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Jharkhand’s ‘waterman’ in shambles

He won the Padma Shri in 2016, but activist Simon Oraon and his family are struggling to make ends meet. His grandsons had to drop out of school, while one granddaughter works as a household help in Delhi

At the central crossroad in Bero Bazar (Division), about 45 km from Jharkhand’s capital of Ranchi, stands a small hut with a tin roof. Its tiles are weathered, the walls discoloured and threaded with cobwebs.

A green signboard outside reads “Padma Shri Simon Oraon”, the letters painted in white.

This is the home of Simon Oraon, 85, the “waterman of Jharkhand” who has spent 50 years of his life working to save the state’s rivers and forests. Recognising his efforts in forestry and water conservation, Oraon was awarded the Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian honour in India — in 2016.

He’s lived in this hut for 15 years with his wife Virginia, 76, and granddaughter Angela, 22, and the walls are papered with certificates and newspaper cuttings. But despite his work and the recognition that came with the Padma Shri, Oraon and his family live a precarious life, plagued by financial issues.

Newslaundry met Oraon on a cold January morning. He sat in the courtyard of his house, taking in the winter sun. He wore a maroon shirt and a frayed pair of olive-green pants.

“The government has created a nuisance for me by awarding me the Padma Shri,” Oraon said. “It troubles me a lot. A Padma Shri won’t fill an empty stomach.”

The family’s ancestral house is in Khaksi Tola in Jamtoli village, about 6 km from Hariharpur. Oraon’s two sons, Joseph Minj and Sudhir Minj, live there with their families: six daughters and two sons, and one son and a daughter, respectively. Oraon’s youngest son, Anand, died in 2013, leaving behind his wife, four daughters, and two sons. All three families are engaged in daily wage work or agricultural work.

Angela, who has lived with Oraon and his wife since she was a child, is Anand’s oldest daughter. “Grandpa educated me up to BA by keeping me with them,” she explained. “I want to pursue my BEd, but we don’t have the money.”

Her mother, Sevo Oraon, lives in Khaksi Tola, where her brothers Simon (12) and Anup (10) look after cattle.

Due to their financial distress, Angela’s sister, 18-year-old Monika, moved to Delhi where she currently works as a household help. “Doing domestic chores, she manages to send money home,” Angela said. The third sister, Anima, 16, lives in Kolkata with relatives. The youngest, Karuna, stays with an aunt in Ranchi.

Angela’s mother, Sevo, said her husband’s death made it difficult for the family to survive. “I have six children to raise,” she said. “That’s why I told my second daughter to go to Delhi so the younger ones can continue their studies. She sends money from Delhi, and that helps to some extent.”

Family members are reluctant to discuss Monika’s work as a household help. Her mother said she sends the family about Rs 6,000-7,000 every month. How does the family keep in touch with her? “She doesn’t have a phone of her own,” Angela said. “Her employer sometimes allows her to speak to us over her own phone. We don’t have that number saved.”

Simon Oraon’s village falls under the legislative constituency of Bero Mandar. Bandhu Tirkey of the Jharkhand Vika Morcha won the seat during the Assembly election in 2019.

According to Tirkey, when he found out that the Padma Shri awardee had a granddaughter working as a household help, he visited Oraon’s house and tried to arrange financial aid.

“Oraon has indeed won the Padma Shri, but his financial situation has stayed the same,” Tirkey told Newslaundry. “The previous Bharatiya Janata Party government is responsible for the family’s current financial trouble. We demand that the current government take cognisance of this and give him financial help. Along with that, his granddaughter who works as a domestic maid should be brought back home.”

Tirkey said he’s written a letter to Chief Minister Hemant Soren about this. He’s also promised to help Angela with financial assistance of Rs 50,000 so she can study her BEd.

Oraon said: “All I ask is that the government provides some jobs to my grandchildren according to their education. Knowledge does not come without education, and that’s why knowledge should be acquired.”

He added, “We could not educate our grandchildren properly due to lack of money. Two of my granddaughters have studied up to BA but haven’t been able to find employment. We’re not in a position to help them study further. My grandsons left school after Class 10 or 12.”

The family currently survives on Virginia’s pension. Oraon himself hasn’t been granted an old-age pension. He also grows medicinal plants in a kitchen garden; the family prepares herbal medicines and sell them.

Oraon explained, “People come to me for remedies. I try to heal their pain using herbs. They pay as they please — I don’t ask for it. I didn’t ask for a Padma Shri, I won’t ask for a pension too…They should provide me with a pension if they think it’s necessary.”

Did he receive any government aid after the award? “College students come to ask about my work,” Oraon said. “After the Padma Shri, a lot of reports came out. But nothing from the government.”

Simon Oraon’s contributions to environmental conservation is lengthy. He even went to jail during a “Jal-jangal-jameen” struggle but was acquitted by a court that cited him as a “social activist”. Between 1955 and 1970, he ran a campaign to build dams in tribal areas.

Last year, National Award-winning film-maker Biju Toppo released a docu-mentary on Oraon called Jharia. The film details the hardships Oraon faced during his early life.

“The government awarded him a Padma Shri but has not come to see his current condition,” Toppo told Newslaundry. “People come from abroad to research this person, this man who’s been conferred with the title of ‘Jal Purush’ (Water Man). But he’s suffering from financial troubles.”

Details on Oraon’s struggles came into public view when local newspapers published reports on him. In response, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes wrote a letter to the Jharkhand government, asking that proper facilities be arranged for Oraon’s family. It directed the government to send them a feedback report within seven days.

Oraon said he subsequently received a letter from the state government. Two officials from the local block office came to meet him as well, and promised to start his old-age pension soon.            

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