‘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: In Amethi, millennial voters are looking beyond Rahul Gandhi

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26th Feb 2017.

The youngsters in Amethi, just like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are expressive, opinionated and politically alive. One does not have to ask obviously intrusive questions to gauge their mood. Once the interaction begins, they decide the flow and most of the questions in your scribbling pad are covered without your asking them. However, during a good 20-minute conversation with dozens of millennial voters, in which they spoke of pertinent election issues and influential leaders, there was one point they had to be reminded to touch upon: Rahul Gandhi.

Almost all of them then responded with a wry smile and said, “The less said about him, the better.”

Indicative of the mood in the rest of the country, in his own Lok Sabha Constituency of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is not even considered important enough to be criticised or mentioned. It is by and large applicable to the Congress too, where the electorate hardly mentions the grand old party as a factor in Uttar Pradesh.

And rightly so. A pocket borough of the Gandhis, Amethi is a dustbowl (to put it leniently), where millennial voters are still facing the problems they have grown up with.

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Shri Sai Shivram Girls Education College in Gauriganj constituency of Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet. “We have to go into the farm fields,” she rued. “It is even more dangerous for girls, because the security situation for women is not great here either. The toilets have been built for the well-off, influential people. But our demands fall on deaf ears.”

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet.

The complaints regarding lack of sanitation facilities are not limited to the remote villages, but are heard even up to the town. Ranjit Rao, 21, said even in his village of Banvaripur, which is right on the outskirts of the town Amethi, they do not have a toilet.

While there are no two opinions about the fact that Amethi is one the least developed VIP constituencies, and is even worse than Rae Bareli, a report published by Livemint in 2014 showed that it did not fare well even when compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh, which lags behind in the juxtaposition with the rest of India. The report highlighted 12 socio-economic indicators on which Amethi fared worse than the state, which included important aspects like access to tap water, electricity, toilet, LPG, literacy and so on.

Add to that the crisis of unemployment faced by the youth, and Amethi becomes a perfect recipe for students to think of migration. Hardly anyone expressed the desire to stay put, saying they do not think the place would improve anytime soon. “If it had to happen, it would have happened by now,” said Ranjit, who is currently teaching primary school students to make a living, while preparing to apply for the job of Uttar Pradesh police. “If I do not get it, I will migrate to Delhi, where my father works in a private company.”

Ranjit will migrate to Delhi is his application to the UP Police does not work out.

Ranjit further complained the vacancies in the police force of UP go mostly to the constituencies where SP is strong. “They consider Class 12 marks for the job,” he said. “In Mainpuri, Etawah, Pratapgarh etc, students end up fudging their marksheets and get through, which is why Amethi lags behind.”

Whether the allegations are true or not, it conveys the hapless youngster’s plight in attempting to make a decent living. The incompetence of Rahul Gandhi as an MP, and the inability of the previous state governments to develop Amethi, has been cashed in by Narendra Modi, who continues to wield his popularity over the electorate. The critics and experts have dissected all the angles of demonetisation to prove it was an ill-thought, poorly executed scheme that only disturbed the lives of millions while achieving little, but it hardly matters to the electorate going to polls. The fact is, an economic disaster has proved to be a political masterstroke.

In Poonam’s remote village of Ultagadha, where lush green farmlands and fragile huts occupy the periphery of potholed roads, she said every Sunday her family of five gathers to listen to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. She belongs to a farming family and the way Modi speaks about farmers in his speeches, she said, appeals to her. “He reaches out to the poor,” said Poonam. “Notebandi attacked the rich who used to misuse honest tax payers’ money. He has delivered in Gujarat as well and he should be given a chance to govern UP. Not that I have a problem with Akhilesh, just that Modi is better.”

Poonam has never stepped out of UP, yet is familiar with the “development” in Gujarat. “My brother showed the videos and images of Gujarat he received on WhatsApp,” she divulged.           

In spite of not declaring the CM candidate, the BJP seems to be riding, and riding well, on Modi’s back to displace Akhilesh Yadav, who also remains popular among the youth. In UP, there are close to 25 lakh first-time voters, which has added another dimension to the polls. The parties have gone out of their way to woo the youth, and Modi and Akhilesh are the men to do it for their respective parties. While how the battle culminates in the rest of UP would be known only on March 11, in Amethi at least, the man from Gujarat has the edge, mainly because he has no baggage of anti-incumbency, and, just like Rae Bareli, the alliance has not been able to negotiate successfully.  

Out of the five constituencies in Amethi that go to polls on 27 February, Congress had won only two in 2012 assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha constituency is a bastion of Congress party. With both parties claiming the upper hand, they have ended up competing against each other at two of the five constituencies – Gauriganj and Amethi Sadar. With votes being split between them, BJP would automatically gain more, as BSP had not made a mark in 2012 in Amethi.

In Amethi Sadar, the battle between “maharaja” Sanjay Singh’s first wife and second wife is most keenly watched. Garima, the first wife, contesting on a BJP ticket, is striking an emotional chord with the electorate while campaigning for “justice” against the “man who wronged her”. Sanjay, influential in Amethi, is busy backing Amita, the second wife, who is contesting from Congress, the party that sent him to Rajya Sabha.

With Rahul Gandhi hardly bringing much to the table in his own constituency, another factor drowning out Akhilesh’s popularity is his candidates. The electorate speaks highly of Akhilesh but say his MLAs indulge in hooliganism. For example, in the Amethi Sadar seat, the candidate Gayatri Prajapati, is a rape accused. After the directives of Supreme Court, UP police charged him with separate cases of gangrape and attempt to rape another woman and her minor daughter. When Akhilesh held a rally in Amethion Monday, Prajapati was conspicuously absent.

Ashish Kumar Agrahi has been running a chow mein stall for the past eight years due to lack of employment opportunities.

Selling chow mein in the heart of Amethi on bustling narrow lane running parallel to the Ramleela Maidan, Ashish Kumar Agrahi, 24, said people fear walking out of the ATM after withdrawing cash. “While he has done some commendable work, law and order has worsened under Akhilesh,” said Ashish, who lives with his parents, and has stayed back to help them because his elder brother migrated to Lucknow to work as a property dealer. His father runs a pani puri stall on the same street and the two of them make 500 rupees of profit per day.

Ashish has passed his intermediate exams, but due to lack of employment opportunities, he has been running the chow mein stall for the last eight years. He said some of the people vote for the Congress because of the earlier generation, but the current lot lacks empathy. “You must have come here with high expectations from Mumbai,” he said, pointing at the Tehesildar House. “It was built during Rajiv Gandhi’s time. My parents tell me it has not even been painted since then.”

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In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

With Factories Being Shut, Unemployment Echoes in Punjab’s Doaba

This story first appeared on The Quint on 1 February 2017.

To what extent can one go to avoid coming back to one’s own country? Prabjot Sood, 28, got married. After he completed his matriculation from Jalandhar, he headed to Canada on a two-year education visa to pursue mechanical engineering, which proved too arduous for his abilities. He dropped out and began driving a truck instead. “I realised I could make more money than what my friends did back home with their fancy degrees,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble after the visa expired. “The only way I could have remained in Canada was to get married,” Sood said. “And I did.”

‘Impossible to Find a Job in Punjab’

But Sood did not get along with his wife. The marriage ended, and so did the stay in Canada. In January last year, Sood was deported back to his hometown of Jalandhar, which falls in Punjab’s Doaba region that covers the area between Beas and Sutlej rivers.

However, Sood is not the only one to have been deported. In the last three years, 6000 residents of Doaba have been deported from US and Canada for entering illegally, forging documents or overstaying their visa. “It is impossible to find a job in Punjab,” said Sood. “Jalandhar, Ludhiana used to be hubs of industries and factories. They have all shut shops over the years. Where does one work now?”

Doaba Region Hit by Deindustrialisation

There are 23 crucial seats in Doaba, and when Punjab goes to polls on 4 February, unemployment of youngsters would be a critical factor on the electorate’s mind, for it has been ailing the whole state for a long time. The Congress has campaigned on the plank of promising a job per household. AAP’s 51-point manifesto is called “for the youth, of the youth and by the youth”.

Both the parties are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal, which has been governing the state for a decade, and has done nothing to stop the slide. In 2014, newspaper reports said 18,770 factories have shut down since the Akali government came to power. Observers say it is a conservative number, and many more have followed suit in the last two years.

While Majha and Malwa regions are overwhelmingly agrarian, the tremors of de-industrialisation have been most severe in Doaba, which consists of towns like Ludhiana – once known to be a steel hub and manufacturers of cycles – and Jalandhar, where sports goods industry used to prosper.

Mass Exodus of Factories

In a narrow lane running through the Lasudi mohalla in Jalandhar West constituency, families are busy weaving footballs for different factories that are still operational. The women weave, while the men do the coolie work. Raj Rani, 50, has been making footballs for the past 27 years. “I got married in December. Lived like a princess for a month. And since February, I have been making footballs,” she described her married life in three lines. “I used to make 200 rupees per day 20 years ago. Today, I still make 200 rupees.”

Rani said Jalandhar had close to 800 factories back then, but there are hardly 50 today. The sports industry has moved to Meerut and cycle-makers like Hero and Avon, for which Ludhiana used to be a den, have expanded elsewhere, creating a massive void of jobs.

“The amount of work has gone down drastically,” Rani said, while weaving the ball. Her hands worked in harmony, like a flight on an autopilot mode. “The whole mohalla was into it. Now we are all struggling to make our ends meet.”

Industrialists and businessmen lay the blame of this mass exodus by factories squarely on the Akali Dal government in alliance with the BJP, and more so on the CM’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the party and Deputy CM of Punjab.

Requesting anonymity, a businessman, who became a member of the Akali Dal ten years ago, said it is impossible to do business in Punjab if you are not close to the Badals. “Sukhbir is greedy,” he said, sitting in his office, which had a photograph of him and Sukhbir.

If a business is doing well, he (Sukhbir Badal) would ask for a cut. It reduces your margins significantly. And if you have a fallout with him, he makes your life miserable.

A businessman on conditions of anonymity

Further, activists say that since most of the state’s businesses that generate substantial revenue belong to Badals or their proxies, many do not pay taxes, resulting in the state being starved of funds, which is why it has to compensate from elsewhere.

Educated Youth Forced to Do Odd Jobs

While other states lure industries to set up their factories, Punjab charges Rs 8 per unit for electricity – other states charge around Rs 4-5. On power bills, Punjab charges Octroi and Cow Cess. It drastically increases the production cost, and has reduced the purchasing power of the people.

Lakhs of educated youngsters are thereby languishing, doing odd jobs. Anmol Gulathi, 18, a bright young college student, drives an auto at night.

A friend of mine has done B.Tech. He works as a delivery boy and earns Rs 6,000. I get Rs 9,000. There are so many like him as labour here has become dirt-cheap. We are all waiting for the opportunity to go abroad and settle down.

Anmol Gulathi, student

Consequently, English-speaking course, or IELTS, have proliferated across Punjab, which basically train the youngsters to get out of the state. Click a photograph of a random skyline and it will not be without the IELTS signboard.

The electorate holds the Badals accountable for the quagmire, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. The youth in Doaba is tilting towards the fresher because it does not carry any baggage. Anmol said Punjab needs a fresh face, which will enthuse voters.

The Congress is corrupt as well. They do not have the ability to expose the Akali scams. The Akalis will manage them. Only AAP can put the ones who are ruining the state behind bars.

Anmol Gulathi, student

AAP’s Charm Depends on Age Group

Rita Cheema, 31, residing in Kartarpur constituency on the outskirts of Jalandhar, said AAP speaks the language of the people. “They seem concerned about the people,” she said. “I cannot say the same thing about the Congress. Akalis are not even worth mentioning. AAP deserves a chance.”

Moreover, even though the unemployment has intensified during the last decade, situation prior to that, when Congress was in charge, was not hunky dory either, which AAP has harped upon, knowing Congress is their main opponent. In June 2006, Tribune India had written an editorial titled “Spectre of unemployment looms large in Doaba”.

However, as the age group changes, AAP’s charm wanes.

The pro-Khalistan chunk, which is disillusioned with the Akali Dal, and would never vote for Congress, are backing AAP. The NRIs are lobbying for them like never before. But commentators say these NRIs are the ones who fled Punjab during the militancy, and are now using AAP to regain significance. Doaba is the most politically aware and socially conscious region of the three, and the way AAP is entertaining radicals has not been received well here, raising concerns for the long run.

AAP Pandering to Radical Elements

Surjeet Kaur, 60, said she fears the Khalistan slogans would be heard again if AAP comes to power. “If Kejriwal is using them, they would expect something in return,” she said.

If he (Kejriwal) concedes the SGPC and Akal Takht, we might see the resurgence of radicals. Having lived through the period, I dread that. Captain Amrinder, on the other hand, is an experienced cog, who would know how to deal with all sections of the society. I wonder if AAP is capable of handling a complex state like Punjab. They are inexperienced.

Surjeet Kaur

Dalit Advantage for AAP

Doaba has over 40 percent Dalit votes with noticeable BSP followers. They are en-masse gravitating towards AAP, because they have recognised BSP as a spoiler. But the head of the dera of Ravidasa sect among the Dalits, which has a following of close to a million in Doaba, has tacitly extended its support to the Congress, which means the Congress has its nose ahead in the region.

Disillusioned Youth Flocking to Foreign Shores

Akin to Majha, AAP suffers from a brittle local cadre, and has relied on the face of Arvind Kejriwal, who is seen as a messiah in the all-important Malwa region with 69 seats. The reports of an AAP sweep in Malwa are spreading, which could influence voters from Majha and Doaba ahead of the polls. AAP has thrown all its might in Malwa and only has to ensure a respectable performance in the other two regions to scrape through to the halfway mark.

However, one person who is least bothered about Punjab and its future is Sood. After having failed to find a job in Jalandhar for the past year, he has fallen back on his tried and tested strategy to escape the misery of his home state. He got married in January this year. His wife is a 20-year old B.Com student, who wants to study abroad.

The pre-conditions of the wedding was simple. Sood’s parents from their savings will bear the expenses for the MBA the bride intends to pursue. And Sood will tag along on the back of his wife’s visa. It has worked out well. Both are set to fly to New Zealand in May.

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 4: With poor infrastructure, underqualified teachers, education takes a backseat

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 19 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the fourth part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

The room is about an inch or two wider than the space occupied by two double bunk beds lined up one after another. One has to walk sideways to pass through the space in between the beds. Bed sheets are sullied. There is no ventilation and the light hardly comes through even at noon. The caretaker has to turn on the tubelight to get a good look of the dingy room, where clothes are hanging above the eye level. This is the state of girls hostel in Nashik’s Devgaon tribal residential school. With over 350 residing students here, almost 45-50 of them are cramped into one room, where they spend the night. They do not have separate cupboards, privacy to concentrate on their studies or even a respectable space to keep their clothes.

As one spares a thought for the appalling infrastructural facilities doled out to the students in Devgaon, but as you visit more such tribal schools in Maharashtra, the cramped room appears to be a luxury. Most of the students do not even have a separate space to go to after the conclusion of the last lecture. The room in which they spend their night becomes their classroom during the day.

Maharashtra is the only state that allocates budget for tribal development in proportion of its tribal population, which leaves no scope for shortfall, even though the state runs 555 ashram schools and aids 554 of them. For the year 2016-17, Rs 7,644 crores had been allotted for tribal development.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The tribal ministry is often accused of malpractices and the ground reality of ashram schools makes one wonder where the money goes. In 2008, the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive report to the then ruling dispensation, which highlighted similar infrastructural fallacies to what TISS did to this government in August 2015.

According to the findings, almost half the schools would have to be derecognised, considering the codebook of Maharashtra Ashram Schools mandates the campus of the school be minimum 2 hectares to create a conducive atmosphere for the kids to study and play, which is part of the all-round growth of the students. However, 64 percent of aided and 38 percent of government tribal schools had a campus that did not measure up to the codebook, as per TISS findings.

The report further exposed the state, for it found only 9 percent of the aided and 12 percent of the government-run schools could provide a living space of 40 square feet per student at the girl’s hostel. The boy’s hostel did not fare much better.

With the kind of infrastructure the state provides, it cannot hope to expect the quality of education to be impressive. Only 60 percent aided and 50 percent government schools had classrooms with maps and charts. Moreover, merely 58 percent aided and 55 percent government schools provided tubes/bulbs and fans, making it worse for students to study.

Milind Thatte, an activist in the Jawahar tribal belt, said the concept of tribal schools has become outdated. “Residential schools were conceptualised because there was hardly any access to most of the tribal villages,” he said. “Today, a lot of those villages have become easily accessible. Let the students live with their parents and the state can save up what it spends on the hostel and use it for their books, meals etc. Ashram schools should be limited to places where it is a task for the kids to head out of the villages.”

In December 2015, the Maharashtra government had mooted the idea to rope in the private sector to run the ashram schools, which was an admission in itself of being incapable of running them well in spite of spending thousands of crores.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Former MLA Vivek Pandit, whose organisation works with tribals in the area of Palghar, Thane and Dahanu, said the tribal welfare department depends on contractors, which is marred with rampant corruption. When TISS paid a visit to 1,076 schools across Maharashtra in 2015, it encountered around 75,000 students less than what they had been told, which is astounding considering these are residential schools. Last year, a corollary scam had come to light, where thousands of students enrolled in the schools were found to be non-existent. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

TISS also found the number of posts at the ashram schools had been unoccupied. Including the headmaster, teacher, male and female warden, cook, peon, lab attendant, helper and others, 976 posts had been vacant in aided schools, while in government schools, the number was 3,469.

Instead of filling up important posts like those of a trained teacher, permanent employees, many of the schools have hired teachers on a contract basis, where they are used as cheap labour. While a permanent teacher would have to be paid a salary of at least Rs 35,000, the contract teachers, who teach primary students, are hired at Rs 15 an hour. They are mostly graduates in their mid-20s, hoping to get a permanent job. The secondary and higher secondary teachers get Rs 54 and Rs 72 per hour respectively. One of the teachers, at the request of not being named, expressed his frustration. “I have been working as a contract teacher for 15 years,” he lamented. “Rs 15 an hour fetches me around Rs 2,000 a month. It is humiliating.”

As a result, the student-teacher ratio remains dismal and pupils spill out of the classrooms. Better trained teachers do not take up the job and many who do leave midway through the term.

When TISS submitted its report in 2008, some of its major suggestions included “Provide guidance on academic and co-curricular activities”, “Better training for better teachers” and “Prepare infrastructure budget and check on the structures”. Seven years later, the study by the same organisation did not come up with very dissimilar suggestions. In all likelihood, TISS might be commissioned another study in 2020 and it would probably not matter if the institute merely updates the date and submits the same report it submitted a year and a half ago.

Despite the conditions in which the tribal students study, records show more than 95 percent of the students pass their board exams. But before one is misled into thinking about a positive story amid adversities, activists call it a scam. Most of the students, they say, struggle to read, and yet go on to pass the exams. Interactions with students at various schools indicated there is much truth to it. Students laboured to solve basic math problems at the age of 14 and 15. Many of the schools did not have a laboratory or a teacher for science, yet students over there have passed the subject.

Activist Bandu Sane, who works extensively with the tribals in Vidarbha, asked if the tribal schools produce toppers, where do the students go after they graduate. “If all the students are passing their board exams, why do they struggle so much once they are out of the tribal schools?” He asked. “It has been five decades since the inception of ashram schools. Why have they not been able to emancipate the tribal society? Why have the tribals remained the way they were a few decades ago?”