Bhagauli Sahu walks from Shankardah village to Dhamtari town nearly every day, carrying two bundles of straw or grass, depending on the season. He ties the straw or grass to a stick called kanwar, which he places on his shoulders. In Dhamtari, around 70 kilometres from Chhattisgarh's capital city Raipur, Bhagauli sells the bundles as fodder to people who rear livestock or own cattle.
He has been making the trip to Dhamtari and back for years – four days a week, sometimes six, in all seasons, walking alongside children cycling to school in the morning, and labourers, craftspersons and construction workers heading to town to look for work.
Bhagauli is in his 70s. It takes him around an hour to reach Dhamtari, which is around 4.5 kilometres away. Some days, he does the same journey twice – that’s a total of 18 kilometers. This does not include the time spent buying straw from farmers or cutting wild grass that grows near the canal, the paddy farms or by the side of the road.
I have seen him, every now and then, on this road for years and wondered:
why does he do such strenuous work at his age? “We are very poor people and we earn
a bit to get by. While returning from Dhamtari, I buy some vegetables from the
market for home,” he tells me. We walk together for a while and I end up
following him home. On the way there, he says, “I buy the straw from
farmers at Rs. 40-60 and sell it in Dhamtari." At the end of the day, Bhagauli earns between Rs. 80 to Rs. 120.
Do you get an old age pension, I ask. “Yes, my wife and I get a monthly old age pension of Rs. 350 each. But we don’t get it regularly, sometimes we receive the pension money two to four months late.” And they’ve been getting it only for the past four years.
When we reach Bhagauli’s home, his son Dhaniram Sahu is about to leave on a cycle in search of daily-wage work. He will go to the ‘clock circle’ at the centre of Dhamtari, where contractors come to hire labourers for around Rs. 250 a day as wages. When I ask him how old he is, his answer is similar to his father’s. “I am illiterate and I don’t know my age. Just guess it,” says Dhaniram, who is probably in his 30s. How many days he work? “If I get two or three days of work in a week, that’s great!” The father perhaps works more – and harder – than the son.
Bhagauli’s wife, Khedin Sahu, is busy with housework and is getting Dhaniram’s two sons ready for school – they are in Class 1 and 2. I ask Bhagauli if their modest home was built by him or his parents. “By me. Our old house was made by my father with mud. Later, I made this house of mud, clay and bricks.” His father, Bhagauli recalls, worked for a farmer as a cowherd, and his daughter, he says, is married and lives with her in-laws.
Can they get a house through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana? “We have applied. We went to the panchayat many times and requested the sarpanch and other members, but it did not happen. So I have given up on the idea for the time being.”
But, he adds, the government did come to the aid of the villagers during the “bada akaal” (big drought of 1965-66), when they got wheat and jowar from the state. This, Bhagauli says, saved their lives, as did saavaan (a millet) and macchria bhaji (a vegetable), which grow in the wild like weeds.
The family has never owned land – they didn’t during Bhagauli’s father’s generation, his own, nor his son’s. “We don’t have anything except these hands and legs, which are the only assets my father had and we have.”