Basods’ by the Ripta: Community Narratives
Within and outside formal academia, the mobility of people from rural to a more nearby, immediate urban town-scape is a rather discussed phenomenon. In India, though, social mobility of people is also unflinchingly attached to their caste identity.
“In the early days, Pipariya was synonymous with the Pipariya railway station. It still is,” quips local trader and businessman Kishore Shah* (83) at his railway colony residence in Pipariya. However, in today’s time, the semi urban town of Pipariya is not restricted to being synonymous with its local railway station. With more than two lakh registered voters, the town has been expanding at a gradual pace. Apart from the railway station, public spheres such as Mangalwara Baazar (Weekly Market), Itwara Baazar (Weekly Sunday Market), Alka Talkies (Cinema Hall), Pachmarhi Road and Anaaj Galla Mandi (Grain Stock Market) are some of the most popular and busiest markers of the place. It has many characteristics that are unique to a rapid growing small economy. A chunk of this economy rests on the agricultural and farm produce from the villages of nearby regions. The in-flow of people from these regions to Pipariya for better livelihood opportunities and sustenance is a familiar sight to the local populace.
Within and outside formal academia, the mobility of people from rural to a more nearby, immediate urban town-scape is a rather discussed phenomenon. In India, though, social mobility of people is also unflinchingly attached to their caste identity. It can greet or ostracize an individual or an entire community within their social surroundings. In some cases, it simply dictates who can live where and who cannot.
Passing by the Ripta bridge on Sandia road in Pipariya, one walks past a range of bamboo utility products (baskets, poles, brooms, hangings etc) dotting the entire sideways for a stretch of 100-150 meters. A string of barrel shaped musical drums is queued next to the baskets.
The products and drums are exhibited outside the thatch roof huts of the bamboo artisans who belong to the Basod community. Aapart from Ripta, there are a few Basod houses on the outskirts of Ayodhya Basti and Mehtar Mohalla as well. But it is on the Ripta Bridge that the Basod population is most concentrated at. Marred by issues related to abject lack of basic civic amenities and poor living conditions, the skilled artisans have been living in such transit huts for years. They iterate that they are habitual to witnessing their temporary huts being bulldozed every once in a few years by the government authorities.
In 2018, we recorded a conversation with Faaglaal Banskar* (60), a Basod artisan living near the Ripta Bridge. Preoccupied with making a handheld bamboo fan that is ritually gifted to a newlywed groom in the community’s traditional ceremony called Beejna, he agreed to talk to us for a while. I was accompanied by fellow researchers and local residents Narendra Maurya (62) and Lakhan Rajput (64). The interaction turned out to be a small gathering, with other community members joining in and voicing their plea of being at the centre of apathetic social treatment owing primarily to their Dalit caste identity. Yaadraam*(71), an elder artisan, expressed that despite being in the town for more than three decades, there has been an unusual silence about the community’s poor living conditions. Later in the evening, Narendra shared an observation that I am paraphrasing here: ‘In a town, a few places are more silent than others.’ Following are some of the excerpts from the recorded conversation with Faaglaal Banskar (translated from Bundeli to English):
“There are some twenty to twenty five Basod families living here at present. They have come to Pipariya from close by regions of Kaamti, Bathera, Sahvan, Salechauka, Basuria, Sigora, Gongari, Jhaalon, Maathni, and Narsinghpur. We migrated from our villages because of oppression and caste based discrimination at the hands of upper castes. I belong to Kanwaar village in Raisen district. There, upper castes used to trouble us a lot. They would pick up anything that we made and not pay for it. If we asked for money, we were beaten up. It was commonplace for women of our households to get harassed by the upper caste men. We were not allowed to draw water from the same well as the upper castes. Our children could not go to the same school as their children. No one wants to go back to that sort of life. But all of us were and are landless. So we had no choice but to move to the town.
We have been living here for more than 30 years in thatch roof huts. We are registered voters under the Silari constituency but many of us don’t have ration cards. Still, the local administration has bulldozed our huts time and again. In such cases, we have no other option but to move to the nearby fields and wait for the situation to subside. Then we put up our huts again after a few days. What else can we do? We have nowhere else to go. The government has always ignored our plea of land allotment. Now they are going to widen this road very soon and then we will have to shift from here as well. It is anyway becoming more and more difficult to make ends meet as a bamboo artisan. With plastic products as alternatives, the market demand for bamboo products has gone down drastically. We are earning merely 50 to 100 rupees per day.”
At this point in the conversation, a few more voices join in to articulate what they call systematic loot. They share that the bamboos for work are bought from the local bamboo depot at Pachmarhi Road. The depot has an upper limit of giving 10 Bamboos to one person for one whole year. Paying Rs.165 for the bamboos and Rs.100-110 for transportation, it costs Faaglaal and others a total of Rs.275 to get the depot bought bamboos home. They don’t even last for two months. Narendra asks them that what do they do when they run of bamboos? “We either buy from private sellers or from black market. The rates are much higher than the depot rates. So much so for nationalizing (state trading monopoly) Bamboo years ago! ” retorts Bansichand* (58). The voices cut a contradictory figure to the government policies of aiding the Basod community in the State.
As Faaglaal signals to us to end the conversation, he signs off with the following remark: “Since we have had no formal education, it is difficult for our community to find any other work. I would say that we might have managed to keep caste based atrocities of village at bay, but we are in tatters when it comes to feeding our families in the town.”
*Kishore Shah (82): Quoted from a conversation that was recorded with Mr. Shah’s consent at his Railway colony residence in Pipariya in 2017.
*Faaglal Banskar (60), Yadraam (71) and Bansichand (58): The names of the Basod artisans have been changed. The conversation was recorded with the participants’ consent at Ripta Bridge in Pipariya in 2018.