Villagers are dismantling their own village

Chenini is a small village, maybe 50 houses, along the National Highway 39 in Madhya Pradesh. It’s somewhere between Khajuraho and Panna inside the bufferzone of Panna National Park. The villagers know since many years that one day they would have to leave their homes and find a new place to live. Their houses are built on forest land and some people say, the buildings were illegal. The people have been there for more than 15 years. At least.

Now the time has come. Early in November this year a government official from Panna came to the village and asked the villagers to destroy their houses and he insisted only then they would get the compensation of 10 lakh INR per family. He was litterally asking them to destroy their houses – without having a new place to stay – and then they would get paid. The viallgaers were confused, some of them in deep despair. The officials put enormous pressure on them. Why? No one really knows.

Pappu and his wife, whom I know for many years now, live in Chenini. I actually stayed with them over the last couple of month. So I know the small tiny little village and its people quite well. When this happened I wasn’t there. Luckily Pappu called me and informed me about the situation. I told him NOT to destroy his house and I asked him to convince the other villagers to do the same. I connected him with my dear friend Lokendra Singh, Maharaj of Panna, who confirmed that there is no law which justifies the demand of this officer. Nevertheless the pressure from the collector’s office on the villagers continued.

Pappu – himself confused and under pressure – walked around in the village trying to convince the other villagers not to demolish their houses. But in vain. Today the village looks like a ghost town … the people live in their ruins looking for another place to stay. Which is not so easy to find because in this area there are no places to rent. And the cold season has started. At night the temperature easily drops down to zero degree.

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The good news is that they ALL villagers but two have received their compensation. And the money went directly into the accounts to the people – which is a good thing, so no officer could ask for bribe. Pappu whose house is still 100% functional also received their money.  He and his wife are pretty happy about and now the entire village looks up to him.

Seven, eight weeks later most of the villagers still live in Chenini. For me it was very interesting to see what happened when they got their money. Here are a few snapshots:

  • a lot of new motorbikes were bought
  • a huge “cash pay back” started. Private loans among the villagers were paid back with tremendous interest rates: 1 INR for each 100 INR loan per day!
  • landlords from other areas came to the village to convince the villagers to buy land in other areas, of course they were asking for exceedingly high prices
  • and every now and then we heard that the banks refused to pay out the assests – but this was rather a temporarily phenomenon

Above all I was amazed how they dismantle brick by brick, wooden piece by wooden piece and tile by tile their houses. They take all the stuff they can and use it for the next house again. I’ve never seen anything like this!

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For me I feel it’s a sad story, especially the part with the government official. The villagers themselves though, now that they’ve got their money, they don’t seem to care so much. It’s just a part of life. It was meant to be like this, they take it and move on!

All photos by Snehdip Biswas

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