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Banita Punji - The victim of Poverty Politics in India
"Kalahandi has heard many declarations and promises. Huge amount of money came, but the district is still the poorest of the poor state Orissa. Klahandi has only become a ladder for politicians, bureaucrats and so called development professionals. But the district couldn’t see any major change even though 1000 crores of rupees have been poured into the State of Orissa in its name. Even the much publicized victim of poverty Banita Punji is still struggling to feed her husband and children. Banita still wanders, what happened after Sonia and Rajiv visited her paternal house? Why she had to pay for the selfish attitude of her brother’s wife?"
Basudev Mahapatra : June 10, 2009
Much before Rahul Gandhi started his campaign from Nuapada, once a part of Kalahandi, to discover poverty his parents tried to discover the reasons in acute poverty that forced a woman to sell her husband’s minor sister – a case that took pace about twenty five years ago in Bangamunda, a remote sleepy village of Kalahandi in Orissa. It was after the visit of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia that Kalahandi became the world icon of poverty.
On 21st June 1985, the then Prime Minister of India, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi along with his wife Mrs. Sonia Gandhi visited the thatched mud house of Chhabi Punji in Bangamunda being moved by a sensational report of a minor girl being sold out to a poorer half blind middle aged man of a nearby village. To the local people, who were completely almost ignorant about the world outside their village, the very magic of their visit transformed this almost unknown village into a glittering fairy land as it brought, all on a sudden, an approach road, water and other amenities that people of Bangamunda had never dreamt of and changed the shape and status of the place, even though they all lasted for a while only.
The report that brought Rajiv and Sonia was nothing but an unethical, misinterpreted presentation of a marriage on the traditional caste system meant to sensationalise the usual incident as a case of girl trading happened under the pangs of unbearable poverty. As the reports explained, a lady named Fanas Punji was almost compelled under acute poverty to sell out her only sister of her husband Banita to a supposedly rapacious trader Bidya Podha who was, in reality, surviving on begging. Both Government and private, national and international sympathisers started showering their blessings, often expressed in terms of money, on Fanas who had already turned famous for selling her sister-in-law Banita to a 40 years old semi-blind poor man. Kalahandi soon became the hot spot in the world poverty map making it eligible for grants and aids amounting over thousands of crores. But the irony of this whole drama was, none including the watch dog media, bothered to guess the fate of Banita, the central character and a minor girl who had not yet come of age but allegedly sold out to a poorer man under compulsion and pressure from her brother and his wife?
In reality, it was not a child trade, rather a customary marriage on the caste traditions of the relevant community, the Podhas. As per the Parja custom of the community, the groom has to pay a bridal price to the family of the bride at the time of marriage – an inverse system of present day dowry. In the said case, the sister-in-law Fanas had forced Banita to get married to an almost blind, middle-aged man, Bidya Podha of neighbouring village Khatimunda, in exchange of a sum of Rs.40 only as parja. It was neither unholy nor illegal trading but a marriage as per the customs and traditions of the Podhas. But the media, unaware about the caste tradition and eager to create sensation, was all set to make it a big hit by misinterpreting the whole affair. The scribes didn’t even try to record the statements or versions of Bidya Podha, Banita and others who could explain the reality. It was rather apprehensive that truth could become a splash of cold water on the flames of sensationalism.
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A visit to the schedule caste hamlet of remote village Khatimunda, the present abode of Vidya Podha and Banita with their 5 children, after a lapse of twenty four years revealed another story or, may be, the other side of the much hyped tale that pulled the then Prime minister and his band to this almost unknown village. It also revealed how our spice hungry media can cook up stories to create hype without any regard for the sensitive detail of the reality. It makes us realize how blind we are to the expectations, hopes, aspirations, sorrows and sufferings of our so called common but down trodden folks and even to our own responsibilities.
Bidya and Banita are now living peacefully, although not comfortably, in the village Khatimunda with their five offspring (three daughters, Kalabati, Jamboobati, Khurnani, and two sons Kalinga and Nalina). None of the members feel themselves either victims or victimizers of any illegal trade as publicized by the media. Kalabati has turned 16. Banita, with her little income from cooking at Mohara Anganwari centre, is now looking for some support for her daughter’s marriage. Eldest son Kalinga is now a daily wage labourer. As first and only in the family, youngest daughter Khurnani is going to the newly started village primary school. Here again, only one teacher is posted to look after the students from standard one to five. But the elections in India are now being fought on issues of development.
Requesting the officials and the local leaders including his adopting father Bhakta Charan Das, Banita managed to approve official support to build her house under Indira Awash Yojana. But out of 22000 rupees to be disbursed in 3 phases, Banita has received only 10000 rupees and she still wanders what happened to the rest amount? If this is how the development programmes work in Kalandi, how many years and how much of money it will take to remove poverty from the district?
When we talked to the couple, they showed us the other side of this tragic yarn. As per Banita, when the whole family was living on the little income of her brother Chhabi she became the heaviest burden to the family and specifically to her brother’s wife Phanas. In order to get rid of the burden in form of Banita, Phanas supported the marriage even though she knew that Bidya Podha is poorer than Chhabi. And Banita didn’t oppose to it as she was also concerned about the future of her brother’s children.
No more interested to face the media and reply to any question of the scribes, Bidya Podha explained in anguish “You baboos came and changed our life and our story. You described our marriage an illegal trade. It brought still bigger baboos to Bangamunda, Banita’s parental village and also brought Indira Maa’s bohu. She started crying with Fanas and took food inside her house with nice chhabi baboos (photographers) all around. Everyone sympathized with her and gave her money, clothes, land and so many things. Because she was poor (!), so poor that she had to sacrifice her husband’s sister, Banita to feed her two children! But what about Banita who had fallen into a more harsh state of poverty! Even the brother and sister-in-law of Banita, who didn’t hesitate to grasp the benefit by terming our marriage an illegal trading, they forgot us! It all happened because I am a more poor and helpless man”. Chhabi Punji, the brother of Banita as well as husband of Fanas was just sitting beside without any word challenging what Bidya said at the time.
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This story of Banita and Bidya unveiled the harsh impact of our publicity crazy leadership and sensation crazy reportage on poor people struggling for at least one square meal a day. Banita had been used as a scapegoat by Fanas who always bothered for her own comfort, her children and husband. But no body saw the other but truthful side of the story. Banita was sided to live with misery although the whole story was centred on her life. She has nothing to say now except giving a faint smile of anguish, sorrow and helplessness to everybody who joined the political leadership in the weird carnival that masquerades the villains as heroes.
Banita’s misery is lot more similar to the poverty in Kalahandi. Banita’s life might have gone into misery since her marriage has been termed as trading of a girl, but this incident changed the fate of many in Kalahandi as the district soon became the destination of innumerable special grants to remove poverty. Bhakta Charan Das who became the adopting father has come a long way in his political journey. NGOs thrived in the district by selling poverty and misery of the people.
In these twenty four years, Kalahandi has heard many declarations and promises. Huge amount of money came, but the district is still the poorest of the poor state Orissa. Klahandi has only become a ladder for politicians, bureaucrats and so called development professionals. But the district couldn’t see any major change even though 1000 crores of rupees have been poured into the State of Orissa in its name. Even the much publicized victim of poverty Banita Punji is still struggling to feed her husband and children. Banita still wanders, what happened after Sonia and Rajiv visited her paternal house? Why she had to pay for the selfish attitude of her brother’s wife?
Sonia is now the chairman of ruling alliance UPA. She might have forgotten the episode of Banita Punji and Fanas Punji. But Banita is still waiting with the hope that Sonia will one day come to her and know the other side that contains all truth behind the fabricated story.