The uphill task of Meenakashipuram residents to bridge infrastructural gaps

There are umpteen peek-a-boo moments as the sun shines through huge silver oak trees at noon. Sometimes the rays manage to pierce through but many times the far-reaching branches win out. In this interplay of light and shade, an old lady can be seen carrying a huge gunny bag of rice that she has collected from the ration shop.

She left home the day before to collect this rice. “I have to walk at least 10 km to reach my home and have to finish all my household works before sunset,” she says, climbing a 60-degree slope of rubble. That’s because she has no electricity at home. “Tomorrow I should also join my team of women filling these stretches.”

Selvi has been living in Meenakshipuram, a village on the Sirumalai range, for almost five decades. The village is named so because it is part of the Meenakshi Amman Temple’s land. The people here trudge for hours together to buy their rations, sell their agricultural produce and get medical treatment. When someone is expecting a baby, the entire family simply shifts to Dindigul for a year so that the child can be delivered safely.

People from the hills are known to be tough. They are hardened by their way of life and by government apathy. Despite repeated incidents and accidents here, authorities have been slow to help, unless it is election time. And election promises usually remain mere promises. Though the villagers had little hope of help, they did ask for the 100-days job programme to be implemented here.

Village with nil facilities

Meenakshipuram has 312 people, 170 votes, 226 ration cards. But the hamlet has no road, electricity, hospital, school or ration shop. In fact, the villagers are often suspected by Dindigul police and civil supplies officials of selling ration rice in the open market, especially when they wait under the Dindigul Bridge to get a lift home.

“Often to buy rice and groceries for Rs.100, we spend Rs.400 to Rs.500,” says P. Veeranan, elected member of Ward No. 1. “Hence, most of the time we pool in some people and send them to buy for the half-a-dozen families. This bulk purchase often gets us trapped in suspicion net.”

The Meenakshipuram villagers have decided not to brood over all that. Instead, they took it up as a challenge to do something for their own betterment. And S. Paneerselvam, Viralipatti panchayat president, kept his promise of bringing in the 100-day job scheme.

Though the village comes under Madurai District’s jurisdiction, the access is through Dindigul District. Villagers must travel three hours by bus to reach Dindigul town, and they must board that bus at Ooradi, a 20 km walk from home. Sometimes they cling to vans and trucks that carry their produce. Even these truckers do not help villagers during the rains, as the steep rubble stretch becomes slippery and dangerous.

Joint initiative

When the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was introduced, the villagers brainstormed and zeroed in on roads and transport facilities as their top priority. “We often slog through 20 km up and down to board a bus,” Selvi says. “During rainy season, life becomes worse and words cannot elaborate our woes.”

There is a steep and narrow way, believed to have been used by British, to reach Karuppukoil (Madurai District) within two hours. But it is suited only for people who are not carrying any goods. “Only walkers can use this steep and lonely road,” says Chinna Ayyavu, who sometimes walks down to reach town.

“We motivated the villagers to find a solution for their transport facility,” says Centre for Rural Education and Development secretary S. Alagesan. The NGO has been working in the village for the past five years involving men and women in forming self-help groups.

After continuous motivational meetings, Meenakshipuram villagers decided to contribute their bit to laying the country road to ease vehicular movement. They fill the trenches with stones collected from various parts of the forest. Then they fill the stretch with mud.

All villagers must participate in the work. At least one person from each family should chip in to work at least for 20 days. “This is to instil a sense of belonging to the road,” says Alagesan.

Applying traditional knowledge

“The road will also serve as a water course during rainy season,” he adds. “Villagers have a traditional knowledge of that and they make roads where water would seep down under the piled stones.”

Of the 650 acres of farmland here, villagers grow vegetables on 500 acres and plant the rest with pepper, coffee and banana. Sirumalai banana, once the crop plant in this area, is cultivated only in backyards now. At present, they are cultivating for traders, who buy back the produce. The villagers must pay back the traders’ advances and, because they are far from open markets, they are forced to accept low prices offered by intermediaries.

All these are set to change soon with the new path they are creating for themselves. The rays of hope penetrate this hamlet more and more every day, obstacles notwithstanding.

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