SUGA , Mahottary- Winter in a tarai village is not charming anymore. Gone are the days when the fresh hay and balmy sun warmed your heart and body. For four years in a row, the tarai has been gripped by a mysterious winter fog. It is gloomy, blocking out the sun for days on end, and the air lacks the characteristic crispness of early morning mist. In some ways, the gloom symbolises the foggy state of our state.
It is easy to blame global warming or the hole in the ozone layer for everything that goes wrong with the weather. But more in-depth studies are needed to explain to us exactly why the refreshing, fog-dispelling winter drizzle has become so elusive. Anecdotal reasons are aplenty, but no convincing explanations have been offered for the thick fog that grips much of the Indo-Gangetic plain, causing sheer misery for many and discomfort for most. The resulting cold-wave kills the poor and the children by the dozen, but the South Asian bureaucratic-scientific establishment remains preoccupied with what it considers more pressing issues-nuclear bombs, spy satellites, and cryogenic boosters. Not just Indians, our agricultural scientists at the grandly named Nepal Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) also couldn't be bothered.
The persistent fog may have something to do with the intensive irrigation required for the hybrid wheat of India's Green Revolution that has started to push eastward. It might also be linked to the waterlogging that has become rampant in the flood plains due to embankments built along riverbanks, ostensibly to control flooding during the monsoon. It is possible that the emissions from the coal-fired power plants of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar aggravate the situation. Then there is the thinning forest cover in the region, which does little to help the worsening air-quality. In all probability, the fog that hangs like a pall of gloom over the Ganga plains and our tarai is a result of all these factors.
Even without the fog, life in villages here is changing. It is less laid-back, a lot more competitive. Despite the loud protests you hear in the capital over the politicisation, people are, if anything, not politicised enough. Perhaps people in the cities harp on about excessive political spirit because they fear the development of political solidarity in the "hinterlands" might end up weakening their hold over the resources of the state. Clan, community, and caste still rule the roost in the village here, but even that is disappearing. It is being replaced by a frightening fragmentation. At the first glance, the rural landscape looks all calm and serene. But stay just a few more days, and the harshness of Marx's "rural idiocy" boils over.
Remittances from West Asia and earnings from Gujarat and Punjab vie for attention as the minarets of mosques rise higher and murals in temples become more garish. The stronger currency of West Asia talks louder than the Indian Rupee bank drafts. People raise the volume of their TV sets to drown out loudspeakers belching out pop bhajans non-stop. The market is insidious. It does not leave even the non-participant unaffected. Hawkers move around the village exchanging human hair for fistfuls of the cheap sonpapadi. Poor mothers cut their locks that will probably end up as trendy black-hair wigs for chic New Yorkers so they can feed their children.
With most able-bodied men of working age abroad making a living, the villages here have become a refuge for women, the unemployable, the old, the sick and the very young. An unintended benefit of this has been that women are empowered. Even so-called high-caste women have come out of purdah perforce, as they have to run their household in the absence of men. They must go to pay land-tax, buy fertiliser from the market or sell agricultural produce to tide over an emergency in between collecting remittances from the local bank.
The collapse of community life is most visible in the drains that flood the narrow streets of the village. Earlier, people fetched water from public wells and used it judiciously. These days, shallow pumps are installed in almost every house, but there are no public drains to safely dispose the overflow and the sewage. The result is cleaner private houses surrounded by dirty public spaces. Had the state been a more effective service provider, public water supply would not be so cheap, and waste water would be managed a lot better. The market went for volume, individual houses opted for convenience and there is nobody to look after the damage being done to the community. Another symbolic instance of the "tragedy of the commons".
Quarrels in rural areas are vicious, but the stakes are low and petty. People come to blows over an argument about a goat that strayed into a neighbour's field of chickpeas. Lathis are brought out to resolve the issue of whose child relieved herself on the door of the local priest. Brothers and cousins spend their lives fighting it out in court to settle the ownership of a few hand-measures of fallow land.
Evening adds some more to the litany of woes. Firewood is expensive, at Rs 3 per kg, few can afford it. Dung-cakes-the poor man's source of energy-are in short supply. In the absence of sunshine, dung doesn't dry fast enough to be used for fuel. The alternative is to go to bed early. Children who resist are frightened with this admonition: "If you don't sleep early, Maobaadis will come and get you." At the community tap, "The army will crush them," is the overwhelming refrain. Another says: "What if they don't?"
The fog holds us prisoner. When will we feel the warmth of the sun again? This winter is turning out to be a rather long one for the tarai, for Nepal.