Gandhi villagers complain of 'betrayal'

By Sharat Pradhan
in Semra, Uttar Pradesh

Image caption,
Ms Kumari says her life of poverty has continued, despite Mr Gandhi's promises

About 18 months ago, the then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband accompanied India's star politician Rahul Gandhi on a visit to the remote village of Semra in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The village is in the heart of Mr Gandhi's Amethi parliamentary constituency and the arrival of the two dignitaries - officially to see rural India in action - was met with much optimism among the villagers.

Mr Miliband even went so far as to spend the night in a small brick hut with only a simple bed and the braying of cattle outside for company.

Now embittered villagers say the arrival of the two men did little to alleviate their poverty and that promises by Mr Gandhi to help them out have not been fulfilled.

'No guaranteed employment'

Shiv Kumari, the poverty-stricken widow who provided accommodation for Mr Miliband in the ramshackle thatched hut - her only asset where she lives with her five little children - says that she feels let down.

While Mr Miliband to her remains just another "gora saheb" (white man), she says that she had many hopes from Mr Gandhi, who promised her a "pukka" house and a job that would enable her to make ends meet.

"Alas, all that I have received after his visit were four brick walls, without doors, windows or even a roof," she said.

"Rahul Gandhi also promised to get me inducted as a mate [supervisor] under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS)."

But she says the only work she has got so far under NREGS was over a period of 12 days and another time for a period of 15 days.

"I am barely able to make 45 to 50 rupees after a day's work in privately-owned fields and that employment is not guaranteed seven days of the week," the 25-year-old widow said.

"There are days when our family of six has to remain content with three rotis [unleavened flat bread] because we have no other option."

Mr Gandhi is a regular visitor to his Amethi constituency, recently showing Microsoft chairman Bill Gates around the area.

But Ms Kumari says she can get close enough to persuade him to carry out his pledge.

Village showcased

"I tried three times, but those around him do not allow a commoner like me to get anywhere within his hearing distance."

Image caption,
Mr Miliband stayed the night in Shiv Kumari's home

All this is embarrassing for Mr Gandhi, especially because Semra was showcased to Mr Miliband as a Congress party success story. Neither Mr Gandhi nor a representative of the party was available to comment on the allegations.

Their reticence is in contrast to the media-friendly approach last year when the up-and-coming Indian politician - pursued by an accompanying press pack - showed his British guest a self-help group where women pay 20 rupees into a pool each week and invest their money together.

Forty-year-old Karma, who heads the consortium of 16 women's self-help groups in Semra now feels that all the hopes generated in the village by the "VIP visit" have been demolished.

"Life remains the same for us - even for a thing like kerosene we often have to shell out anything between 30 to 40 rupees a litre when the official rate is 11 rupees," she said.

Kailasha, a 32-year-old housewife who heads a self-help group in the village, now believes it is time to resort to more desperate measures if Mr Gandhi's promises are the be honoured.

"Let him come this time and we will make it a point to have our voices heard by him," she said.

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