‘Even in the heat, there is some guilt if I drink the water…’

This story first appeared on PARI on 29 June 2017.

Kewalbai Rathod, 60, is operating a heavy handpump. Every forceful draw is accompanied by a grunt, the veins in her forearm standing out, the wrinkles on her face deepening. For all her effort, the water barely trickles into the pot. Several villagers await their turn. And the pump might run out of water at any time.

An hour later, at around 5 p.m., Kewalbai has managed to fill two pots. Her husband Ramu, 65, sits on a nearby rock, gazing into space. “Zaala re (It is done),” Kewalbai calls out in Marathi, and Ramu stands up, but does not move. She picks up one pot and walks up to him to hand it over. He parks it safely on his shoulder, while Kewalbai picks up the other. She then takes his hand and places it on her shoulder, and the two begin to walk towards their home. “He is blind,” she explains, looking at my puzzled face.

‘He is blind’,  Kewalbai explains as she leads her husband Ramu uphill to their home in Kashiram Somla. They ferry water she has painstakingly filled before they return for more

The handpump atop a borewell is at the foot of the hilly hamlet of Kashiram Somla in Udgir taluka of Maharashtra’s Latur district. Every trip entails a 15-minute walk up the hill. Each pot can hold around 12 litresof water and, when full, would weigh nearly 12 kilos. Kewalbai leads Ramu up and down the rocky pathway several times a day. “We are a family of seven,” she says, on reaching their house at the corner of the hill. “I have three sons, two are married. All of them go out in search of work [as agricultural labourers or at construction sites in Udgir town] early in the morning. Fetching water therefore falls upon the two of us.”

The family owns neither farmland nor livestock. The daily wages of their sons and daughters-in-law sustain the household. “Ten pots a day [each containing 12-15 litres] is what we target. The two of us make five such trips every day,” says Ramu. “We only need water for our basic needs like cooking, washing and bathing. Those who farmland and rear livestock have to work even harder.”

Left: Kewalbai, 60, washes her pots before filling them with water. Right: Her husband Ramu sits by as she works the handpump 

When I meet Shalubai Chavan, 40, at her home at 11.30 a.m., she has already spent five hours collecting water. She belongs to a Banjara (Scheduled Tribe) family of five, with two acres of farmland. “Our main source of income is milk products,” she says. “We rear two bulls, three cows and four buffaloes. Maintaining the livestock requires a lot of water.We need over 20 pots a day.”

Shalubai lives right along the curved road on the hill in Kashiram Somla, and has to walk a few minutes before descending towards the handpump. “There were two handpumps at the start of the summer,” she recollects, while washing clothes outside her home. “But one broke down. Now the entire hamlet of 400 people depends on a single handpump. Even in this heat [of May], there is a bit of guilt if I drink the water. The collector started supplying water through tankers, but they are irregular and we cannot rely on them.”

This is why pots are lined up at the handpump before dawn. “Fetching water after sunrise, with temperatures crossing 40 degrees [Celsius], is really exhausting,” says Shalubai, who is in the queue with four pots every morning at 4 a.m. “Still, the line is unending. I fill 12-15 pots in the morning and 5-8in the evening between 4 and 7. Waiting for my turn takes three hours, and the trips back and forth another two hours. It is 9 a.m. before I begin my household chores.”

Shalubai spends a third of the day filling water; the rest goes in household chores and taking care of her family

Five hours in the morning and three hours late-afternoon – Shalubai spends eight hours of her day fetching water for the family. This is not uncommon: a National Commission for Women report states that women in rural households often spend 6-9 hours a day on water duties. Eight hours of farm labour would earn Shalubai Rs. 200, the standard daily wage here. The three summer months, March to May, cost her around Rs. 18,000 every year.

Besides income and time, the losses due to this gruelling work, invariably done by women and girls in rural India, include the impact on health and on education for girls. While women do various farming-related tasks too, they remain the principal water collectors in the household.  Men and boys barely contribute to this arduous physical task. The National Sample Survey (NSSO; 69th round, 2012) notes that when drinking water had to be fetched from a distance, women did this work in 84.1 per cent of rural households, and men in 14.1 per cent.

Left: The scarcity of water and fodder affects the livestock in Shalibai’s household. Right: The  small tank in her courtyard that is running dry

Shalubai’s husband Rajaram too uses the water she has fetched to get ready and go to the farm. “This season at least I come back with water after eight hours,” Shalubai says. “Last year’s situation was so grim, I would walk for hours and come back empty-handed. I once walked 20 kilometres to get fodder for my livestock.”

Shalubai gets no respite between her two water-fetching sessions. “Two of my sons are in school,” she says. “I have to look after them, get them ready for school. Besides, I cook for the family, wash clothes and utensils, and manage the household.”

Around 150 kilometres from Udgir, in Takwiki village in Osmanabad district, Prayagbai Dolare has her own set of problems.

Nearly 70, Dolare is a Dalit who has faced discrimination for most of her life. “It has been better in the last few years,” she quips, on her way to fetch water through farmlands. “Several water sources used to be closed to me. I would often be the last in any queue.There is still one public well in the village where I am not allowed to go.”

In her family, Dolare is responsible for water as well as daily wages. “We do not have any kids,” she says, her saree wrapped around her head in an attempt to minimise the effect of the heat.The temperature is touching 45 degrees Celsius. “My husband is handicapped. He cannot walk, and can hardly work as a labourer.”

Three days a week, Dolare spends four to five hours storing enough water to last for seven days. “We manage with 30-35 pots a week,” she says. The water source, a private borewell, is about a kilometre from her home. “I cannot carry more than one pot at a time. At my age, it takes at least half-an-hour for every pot.”

The rest of the week, Dolare works as an agricultural labourer; because of her age, she earns only Rs.100  a day. “We are pulling along somehow, but what will we do once I am unable to work?” On the three days she spends fetching water, she forgoes her daily wages, cutting down her potential weekly income by half.

Takwiki, like most villages in the eight districts that constitute the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, has an acute water scarcity in summer, when the wells, ponds, lakes and dams usually run dry. This is also the period when panic-stricken farmers sink borewells everywhere, in the hope of  finding a private source of water. If a family is lucky enough to drill a borewell at the right spot, they become water-independent, and  can even start a lucrative trade.

Many in Marathwada milk the water crisis by selling water for Rs.2-4 for every12-15 litre pot. Dolare pays Rs.2 for a pot. “That is 70 rupees of water per week,” she says. A little less than a fourth of what she earns in seven days. If the scarcity deepens, she could end up paying much higher rates.

Around 250 kilometres north of Takwiki, however, roughly 3 million litres of water per day (mld) are available at just 4 paise per litre to the 16 beer factories and distilleries operating in Aurangabad. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) officials insist  the beer companies are charged Rs.42, but don’t add that this is for every 1,000 litres.

Dolare would have to pay more than three times as much for 1,000 litres of water, and walk for 35 hours to collect that water.

Left: Many villagers gather at to fill water at the handpump at Kahiram Somala village every morning. Right: A young woman fills her bucket with dirty water fearing that the handpump might give in anytime

In April 2016, following a disastrous drought, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court ordered a 50 per cent water cut for the breweries, which were collectively guzzling 5.207 mld of water. “When people had not seen water for days, it was inhuman that breweries were guzzling the precious resource,” the bench said.

Back in Kashiram Somla, Kewalbai empties two pots of water into a drum. The farmlands around her are empty for now, but a crowd has gathered around the handpump, as always. She takes Ramu by the hand, picks up the two empty pots, and they begin another trip down the hill.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Wells of despair

This story first appeared on PARI on 16 June 2017.

A clanging of pots announces the dawn in Takwiki, as people surge towards the nearest water source in this village in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district. Soon, the narrow alleys are lined with water-seekers and their water containers. The oldest is 60-plus, the youngest, five.

Prithviraj Shirsath, 14, and Aadesh Shirsath, 13, are in the queue. A teacher who lives right across their home opens his borewell to the villagers twice or thrice a week. The summer vacations are on, and the Shirsath cousins don’t have the excuse of school to avoid spending their morning fetching water. “When we do not get water from the teacher’s house nearby, we travel a kilometre,” says Prithviraj, ribbing his cousin about taking two hours to fill 10 pots while he fills 15 pots in an hour-and-a-half. “You never let me take the bicycle,” Aadesh shoots back, smiling.

Some distance away, 40-year-old Chhaya Suryanvanshi is less sanguine about walking through the fields in the blistering heat. Her nearest source of water, another borewell, is around a kilometre from her house. Filling water is her responsibility, while her husband works on their farmland. “I need 15 pots a day for my family of six,” she says, a pot parked on her head, supported with her right hand. Another is resting on her hip, beneath her left arm. “I can carry two pots at a time. It still requires 7-8 eight trips a day. Each trip takes just under 30 minutes. And this year has been better than the previous ones [because of better rainfall in 2016].”

This is life for the 4,000 residents of Takwiki through the summers. Due to the daily struggle for water, and the time and effort involved in procuring it in these drought-prone areas of Maharashtra, the villagers have become hugely preoccupired with borewells.

Owning a private source of water not only makes life easier, it also bestows power and status. The teacher walks through Takwiki with his head held high. He is lauded for his magnanimity in opening up his borewell to others in need.

The less magnanimous, however, milk the water scarcity and run a prosperous trade. “I pay 2 rupees for every 15 litres,” says Chhaya, among the many who buy water from villagers fortunate enough to have drilled a borewell at the right spot.

A line of orange pots outside the house of a local teacher who opens up his private borewell to the public a few times each week in Takwiki village

Many farmers in the agrarian region of Marathwada have gone bankrupt in their quest to strike water. Sinking a borewell is a tricky business. It costs more than Rs. 1 lakh, with completely uncertain outcomes. If the spot at which a farmer drills turns out to be dry, the money is wasted. The dejection of a failed borewell, however, fades before the hope of drilling a successful one.

Dattusingh Bayas, 60, has drilled eight borewells on his 8-acre farmland over the last three years, of which only one is usable at present. It gives him around 100 litres of water per day. “I could think of no other way to maintain my livestock and farmland,” he says, standing in his fields of tur and soybean. “Last year, I had to give away three of my eight bulls because I did not have enough water.”

In his search for water, Bayas has run up a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs from private moneylenders. “The interest rates are rising by the day,” says Bayas, whose two sons work as labourers and two daughters are married. “But I also work as a carpenter in the village. I make 500 rupees a day on an average. It has kept me going amidst the crisis.”

‘When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,’ says Dattusingh Bayas about how he has accumulated a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs sinking eight borewells 

Most of the borewells in Marathwada are drilled in the 3-4 months before June, when natural water bodies begin to run dry and it becomes difficult to maintain farmland and livestock. No river originates in Marathwada, and farmers have few options other than borewells. Adding to the scarcity are increasingly erratic weather patterns and government policies that promote water-intensive crops like sugarcane, Such is the extent of the water shortage now, that Marathwada’s farmers have started using borewell water for irrigation, though it is enough to only be used for drinking purposes.

The lax rules on groundwater extraction further push the proliferation of borewells. There are only two rules, and even these are routinely flouted: a farmer, the state administration tells reporters, cannot drill a borewell beyond 200 feet and within 500 metres of a public water source. However, farmers have often gone as deep as 1,000 feet. Four out of Bayas’ eight borewells go 400 feet deep. “When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,” he says. This tampers with the deep aquifer, which takes hundreds of years to refill. The process  is proving to be catastrophic for the region.

In spite of the 120 per cent rainfall last season, groundwater recharge in 55 out of 76 talukas in Marathwada has depleted, as compared to the average groundwater over the past five years, according to the state’s Groundwater Survey and Department Agency. Except Beed (2 of 11 talukas) and Latur (4 of 10 talukas), all six districts have thrown up alarming numbers: in 5 out of 8 in Osmanabad, all the 9 talukas of Aurangabad, and 16 of the 16 talukas in Nanded, groundwater has depleted.

People must travel long distances to collect water as the crisis deepens across the Marathwada region of Maharashtra

  

But there is still no limit to how many borewells a family can own. The administration in all the districts has no clue how many borewells exist. Sunil Yadav, the stand-in collector of Osmanabad [in April], says the gram panchayat is supposed to keep track of the depth of the borewells, but it does not. Ultimately though, the collector and the state are responsible for this monitoring.

The administration has no count of the number of agents working in the district either, suggesting that they are unregistered. Travelling through Osmanabad, you come across a borewell agent’s shop almost every three minutes. The agents help farmers sink a borewell.

Dayanand Dhage, one of the agents on the outskirts of Takwiki, says he helped  farmers sink over 30 borewells in the last week of April. “Farmers contact us, and it is our responsibility to arrange the apparatus and the truck-mounted borewell rig,” he says. “Farmers pay us in cash, and we settle accounts with the owners of the truck on a monthly basis.”

The rig owners are mostly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and operate in Maharashtra through these agents. The number of such trucks running through Marathwada remains unknown.

The entire economy is thus unregulated, and there is no question of service tax. When asked if the agents or owners require any prior permission or if they have to follow any norms to carry out this business, Sunil Yadav and an officer with the groundwater department have no clear answers.

By not making any law to regulate borewells, the state government aids the lobby that is operating in an open field. “Turning a blind eye to the issue, the government keeps the market for borewells booming,” says an official at the Osmanabad district board on condition of anonymity. “The absence of any policy benefits those milking the crisis.”

Desperate for water: children as young as five queue up with their pots in Takwiki village

Meanwhile, back in Takwiki, Bayas says he is working extra hours to save some money. He has a debt of Rs. 3 lakhs. Plus the cropping season is here, and he needs money to buy inputs. But that is not why he is saving up. “Another borewell?” I ask him. Turns out, it is not a wild guess.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Not quite a cash cow

This story first appeared on PARI on 1 June 2017.

Appasaheb Kothule, 45, wants to sell two of his bulls. He can’t do that. Qaleem Qureshi, 28, wishes he could buy bulls. But he, too, cannot.

Kothule has been travelling to various bazaars for over a month. He has attended all the weekly markets held around Devgaon, his village, roughly 40 kilometres from Aurangabad city, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Today, he has arrived in Adul, where villagers fill the marketplace every Tuesday. “My son is getting married and I need some money,” he says, a white handkerchief wrapped around his forehead. “Nobody is willing to pay more than 10,000 rupees for the pair. I should get at least Rs.15,000 for them.”

Meanwhile, Qaleem Qureshi sits idle at his beef shop in Aurangabad’s Sillakhana area, wondering how to resurrect his dwindling trade. “I used to do business of 20,000 rupees a day [with earnings ranging from Rs.70-80,000 a month],” he says. “Over the past two years, it has declined to a fourth of that.”

‘I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls to various bazaars,’ says Appasaheb Kothule of Devgaon; other farmers too are spending sums they cannot afford

The beef ban in the state is a little over two years old. By the time Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 2014, the agrarian crisis had deepened under the previous Congress and Nationalist Congress Party regimes.  A lethal combination of rising input costs, fluctuating rates for crops, water mismanagement and other factors had set in motion widespread distress and tens of thousands of farm suicides in the state. Fadnavis managed to intensify the crisis by extending the prohibition of cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks in March 2015.

The bovine is central to the rural economy and the ban has had a direct impact on businesses that depend on cattle. It has equally impacted farmers who, for decades, used the animals as insurance – they traded their livestock to raise instant capital for marriages, medicines, or an upcoming cropping season.

Kothule, who has five acres of farmland where he cultivates cotton and wheat, says his financial calculations have been hit by the ban. “These two bulls are only four years old,” he says, pointing to his tethered animals. “Any farmer would have swiftly bought them for 25,000 rupees a few years ago. Bulls can be used on farmlands until they are 10.”

But now farmers are reluctant to buy cattle even though the prices have plummeted, knowing it will be difficult to get rid of them later. “I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls from my home to various bazaars,” says Kothule. “Adul is four kilometres away, so I walked with my bovines today. Other weekly bazaars are in a 25-kilometres radius, so I have to hire a bullock cart. I already have a debt burden. I need to sell these bulls.”

As we talk, Kothule keeps a desperate eye out for buyers. He has reached the market at 9 a.m., it is now 1 p.m., and extremely hot. “I have not even had water since I reached,” he says. “I cannot leave the bulls alone even for five minutes for fear of missing out on a customer.”

Around him in the bustling maidan, with temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, various farmers are trying everything possible to crack a deal. Janardan Geete, 65, from Wakulni, 15 kilometres from Adul, is getting the horns of his robust bullocks sharpened to make them look more attractive. Bhandas Jadhav, with his sharpening instrument, will charge Rs. 200 per animal. “I had bought them for 65,000 rupees,” Geete says. “I will be happy to settle for 40,000.”

Kothule says the growing water shortage in Marathwada and rising fodder costs have made it more difficult to maintain livestock. Added to this is a lack of cow shelters. When Fadnavis imposed the beef ban, he promised to start shelters where farmers could donate their cattle instead of being forced to bear the costs of maintaining animals that could no longer work on their farms. But the shelter have not materialised, dealing the farmers a double blow – they cannot raise money by selling their livestock and are stuck with the animals even after they become unproductive.

“How can we maintain our old livestock when we cannot even properly provide for our children?” asks Kothule. “We spend 1,000 rupees per week on each animal’s water and fodder.”

Many others across the rural economic spectrum have been hit by this one amendment in the law – the beef ban. Dalit leather workers, transporters, meat traders, those who make medicines from bones, have all been hit hard.

Around 300,000 bulls were slaughtered each year in Maharashtra prior to the ban. Now, the slaughterhouses are idle and entire communities in economic distress. At Sillakhana, which hosts close to 10,000 Qureshis – a community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle traders – the impact is palpable. Qaleem has had to sack a few of his staff. “I too have a family to feed,” he says. “What else could I do?”

Anees Qureshi, 41, a loader in Sillakhana, says, “I used to make at least 500 rupees a day. Now I do odd jobs. The income is not guaranteed. There are days when I have no work.”

Business before the beef ban was already hit by the growing agrarian crisis – people from the villages have been migrating in greater numbers looking for work. This has meant a substantial drop in the local consumption of beef, says Qaleem. But his shop, owned by the family since Qaleem’s great grandfather’s time, is all he has. “Our community is not very well-educated [and cannot easily shift to other work],” he says. “We sell buffalo meat now. But people do not like it as much and the competition with other meat products is stiff.”

Beef has formed a major part of the diet of the Qureshis, as well as various other communities, including the Dalits – it is a relatively cheap source of protein. “Replacing beef with chicken or mutton means spending thrice the amount,” says Qaleem.

Dyandeo Gore (right) hopes to sell the last of his seven bulls before returning home to Daygavan village

At the bazaar in Adul, Geete, who was sharpening the horns of his cattle, is one of few to go home smiling after a farmer agrees to buy his animals. Dyandeo Gore looks at him with envy.

Gore has walked seven kilometres to Adul with his bull: the last of seven, which he sold over the years. His debt of around Rs.6 lakhs has magnified in five years. By selling his last bull, he hopes to raise money ahead of the cropping season. “Nature does not support us. The government does not support us,” he says. “Wealthy businessmen do not commit suicide. Debt-ridden farmers like me do. It is a daily misery. I do not know of a single farmer who wants his son to be a farmer.”

At the age of 60, Gore is wandering in the heat from market to market on foot with his bovine, because he cannot afford any transportation. “If I fail to sell him today, I will go to another bazaar on Thursday,” he says. “How far is that?” I ask him. “Thirty kilometres,” he says.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Never a ‘dal’ moment

This story first appeared on PARI on 12 May 2017.

Vitthal Chavan has spent the last two months waiting for a call. On February 28, he went to the NAFED centre in Osmanabad’s Kalamb taluka to register his nine quintals of tur – so that the government would then purchase it from him. But the official only wrote his name and number in a notebook and told him, “You will get a call.”

“I have called them every alternate day, visited the centre 4-5 times since February 28,” he says, sitting across the official’s table at the centre on a steaming morning in early May. Vitthal has a nine-acre farm in Pangaon, and has once again travelled 25 kilometres to reach Kalamb only to ask if his tur (pigeon pea, a lentil) will be procured.  Several other farmers with similar problems look on. “They kept saying the storage is full or enough gunny bags were not available. Now the deadline is gone and I do not have any evidence of my registration.”

Because of a bumper crop of tur last year, around mid-December 2016 the Maharashtra government set up National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) centres in various districts and talukas to ensure that  the traders who purchase produce from farmers do not rob them by negotiating throwaway prices for the abundant dal.

Farmers wait outside the NAFED centre in Kalamb: hoping the government keeps its promise of buying every bit of tur

But the NAFED centres were grossly unprepared. The official at the Kalamb centre does not deny this. He is engaged in a discussion with S.C. Chavan, secretary of the Agriculture Produce Market Committee in Kalamb. “We are preparing a report and sending it to the government,” says Chavan. “There are several farmers who had brought their tur before the deadline, but we could not accept it because of certain problems. The government will respond and we will act accordingly.”

The deadline of the NAFED centres was extended thrice – to March 15, March 31 and April 22, after cabinet minister (cooperatives, textiles and marketing) Subhash Deshmukh promised the state would buy every bit of tur. This was a relief for farmers who had stacked the dal in their homes and were struggling to get it registered.

But after April 22, the Maharashtra government refused to buy tur from farmers, and said the deadline will not be further extended. Only the officially-registered tur that the farmers had dropped off at centres before April 22 would be accepted by the government.

Vitthal Chavan’s stock was not in among this lot, though he – like many other farmers – had brought his tur to the centre ahead of the deadline. But with only an informal notation by the official, Vitthal has no evidence in hand that he came to the centre in time. “How do I trust them?” he anxiously asks. “What if they just tear out the page where my name is written? It has been months since I harvested the crop. The stock is worth 45,000 rupees but it is lying at my house. If they do not buy it, I will have to sell it at a throwaway price [of even as low a Rs. 1,000 a quintal].  The tur can deteriorate once the monsoon begins.”

Last year, after several years, farmers in Marathwada moved away from the water guzzling sugarcane and instead sowed tur, a traditional food crop. They shifted because drought was much more acute in 2016 than in previous years. And they got a bumper crop – 20 lakh metric tonnes (across the state), says Subhash Deshmukh, compared to 4.4 lakh metric tonnes in 2015.

The shift away from sugarcane to a sustainable food crop could have, over time, helped conserve water. However, the government’s handling of the crop is likely to make tur unattractive in the market for at least a year.

The wholesale market price for tur in Maharashtra was around Rs. 10,000 quintal in 2014-15, which dropped in anticipation of a good crop. To the government’s credit, had it not initiated the NAFED centres and fixed the minimum support price [MSP, decided by the state to support farmers] at Rs. 5,050, the market cost would have plummeted below Rs. 3,000 per quintal following the bumper crop.

But oddly, even when the impending quantity of production had become clear, the Indian government imported 57 lakh tonnes of tur from other countries at Rs. 10,114 rupees per quintal – as it does every year in varying quantities.

The state, however, said in a GR (government resolution) that it has purchased more than the NAFED mandated 25% of the produce of Maharashtra farmers. By April, four lakh metric tonnes of tur has been already purchased, says Deshmukh, and another 1 lakh metric tonnes has been registered for procurement. “We have followed the due procedure to ensure the farmers get their dues,” he says.

But the official production figure of 20 lakh metric tonnes is conservative. Tur is often sowed as an interior crop – within two strands of sugarcane or other crops. It does not require much water, is harvested in about four months and is regarded as a bit of a bonus. Which is why many farmers only mention the main crop on their land documents. For the number of hectares under tur, the government  only calculates the production of farmers who have stated tur on their papers. Reports indicate at least three times of what is registered this year is still languishing with farmers.

Meghnath Shelke, 58, a farmer from Dhanora village in Osmanabad, failed to get his six quintals of tur registered in spite of visiting the NAFED centre several times. “Once they sent me back because they did not have a weighing machine, then they said if I leave my stock here, it could be stolen and the centre would not be responsible for it,” he says, and points to six gunny bags of tur piled up in a tiny room of his house. “For almost a month, the centre was shut. It never remained consistently open.”

Besides tur, Shelke cultivates soybean and cotton on his eight acres. Every time he was sent back, he had to come home 10 kilometres from the NAFED centre carrying the six quintals. “I have spent hundreds of rupees merely on the commute [by tempo],” he says. “The government had promised to buy every bit of tur. If the state does not live up to its promise, it will be a severe setback for us as we have to invest in preparations for the kharif season.”

Vitthal Chavan, a farmer from Pangaon: still waiting for a call from the NAFED centre 

Vitthal, in the meantime, has given up and decided to head back to Pangaon in the afternoon. “If the cropping season fails, we die. If it is a resounding success, we still die,” he says. Already in debt and with a cropping season looming ahead, the timing of the tur crisis has been especially hard on the farmers of Maharashtra.

And after spending almost half a day at the NAFED centre, Vitthal still does not know if his tur will be accepted. As he leaves, he asks again when he should follow up.  “You will get a call,” they tell him.

Postscript: At the time of publication, the government of Maharashtra has extended the deadline to May 31. That does not reverse the harassment the farmers have already gone through, nor does it assure a resolution to their problem in any lasting way.

The NAFED centre in Kalamb, Vitthal Chavan says, is now shut and his tur isn’t being procured. When  Chavan again phoned the official, he didn’t get any specific answer.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

‘Nobody trusts the farmer with money’

This story first appeared on PARI on 5 May 2017.

Ramesh Jagtap has had a rough day. He quarrelled with his wife, Gangubai, in the morning. After the fight, she consumed pesticide. He took her in a shared rickshaw to the district’s civil hospital in Osmanabad city, 30 kilometres from Satefal village. “My heartbeats were pounding like never before through the journey,” he says. “Fortunately, we reached in time for the doctors to treat her.”

He rushed back to Satefal in the afternoon. The local branch of the district’s cooperative bank was disbursing payments to settle claims made by farmers under the government’s crop insurance scheme. “I got back and stood in line for over an hour,” Jagtap says. “But the bank had only released a part of the sum.” And that was  given to farmers who had taken a token ahead of him.

Jagtap, 50, who cultivates soybean, jowar and wheat on his five acres, could well lose count of the problems he might wake up to tomorrow. He already has a bank loan of Rs. 1.20 lakhs, and owes Rs. 50,000 to a private moneylender. “I had borrowed money during previous years of drought and for my daughter’s marriage,” he says. “Moneylenders abuse us every day as we delay their payment. The fight with my wife started over this. She could not take the pressure and humiliation and poisoned herself in the heat of the moment. I need to repay my loans. I need money to prepare my land ahead of the monsoon season.”

The desperation for funds forced Jagtap to rush back to Satefal, leaving Gangubai in the hospital. He is eligible to receive Rs. 45,000 from the government as crop insurance for the rabi season of 2014-15. On March 4, the government deposited Rs. 159 crores, which belong to 2,68,000 farmers like Jagtap, in the Osmanabad District Central Cooperative Bank (ODCC). But two months later, only Rs. 42 crores have been distributed.

The bank is yet to give Chandrakant Ugale, a farmer from Satefal, his crop insurance payment of Rs. 18,000

On April 5, the government deposited Rs. 380 crores as crop insurance for the 2016-17 kharif season. This, too, the famers have not received.

Sanjay Patil-Dudhgaonkar, a farm leader in Osmanabad, who went on a three-day hunger strike on April 19 after the bank kept delaying payments, alleges the ODCC has invested the money and is eating up the interest. “This is the time when farmers start looking for credit,” he says. “It is a critical period and cash in hand goes a long way. Why should a farmer wait months for his own money?”  His strike ended when the bank promised to pay up in 15 days – a promise that’s not been kept.

Chandrakant Ugale, 52, from Satefal, says the incessant running around for money makes it difficult to focus on preparing the farmland for the kharif season. “It is not easy to get seeds and fertilisers on credit anymore. Everybody knows our financial condition. Nobody trusts the farmer with money.”  The bank is yet to give Ugale his crop insurance payment of Rs. 18,000.

V.B. Chandak, chief officer (administration and accounts), at ODCC, says the Reserve Bank of India has not released enough notes and the bank is struggling to pay up. “We are still distributing as quickly as we can,” he says. “We will try to clear the funds within 15 days.”

Even as Chandak tries to defend his bank, 10-15 people barge into his cabin, furious. They throw documents at him, accuse him of rupturing their financial plans and demand cash. They all want to withdraw their fixed deposits, which have matured, some for years. Among them is Sunita Jadhav, around 45 and a widow, who wants to withdraw her deposit of Rs. 30.000, which matured a year ago. “My daughter is getting married on May 7,” she says. “I am not going back without my money.”

Sunita Jadhav of Jalkut village: ‘My daughter is getting married on May 7. I am not going back without my money’

Jadhav lives in Jalkut village, 50 kilometres from Osmanabad city. She has spent nearly a day’s wage – Rs. 200 – on commuting to the bank. And she has visited the ODCC several times for over six months. She takes out a wedding card from her purse and says, “I have worked hard to save up this amount.” Jadhav works as a labourer at a brick kiln. Her brother, who lives with her, recently lost his job as a waiter in an eatery in Jalkut. “A day spent in begging for my own hard-earned money means losing out on my daily wage as well,” she says. “The local branch asks me to visit the headquarters. Here they tell me to go to the local branch.”

Chandak listens to all of them and politely says the bank has no funds. He is right. The ODCC is in a mess, to put it mildly. The bank is unable to repay close to Rs. 400 crores of fixed deposits, but is doing little to recover its non-agricultural loans of over Rs. 500 crores. Of this, just two sugarcane factories in the district – Terna and Tuljabhavani – owe the bank Rs. 382 crores.

Moreover, the loans that the ODCC has given to farmers – this credit is routed through  467 Vividh Karyakari Seva Societies – point at large-scale corruption. The Societies owe the ODCC Rs. 200 crores more than the amount to be recovered from farmers.  Where this money has gone is  anybody’s guess.

While doing little to address these issues, the ODCC had threatened 20,000 farmers who owe the bank Rs. 180 crores with public humiliation and sent them notices in mid-November. The threat was retracted only after reports in the news media. “The non-agriculture debts belong to influential [politically-connected] people,” says a bank official. “When we visit them for a reminder, we start by saying we were in the vicinity and then mention the loan as a passing reference.”

While not recovering debts from defaulters, the ODCC ‘adjusted’ crop insurance payments farmers were to receive against crop loan repayments the farmers were yet to make.  ‘Adjust’ here means an amount from the insurance payout due to them was deducted as part repayment towards the crop loans they had taken. “The collector said on March 22 that we can ‘adjust’ up to 50 per cent of the amount,” says Chandak. That is, as much as half the insurance payout due to a farmer could be deducted in this fashion.  “On March 31, the decision was rolled back. We will return the money of those we have adjusted if we get clear-cut orders from the government.”

Dudhgaonkar says it is no surprise that the government diverted Rs. 5 crores of  insurance payments in this way between March 22 and March 31, while recovering not even Rs. 50 lakhs of non-agricultural loans in the previous six months.

The ODCC has been aggravating the stress of farmers in other ways too. A few years ago, the bank started restructuring the debts of farmers by clubbing their term loans and crop loans together. The interest rate on a crop loan (for agricultural activities like buying seeds and fertilisers) is 7 per cent; of this, 4 per cent is paid by the state. A term loan (used for capital investment) could charge double the interest rate. Through restructuring, the bank merges the two loans and converts them into a new term loan, which magnifies the farmers’ dues.

Baburao Navle, a 67-year-old farmer from Shelgaon village, says his principal loan amount was just under Rs. 4 lakhs. After restructuring, it has spiralled to Rs. 17 lakhs over the years. The bank emphasises the farmers’ consent to the conversion, but the farmers claim they have been deceived. “We were told to sign a document to avoid raids and confiscations at our homes,” says Navle, who cultivates wheat, jowar and bajra on his four acres. Twenty five farmers from his village collectively owe more than Rs. 2 crores to the ODCC – the original amount was around Rs. 40 lakhs. “Is it not the bank’s responsibility to inform us fully before asking for our signatures?”

Almost all the district cooperative banks of Marathwada – where many farmers have  accounts – are on thin ice. The banks, unable to confront powerful defaulters and in financial distress themselves, can barely be the economic backbone of farmers – who are then driven to private moneylenders.

Back in Satefal, while Jagtap is talking to me about his problems, several people passing by on their motorbikes join in. Everyone is returning from the bank. A few relieved, many dejected. The branch has distributed crop insurance only to 71 farmers from Satefal that day. Jagtap has decided to go back to the hospital. “My wife will ask if I received the insurance,” he says. “What will I tell her…?”

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Sinking wells, sunk in debt

This story first appeared on PARI on 26 April 2017.

Karbhari Ramrao Jadhav’s application to sink a well was approved three years ago. For that, he was to have received a subsidy of Rs. 2.99 lakh from the district administration. Instead, he says, “I have never seen that money and have run up a debt of Rs. 1.5 lakhs trying to dig it myself.”

Jadhav, 48, lives in Ganori village in Aurangabad’s Phulambri taluka. He grows cotton and bajra on four acres, for which he gets water from a stream flowing from the nearby hills. But drought is common in the Marathwada region, and his own well, Jadhav thought, would make it easier to maintain his farmland and livestock.

So he submitted an application in early 2013. It required a bunch of mandatory documents related to his land. To get these, Jadhav had to visit various offices – of the talati (village accountant), the gram panchayat (village council) and the panchayat samiti (an intermediary body between the gram panchayat and the zilla parishad or district board). All along the way he was asked for bribes to procure the documents and get the work order from the zilla parishad. “A powerless farmer cannot afford to take on the administration,” he says.

The state government provides a subsidy of Rs. 2.99 lakhs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to farmers if their application to dig their own well is approved. From that amount, the farmers are expected to pay labourers and procure materials like pipes. These expenses can be claimed in instalments from the panchayat samiti.

But to get started – even to get his own land papers – Jadhav needed money. He approached a local moneylender, who gave him Rs. 40,000 at an interest rate of 5 per cent per month – a gigantic 60 per cent per annum. During times of drought in the past, Jadhav had taken loans from banks, but this was his first from a private source. “I paid 30,000 in bribes and kept 10,000 for the initial construction of the well,” he says. “I expected to repay the moneylender soon enough. The people I met had promised to get the job done.”

In February 2015, he got the administrative approval, and the work order that allows work to commence came soon after. It strengthened his belief in being able to repay the loan when he received the MNREGA funds. So he hired labourers and vigorously began digging a well not far from his farmland.

But Jadhav did not receive the money from the panchayat samiti  in spite of the work order. He kept going to the samiti office at Phulambri, 15 kilometres from his house, on foot or in a shared rickshaw. No one there took note of his complaints. “Running around for the money has dented me not just financially,” Jadhav says, “it has also cost me in terms of work hours.”

The well, meanwhile, had gone 20 feet deep. A few more weeks of work and Jadhav expected to see water gushing out. But the official funds were still not released. The recurring delays ended Jadhav’s promising project. “The labourers backed out, and I do not blame them,” he says. “I could not pay their dues. Why would they continue?”

The half-complete well surrounded by rubble in front of Jadhav’s hut reminds him every day of his losses – of the loans, spiralling interest rates, labour costs and hours of effort – all for a well that has been reduced to a pit.

In Ganori though, this story is not uncommon. The village, with miles of farmland under a scorching sun in early April, is located 35 kilometres from Aurangabad city. It is wedged between hills that are permeated by water sources. The streams flowing through the hills have prompted many to apply for digging wells. Years later, like Jadhav, 17 other farmers are still waiting.

Musa Noor Shah, who owns four acres, had to sell 10 of his chickens and six goats to another farmer for around Rs. 50,000 to raise money for bribes. “I paid 20,000 rupees [to various people], after which I got the work order,” he says. “I began sinking the well, but they asked for more money, saying my documents were incomplete.”

Musa, uneducated and around 45, did not even have a bank account before he thought of digging a well. “They asked me to open one so the money for the well would be directly transferred,” he says. “I am paying the price for believing in state schemes. I have more debts and fewer animals now. It has disturbed my financial plans. My daughter’s wedding has been held up for a year.”

Tired of the injustice, Sunil Rothe, son of a farmer in Ganori who applied to dig a well, barged into the gram sevak’s office in the village in March. He was told that bribes had been paid by thousands of farmers, not just those in Ganori. Sunil recorded the conversation on his smartphone and put it on WhatsApp. After the local news media picked it up, in the second week of April the divisional commissioner Purushottam Bhapkar ordered an enquiry, and the administration has promised to resume work. Meanwhile, out of fear of reprisals, the farmers are denying that they paid any bribes to anyone.

But the enquiry may result in only a transfer or a suspension – and won’t make much of a difference on the ground. The farmers of Ganori made it to the local media only because of Rothe’s recording and because their projects did not move even after they had paid money. Had the funds for their wells been released, it would have been business as usual for the cycle of corruption in which they are caught. Many of the schemes aimed at helping farmers are instead virtually ruining them.

This is reflected in the low number of wells completed even after being approved on paper in the agrarian region of Marathwada. Since the inception of MNREGA in Maharashtra in 2008, according to data from the divisional commissioner’s office, 89,460 wells have been approved in the region, and only 46,539 completed. In Aurangabad district, 6,616 wells were granted permission but only 2,493 completed, and 562 have not even commenced work.

To rectify this dismal conversion rate, the state government and district administration set a target to complete 2,500 wells in Aurangabad district in the 2016-17 financial year. By March 31 this year, only 338 were completed. Similarly, 39,600 private ponds were approved in Marathwada, but only 5,825 have been completed.

Back in Ganori, Jadhav mortgaged half-an-acre of his land in April 2016 to a  moneylender for Rs. 40,000 to pay labour costs that had run up to Rs. 60,000. He managed to clear the dues, but has not been able to earn the land back. He sold two of his four cows for Rs. 30,000 last year to raise money for the farming season; for this year, he needs more money.

“Before I dreamt of having a well of my own, I did not have a private loan on my head,” Jadhav says. “This well has ruptured my financial cycle. The interest rates are mushrooming, and I have to raise capital now for pre-monsoon preparations for the kharif season. I wonder who will give me credit now…”

UP Election 2017: What the millennial voter wants

This piece first appeared on Firstpost on 4 March 2017

Much like Bihar, a reporter’s job in Uttar Pradesh is made easier by the electorate, for one hardly comes across a person unwilling to talk about politics. Over the course of two weeks, I interacted with scores of youngsters from different districts. Not one seemed like he has not assessed his candidates and the parties they represent. It would be safe to say the millennial voters in UP are much more politically alive, and socially curious than their counterparts in my hometown of Mumbai.

Before landing in UP, I read up as much as I could on the state. There were a few articles suggesting the youth is breaking caste barriers and voting solely on the basis of development. Upon asked if caste is an influence, every millennial voter responded with an emphatic no. But it is quite a coincidence that the Tripathis, Mishras and Pandeys said they would vote for Modi on the basis of development while Muslims and Yadavs said they would vote for Akhilesh because of his developmental work. A teacher at Lucknow University shed more light on the coincidence. “Conceding they vote along caste lines in front of the media is unfashionable,” she said. “Everyone wants to be politically correct. You scratch the surface behind closed doors, and it all comes out.”

Indeed she was right.

Ask them about their views on reservation and it does not seem like caste is something they have never considered. Upper caste Hindus complained against “the discrimination and bias” towards Yadavs, while the Yadavs furiously disputed the “false narrative”. Everyone knew the caste wise divide of the candidates of different political parties.

However, it will not be long before the caste lines are palpably blurred. Even in the ongoing elections, a noticeable chunk of millennials who come from traditionally BSP or BJP families, seemed to be gravitating towards Akhilesh because of his appeal, which is merely a hint of what to expect in 2019.

One should not be surprised if millennial voters defy caste equations and vote for Narendra Modi, who seems to be the biggest catalyst in breaking caste barriers. Those who would be ready to vote in 2019, but are not eligible yet, blush while naming Modi as their favourite politician. It doesn’t matter if their parents are staunch Yadavs or quintessential BSP voters.

What makes Modi so popular even after three years into his relatively mediocre tenure?

Notebandi.

It is remarkable how an economic disaster has turned out to be a political masterstroke. Economists have dissected every angle of it to prove it has achieved little while rupturing the lives of many, but it hardly matters to the electorate. The most important thing is, those who should be most upset with it, are hailing the move because it supposedly took on the rich. “There is effort, and the intention is good,” they say. The mocked-at Mann Ki Baat on Twitter is quite popular as well, suggesting he is probably the best communicator one has seen in quite some time.

There is no doubt Modi seems to be the vehicle through which caste lines could be blurred in a sub-national state of UP. But the religious divide is increasing at the same time and Modi has played an instrumental role in it. In Faizabad, for example, it was striking how the youngsters did not mind VHP workers campaigning for Ram Mandir with communal overtones. “It should be built,” they said with a straight face. It did not matter if a masjid once stood at the location. On the other side of the divide, insecurity among Muslim youngsters is on the rise. Not everyone conceded that but a fair number of millennials, either candid or naive, said they would vote for the person who would “protect them”.

The issues concerning the youth vary from district to district but the crisis of unemployment is the one gnawing at each of them. The percentage of millennial voters who expressed their desire to migrate out of UP should make the establishment worried — to say the least. And they have pinned their hopes either on Akhilesh or on Modi, among whom the honours are split and Mayawati is clearly third.

Rahul Gandhi is not even fourth. I had to prod the millennials to get them to speak about him, suggesting he is not even considered important enough to be criticised. His own constituency of Amethi is not an exception.

As far as the outcome of the election is concerned, I remain as clueless as I was before I arrived here. The theories suggesting polar opposite outcomes sound legitimate. I am not going to pick one and put my neck on the line. For now, I’m glad to have seen a part of the fascinating state of Uttar Pradesh through the eyes of those my age or slightly younger to me. “UP nahi dekha toh kya dekha,” they used to say. They could not have been more accurate.

UP Election 2017: Will BJP suffer in Varanasi with millenials unhappy with MP Narendra Modi?

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 03rd March 2017.

Mehboob Ali says his business has been getting better. It is almost up to 40 percent of what it used to be prior to November last year. “We sat idle the next two months,” he says. “It is gradually picking up over the past few weeks.”

The famous weaver’s community of Varanasi, numbering almost two lakhs in the district, is still grappling with the effects of demonetisation. Ali, 20, who is steering the business his grandfather started, says the family has been struggling to make ends meet. “We are still standing in bank queues for bearer cheques, on which our business runs,” he says. “We have to pay salaries of Rs 2,000 every week to every laborer. Their bread and butter is in our hands. We know how guilty it feels to delay their payment.”

Ali did not study beyond high school, and joined his father’s business at the age of 10. He has four younger brothers in school, who he hopes would not join him. “I quit studies because I could help my father make more money and my younger brothers would be able to study,” he says. “I want them to find better jobs. Move out of Varanasi, if possible, Uttar Pradesh.”

Ali

Most of the millennial voters in the weaver community express their desire to break out of the family business, but mention lack of employment in the same breath. If they can afford better education and are lucky enough to get a job, they say, they would take it. Family business, which is not in the best of shapes, is a fallback option.

Unlike the rest of Uttar Pradesh, where Modi is hailed as a crusader against corruption, weavers in Varanasi question the motives and objectives behind demonetisation. Their vote is mostly going to Akhilesh Yadav. “Electricity rent for the machine is only Rs 85 a month,” says Ali. “Akhilesh did that. We have done better under his government.”

But Varanasi is a complex place, where Bismillah Khan played his eternal shehnai and, at the same time, thousands of devout Hindus take a dip in the Ganges.

Along with the weavers, Brahmins form a formidable votebank in the district. Brahmins — who constitute about 13 percent of the state’s population — are pivotal in about 20 parliamentary seats, especially in eastern UP. Varanasi is one of them, which is why cries of reservation are louder among the millennial voters.

Bhumika Shukla, studying conflict management and development at BHU, says her father is in the Uttar Pradesh police, and transfers and promotions are extremely biased. “The Yadavs are favored above others,” she says. “And it is true everywhere. It is much more difficult for me to get a government job as compared to a Yadav. There is a reason why they say ‘yeh Yadavoki sarkar hai’. The reservation system has to be revisited.”

Bhumika

Students say they don’t think of caste or religion, but only of development ahead of casting their vote. But they are vocal about reservation and know which party has fielded how many Brahmin or OBC candidates across the state.

There is 27 percent reservation for OBCs and it’s said the Yadav community benefits most from it, with the Samajwadi Party often accused of favoring them over others. There are murmurs of an anti-Yadav vote being consolidated behind BJP. However, even though it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, it does not seem like a cakewalk for the BJP.

Eight constituencies from Varanasi will go to polls on 8 March. Three seats lie in the city of Varanasi, and five in the rural district. In the north Varanasi seat, two BJP leaders are contesting independently because they did not get the party ticket. If they eat into the BJP’s voteshare, the SP-Congress alliance could sneak through. In the south, 55 percent are Muslims, who are likely to consolidate behind the alliance as well. In the cantonment seat, the contest is too close to call. Of the five rural constituencies, Ajay Rai and Surendra Patel of the gathbandhan are difficult to beat.

Apart from criticism of Modi and Akhilesh echoing through the rest of the state for communal and not being able to handle law and order, respectively, among the youth in Varanasi, there is a sense of disillusionment with the prime minister, for the city has hardly changed after he became an MP. It still suffers from the issues it suffered earlier. “There is no proper drainage facility, the city is full of dirt and filth,” says Ankit Yadav, an MSW student at Kashi Vidyapeeth. “Modi has made a lot of promises but he hardly keeps them. The Rupee is falling. GDP has taken a hit. Where is ‘achche din’?”

Ankit Yadav

Further, the changing discourse at educational institutes in India is also a talking point among students at BHU. After appearing on Rajdeep Sardesai’s show, Manesha Shukla and her three friends received rape threats for speaking out against gender injustice. “Girls cannot participate in protests or debates, there is injustice with the food we are served, and there are restrictions on clothes and timings as well,” says Manesha, a BSC second year student at BHU. “They keep an eye on who we hang out with.”

Students who have spent more than three years at BHU say the culture was liberal, and the discourse was free prior to the current vice-chancellor’s appointment. Now, celebrating Valentine’s Day can lead to cancellation of hostel. Even teachers say they hesitate expressing their socio-political views on social media, and the posts of students and teachers are monitored. Teachers with Right leanings have it easier, they say, and discussions on Gandhi have reduced, while those on Golwalkar have increased in seminars.

A 24-year-old girl, pleading anonymity, says she was happier with the earlier vice-chancellor, and lately feels claustrophobic because of increasing restrictions. “The ABVP is also getting belligerent at BHU,” she says. “They ride around with their bikes and indulge in moral policing. We have seen what they did at Ramjas and JNU. Personally, I would not have minded voting for the BJP. But with the rising influence of ABVP and decreasing free space at universities, I will now think twice before voting for them.”

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UP Election 2017: Azamgarh’s first-time voters prefer Owaisi to Adityanath; trend could hurt BJP’s chances

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 2nd March 2017.

Twenty-five-year-old Mohammad Faizal is intently watching a video on his smartphone. There are not many customers at his vegetable shop at around noon, which is why he has joined a group of other vendors, who are discussing politics over a cutting chai at a nukkad. As others engage, Faizal is engrossed in the video. It is a speech by Asaduddin Owaisi. “Inke jaisa neta nahi India mein (There’s no leader like him in India),” he says. “He is the only one who fights for the rights of Muslims.”

While Owaisi’s rising popularity is no news, the significance of Faizal’s statement lies in his location. He hails from the Sanjarpur village of Nizamabad constituency in Azamgarh, a district where Samajwadi Party won nine out of 10 seats in 2012 Assembly election. Faizal’s gravitation towards Owaisi is a direct consequence of his disillusionment with Akhilesh Yadav. “He did not fulfill a single promise he had made,” complains Faizal. “Reservation for Muslims, release of innocent youngsters picked up as terror accused. Further, look at the way Muslims suffered in Muzaffarnagar.”

Faizal, 25, regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012.

For a man to sit in Azamgarh and refer to Owaisi as the only Muslim oriented leader in the country speaks volumes. Faizal regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012. And however much he would have liked, he cannot vote for Owaisi. He will, then, shift to the next best option he has: Bahujan Samaj Party.

The SP-Congress alliance, which is banking on the Muslim consolidation to sail through the halfway mark, may be in for a rude shock in Azamgarh. With significant fragmentation of Muslim votes, and the fact that BSP had lost many of these seats by small margins, the alliance is unlikely to come up with satisfactory performance in the district, which could be called the strength of SP. It is a district with 27 percent Muslims, and sizeable Yadav and Dalit population. The simple arithmetic being, consolidation of any two of the three ensures success. In 2012, Muslims and Yadav rallied behind SP, but Mayawati could dent the alliance by adding to her Dalit vote base in attracting Muslims, who are disillusioned with the SP. The Ulema Council has also rendered its support to Mayawati.

Faizal says the law and order is in shambles and the police has been unable to rein in Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini, whose activists often trigger clashes with anti-Muslim remarks.

Almost every second millennial voter lists “communal harmony” along with employment as an election issue in Sanjarpur.

It is the village that gained notoriety after Batla House encounter, which some say was fake. Two more youngsters from that village have been picked up as terror accused. There have been murmurs of several youth from Azamgarh joining Indian Mujahideen, and one was convicted for 2013 Dilsukhnagar blasts as well. But many youngsters have been acquitted too. In February 2016, a lawyer was felicitated here for freeing 10 from terror charge. Villagers say the police has troubled innocent people too often. Opposition leaders including Amit Shah have labeled it ‘Atankgarh’ and it hurts the villagers here.

Sajid’s brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely.

“Picking up Muslims on mere suspicion and keeping them in jail without any concrete proof has become a habit,” says Faizal. “Look what happened in the case of Delhi blasts. Those who have been picked up from here would also be acquitted after 10-15 years. In 2012, Akhilesh said he would ensure speedy inquiry into those who are languishing in jail. But he has done nothing. Muzaffarnagar riots happened under his watch. A sugar mill just came up here and not a single Muslim got a job. How is he a leader of the Muslims?”

Almost every second or third house in Azamgarh has a member in Saudi, for the lack of jobs here has forced youngsters to migrate. Mohammad Sajid, 25, from the neighbouring village of Khudadadpur with its sprawling mango orchards lined up one after another, says his brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely. “My father passed away 13 years ago,” he says. “I teach in a nearby Madarsa and looking for a better job.”

As the rugged, potholed road takes one away from rural Azamgarh into the town, issues of the millennial voters do not change, only the priorities are shuffled. Education and employment supersede communal harmony.

Otherwise a bustling developed town with adequate public transport and better roads, Azamgarh suffers from not having a university. At the Shibli National College of Azamgarh, every student expressed this gripe. “Akhilesh had visited the college,” says Nasir Khan, 24-year old LLB student. “He said he would consider declaring this college a university. But nothing has happened on that front.”

Due to lack of higher educational avenues, almost every student expressed the desire to migrate, especially to Allahabad, which is where most students from across Uttar Pradesh go to prepare for further exams of various streams. For the students of Azamgarh, they have an added disadvantage. Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh. “I have started telling people I am from Lucknow,” he says, as the vast ground in the campus looks on. “I will migrate for sure. It is impossible to get a job without jugaad in UP.”

Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh.

There is no doubt the anti-incumbency exists in Azamgarh, and there is a significant shift from SP to BSP. However, Akhilesh’s personal popularity remains intact. How much of that translates into votes and whether he is able to retain a reasonable voteshare remains anybody’s guess. Nasir says in spite of his reservations, he would like to see Akhilesh given another chance. “He is the best of the lot right now,” he says. “Mayawati is too narrow-minded. And less said the better about BJP. It nurtures people like Adityanath. And their leaders have often defamed Azamgarh.”

Iqra Parveen, studying BSC Mathematics first year, said it is sad the land of Kaifi Azmi is defamed for no reason. “I like how Akhilesh has focused on girl’s education, laptops and development of the state,” said the burkha-clad granddaughter of the famous poet Sagar Azmi. “Azamgarh is a place with rich history. We live in harmony and peace. If the BJP could indulge in less communalization and more governance, it would genuinely bring the country together.”

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I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!

A note I wrote a year ago, sadly, ceases to be irrelevant. Do read in context of the recent controversy of ABVP and Ramjas:

The Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad is arguably the most noted public university in Pakistan. Founded in 1965, the campus shone for its liberal outlook. Describing the pulse of the university, renowned author Steve Coll, in his book “Ghost Wars”, writes, “During much of the 1970s, the university’s culture had been western in many of its leanings. Women could be seen in jeans, men in latest sunglasses and leather jackets.”
In 1977, capsizing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power of the country. He would later send Bhutto to the gallows in 1979.
Zia aborted national polls, citing there’s “no place for western-type elections” in Islam. Simultaneously, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative political party, campaigned for a “moral transformation of Pakistani society”.
In the mid-70s, Jamaat student leaders made their presence felt at the Quaid-i-Azam University. By late 1979, the university’s student union was under their control. The Jamaat student leaders named and shamed women refusing to wear the veil, threatened liberal and secular students and teachers.
The Jamaat student leaders enjoyed great support from the military dictatorship of Zia. In order to “de-westernize” Pakistan through his “nationalistic” approach, Zia interfered with student politics and promulgated his agenda. During his 10-year rule, Zia diluted the autonomy of educational institutes by abandoning student bodies and making Arabic and Islamic studies mandatory.
A report from 2014, titled “Islamization fears at Quaid-i-Azam University”, notes, “There are far fewer students today who can sing and dance, recite poetry, or who read novels. There’s no intellectual excitement, no feeling of discovery, and girls are mostly silent note-takers, you have to prod them to ask questions.” Further, it mentions the fact that no girl wears jeans or dares to sit next to a man.

I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!