LAXMI DEVI VIVIDLY remembers the day she first heard that Droupadi Murmu was the National Democratic Alliance’s president candidate. She was at a meeting of grassroots functionaries when the district panchayat chairman made the announcement. “An electric current went through me. It was as if my insides were lit up. I thought to myself, finally someone like us will occupy the country’s highest office,” she said.
President Murmu is a Santhal, the country’s second largest tribe. Laxmi Devi, 57, is a Tharu, a tribe much smaller in number. Yet, she feels a deep sense of kinship with the president.
“She is of my caste,” said Devi, the four-time head-woman of Bela Parsuwa village in the Nighasan block of Lakhimpur Kheri, a district 129km from state capital Lucknow.
The last 19km stretch to the tribal village is more potholes and less bitumen. It is not an easy journey. Which is probably why Shashank Verma, the BJP MLA elected from Nighasan, made just one trip to the village to ask for votes. He did promise to remedy all of the villages problems, though.
Devi’s hopes, however, rest with Murmu, whom she has invited to see the plight of the locals. There is, of course, that non-existent road. There is no primary health centre; on good days, the power supply lasts for three to four hours; and there is no school beyond class eight for girls, forcing them to either drop out or migrate.
Bela Parsuwa’s knottiest problem, however, is a lack of mobile connectivity. In case of an illness or a crime, there is no way to call for help. The police station, Chandan Chowki, is 14km away, and the route there leads through the Dudhwa National Park. Since the villagers are not allowed to take that route, they take another one almost nine times the distance.
Nepal is less than a kilometre from the village. And it is from there that some residents get SIM cards with the help of generous Nepalese citizens. The two most common service providers used are NCell and Namaste. The Kailali district of Nepal, which adjoins Bela Parsuwa, has electricity round the clock. Residents claim that it is supplied by India.
There are two mobile towers in Bela Parsuwa. One is of the long defunct WLL (Wireless in Local Loop) services, and the other belongs to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). The latter is equipped with a 400Ah (ampere hours) battery bank, which serves as a backup in case of a power failure. In a hamlet where power supply exists only to fail, the battery bank is useless.
In the last week of July, the government announced a Rs1.64 lakh crore package for the revival of BSNL. “…Viability gap funding for rural wireless operations” is one of the challenges this funding would address.
Mobile connectivity is no luxury. When the country was reeling under Covid-19, children received education online. Not the students of Bela Parsuwa, though. Aleesha and Amrita Kathariya, two siblings aged 12 and eight, said they did not understand maths anymore, and that their teacher beat them when they failed to answer questions.
And thus the invite to Murmu (July 25, 2022), which reads, “Your kind visit... will not only be a morale booster for our community… but shall also be a far-reaching step towards our real empowerment and resolution of our concerns.”
Lawyer Syed Mohammed Haider Rizvi, who helped Devi draft the letter, said, “The right to communicate is a facet of the right to life guaranteed to every Indian citizen.”
According to the ministry of tribal affairs data, Uttar Pradesh has 16 tribes, which make up 0.57 per cent of the state’s population. This is the lowest percentage in any state or Union territory. The ministry’s ‘Statistical Profile of STs 2013’ reports as NA (not available) the data on primary health centres in the state’s tribal areas.
Mobile connectivity in far-flung villages is not an impossible demand.
The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) under the telecommunications department operates with the specific intent of providing “widespread and non-discriminatory” quality information and communication services at affordable prices to rural and remote areas.
Rizvi has sent two representations on the matter to the telecommunications minister. The first, in June 2021, drew attention to the “apathetical attitude of the powers that be”. The second, in June 2022, added that banking, revenue, and schemes of the Central and state government were rendered useless in the absence of mobile connectivity. Neither got a response.
In July 2021, Rizvi wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marking copies to the ministers of telecommunication and of tribal affairs and the minister of state for home affairs. The last is Ajay Mishra Teni, MP from Kheri. (Teni’s son Ashish is the prime accused in the deaths of four farmers and a journalist on October 3, 2021, during a protest against the farm laws). Once again, he got no response.
In June 2021, BSNL responded to a complaint, admitting that the battery backup at Bela Parsuwa was only for two hours; the Chandan Chowki tower, too, had only two hours. It also read, “demand for new battery bank has already been submitted”.
On July 29, BSNL sent another reply to Rizvi. It noted that the backup for Chandan Chowki was “0.50 hours only” and that for the village tower was “about 1 hr only”. It ended with the same assurance that the demand for a new battery bank had already been submitted. Thus, by BSNL’s own admission, while the duration of the back-up had dwindled, the simple task of installing a new battery bank was still tied up in red tape.
Apprised of the situation, Asim Arun, minister for state (independent charge) for scheduled castes and tribes welfare in the state government, said, “There is neither a dearth of will nor money for their welfare. Our focus is on education, health, livelihood and infrastructure”. The minister has communicated with BSNL on the issue.
Arun, a former police officer, understands the perils of using a foreign cellular service provider. “Anyone using a network outside our zone of surveillance is a danger when dealing with crime and terror,” he said.
Devi, meanwhile, is sure that the president will understand their plight better than anyone else. “The day she comes here,” she said, “we shall celebrate both Holi and Diwali.”