Gaya: For years Laungi Bhuiya has been scorned, teased, scolded by his wife, neighbours and friends for his dream of constructing a canal, all alone. His wife Ramrati Devi would call her husband “mad”, even deny giving him food, to make his realise his household duties and responsibilities towards his kids. Still, Bhuiya carried on with his dream which for others seemed like an impossible task which could never be achieved.
The other villagers in Kothilwa, a parched and poor hamlet in a remote corner of India’s eastern state of Bihar, dismissed Bhuiya when he said he would bring water to them one day. Kothilwa is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Gaya, the closest major city, and is home to nearly 750 people – most of them Dalits – who live in mud huts.
Dalits, formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically faced social marginalisation and discrimination.
A narrow unpaved road off a highway is the only way to reach Kothilwa, a village tucked into a barren landscape, rocks dotting its red earth, on which nothing except maize and some hardy pulses that need little water grew.
Bhuiya, who owns a small piece of land, always reckoned that if he could dig a canal to redirect the streams running up in the hills to his village – which only had a couple of wells for drinking water that were not enough for irrigation – he and others would be able to grow vegetables and wheat and support themselves.
Therefore, oblivious to his wife’s reprimands and the villagers’ taunts, Bhuiya, now 70, would head up into the nearby Bangetha Hills to dig.
He says he kept at it for nearly three decades, with rudimentary tools and a dogged determination.
“I was always angry with him for not caring about the children. There was never any money, never enough food,” his wife Devi told media persons.
Soon, Bhuiya came to be known in the village as the “madman” possessed by a dream of bringing water to the village. His son Brahmdeo said the family even took him to the village healers to exorcise him. Three of his four sons had migrated to other cities to find work.
But a determined Bhuiya kept digging. He knew water from the monsoon rains filled the many streams in the Bangetha Hills and that they could be diverted to the village.
For years, Bhuiya headed out for the hills to dig every day – a feat reminiscent of the epic efforts of Dashrath Manjhi, another Dalit from Gaya, decades ago.
After 22 years of cutting through Gaya’s Gehlour Hills using only a hammer and chisel, Manjhi in 1982 shortened the distance between his village and the nearest town from 55 to 15 kilometres (from 34 to 9 miles).
Manjhi’s feat earned him the sobriquet “Mountain Man”. The government released a postage stamp featuring him and Bollywood produced a biopic about him in 2016.
“I had heard about him and I thought if he can do it, why can’t I?” Bhuiya told media persons. “They all thought I was mad.”