered encroachers on the land they had always inhabited, were shifted to so-called “Forest Villages,” in reality little more than labour colonies. Forced to take up the plough, they were allowed to rent select areas for settled cultivation and given timber for building homes. In return for this largesse, the Korkus became bonded labourers, employed to cut wood and repair roads for the British, who described them as “great axe wielders.” Young, able men like Bisram became loggers in the teak forests, and coolies, accompanying the colonial and Indian aristocrats on expeditions to hunt tigers, deer and rabbit.

“The goras were tough taskmasters,” Bisram remembered. “They would descend upon the villages early in the morning to shepherd the men for forest cutting. We would wrap ourselves in saris and squat among the women in the fields to avoid the hard labour. Still the soldiers would spot us. They wouldn’t give you time to wipe your sweat or catch your breath, and would whip you for refusing to work.”

The economic condition of the Korkus, and other tribes pressed into the colonial labour force, deteriorated. In 1941, Verrier Elwin wrote of the adivasi’s condition: “If he was a Forest Villager he became liable at any moment to be called to work for the Forest Department. If he lived elsewhere he was forced to obtain a license for almost every kind of forest produce. At every turn the Forest Laws cut across his life, limiting, frustrating, destroying his self-confidence … A Forest Officer once said to me: ‘Our laws are of such a kind that every villager breaks one forest law every day of his life.’”

Mahua and other forest produce are important sources of income for the Korkus VIVEK SINGH

Independence brought no respite. Bisram insisted that “life has been tough since the British left.” “We were paid in silver coins then,” he said. “You could buy a whole lot of grain for an anna. Today’s paper currency is useless. What can you buy with a hundred-rupee note? The Angrez rarely ate what they hunted. They would take the skin and leave the meat for us.” Then he added, in an unguarded moment, “Now they are more concerned with the survival of the tiger. Let the humans die.”

Bisram was hardly impressed that I had travelled by bus all the way from Pune to meet him: “You should have come by aeroplane, seen a tiger and gone back a happy person.”

BESIDES THE TYPICALLY inherited jobs of bhumka and dai—the tribe’s traditional healers—Korkus have no history of professional specialisation. Still, I discovered that many villagers have an excellent knowledge of botany and forest survival skills. One night, Chilati’s bhumka, Babu Mawaskar, explained this to me as he prepared to bed down near a fire in a field hut in order to protect his crops from animals. “We are not intimidated by the deep, dark jungle,” he said. “If a Korku comes across a wild animal, he will chase it away with a stick or an axe, call his fellow tribesmen for help. But he will not be scared.

“There was a time when our forefathers could call a man-eating tiger by reciting certain mantras,” he added, growing expansive. “They would pat it and tell it to leave the village. The magic defence would turn the tiger into a dog, obeying human orders.”

I asked him which was more intimidating—a tiger, or a jhangdi. It did not take him a second to answer, “jhangdi.” A tiger, he explained, avoids humans. The same could not be said of the outsiders. “Jhangdis keep coming and going. Nobody can stop them. They earn money, a monthly income. They have education. They pick quarrels and can take you to court. In the city, they beat and burn each other. That’s what I’ve heard, and seen in the newspaper.”

I asked whether the Korkus found themselves in a similar position to the tiger, vis à vis the jhangdis. The bhumka broke into a rare, rasping laugh. “The jhangdi has turned the Korku into a dog, ha! Obeying his orders, yes,” he said, then settled down for the night.

The jhangdis have little use for the Korkus’ traditional skills. The senior-most forest official in the area was Hatru’s range forest officer, PK Lakde, a man who came across as being much put-upon by his surroundings. On a December evening in his office, he explained his dilemma.“I am supposed to protect the wildlife and the forest,” he said. “But I also have to provide employment to the Korkus because they are incapable of feeding themselves.” Most of his 22-member staff were Korkus employed on short-term contracts to clean, fetch water and cook; guide rangers, guards, and influential guests; report on and put out forest fires; watch for poachers; and track wildlife.

Each worker earned about Rs 5,000 a month—a princely sum in these parts—though with no job guarantee beyond three months. “My only problem in Melghat is the Korkus,” Lakde said. “One would like to employ them, but they have no skills, nor are they honest. Rather, they side with the poachers.”

I asked him what sorts of pressures he thought a Korku’s average income, which is about Rs 8 a day, might impose. The ranger sahib had little time for such queries. He had a more urgent problem on his hands. An adult male tiger had attacked cattle and devoured a deer near Marita village, in the populated buffer area. Lakde wanted to keep his staff on their toes and investigate before news of the attacks spread to poachers, or to cattle herders, who he feared might poison the animal.

Late that evening, a team led by Lakde crossed the Dolar Baba shrine on the Hatru–Raipur–Semadoh road, and moved a kilometre or so into the woods. After about an hour we reached a forest camp, in pitch darkness. “Let’s not tempt fate,” Lakde said in a hushed tone. “Let’s get a couple of Korkus to accompany us. Let them lead. They have sharp eyes and ears, and a great sense of smell. Only they can tell if a tiger is lurking around.”

According to the camp register, Jhapu Mawaskar, a young Korku from Hatru, had spotted the tiger that evening, near a watering hole. Jhapu was cooking dinner for the team when he was summoned. He put on his slippers and started walking, as if through a city park. “Don’t be scared,” Lakde said. “Take a torch and a stick. But don’t use them. And no sudden movements—they scare away tigers and prompt them to attack. Follow the Korkus.”

Jhapu stopped abruptly, near a thicket. I could feel a weight in the air, the presence of the beast lurking behind the thicket, or hiding behind a bamboo clump. I stopped breathing. We waited five, ten, fifteen minutes. Twigs snapped and branches parted. It was a bear. Jhapu gestured with his eyes in the direction of its silhouette. He decided to change track. “It’s a female with kids. It may attack without warning.”

An hour went by before Jhapu pointed to a clearing in the forest, and signalled to the team to sit in a circle. “He is sure the beast will pass this way,” Lakde whispered, instructing his team to keep a headcount. “It’s no joke. You are in the middle of tiger country.”

We didn’t have to wait long before someone spotted a pair of glowing dots, about fifty metres away. Jhapu was already on his feet, peering into the dark.

“It’s him,” he murmered, rendering the team motionless.

The tiger vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

“He may return once we’re gone,” Lakde predicted, hastening the team back to the safety of the forest camp.

Back in Chilati, I told Bisram about the sighting. “You met the tiger, ha?” he asked. “How did it feel?” His eyes were moist, and he spoke as if somebody had brought news of a long-lost brother. “The tiger is the real thing,” he said, then repeated a Korku adage. “Jhara rengo khaduba, jhara rengo gadjuba”—humans grow like the grass and perish like the grass. “We live, we die,” he said. “Who cares?”

AFTER THE WILDLIFE PROTECTION Act was passed in 1972 and the Melghat Tiger Reserve was established under Project Tiger in 1974, much of the forest became more strictly off limits for the people who lived around it. Villagers like Bisram could no longer legally collect wild produce such as honey, fruit and berries, seeds, vegetables and tubers. Almost overnight, the people of Melghat joined a global category of “conservation refugees,” or what Charles C Geisler, a professor of rural sociology at Cornell University, terms “endangered humans.”

The population of Melghat increased by 25 percent between 2001 and 2011, placing a greater burden on the limited available land. Land titles here are contentious: farmers inherit the tracts that were customarily granted on nominal rent to their ancestors by the British, but are still treated as tenants in the eyes of the law. Newer agricultural encroachments, dubbed atikraman, into the land the Korkus were pushed off of in the last century, are a particular sore point.

Bisram, who had begun dropping by the Melghat Mitra office each morning to check on my day’s plan before heading off to the fields, told me that in the late 1980s and 1990s there was a ranger here who was a “good man.” “He understood my family was growing,” Bisram said, with a now familiar gleam in his eyes. The ranger told him that no amount of supplication and agitation would work on the government—it was best to just quietly go about taking what was needed from the forest. Bisram told me nearly half of his holdings were acquired by tedious slash-and-burn methods over the years. He had three sons and a married daughter; the family had an additional mouth to feed every year. It would be difficult to survive unless the government regularised his atikraman.

In December 2012, news arrived in Chilati that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs had awarded five villages in the buffer zone, including Hatru, their van haqq, or community forest rights, to the use of certain land claims. The rights to these tracts had been won with the help of Melghat Mitra and another NGO called Khoj. The news prompted excitement, but no one seemed quite sure what it meant. “Does it mean we get back the land that belonged to our forefathers?” Khanji Jamunkar, an elderly Korku in Hatru, asked. “Will we be allowed to fish and hunt?”

I tried to explain about the Forest Rights Act of 2006, in which the state, for the first time, set out to “right that ‘historic injustice’” done to forest communities, and gave these communities “primacy in future forest management.” The Act was meant to empower decision-makers at the village level, independently of forest and revenue departments, in matters related to forest resources.

In late March 2013, I travelled to Payvihir and Nayakheda villages at the Satpura foothills. Khoj had used the Forest Rights Act in these villages, negotiating priority status for them in various government schemes, especially NREGA. Both villages were nearly deserted: all the men and women were working on government sites. Mahadev Dhurve, an activist with Khoj, told me that “nobody migrates here anymore, they have enough work in and around the village that ensures forest conservation and better livelihoods.”

Dhurve said many villages, including Chilati, had so far failed to claim their forest rights due to a lack of knowledge and capacity, or because they had been misled into thinking that the Act was not applicable within the buffer areas (all but four of the Hatru-Chilati cluster of villages are located in this protected zone). Besides its being a soft law, confusion arises about the Forest Rights Act because the government also passed a potentially contradictory amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act in 2006. In the words of Bandya Sane, the director of Khoj, the WPA “put a question mark” on the status of forest villages in the buffer zone. A national consultation on the status of van haqq in 2013 noted that there was no clear official data on the implementation of forest rights, which “continues to be tardy and non-existent” in most states. It also reported relocation of forest villages “in violation of the FRA,” including in Melghat, since the new laws had come into force.

Such findings and debates rarely have any effect on the ground in places like Chilati, though, where cellphone reception and televisions are non-existent, illiteracy rates high, and information controlled by government servants. The Korkus I met did not know either of the new acts by title, nor could they distinguish clearly between the core and buffer areas of the reserve, which they vaguely lumped together as a “tiger area.” They were understandably suspicious of wading into the legislative thickets they might encounter in claiming van haqq. I was often told that “we are denied NREGA or van haqq because of ‘Tiger.’” Or, villagers said, “We have to migrate outside the tiger area because ‘Forest’ won’t permit us to work here.” I was clearly an ignorant jhangdi who didn’t know how things worked in a place where “Tiger” and “Forest” were the empowered authorities. Here, the Hatru market is the source of information, which is often spread by those who claim to enjoy closeness to the “sarkari aadmi”—no need to qualify which one. “Tiger does not allow it”—that is what people are told.

Young men play volleyball near Chilati. Entertainment options are few in Melghat, with no electricity or cellphone service. VIVEK SINGH


THE MONSOON HARVEST WAS OVER, and the contractors’ pickups had begun to make the rounds of Chilati and other villages. I returned just after Diwali 2012 to find men, women, and even children as young as nine, being gathered up into groups on the main street and packed into trucks bound for towns and cities across Maharashtra—as far-off as Pune and Mumbai—where they would provide the cheap labour that fuels India’s booming construction industry. About half the working population of Chilati migrated between October and March 2013, as part of the yearly cycle of incurring debt to fund agriculture and then labouring to pay it off.

Korku women repairing the main street in Chilati. Infrastructure in the area is poor and roads wash away during the monsoon. VIVEK SINGH

The previous year, about 1,200 people from the 15 villages around Chilati left for work, and the Rs 3 crore set aside for employment-guarantee schemes were under-utilised. Employment guarantee projects were launched in 2012, but oddly only in mid-December, after many villagers had already departed. In Chilati, over a hundred people found employment on various projects for about 27 days, but Kunjilal Mawaskar, the gram rojgar sevak for Chilati, calculated that about the same number had already migrated from the village.

Kunjilal, whose job was to assist the government with NREGA projects, told me most villagers were understandably apprehensive about the programme. “When they would raise a temporary bund on a small stream and divert some water to the fields, the forest department would call it illegal. So they don’t trust the government now when it says let’s build a bund under the employment-guarantee scheme,” he explained one afternoon in the village square, where we sat among a crowd of people who were preparing to migrate, discussing arrangements for the children they would leave behind, and catching up on the piquant gossip of the day.

A man prepares a tobacco chillum for his afternoon smoke VIVEK SINGH

After Kunjilal left, the villagers replied more openly to my questions about why the “Melghat pattern,” which, among other things, makes use of village post-offices as banks to extend NREGA’s reach, had not provided a viable alternative to migration. Chilati had no post office, and the postman was only an occasional visitor to the tiny one in Hatru, where only three of the 238 listed NREGA beneficiaries from Chilati had accounts. The rest had accounts in post offices in Semadoh or Chikhaldara and paid Kunjilal Rs 10 each time they required him to fetch their wages. Unsurprisingly, he would only make a trip when there was enough demand to total a decent commission. Kunjilal’s fee came on top of the bribes the villagers told me they regularly paid babus for “sanctioning” wage payments.

“Who will endlessly run after the babus and their agents for wages?” asked Nanku Nagapure, whose wife and 17-year-old son had left for Paratwada. “It’s better to deal with private contractors,” he said, who offered between Rs 150 and Rs 350, depending on the extra hours worked, compared to the government’s fixed wage of Rs 145 for a limited eight-hour day. “There’s always a temptation,” Nanku said. There are monsoon debts to repay to moneylenders, and informal employment is preferrable to document-heavy government-run schemes.

The Korku families I spoke to rarely knew what they owed the moneylenders in Hatru. “We took Rs 5,000 this time, and it was Rs 3,000 the last time,” Chotelal Mawaskar told me. “We don’t know exactly. He will tell us and we will settle the debt.” Private moneylending is banned in Maharashtra, but those practicing it not-so-clandestinely at the Hatru bazaar wanted me to believe it was something of a neighbourly affair. “If there is a crisis in the family, we extend loans, then wait for the payments to come,” a Balahi shopkeeper there told me. “Sometimes, we have to write off the interest”—which typically accrues at 10 percent a month—“just to help them deal with a situation. We have known them for generations.”

Even in a small village like Chilati, attaining familiarity was a slow process. It took repeated visits and much loitering over several weeks before anyone really spoke to me. Rameshwar Phad, the local project coordinator of Melghat Mitra, advised me not to engage women in interviews unless I was spending a longer time in Melghat. If trust was hard-earned for a humble “patrakar,” as I became known in the village, it must take a particular kind of “sarkari aadmi” to liason between the apparatus of employment and other schemes and the people they are meant to help.

The complaints of Melghat’s local functionaries hinted at why programmes meant to curb migration and promote better health were often less than successful. When I asked government doctors, nurses, anganwadi workers and even revenue and forest officials about persistent problems, they constantly cited the “laziness,” “poverty,” “ignorance” and “obstinancy” of the Korkus. Rarely did these government servants, who often worked in extremely frustrating conditions, seem to understand the sometimes oppressive nature of the state-as-benefactor.

A government doctor I met in Utavali village explained the “ground reality” about “government sops.” “You must have noticed monkeys lining up on the road to Melghat,” he said. “Spoilt by tourists throwing crumbs at them, they have forgotten how to survive in the jungle and prefer to beg on the roadside. It’s the same with Korkus. They’ll never improve.”

Yet there were government servants who held a different view. I met SN Mishra—the sub-divisional officer at Dharni and the senior-most official to visit the Hatru cluster during my year of reporting there—in March 2013, shortly before the Holi festival. A mild-mannered, middle-aged man, Mishra was in Hatru for a special drive to issue Aadhar cards. “I am here just to motivate my staff,” he said. “You can see the drive is also getting a good response from the Korkus. Everything is going smooth.”

Mishra had studied in a Zilla Parishad school in Dharni, and had volunteered to serve in this remote area in 2011. He was credited for much of the success of the “Melghat pattern.” The year after he was posted, the number of tribals holding job cards increased dramatically. Mishra and other officials were reluctant to go into the details of the improvement, and Maharashtra has yet to set up a required social audit directorate to monitor implementation of NREGA. In some of the villages I visited, however, it was clear that benefits were finally reaching some of those people who needed them most.

“Things have changed,” Mishra assured me. His claim that there was “zero migration” from the villages of Domi and Simori in 2012 tallied with what I saw on my trip to Simori that year. I met a farmer there in December who was busy harvesting winter crops such as wheat, gram and linseed. He described the yield as nothing short of a miracle. True, these villages had better access to water than Chilati did, but I could also see continuous contour-trenches, dug under employment-guarantee schemes to arrest soil erosion, dotting the hill slopes between Hatru and Chilati. Water bodies had been de-silted, and loose boulder structures erected as bunds to shore up rivers and streams. “Over the last year or so, over 500 wells were dug for individual beneficiaries across Melghat,” Mishra said. “Post monsoon, we conducted road repairs worth Rs 5 crore in the remote Rahu and Raipur villages under the employment-guarantee scheme, with the permission of the forest department.” The efficacy of government schemes seemed to hinge on cooperation between government departments, civil society bodies and locals.

In Chilati, however, villagers still held faith with their past experience; doubts persisted about whether the forest department’s efforts to dig contour-trenches—especially on atikraman tracts—were really in their best interests. “Why should we dig trenches in our farmlands? Yet another sinister ploy by the foresters to grab our land and get rid of us?” asked Samlu Durve, a Gond from Chilati, whose knowledge of the forest was unsurpassed in the village. Another nervous resident also voiced his doubts: “What if the forest department decides to make trenches in my land and then say it belongs to it? I do not have 7/12”—a type of record—“to prove my ownership of the land.”

THE MAIN CONCERN for many people in Chilati’s village cluster remained lack of access to the rest of the world for much of the year. Besides the challenges this problem poses to health and employment, it also directly impacts access to political representatives and bureaucratic functionaries. This in turn makes it difficult to ensure local political involvement and accountability. The tehsil Panchayat Samiti, headed by a block development officer, was in Chikhaldara, 65 kilometres away from Chilati, while the chief executive officer of the Zilla Parishad and the district collector were in Amravati, 160 kilometres away. There was supposed to be a tribal development officer to administer forest rights based in Dharni, sixty kilometers away, but the state government couldn’t spare an IAS officer despite High Court directives.

During the 2012 monsoon, the district collector, Rahul Ranjan Mahiwal, and the Congress MLA for Melghat, Kevalram Kale, did try to reach Hatru, but turned back due to the flooding. Munna Bethekar, an outspoken Korku who is Hatru’s elected representative on the Chikhaldara Panchayat Samiti, told me the officials “expressed regret and returned from Raipur, a village 21 kilometres away.” Munna had been agitating for an asphalted road from Hatru to Semadoh, and one to Jarida village, but the district administration cited a lack of funds and permission from forest authorities. The gravel-topped Hatru–Raipur–Semadoh road had been repaired 11 times in as many years, Munna said, quoting details obtained using the Right to Information Act. In 2010-11 alone, the administration spent Rs 115 lakh under various schemes, for emergency repairs and “hard surfacing” using gravel and mud. “The repairs don’t last a single monsoon. Where does all the money go?” Munna wanted to know. “Does it simply go down the drain every monsoon?”

The agriculture of Melghat is dependent on the monsoon for irrigation. But if crops are destroyed due to excess rainfall, the food supply runs low the rest of the year and Korkus are forced to migrate away from their land for employment. VIVEK SINGH

The official reply from the public works department to the RTI query (filed by Rameshwar Phad of Melghat Mitra), about whether government money was being used to dig the same pit over and over without creating any lasting infrastructure, was a bit of routine buck-passing. The PWD pointed to the forest department’s restrictions on paved roads in the buffer and core areas of the reserve: hot tar could blister tiger paws and concrete would make pugmarks difficult to trace. “Forest” would not allow it.

Munna pointed out the irony in this reasoning: “Why does the forest department refuse permission for an asphalted road in our area, when excellent roads were built to Semadoh, Chaurakund and Kolkas to promote eco-tourism inside the reserve?” he said. “Tourists and nature-lovers are welcomed with open arms. Only the locals are seen as a threat to the tiger habitat.”

Even securing basic repairs with gravel, mud and sand was an uphill task. It took a round of agitations by Munna and his supporters—who blocked traffic on the interstate highway at Semadoh and picketed the subdivisional officer at Dharni—before the damage to the Hatru–Raipur–Semadoh road from the 2012 monsoon was fixed, in January 2013. That same month, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, the Amravati district guardian minister, whose responsibilities included coordinating panchayat activities, decided to visit Melghat on Republic Day, one of the four stipulated meeting days for gram sabhas. He announced that he would arrive by helicopter.

Munna organised people from the 15 villages around Chilati to write letters opposing the chopper tour. These were sent to various lofty offices, including that of the Maharashtra chief minister. “How can you flatten a hillock for a minister, while we are denied a road?” Munna asked the PWD. Vikhe-Patil cancelled his visit, promising to visit Hatru by road at a later date. By then, the state transport authorities had reluctantly agreed to the “risky proposition” of running buses on the jungle path, but only after Mishra, who was then the SDO, offered to travel by bus to Hatru. (Sanjay Meena, who took up Mishra’s position in December 2013, still had not visited the Chilati cluster seven months into his posting.) As for Vikhe-Patil, he neither responded to my interview requests, nor did he ever turn up in this corner of Melghat.

THE PATERNALISTIC ATTITUDE prevalent among the majority of the government servants I met perhaps explained why many Korkus still trusted bhumkas and dais more than doctors and nurses, and moneylenders more than most government officials. The devolution of political power to gram sabhas and panchayats, which are tasked with administering most government schemes in rural India, is blocked by the fact that most remain strongholds of gram sevaks, private contractors and their village cronies. A lack of local leadership is a crucial reason why the Melghat pattern has not become a universal one, even in Melghat.

After watching a truckload of Korkus leave Chilati one November evening, I took a stroll with Kalu Bethekar, a local resident and Melghat Mitra activist who had been an enthusiastic guide to the area. A personable 27-year-old with a receding hairline and sparkling eyes, Kalu had more friends in the village, and outside it, than anyone else from Chilati. His early experience with migration had made him determined to improve life in Melghat.

“My parents used to migrate to Madhya Pradesh to escape starvation,” Kalu said, as we walked along the main street. “I must have been eight then. My baby brother wasn’t well. When his condition worsened, an uncle collected charity money from the community and told us to return to Chilati. We walked for three days, without food, spending the nights under the open skies. My mother would beg for stale food so she could feed her sick child. My parents left me in Damjipura, near the state border, in the care of an aunt, and continued to Chilati. But my brother did not survive the journey home.”

After that, Kalu’s parents never migrated for work again, though his father occasionally did odd jobs in Paratwada. “It’s not only about the children’s health,” Kalu explained. “Women are often exploited by contractors, and men are rarely paid the promised wages. Migration is no way to escape poverty.”

Kalu’s parents pawned their aluminium utensils to pay for his schooling in Nagpur. Melghat Mitra and Khoj helped pay for his junior college. After higher secondary school, Kalu became an activist with Melghat Mitra. “We could pull ourselves out of poverty only after I started working for them,” he said.

Kalu Bethekar is anxious to improve life for his tribe. After a tough local election, he became a member of the Hatru gram panchayat. VIVEK SINGH

When I first met him, soon after my arrival in Chilati, I told Kalu about the incident I witnessed with the bus conductor and the elderly Korku. “Sir, India gained independence from the British, but we feel we are still ruled by foreigners,” he fumed. “Somebody should have slapped the conductor.”

The characteristic chuckle that preceded each sentence he uttered did little to hide his anger toward government apathy. “Ha. My greatest fear is someday I am going to flog a government official,” he said. He had done just this a few years previously: beaten a primary-school teacher for reporting to work drunk. “I beat him black and blue, until he begged for water. Then I poured some water in his bloody mouth and continued hitting him till he fell unconscious,” Kalu said.

Kalu had just joined Melghat Mitra then, and the organisation counselled him against using violence to express his anger. By the time we met, he was fluent in the lingo of NGOs himself. “We need power, political power,” he kept saying, as if to remind himself of the task that lay ahead.

Kalu was gearing up to contest the 2012 local-body elections, in the hope of becoming a member of the Hatru gram panchayat. The gram sabha, he explained, was required to sign off on local public works. But the sabha did not function as it was meant to. It was at the mercy of the gram sevak, RB Dharshimbe, who regularly summoned his cronies on market days, got them to gather the required number of thumb impressions to attest to a meeting, and then declared that the gram sabha had been held.

“What are we asking for? A road, electricity and piped water,” Kalu said. “But this demand is never taken up in the gram sabha. Sometimes I feel frustrated with my own people, some of whom are happy to be in the good books of the gram sevak, giving away thumb impressions under the influence of alcohol.” Dharshimbe was a bit of a local celebrity in Melghat, as he had been the gram sevak of an award-winning model gram sabha near Paratwada, and people had seen photos of him with influential officials. He also had the power to issue important documents, such as marriage and caste certificates. Kalu was determined to take him on. “I am going to seek the gram sevak’s removal,” he said.

The elections, postponed due to the monsoon, were held in November 2012. Kalu’s main rivals were Bhaiyalal Mawaskar and Bisram Bhusum. Bhaiyalal, who was in his thirties, went about in a Bolero jeep, surrounded by a close coterie. He wore spotless white shirts and trousers, and made no bones about his allegiance to the Congress party. But he refused to speak further, only whispering mysteriously to the members of his inner circle.

Bisram Bhusum, who was older, was the opposite; almost permanently on an alcohol-induced high, he seemed to pursue me everywhere, keen to be interviewed. He was Chilati’s status quo Scheduled Tribe candidate and the BJP was rumoured to be backing him in this competition. Bisram had seen power. He had served on the gram panchayat and taluka panchayat, and his wife had been elected sarpanch of Hatru before. But it was never quite clear which party he belonged to. During the taluka elections, it was believed that the Congress had arranged transport for him to meet their candidate-selection committee in Chikhaldara. But Bisram somehow managed to get lost on the way. When he resurfaced, it was with a Nationalist Congress Party ticket, on which he won that election.

Among those in positions of power—teachers, doctors, private contractors and others—Kalu was dubbed the “NGO candidate.” No one said it openly, but there was clearly some apprehension about his activist background. The word “Naxal” was whispered around the weekly bazaar, where I bumped into a Hatru schoolteacher who invited me for tea, only to warily ask me if “Kalu was indeed Anna Hazare’s man in Melghat.” He seemed unconvinced by my answer, and refused to acknowledge my presence thereafter.

The weekly bazaar in Hatru is the only regular event for Korkus living in the villages around it. Hatru is also the seat of the local gram panchayat; however, while the market draws big crowds, meetings at the panchayat office are usually sparsely attended. VIVEK SINGH

“Bisram and Bhaiyalal are old players,” Kalu told me. “They will entice the voters any which way.” Clearly on the horns of a moral dilemma, he kept repeating, “Liqour is flowing in the villages.” When voting day came, the fight was as dirty as could be expected at any rural election, far from the eyes of monitoring authorities. On the day of the results, Kalu emerged the winner by an overwhelming margin, having polled 241 votes against Bhaiyalal’s 114 and Bisram’s 47. He was excited, but there were no celebrations, because there was no money left.

Immediately, Kalu started trying to shake things up in the hope of organising the gram sabhas to demand a hundred-days of work, as guaranteed by NREGA. He wrote to government higher-ups demanding that the gram panchayat office be open on all working days, and that the gram sevak attend it regularly. One hot day in March 2013, I accompanied Kalu and Munna Bethekar to the office of the block development officer, Kishor Kale, in Chikhaldara. They wanted to complain about a breached pipe that was causing a water shortage in Hatru. We waited endlessly, only to finally be told that Kale would not be coming in. “The Korkus are desperate for employment, while those employed by the government to serve us are having a paid holiday,” Kalu seethed, standing outside in the blazing sun.

Kalu’s written complaints and office visits had little impact. The gram panchayat office remained closed, except on Thursdays, when Dharshimbe would arrive in Hatru to collect thumb impressions before dissapearing again to Paratwada, where he lived with his family. Kalu grew increasingly frustrated. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth taking on the babus. It’s like hitting your head on a stone wall,” he told me a few months after his election victory. “I think it would be better if I give more time to people, explaining the importance of the gram sabha and what it can do to better their lives.”

Dharshimbe, who I was told was close to the Congress MLA Kevalram Kale, and thus invincible, seemed unfazed. I would occasionally see him sitting in his office, or taking a stroll in the market. Getting a meeting with him proved tougher than securing an appointment with the chief secretary of Maharashtra in Mumbai. When I finally spoke to him, outside his office in March 2013, Dharshimbe’s words were measured and defensive, possibly because I was with Kalu and he knew we were friendly. It was difficult to get Korkus to attend a gram sabha, he said. “They are either working in the fields or preparing to migrate. They don’t realise the importance of government work. It’s difficult to make them understand all this is for their own good.” After that, there was no further conversation. Rameshwar Phad, who knew the terrain well after fifteen years in the area with Melghat Mitra, shared his predictions with me. “Kalu won’t be able to get him transferred,” he said.

ALL THROUGH THE WINTER, Kalu zipped from village to village on whirlwind early-morning and late-evening motorcycle tours, with me sometimes riding pillion. He would lecture men gathered around a fire, telling them there was no external solution to malnutrition and migration. “How long will you continue to eat the rotten grains and stale khichri served at the anganwadi? How many more children will die because the ambulance at the PHC has a flat tire? When will you begin asking questions of the government? Why isn’t the teacher in the classroom? Why don’t the officials ask us before digging a well?”

The men would nod their heads and agree. “We need power,” Kalu would say. “That power can come only if we come together, sit and discuss.” In the run-up to the Republic Day gram sabha (the same one Vikhe-Patil missed), Kalu went around collecting signatures on a petition to hold the gram sabha meeting in the Hatru market rather than at the panchayat office. “It was a major success,” he called to tell me, “with 320 villagers turning up, versus the forty or fifty people that would be present in the past. I demanded that henceforth gram sabhas be held in each of the six villages under the Hatru gram panchayat.”

While child malnutrition rates have decreased in Melghat, life in the village of Chilati illustrates the fact that any changes to the fundamental inequalities that underpin hunger and child mortality are painfully incremental. VIVEK SINGH

I left Melghat in April, and have not been able to return since, but Kalu sometimes called with updates from a hilltop near Chilati, where cellphone reception was occasionally available. At times, he sounded positive. “When I was an activist it would take three years to get a teacher appointed in a village,” he said. “Now as a panchayat member I can get things done within six months.” One day in May 2013, he called to tell me the gram sevak, Dharshimbe, had been transferred. The excitement in his voice came through despite the crackle of the poor connection. Later, I learned that Dharshimbe was back in his post within a few days.

Kalu was expectedly frustrated in some of our phone conversations, which grew infrequent during the monsoon. “The agitations for road, electricity, water continue,” he told me. “The officers keep promising whatever you demand, but the promises never materialise. The cat-and-mouse game is on. But I am not giving up. It may take a few years, but I will continue to fight.”

The Korku villager’s plight is an old one: the powerful often single out one person from a group of agitators and stall everything he or she might need from the government—birth certificates, caste certificates, marriage certificates, benefits, pensions or NREGA payments. Even a delay of two days in receiving paperwork or benefits can be cataclysmic for a family that is never far from hunger. Whenever I asked people in Chilati about such exploitation, I would hear the same polite refusal to divulge details. “Sir, you’re a journalist. Today you’re here, tomorrow you’re gone. We must live with them here. Leave our complaint be.”

Kalu, however, had a task for me. He got in touch this summer, to ask me to call the state electricity board to find out when power—a contentious issue for the forest department, which argues that poachers could use electricity to trap tigers—would start flowing to Chilati. I called the number he gave me. Deputy engineer SS Kute answered. “We have procured the aerial booster cables required to enable us to transmit electricity in the forested area,” he said. “The work should start in another 15 days.” I asked whether Chilati would have power before the monsoons. “I cannot say,” Kute replied. “It’s a jungle area.”

Two months later, the monsoons had arrived and I thought I’d check on Kalu’s progress. It had been a little over two years since my first stay in Chilati, and I was still periodically in touch with people there. To my surprise, Rameshwar Phad, who was in Paratwada, told me he had heard that an electricity connection had possibly been inaugurated in the Hatru-Chilati cluster.

Over the next few days, I tried calling Kalu to confirm the news, but his phone was out of service. I managed to reach Kute, who was out-of-station and reluctant to hazard a guess as to how things stood in Chilati. I sent messages to everyone I knew in the area, but hardly anyone was reachable. Melghat was experiencing heavy seasonal rain: the roads were blocked and telephone lines were down.