‘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

Just when Marathwada thought it had recovered from droughts, came demonetisation

This story first appeared on Catch News on 16 November 2016.

Over the last few years, Marathwada and drought have become synonymous with each other. The paucity of rainfall has only intensified the agrarian crisis over half a decade. In 2016, however, even though the rain gods blessed Marathwada, the farmers here are still enduring a drought, though of a unique kind. The drought of notes and currencies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise 500 and 1000-rupee notes on 8 November has crippled the farmers of Marathwada, where every transaction is cash-based.

 

 

Farmer Padmakar Londhe described the scene at the Agriculture Produce Market located in Latur city, which is 50 kilometers from his hometown of Nilanga in Latur district.

“It was chaotic,” he said, when he visited the market to sell his soybean on Thursday last week. “Farmers had come all the way from their remote villages to sell their produce and buyers did not have the money to pay them back.”

Londhe had to dump his 20 quintals of soybean at the market and head back home without receiving his dues.

Can’t prepare for next season

“I was told to come again next week,” Londhe said, adding that the unnecessary expense of a trip merely to collect his dues would definitely pinch. “I did not have money to go back to the village, or to have a cup of tea. I borrowed some before heading back. The situation is still disastrous. I am waiting for the money, without which I cannot prepare for the Rabi season.”

Due to the relatively adequate rainfall, farmers had been satisfied with their Kharif crops this season. The idea was to raise enough capital for the impending Rabi season by selling the Kharif produce.

This is a critical period for the farmers, for season-specific nature of their profession does not allow a flexible window for delay in preparations.

Senior journalist and agriculture expert Atul Deulgaonkar, who is based in Latur, said 25% of the farmers are yet to sow for the Rabi season.

“Others who have done so, need money for further cultivation,” he said. “A delay or a break could wash out the whole season. The demonetizsation has created an economic impasse.”

Farmers, after selling their crop in the city, generally shop for the fertilizers, seeds, a week’s ration, medicines, etc and head back to their village. But the cash crunch appears to have paralysed the entire informal sector.

Shivaji Sonawane, who is a farmer and runs a fertilizer and seed shop in Latur, said there are around 80 such retail shops in the city, which had been making around a lakh rupees per day before 8 November.

“For the past few days, the business has dwindled to hardly 5,000 rupees,” he said. “Farmers turn up with their old notes. But we have to send them away with a heavy heart.”

In a rally in Goa, Modi made an emotional appeal to the citizenry to cooperate for 50 days. However, it might spell doom for the agrarian region by then, for the lack of preparations will nullify the entire Rabi crop.

Sonawane said his six-acre grape-field is lying idle because he cannot find laborers for work.

“The grape season may be March but the preparations begin around this time,” he said. “We export grapes as well. It is a lucrative source of income, which now appears to have been jeopardised. The whole farmland has come to a standstill.”

50 more days will just make it worse

The repercussions of demonetisation are glaring. The rate of soybean has dropped by Rs 150 this week, meaning a farmer would make Rs 150 less than what he would have made a week ago behind every quintal.

The entire exchange of commodities has been encumbered, with the informal sector coming under the weather. Their business has dwindled to a half with many customers buying goods on credit. Vendors dealing in green vegetables are selling them off at one fifth of the cost, for they get rotten quickly.

Head of the Latur Agriculture Produce Market, Lalit Shah, said the activity at the market has drastically decreased post 8 November. “From receiving 75,000 bags of soybean per day, we have come to less than 20,000,” he said.

“Farmers are aware of the problems traders are facing. They are sitting on their crop. We implore the ones who come to cooperate. If it continues like this, my market will shut down.”

Farmer Ganesh Madje, who has a 20-acre land on the outskirts of Latur city, said he has around 80 quintals of produce at home, which he cannot sell off and raise capital for the Rabi season.

Banks in Latur are far and few, and it is unaffordable for farmers to leave their work to spend a day standing in queue for Rs 4,000. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of farmers have their accounts with the district banks, which, locals have been told, are not authorised to replace the old notes.

The nationalised banks are authorised, but only a handful of farmers have their accounts with those banks. And even the nationalised banks are sparingly doling out exchanges, for they too have been caught off guard.

“The past few years, we did not have the money,” said Madje. “Our situation this time around is more troublesome. We have the money, but we cannot use it.”

 

Ground report: Drought-stricken Marathwada limps from bad to worse

This story first appeared on Catch News on 25 March 2016.

Jagannath Kokate nervously sits across his three robust bovines in the scorching heat around noon. Clad in a white dhoti and kurta, he is engaged in a tense conversation with his farmer friend at the cattle camp set up in the village of Wathoda in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district.

Dr. Harshavardhan Raut of the Raj Pratishthan NGO, who founded this cattle camp, has hinted about its closure if the Maharashtra state government does not reimburse the amount spent on the camp.

 

 

In the hushed village of Wathoda, the cattle camp spreads across a rugged four-acre land with more than 1,000 animals being fed and looked after since 12 January, this year. Animals rest under temporary sheds installed with bamboos and covered with a green cotton cloth. Fodder and water occupy the periphery of the animals. Their owners have virtually shifted from their respective villages to the camp to supervise the livestock. They go back home only to dine and sleep.

No money, no camp?

The cattle camp has been a great source of comfort and a significant burden off the chest of beleaguered farmers from villages within a 15-kilometer radius. “Water and fodder expenses amount to around 5,000 rupees a month behind one animal,” says 80-year old Kokate as his pink turban shines with the reflection of the sun beating down mercilessly. “The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn. Had it not been for the camp, we would have been even more miserable.”

“The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn,” syas 80-year-old farmer

However, this relief could be short-lived, for the state government has not lived up to its promise. The organizers have incurred in excess of 20 lakh rupees so far but the assured reimbursement has still not found its way.

“It is getting increasingly difficult to sustain,” says Raut. “The farmers are hugely depended on it but I will not be able to drag on post April.”

The government has fixed 70 rupees behind every grownup animal and 35 for a baby bovine, but the actual expenses cross 100 rupees, says Raut. “70 bucks merely cover for water and fodder,” he adds. “Who will account for the labor and transport costs?”

The paucity of fodder has compelled them to procure it 50 kilometers from the camp-site, increasing the transport cost. The water suppliers have doubled the tanker costs due to water scarcity. And the situation can only intensify with April and May ominously lurking around. “We would have to go as far as 150 kilometers for fodder,” predicts Raut, adding they require 10 tons of it every day.

Moreover, 2.5 lakh rupees spent on installing the cattle camp is not covered in government reimbursement, adds Satish Patil, manager of the camp.

After a lot of clamor, the administration informed camp owners that 60 lakh rupees have been released, which would be divided between seven camps located in the vicinity; meaning around 8 lakh would be the share of this particular camp at Wathoda. “It does not even cover our monthly expense,” says Patil.

Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of eight districts of Marathwada, admitted the bills were pending but assured the camps that they “would get the full payment by the end of this week”.

If and when the money is released, a section of the amount, around 20% as per Raut, would be reduced for cow dung, for the camp owners would be able to make money out of the dung produced at the camp. “Cow dung is rich organic manure, which is a revenue generator,” says Dangat. “Therefore, the government deducts a reasonable amount.” Patil, though, says it would be impossible to recover the trimmed amount.

The cattle camps across Marathwada have earned fair amount of credit to the state government but they are basically functioning because of well-intentioned moneyed people, believes Latur-based Author and Environmental Journalist Atul Deulgaonkar.

While traveling through Beed and Osmanabad, along with parched riverbeds, one also comes across cattle camps at fairly regular intervals. Farmers from Latur, though, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three in the whole district, which consists of more than 6 lakh animals.

Farmers from Latur, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three cattle camps in the whole district

“The response of local NGOs has been better in Beed and Osmanabad compared to Latur,” says Dangat. “But the collector has been asked to address the issue and we will make sure there are enough camps set up in Latur.”

Setting up a cattle camp

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis. It includes a mandatory deposit of 10 lakh rupees and an assurance letter of 30 lakh rupees among other things. As a result, many of the camps have called it quits.

“The experience with relaxed norms was terrible,” clarifies Dangat. “The guidelines are to ensure financially sound NGOs, who would be able to tend to the animals, are given a go ahead and there is no corruption.”

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis

The agrarian crisis in Marathwada has steadily deteriorated with every passing year. The water situation has emerged as a prime headache. Dams have dried up. The administration seems to be floundering. The suicide toll has already crossed 200 in 2016.

The scarcity of water and the failure to raise capital from last season’s Kharif crops has meant many of the farmers have not been able to sow for the Rabi season. Kokate, 80, who has been a farmer all his life, says he remembers only two such precedents: Way back during the infamous drought of 1972 and then directly in 2014.

The others who managed to raise funds for the Rabi season met with tantalizing fate. Shirish Girwalkar from Latur’s Bhatangali village was one of them.

“The experience with relaxed norms for cattle camps was terrible,” clarifies Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad

Loans, mortgages; the plight of farmers

In November last year, Girwalkar started preparing for the Rabi season by sowing Jowar and Gram in his 6-acre farmland. From November to February, he spent 20,000 rupees per acre, including all the requirements like seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and labor. He approached a registered moneylender and borrowed some amount, hoping to repay the loan in April since the crop was expected by March end. The script seemed to be working for Girwalkar until unseasonal rains in March first week devoured his investment and efforts of the past four months.

“70% of the crop wasted, significant amount of the fodder rendered inedible,” he says as his wife picks up two huge utensils and heads out to fill water. “If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses.”

“If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses,” says Latur’s Girwalkar

Girwalkar has admirably not thrown in the towel and has now pinned his hopes on a decent monsoon season. However, his debts are likely to pile up. The pre-sowing process, which would start in April, has already begun. His farmland has abruptly come back to square one with brown soil once again plowed in the hope it would one day glitter with potential crop yield, like it did merely 20 days ago until the untimely rains washed it off.

With an unpaid loan palpably hanging around his neck, Girwalkar believes he may have to mortgage his land or house. “It is a risk I will have to take,” he says. “What other option do I have?”

Fourth year of unseasonal rains

For the consecutive fourth year, unseasonal rains have ruptured an almost procured crop, and shattered the hopes of many. It is a clear consequence of climate change, which has not been taken seriously by our administration, says Deulgaonkar, who was an invitee at the recently held high-profile climate change conference in Paris.

“It is high time we take proactive steps and use advance technology to adapt to climate change,” he says, adding that even Bangladesh, which has developed a sort of rice that would endure excessive flooding, seemed better prepared to tackle climate change. “Swaminathan Commission has many such suggestions but it is languishing with the centre for almost a decade.”

In the last few months, journalists and politicians have visited Marathwada to gauge the gravity of the crisis, which has given a ray of hope to farmers, only to wither away. “Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says Girwalkar. “But it hardly makes any tangible difference to our daily agony.”

The budget of the state government had rural Maharashtra as its focal point. The tax on sugarcane purchase has been waived off. Weather centers in every district have been promised, which seems to be the first step in eventually countering natural disasters.

“Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says farmer Girwalkar

Government alloted money a joke

The government has allotted 3,360 crores, a significant amount, to the farmers who have suffered from natural disasters. But the moot question is how much a household would receive behind every hectare. After last monsoons failed the Kharif crop, the amount allotted by the government translated into 6,800 rupees per hectare.

Girwalkar says even a mediocre soil throws up 20 quintals of food crop in one hectare, eventually amounting to the yield worth rupees 60,000 if we go by a conservative rate of 3000 per quintal. “Therefore, 6.800 rupees is a joke,” he says.

The overall agrarian crisis has caused remarkable reduction of the farm activity in Marathwada, as a result of which we have seen a huge influx of farmers and agriculture laborers to cities like Mumbai and Pune. From Latur alone, more than 50,000 people have migrated. Observers note that they would hardly come across a spectacle where farmers sit under a tree in the afternoon and spend hours chatting with each other, something that has now become usual.

Multiple groups working for the poor

The unemployment and lack of avenues, experts say, has endangered the social fabric of the region. In Latur, there are more than 250 registered groups, which claim to work for the rights of the poor. In reality, they engage in extortion, chanting unnecessary slogans and bullying. Locals say the members of all such groups travel in SUVs.

One of the most respected builders in Latur, Vaijnath Kore, says several groups have barged into his office at odd hours for money. “It is increasing by the day,” he says. “Identity crisis drives people towards mob mentality.”

Randhir Surwase, 31, of Lashkar-e-Bhima, founded in 2011, says they self-finance their activities. The group has many cases registered against it but Surwase says all the social activists have been charged with those sections in the past.

The groups may have been registered 15 years back but their numbers have mushroomed in the last 2-3 years. Many of its members hail from farm families. The groups keep engaging in constant one upmanship, intensifying the civil strife.

The recent attack in Latur where a Muslim policeman was paraded with a saffron flag was just one of many instances. A week ago, one of the groups attacked an inter-caste couple hanging out in Latur.

“All of them seem to be following the footsteps of Shivsena,” says Deulgaonkar. “The riots in Mumbai did not recur after 1992-93 because many got work after the economic liberalization. The increasing unemployment in Marathwada does not augur well for us.”

Nonetheless, the drought has had a trickle down impact and the buying capacity of farmers, which makes up almost all of Marathwada, has been substantially encumbered. Farmers have started sidelining critical medical expenses, kids’ education and marriages.

Number of patients on the rise

Doctor Ajit Jagtap of the Apex Hospital in Latur city says except for the emergency ward, the OPD patients have decreased by 40% in the last two months. “Even when I offer to treat them at 60% of the cost, they are reluctant,” he says. “After realizing the importance of the procedure, they mortgage their jewelry or borrow money.”

Nilkanth Kale from Samsapur village in Latur had been putting off a medical checkup for more than a year before he was finally admitted to the hospital last week. “He kept enduring the pain thinking of the bill amount after a check up,” says his brother Suresh. “Last week, his situation scared us all and I admitted him to the hospital.”

He is scheduled to have a hernia surgery this week. The cost of the operation would amount to around 10,000 rupees after concession.

Both Suresh and Nilkanth work as agriculture laborers. The recent recession in work has compelled them to borrow money from an unregistered moneylender at an interest rate of 4% per month. “I get 250 rupees per day and a good week is a three-day working week these days,” says Suresh. “We have also borrowed 3,000 rupees from our relatives.”

Students plight

Not even a kilometer’s distance from the Apex Hospital, lies a local Agriculture Produce Market, where, even during the droughts of previous years, around 25,000 kilograms of Gram would be deposited per day. After steady decline since the conclusion of the last few monsoon rains, it has dwindled to 3,000 today. Other crops have met similar fate. Around 2,500 coolies sit idle in the yard or spend the day watching the television.

The market committee also runs a hostel where around 200 students across Latur district live at a subsidized rate, for many of the educational institutes are located in Latur city.

The students here, however, are a little fidgety these days. The paucity of water has forced the collector to issue a summons to all educational institutes to be done with the impending exams quickly and pack the students off to their respective villages, in order to reduce the water load of the city.

Many of the students, though, would be preparing for their GMATs and other such exams that transpire after the college exams. Going back to their village would not allow them to concentrate on their studies, they say.

Sheikh Sattar from Bhoyra says since the family has not been able to make much due to the drought, parents expect kids to earn instead of “wasting time on studies”. “All of us are doing odd-jobs and funding our living in the city,” he says. “But we cannot earn enough to save for the family.”

And these are still the ones who have managed to get into a senior college or a post-graduation program. Many have shelved their education after studying till the 12th standard in their village school.

Mohini’s story

One such girl, Mohini Bhise from Latur’s remote village of Bhise Wagholi, secured 70% in her 12th standard board exams. She wanted to become a nurse but her parents could not afford to send her to a medical program. A year went by, and she turned 18, an age where parents start looking for a groom to suit their daughter.

Bright, beautiful and talented. Even so, families turned Mohini down, for her father, Pandurang, could not afford a dowry of 4 lakh rupees. Pandurang’s 1-acre farmland had not thrown up a crop good enough to raise an amount as high as that. He also works as a pygmy agent, earning a salary of 1,100 rupees. His wife, Kantabai, lost her job two years back when the company she worked for had closed down.

Eventually, Pandurang mooted the idea of selling the land off. He along with Kantabai, pondered upon it. Mohini overheard the conversation.

On 20 January, when Kantabai stepped out to visit the neighbour, Mohini hanged herself in the house with a dupatta.

Before committing suicide, Kantabai says, Mohini tended to her during her illness and was a pillar of support during the wretched drought.

“She did say she felt a bit uneasy but we never thought she would take the extreme step,” says an inconsolable Kantabai, as she sits in her mildly lit house against the wall with a beautiful painting by Mohini. “Poverty cost me my daughter.”

Mohini’s elder sister, Ashwini, is married. Aniket, 14, and Nikita, 11, are her younger siblings. Aniket wants to be a policeman and Nikita a teacher. Their faces clearly indicate they have grown up too soon.

The police recovered a suicide note in which Mohini questioned the dowry system and implored her father not to sell off the land. “Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” she asked.

“Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” said Mohini in her suicide note talking about dowry

“Please do not waste money on the customary function conducted to ensure the departed soul rests in peace. I am already at peace, knowing I have saved you the money you would have otherwise spent on my wedding.”

Read more

 

“My force let me down”, says ASI Yunus Sheikh on being beaten by a mob

This story first appeared on Catch News on 27 February 2016.

“What’s new?” retired ASI Baban Jadhav promptly said when asked about the lethargic manner in which the police force reacted to a brutal assault on Yunus Sheikh in Latur.

Jadhav, who retired nine years back, said the behaviour of the police department is hardly surprising, for the seniors have “never been bothered about the lower rank officers.”

The night before Shiv Jayanti on 18 February, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Yunus Sheikh and his colleague K Awaskar had stopped a right-wing group from hoisting a saffron flag near Ambedkar Chowk, since it was a “sensitive area”. The next morning, a group of over 100 assembled in front of Sheikh’s Pangaon police station and launched an attack.

The attack began at around 8.30 AM, said Datta Thore, journalist with a local newspaper Lokmat. Awaskar managed to flee but Sheikh got trapped. The mob beat him up mercilessly, forced him to hold a saffron flag, compelled him to chant “Jai Bhawani Jai Shivaji” while parading him through town.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Sheikh said he had flagged the control room immediately but they failed to send reinforcement in time. “My force let me down,” he said.

“The seniors are merely concerned about money and their vested interests,” said Jadhav. “The constables and lower rank officers are treated like bonded labourers.”

In October last year, the Director General of Police (DGP) issued a circular to IPS officers requesting them not to use their orderlies for household work. Senior IPS officers are entitled to lower-rung staffers to help them discharge their duties.

But many officers, according to a missive, make their constabulary work as domestic servants. “Officer’s wife or women in the house not only ill-treat them but also force them to work like their domestic aid. If they refused to do house work, they are harassed by the officer,” reads the circular.

Yunus Sheikh was beaten by a mob and his force failed to back him up

Former IPS officer Suresh Khopde shared an astonishing incident from 2004 in Nagpur at a dinner party of IPS officers. “All the officers and their families had come decked up for the evening,” he recalled. “Two officers and their wives were stopped at the gate. They were the Superintendent of Police, which means Class 1 officers of the state government. The IPS officers refused to eat with them because they had not yet become IPS. When the Superintendents showed the invite, they said it must have been a mistake and shooed them away.”

Khopde, author of Why Mumbai Burned and Bhiwandi Did Not, concluded if a Class 1 officer is treated with such contempt, “less said the better about constables”.

A police constable, requesting anonymity, for he is still serving the force, said the superiors give a “big brother is watching you” sort of a treatment. “We are treated like worms,” he said. “Even if we are ill, the superiors do not file the report requesting for ‘with pay’ leave. Therefore, the salary is trimmed. I had once gone to the washroom when the supervisor paid a visit. He scolded me and asked why I had not gone to the washroom in my house before coming for duty.”

Another renowned and former IPS officer Sudhakar Suradkar recollected a personal experience where a sub-inspector wept after he asked him to take a seat. “He said no DCP had ever offered me a seat until now,” Suradkar explained. “Little things matter a lot. Even a gentle ‘hi’ or an enquiry about the family goes a long way. Sadly, the human touch is missing.”

The anonymous constable said it has been around two years but his constable friend has not yet received the entitled reimbursement of 90,000 rupees. This is what was spent for his treatment of tuberculosis. “His salary is 13,000 rupees,” he said. “He borrowed money from his friends, his wife mortgaged her jewellery. Moreover, not a single senior visited him in the hospital.”

The friend refused to comment, saying he still hoped he would get his money some day.

Suradkar, one of the rare officers who had initiated an inquiry into the president of the District Police Association and jailed him based on the complaint of constables, said that the subordinates have lost faith in their seniors. “The senior-junior relationship has steadily deteriorated over the years,” Suradkar said. “It used to be like a father-son relationship. When I was a junior, my seniors were easily accessible to me.”

“The seniors are merely concerned about money and their vested interests”

He recollected an incident when a constable in rural Maharashtra complained to the SP after a sub-inspector, in a drunken state, eve teased his wife. Instead of taking cognisance of the matter, the SP suspended the constable for showing up at his house unannounced.

Khopde, recipient of the Maharasthra Sahitya Parishad Award, said the senior officers discriminate on the basis of religion and caste as well, and Muslims and Dalits suffer the most. “Muslims are mocked and privately called ‘Landya’, Dalits are referred as ‘Jai Bheem’. It reflects in the recruitment process as well,” he said. “The superiors rarely consider the fact that juniors are also human beings with souls.”

Suradkar opined the job of seniors is to guide and control the subordinates. Pointing out that there are exceptions, he said “the seniors, instead, shrug off responsibility and subordinates are left to fend for themselves.”

In the infamous hit-and-run case of Salman Khan, his bodyguard and constable Ravindra Patil, two days before his death had reportedly said, “I stood by my statement till the end, but my department did not stand by me.”

Patil, who had dutifully informed the police about the accident, had a non-bailable warrant issued against him for missing five hearings; while the accused Salman enjoyed 83 exemptions in 10 years. After being arrested, he was jailed along with hardened criminals.

Jadhav, the retired ASI, said the language used by the seniors for their subordinates is uncouth. “I remember my colleague had asked for leave because his mother passed away. The inspector snapped back and asked if she is going to come back by granting leave.”

Khopde said the leaves of constables or lower rank officers is never looked at with a sensitive eye. “In case of a complaint, seldom do the bosses listen to the constable’s side of the story,” he said.

In 1982, a constable had been pilloried for behaving arrogantly with his sub-inspector. Suradkar, overseeing the matter, said the constable had asked for leave because his two-year-old son had been severely ill. The sub-inspector asked for a bribe.

After the constable’s failure to pay the bribe, the sub-inspector rejected his leave. “The son died after three days,” Suradkar said. “And the furious constable gave him a mouthful after receiving the news of his son’s death.”

The degeneration of the police force is a reflection of what’s happening in society itself

Summing up the whole credibility crisis the police force is suffering from, former Deputy Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra, Shirish Inamdar, said the police department is merely a “reflection of society”. “Every profession is a cross-section of society,” he said.

“Social hierarchy and feudalism is in our blood. As long as our society discriminates on the basis of caste or religion, how do you expect the police department to rise above it? After all, the police officers are recruited from within society.”

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Had a dip at the Kumbh? That water could have helped 305 villages

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 18 September 2015.

There’s a city that receives water every 15 days and that may soon become once a month. It has water to sustain itself for a mere month-and-a-half. The two dams on which the district survives have dried up. For the first time, water theft has been reported and it’s now common to see padlocked water tankers.

Travel 130 kilometers northwest and you come across parched riverbeds. Miles of cotton and soya bean fields lie desolate with crops barely as high as one’s ankle. The administration has had to set up cattle camps as people have little water to drink, let alone look after their livestock.

Drive north a little more than 100 kilometers and you will see people climbing down scorched wells, digging at their base until a muddy puddle forms. They scoop the water for hours, separating the mire and stones, to fill their pots.

But 100 kilometres away from this district, you will find millions getting drenched in massive reservoirs, and river ghats, supposedly washing off their sins.

The unfairness of things

Imagine being a resident of Latur, waiting 15 days to get water, or being a farmer in Beed, who has been forced to renounce his livestock, or that man in Jalna, who is digging the bottom of the well in the hope of espying some drinking water. And then imagine watching sants and sadhus enjoying a dip at the Kumbh Mela in Nashik.

Monsoons usually bring 780 millimetres of rainfall to Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. This year that has come down to 259 mm. The met department’s figures indicate an ominous 51% deficit and district officials say more than 70% Kharif crops have failed.

The 11 major reservoirs of the region have less than 10% water left and more than 600 farmers here have committed suicide this year. Official records show 80% of the state is staring at a drought.

At a time like this the Maharashtra government released two TMC (thousand million cubic) water from the Gangapur dam for the Kumbh’s second Shahi Snan (Royal Dip) on 13 September. One TMC was released on 29 August for the first Snan and one TMC more is expected to be released on 18 September.

What was the government thinking?

At least there is no ambiguity about the priorities of this government.

The Snan is a ritual valued by a large section. The Kumbh takes place once in three years in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, by rotation. Nashik has waited for this occasion for 12 years. The government has budgeted over Rs 2,000 crore for the event.

At the same time, it has not waived off farm loans. Given the intensity of the drought in Marathwada, it was not too much to expect.

The Gangapur dam, from which water was generously bestowed to the Kumbh, is upstream of the Jayakwadi dam, on which most of the irrigation projects and 305 villages in Marathwada depend. Had the water been released through that dam, it would have helped significantly.

The Mumbai High Court, has asked the government to “reconsider” its decision (though it has come after two of the three Snans are over). “The government has a policy, which categorizes its priorities as far as supply of water is concerned. As per the policy, supply of water for drinking purposes comes first and supply of water for such Shahi Snans comes in the last category,” the court said.

The judgment comes on the back of a public interest litigation filed by HM Desarda, an economics professor from Pune. The petition said the released water would be a “sheer waste, given the drought situation in the state and the grave danger it posed to human survival.”

According to the National Water Policy, preference should be given to drinking needs, followed by agriculture and then commercial purposes. The petitioner argued the government’s decision violated the policy.

“The petitioner pointed out to apex court orders, which states that access to drinking water is a fundamental right and it is State’s duty to provide drinking water under Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution,” the Bench pointed out.

Astonishingly, the government pleader said such a move would lead to a “law-and-order situation” as lakhs of devotees throng Nashik. Irrespective of whether it was just a precautionary warning or a threat, this indicates the sensitivities of the society. Seems we worry more about religious sentiments than farmers’ lives.

One million people took the first Royal Dip and four million the second. Did the dire situation in Marathwada not even occur to the sadhus while practicing their religious ritual?

Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board, says even if the water is released, it should not be given away free of cost. “The water is valuable,” he says. “When you give it away free of cost, people consuming it do not realize its value.”

If Sahi Snan continues, it would do irreparable damage to Godavari – Marathwada’s life line

The water audit of 2010 shows that 30% of the total water usage falls under the “other” category. While the remaining 70% is used for drinking, commercial and agricultural purposes, the “other” category is not defined.

Studies show that there is hardly anything royal about the Godavari river, in which millions take the Royal Dip: Industrial discharge and domestic waste has severely polluted the river, making it grossly unfit to bathe in.

Experts believe if the Shahi Snan continues this way, it would irreparably damage the Godavari, also known as the lifeline of Marathwada since it fills up the critical Jayakwadi dam.

Rajesh Pandit and Nishikant Pagare, environmental activists from Nashik, had filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court in 2012 urging the government to clean the river up.

But nobody seems bothered. On the other contrary, it was reported on 13 September that a high-level delegation, including the Chief Minister’s wife, would soon fly to China to import ‘holy’ water from Kailas Manas Sarovar to pour it in the Godavari to appease the Sadhus.

The abuse of Godavari or the endemic suicides of farmers should surmount religious sentiments. But they don’t.

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Drought, death & destroyed crops: just how much more can Marathwada take

This story first appeared on Catch News on 11 September 2015.

After a spate of dry spells, Nivrutti Sathe took a calculated risk in April as he geared up for another cropping season. He decided to transfer silted soil from a dried-up riverbed to his three-acre-farmland in a remote village of Hasegaon in Latur district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region.

 

The process was expensive, but Nivrutti was sure of a good return on his investment as the silt would enhance his yield. He borrowed Rs 2 lakh from a local moneylender, zeroed in on a riverbed around 10 kilometers from his tin-roofed house and carted soil from there to his farm for nearly two months.

By the end of May the farm, extending up to the Sathe’s backyard, was covered with river silt. In early June, Marathwada was blessed by pre-monsoon showers – a rarity, considering the weather patterns in the last decade.

The rainfall encouraged Nivrutti to sow his fields with vigour. “The sowing was promising,” says Prakash Sathe, Nivrutti’s father. “It was just a matter of reasonable rainfall in the next two months.”

But the rain gods turned deceptive: The pre-monsoon downpour was followed by a 45-day dry spell. The region, which normally receives around 780 millimeters of rainfall during monsoons, has got only 259 mm this season. Figures from the Indian Meterological Department indicate an ominous 51% deficit.

Nivrutti could not reap what he sowed: by mid-July, his soyabean crop dried up, bringing to nought his efforts and the investment. He had to pay back the loan without the crop on which he was banking, and also take look after his family. Nivrutti’s daughter had turned six and his son was just four.

In the last week of July, Nivrutti gave up. One morning he left home to answer the call of nature. An hour later his mother Bharatbai went to the backyard to dispose waste and found her son hanging from a tree.

“I ran and hugged him,” she says, a lump forming in her throat, as Nivrutti’s son fiddles around on her lap. “The previous night, we told him to calm down. He was distressed, but nobody imagined he would take such a drastic step.”

Prakash defends his son: “The idea to bring in the silted soil was correct. The weather failed him.”

A bitter crop

This is the third drought in Marathwada in recent years – each more acute than the previous. Officials estimate that at least 70% of this year’s Kharif crop has failed.

More than 600 farmers have committed suicide so far this year, according to Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of the eight Marathwada districts.

Travelling through the region, one comes across one parched riverbed after another and miles of desolate cotton and soyabean farms, crops barely reaching one’s ankle. Normally, the stems would grow waist-high, at times even chest-high.

The story is the same with sugarcane, another major crop in Marathwada for which farmers started preparing since as far back as last October. While the water requirement of soyabean is moderate, sugarcane is a water guzzler.

“From October to March, we drew out water from borewells and wells,” says Baderam Bade, who owns a five-acre holding in Devdahifal, Beed. “After that we used drip irrigation until June.” By then the monsoon was supposed to take over.

But the 45-day dry spell damaged the sugarcane crop. “It did rain a little in July. But by then the crop had dried,” says Bade, who had invested around Rs 75,000. “With what I have at the moment, I cannot make a penny.”

“The quantity of sugarcane deemed fit to be bought has halved,” says Vilas Sonawane, managing director of Majalgaon Sugarcane Factory in Beed.

The truncated sugarcane is now being used as fodder for livestock, says Bade standing in his farm amid a crop that looks like a toad under the harrow. Normally, a field ready for harvest can conceal a human being.

“I should have made around Rs 3 lakh. This drought has affected my income for two years,” he regrets.

Bade has a loan of almost a lakh and has to shell out another Rs 80,000 a year for his son’s education in Nagpur. In such distress, even non-issues lead to serious altercations within family and between neighbors, says he.

“We, as the bread winners of the household, feel ashamed to look at our family members and livestock.”

Ripple effect

The slump in sugarcane production has derailed the economy revolving around it. Factories, which generally book labourers in July, have not yet approached the contractors.

“Factories say they cannot afford it,” says a contractor who arranges for labourers for various sugar mills in Beed. “Many said they might even remain shut this season.”

Sugarcane mills were due to start production in a month-and-a-half, but they are not in a position to do so.

“Factories which needed six months for the crushing process will take just two months this time,” says Sonawane. “The income of labourers – generally about a lakh in that period – would be reduced to a third of that.”

Moreover, international demand for sugar has decreased with the ascent of Brazil in the market, reducing selling prices to Rs 22 a kilo from Rs 34.

That has forced sugarcane factories into severe debt. “We lost Rs 600 per ton,” says Sonawane. “At 6 lakh tons a year that we produce that comes to Rs 36 crore. Out of that Rs 7 crores has to be paid to farmers.”

Every such factory, and there are 50 in Marathwada, has incurred losses – some even more than the Majalgaon mill – and owe significant amounts to farmers.

Parched throats

The crisis has extended to drinking water as well, with 11 major reservoirs of Marathwada containing less than 10% of the water they can hold. Manjra and Terna, two important dams on which Latur survives, have dried up.

The city now receives water once in 15 days, which may reduce to once a month. The villages in the area are even worse off.

According to the district collector, the existing stock of water would last merely a month-and-a-half. There is a plan to use the railways to fetch water from Ujjani, officials say.

This has led to the proliferation of a number of unauthorised water suppliers, claims Pramod Mundada, the owner of Sunrich Aqua, the largest bottled water plant in the area and among the few authorised units.

“They do not adhere to rules nor conduct any test,” he says. “Helpless villagers end up buying adulterated water.” Padlocked water tanks have become a common sight after a few instances of water theft were reported in Latur.

Impending disaster

Marathwada may be headed towards desertification, believe experts. “Considering the standards of water management and governance, it appears that an environmental disaster is in the making,” says Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board.

The region has 438 cubic meters of surface water per capita. Ideally it should be 1,700 cubic metres, according to hydrologists.

According to Purandare, this drought is man-made and there would be no water left for farming if urbanisation continues. “Urbanisation leads to the use of concrete, which kills tiny water bodies and affect the ground water recharge,” he says.

The signs are glaring – 61 of Marathwada’s 76 talukas have reported a critical drop in ground water levels. The trend alarmingly coincides with a spree of digging of wells and borewells in farms.

With a water tale that is depleting at an alarming rate, Marathwada is moving towards desertification

“Panic-stricken farmers dig deep,” says Sanjeev Unhale, senior journalist from Aurangabad. “But they do not realise that deep aquifer takes a thousand years to fill and should not be disturbed. Digging 20-25 meters is understandable, but farmers go on up to 1,000 feet (300 metres).”

The paucity of water has added a new dimension to production costs for farmers. “Water and fodder were never a major factor. But now we have to save up,” says Prakash Sathe.

Sathe, who has three cows and makes a bit of money selling milk products, says the two additional dimensions have made his livestock a great burden. “I make Rs 300 a day from milk products. But the maintenance cost has now gone up to Rs 10,000 a month,” he says.

Dangat says relief is underway, especially in the three worst-hit areas of Beed, Latur and Osmanabad. “Water tankers are being sent to parched areas and the number of cattle camps are being increased. This will take a lot of load off farmers,” he adds.

Missing governance

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis toured Marathwada last week to address farmers. Freshly painted zebra crossings look ludicrous, ending abruptly in the middle of divider-less roads: Apparently only that side of the road was painted on which the CM’s motorcade rolled.

In Osmanabad, information kiosks were installed for farmers before the visit, but taken off immediately after he left.

Pankaja Munde, the minister for rural development and water conservation, dropped by in the village of Gangamasra in Beed, where farmers had sought permission for collective suicide. She implored them not to indulge in any such act. When a farmer asked her about the enforcement of the Swaminathan Commission, she said, “At the moment, we must address the issues at hand.”

Atul Deulgaonkar, joint secretary of the Latur-based Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, says the lack of proactive measures magnify the drought. “Farmers are often at the receiving end of administrative lethargy.”

The state’s refusal to waive off farm loans during an intense drought has attracted a lot of flak. “When the farmer has a loan with the bank, he has no option but to approach unregistered moneylenders who impose inhuman interest rates,” says Deulgaonkar. “If bank loans are waived off, farmers can walk into the bank with a clean slate.”

The process of obtaining bank loans needs to be simplified, he says. “If the racket of unregistered moneylenders is to be cracked, the banks need to be more accommodative.”

Trickle down

The impact of the drought has percolated to the bottom of the pyramid and is palpable at Latur’s reputed grain market. Shopkeepers and vendors sit their idle, reading books or watching television.

Lalit Shah, head of the local Agriculture Produce Market Committee, believes the situation is worse than what it was during the infamous drought of 1972. “I have on 500 bags each of moong and black gram,” he says. “It should have be in excess of 5,000 bags each.”

If the situation persists, Marathwada could witness mass migration as people would deluge big cities in search of work, fears Shah. People’s buying capacity has been curtailed, which has affected the sales of business of garment, footwear and groceries. Some have even cut down spending on health and education.

Doctor Ajit Jagtap, a pediatrician, shares a disquieting experience. “A farmer came to my hospital eight days ago,” he says. “His year-old kid had bilateral hernia. It would have cost around Rs 15,000 so I offered to treat the kid at minimal cost and told him to pay in installments. He nodded and promised to be back in some time, but I never saw him again.”

Doctor Gajanan Gondhali, a physician, says 80% of the patients in his intensive care unit have mortgaged their land for a health emergency, that too at outrageous rates.

“One patient told me he has mortgaged the papers of his 2-acre farmland for Rs 2 lakh,” he says. “Another farmer from Beed had to get his father discharged prematurely.”

At a clinic, a farmer from Nanded said he had borrowed Rs 10,000 at an interest of 4% per month for his three-month-old son’s treatment.

In many areas, farmers have reportedly withdrawn their kids from schools.

What now

Deulgaonkar believes the micro-level administrative drawbacks in acquiring bank loans or the failure to seize local moneylenders should not overshadow macro-level policies, which demoralize farmers.

“With our imports increasing by the day, farmers do not get fair returns for their food crops,” he says. “We have done nothing to protect our farmers during globalization.

He points out the dichotomy of giving sops to corporates but raising a stink at farm subsidies and the non-enforcement of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation. “What kind of a message are we sending out?” asks Deulgaonkar.

As an immediate measure, he says community farming should be promoted. “It decreases production costs as farmers would deal in bulk orders. Moreover, the middleman would not have bragging rights if he is dealing with a vast group, instead of an individual.”

In the meantime, farmers across Marathwada have made a last gamble. When it rained in mid-August, many opted for a second round of sowing, including Nivrutti’s father Prakash. “What else can we do?” he asks. “That is our only hope of raising some money for the Rabi season.”

Marathwada’s sky has seen dark clouds occasionally in the last 15 days, but only to wither away. At best, there has been a light drizzle. Prakash, though, needs much more.

“The clouds accumulate, there is thunder, lightening even,” he says. “It is all very tantalising.” No wonder then, more than half his day is past gazing at the sky. The silted soil still spreads out in his farmland.

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