Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s photo looks down from the walls of Savita Devi’s mud house in Checharia village in Jharkhand. “Babasaheb has given us [voting rights], that's why we are voting,” says Savita.

Savita owns one bigha (0.75 acres) of land on which she cultivates paddy and maize during the kharif season and wheat, chana and oilseeds during the rabi season. She thought she would work the land in her backyard to grow vegetables. “But for two years, there has been no water.” The consecutive years of drought have pushed her family into debt.

The thirty-two-year-old Savita lives with her four children in this village in Palamu district; her husband, Pramod Ram, 37, works as a migrant labourer, 2,000 kilometres away in Bengaluru. “The government is not giving us jobs,” says the Dalit daily wage labourer. “There is barely enough to feed the children.”

Working on construction sites, Pramod earns around Rs. 10,000-12,000 a month. Sometimes he works as a truck driver, but that option is not available through the year. “If the men sit at home for four months, we have to start begging. What can we do [but migrate]?” asks Savita.

Most men in Checharia, a village of 960 residents (Census 2011), leave in search of work as “there are no job opportunities here. If there were jobs, why would people go outside?” points out Surpati Devi, Savita’s 60-year-old mother-in-law.

PHOTO • Savita Devi
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar looks down from the wall of Savita Devi’s mud house in Checharia village. The village has been celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti for the last couple of years. Right: ‘Babasaheb has given us [voting rights], that's why we are voting,’ Savita says

More than eight lakh people move out of Jharkhand for work and employment (Census 2011). “In this village, you won’t find a single working person between the ages of 20 and 52,” says Harishankar Dubey. “Only five per cent remain; the rest have migrated,” says the member of the Basna panchayat samiti to which Checharia belongs.

“This time when they come to ask for votes, we’ll ask, what have you done for the village?”  Savita said, both angry and determined. She is sitting in front of her house, along with other family members, dressed in a pink nightie with a yellow dupatta draped over her head. It is around noon, and her four school-going children have just returned from school, having eaten khichdi as part of the midday meal.

Savita belongs to the Dalit Chamar community and says she got to know about Babasaheb Ambedkar – the man who drafted India’s Constitution – from the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations organised by the residents of the village – 70 per cent of whom belong to Scheduled Caste communities. She got the framed photo of Ambedkar a few years ago from the market in Garhwa town, 25 kilometres away.

Before the panchayat elections in 2022, Savita participated in a campaign rally at the request of the mukhiya ’s (headman’s) wife, despite running a high fever. “She promised us a hand pump if she won,” Savita says. When she won but her promise remained unfulfilled, Savita visited her house twice. “Forget about meeting me, she didn’t even look at me. She is a woman, but she did not empathise with another woman’s plight.”

Checharia village has been facing a water crisis for over 10 years. There is only one operational well here that caters to 179 households. Every day, Savita goes twice to fetch water from the hand pump 200 metres uphill. She spends about five to six hours daily on water-related tasks, starting at four or five in the morning. “Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to provide a hand pump?” she asks.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left and Right: Lakhan Ram, Savita’s father-in-law, next to the well which has dried up. Checharia has been facing a water crisis for more than a decade

Jharkhand has been badly hit by successive droughts: in 2022, almost the entire state – 226 blocks – was declared drought-affected. The next year, 2023, 158 blocks went dry.

“We have to think about how much water we can use for drinking and washing our clothes,” Savita says, pointing to the well in the courtyard of their kutcha house, which has been dry since last month, at the beginning of the summer of 2024.

Checharia goes to polls on May 13 in the fourth phase of the General Elections, 2024. Pramod and his younger brother, also a migrant labourer, will be back home before that. “They are coming only to vote,” says Savita. The trip back home will cost them around Rs. 700. It may also cost them their current jobs, putting them back in the labour market.


Just a few kilometres from Checharia, a six-lane highway is under construction, but a road is yet to reach this village. So, when Renu Devi, 25, went into labour, the sarkari gari (state ambulance) could not make it to her door. “I had to walk to the main road [around 300 metres] in that state,” she says, the 11 p.m. walk into the night is clearly etched in her memory.

Not just ambulances, it appears that other government schemes have also not made it to their doorstep.

Most households in Checharia cook on a chulha – they have either not received an LPG cylinder under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana or don’t have the money to refill the cylinders.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Renu Devi has been staying at her natal home since giving birth a few months ago. Her brother Kanhai Kumar works as a migrant labourer in Hyderabad . Right: Renu’s sister Priyanka stopped studying after Class 12 as the family could not afford the fees. She has recently borrowed a sewing machine from her aunt, hoping to earn a living from tailoring work

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Just a few kilometres from Checharia, a six-lane highway is under construction, but a road is yet to reach Renu and Priyanka’s home in the village. Right: The family depended on the water of the well behind their house for agricultural use

All residents of Checharia have the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation card (MNREGA) card (booklet), guaranteeing 100 days of work in a year. The cards were issued five to six years ago, but the pages remain blank. The paper still smells fresh.

Renu’s sister, Priyanka dropped out after Class 12 as the family could not afford the fees. The 20-year-old recently borrowed a sewing machine from her aunt, hoping to earn a living from tailoring work. “She is getting married soon,” says Renu, who is staying at her natal home after giving birth. “The groom doesn’t have a job or a pucca house, but he is demanding Rs. 2 lakhs.” The family has already borrowed money for the wedding.

When there is no earning, many residents of Checharia borrow from money lenders who charge a high rate of interest. “There is no house in this village that is not burdened with debt,” says Sunita Devi whose twin sons, Lav and Kush, both migrated to Kolhapur in Maharashtra for work. The money they send home is their only source of sustenance. “Sometimes they send 5,000 and sometimes 10,000 [rupees],” says their 49-year-old mother.

For their daughter’s wedding last year, Sunita and her husband Rajkumar Ram borrowed a lakh of rupees from a local moneylender at an interest of five percent – they have managed to return Rs. 20,000 and say that Rs. 1.5 lakh is still due.

Garib ke chaw dew la koi naike. Agar ek din haman jhoori nahi lanab, ta agla din haman ke chulha nahi jali [there’s no one to help the poor. If, for one day, we don’t fetch firewood, there’ll be no fire to light our stoves on the next],” says Sunita Devi.

Along with other women from the village, she walks around 10-15 km every day to collect firewood from a hill and faces constant harassment from forest guards.

PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla
PHOTO • Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Left: Like many other residents of Checharia, Sunita Devi and her family have not benefited from government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or Ujjwala Yojana. Right: With almost no job opportunities available locally, the men of Checharia have migrated to different cities. Many families have a labour card (under MGNEREGA), but none of them have had a chance to use it

In 2019, before the last General Elections, Sunita Devi had applied for a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) along with other women in the village. “No one has received a house,” she says and adds, “the only benefit we get is ration. And even then, we get 4.5 kilos instead of five.”

Five years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vishnu Dayal Ram secured a victory with 62 per cent of the total votes. He defeated Ghuran Ram of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. This year too, he is contesting from the same seat.

Until last year, 2023, Sunita knew nothing about him. At a local fair, she heard some slogans in his name. “ Humara neta kaisa ho? V D Ram jaisa ho!

Sunita says, “ aaj tak unko humlog dekha nahi hai [we have not seen him till date].”
Ashwini Kumar Shukla

Ashwini Kumar Shukla is a freelance journalist based in Jharkhand and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (2018-2019), New Delhi. He is a PARI-MMF fellow for 2023.

Other stories by Ashwini Kumar Shukla
Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

Other stories by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya