Left: Laungi Bhuiya at the canal that he has cut in his village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Right: Bhuiya standing by the tractor that was gifted to him by a vehicle manufacturing company for his efforts. Photo courtesy of Chinki Sinha and Jai Prakash/Hindustan.
For years, he was dismissed as a madman by the villagers for digging in the forest—an exercise in futility.
On September 20, Bhuyia woke up to an altered reality. The tractor gifted to him was standing outside his house. His wife, Ramrati Devi, was finally convinced her husband wasn’t mad after all. All these years, she had been angry with him for running away to the forest everyday for a few hours to dig. Many times, she didn’t give him food as punishment. His children were young and they were struggling to make ends meet. Most people in the village are dependent on animal husbandry and selling firewood that they carry on foot to the nearby market. “It was difficult all these years but now I am proud of him,” Ramrati told VICE News.
Bhuiya’s daughter-in-law, Damyanti Devi, walked about 15 kilometres (9 miles) to the market to buy the earrings for INR 40 (0.5 USD) so she could wear them to greet people who started coming to the remote village. “We like the attention,” said Damyanti.
According to the 2011 census, Bhuiya’s village, Kothilwa, has a total population of 733 people. The nearest town is around 23 kilometers (14 miles) away.
Last week, former chief minister of the state, Jitan Ram Manjhi, came to the Kothilwa and praised Bhuiya. He said he would get Bhuiya recognition from the President. Now, the villagers are waiting to see if the promises are kept. More good news came along on Sunday when the chief minister of the state that is gearing up for elections directed the Water Minister, Sanjay Jha, to complete the minor irrigation canal dug by Bhuiya.
For the years that Bhuiya had been digging on his own in the forest, nobody took him seriously. In his time, Bhuiya had been witness to large scale migration from his village. Three of his four sons went to work in different cities. He had wanted them to stay back in the village. “I had seen the water from the rains go elsewhere. If I could make a canal and divert the water, I’d be able to stop people from leaving the village,” said Bhuiya.
Jai Prakash, a local reporter for Hindustan (Hindi newspaper), broke the news about Bhuiya on September 3. Jai Prakash had been invited by villagers in Kothilwa to report on the road they had built themselves by donating labour and money. Bhuiya, who was also present there, asked Jai Prakash if he would be interested to see another project. “He said he had dug a canal by himself in 30 years,” Jai Prakash told VICE News. They both went to see the canal and then Jai Prakash filed a story, which was then picked up by news agencies and flashed all over. On September 15, a team of officials went to inspect the canal and submit a report.
After the news went viral, it also elicited criticism of the state government that didn’t attend to the basic needs in this region where the population consists mostly of people belonging to the lower caste.
A dam was built last year to store water and named after Bhuiya as he was the one who had built a channel to divert water until that point.
A stringer with a leading daily raised doubt over Bhuiya’s claim that he had dug the canal. He invoked a plan from 1914 that allegedly showed a canal in the region.
But Rajesh Paswan, a villager, said it doesn’t matter if there was a canal. For as long as he has lived in the village, there was no water for irrigation. And even if Bhuiya rejuvenated the canal, it is still a lot of work for a lone man. The block development officer has confirmed to news outlets that the man had dug the paen (a minor irrigation channel used traditionally by farmers) and a report was being prepared at the district level.
In the barren landscape dotted with hills and rocks and extreme poverty, this is not the first time such a story has come through. In 1960, a man named Dashrath Manjhi, had begun chiselling away at a mountain to build a road in Gaya’s Gehlour hills. Manjhi kept at it for 22 years and finally carved a path 360 feet long, 25 feet deep in places and 30 feet wide. Around 60 surrounding villages benefitted from the road as it shortened the distance to five kilometers (3 miles) for them.
Bhuiya had heard about Manjhi, “I wondered if he could do it, why can’t I,” he said.
Bhuiya has been roped in as the brand ambassador for the state government’s scheme to improve the environment and to promote water conservation.
His son, Brahmdeo, wants an electric fan.
“I want a fan first and then maybe we can build a pucca (cemented) house,” said Brahmdeo, pointing to the roof supported by wooden beams covered in cobwebs. “Maybe some good clothes and good food.”
The water has finally come to the village.
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