One of India’s oldest couples, Hamir Singh and Parvati, have voted in every election since independence .
Dhinga Khedi (Sehore, Madhya Pradesh): Bondaji Bhairaji was 35 when he voted in independent India’s first general election in 1951. He voted for the Congress party and as he recalls, specifically for Jawaharlal Nehru. “There was Panditji only. His daughter Indiraji came much later and I have voted for her also,” 102-year-old Bondaji said, in a voice gone feeble with age.
Bondaji is not an exception in Dhinga Khedi, a village in Madhya Pradesh some 75km from Sehore. On 28 November, when the state went to polls, Bondaji attended this ritual of democracy yet again, along with seven other centenarians from the village. Also voting with him were some 60 villagers above 85.
What is the biggest difference he has experienced in the numerous elections when he has cast his vote? “Earlier, we had to go to a polling booth in nearby village Katla. Now, there is a polling booth in Dhinga Khedi itself,” Bondaji says with some sense of pride.
Dhinga Khedi has a decent approach road from the Bhopal-Indore highway. It falls in the Ashta assembly constituency, which is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. There are signs of government schemes reaching the village, like personal toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Most of its residents are farmers, but the agrarian community here has one major grievance. Azad Singh, 32, a soybean and chana (chickpea) farmer, points out that the farmland around Dhinga Khedi has still not been mutated as agriculture land.
“In government records, it is still counted as forest land and, as such, we don’t get any benefits of government schemes for farmers, because technically, we are not farmers who hold agriculture land. We get farm produce from this land and we sell it also, but we don’t get benefits like crop insurance, government-determined minimum support price, and compensation for loss due to natural calamities,” Singh said.
Kalibai Pratapji, 103, who lives three houses away from Bondaji’s, cannot walk on her own. Her son Gangaram carried her on his back to the polling booth, where she cast her vote. For Kalibai, India’s transformation from a British colony to an independent and self-confident nation has meant some tangible benefits. Her son is a beneficiary of the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana, under which he has built a house for ₹2.5 lakh, of which ₹1.35 lakh came from the government as a subsidy.
A short walk around the corner takes you to the pucca house of Hamir and Parvati Singh, the centenarian couple of Dhinga Khedi. Hamir Singh himself ushers writer into his house, lighting a bidi, as he says he is 101. His wife says he is even older.
“I am 103, so how can he be 101,” she wonders. Hamir Singh says a lot has changed in the village since he voted for the first time. “We have four generations living in the same village. There are roads connecting Dhinga Khedi to other villages. Our children go to school,” he added. But Parvati Singh has a grievance against the government. “Till recently, they used to organise programmes at block level where sarkar (government) would felicitate all old people like us and give us some money. They have stopped doing it.”