‘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…”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 5: Students subjected to rampant political interference

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 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 concluding part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

It is 5 pm. The final bell goes off. The last lecture has concluded. Students gather their notebooks, pen and bags. Teachers head out of the classroom. Students change their uniforms and put on regular clothes. But just when an outsider would think the students are done for the day, another bell goes off. Boys and girls head out of the rooms in different directions within the school premise. Out on the ground, under the open sky, boys form queues and stand beside each other keeping exact distance from one another, as if getting ready for a PT class. Except it is not a PT class, but an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. Soon, a stick is placed in front of the stationary group and a saffron flag is meticulously unfolded and placed on the mounted stick.

The scene is from a state-aided tribal residential school with over 1,300 students in the Dadade village of Palghar’s Vikramgad taluka. Tribal welfare minister Vishnu Savara’s Arvind Smriti Sanstha runs the school, where the shakha is an integral part of the school curriculum.

Every evening, students at this school – boys and girls at separate venues of the school premises – pray in front of the saffron flag. Hands on their chest, two 16- year-old boys lead the prayers. A staff member of the school joins in. The two boys fluently recite the prayers in Sanskrit. Others follow their lead. It goes on for good five minutes or so, and concludes with the chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

“From where did you learn this prayer?” I ask the two boys. “Our RSS holds a shakha, which is attended by kids from Vikramgad taluka once in a while,” says Dhiraj Bhadange, 16, hair neatly combed, shirt tucked in. “We try to pass on whatever we learn at the shakha to our juniors at this school.”

Dhiraj is proud that he is passing on “wisdom” to his younger schoolmates. Upon asked the meaning of the prayer, Dhiraj says he does not know the entire translation as it is in Sanskrit but understands the crux of it. “What is the crux?” I ask him. “It is a prayer for the Hindu Rashtra,” he promptly says. “We pay our respects to the saffron flag. We pledge to take the Hindu Rashtra to utmost heights.”

The shakha concludes immediately after the prayers. “Exams are going on,” explains a staff member. “Otherwise, we follow up the prayer with games and physical exercises. Kids need to get back to their studies. But it would not be prudent to skip the shakha altogether.”

Another staff member at the school, requesting anonymity, says the government subsidy is merely Rs 900 per month behind every student, in which it is impossible to cover the cost of their meals, breakfast, medicines, blankets and stationery. “We get a fair amount of donation through the RSS,” he says. “Those donations have played a huge role in the development of the school. And attending shakha cannot hurt the students. They are learning the importance of discipline.”

There are 1,109 tribal residential schools across 16 tribal concentrated districts of Maharashtra – half of the schools are aided by the state, which are run by various NGOs. Most of the NGOs either belong to a politician or someone close to a politician, thereby tribal schools are often subjected to political interference which cuts across political parties.

Senior educationist Herambh Kulkarni points out that the interference of Congress and NCP has been more prolonged and acute over the years. “The ashram schools run by Congress and NCP members are used to conceal their corruption,” he said. “If an officer notices any wrongdoing, he is reluctant to act against the school because of the political might. Many of their schools show more number of students than what actually exists, enabling them to get more donations.”

In September last year, a Rs 67-crore scam had inadvertently come to light, when over 8,000 tribal students in the region of Jalgaon appeared to be non-existent during a drive to promote Aadhaar. Activists believe the phenomena is statewide and around 30 percent of the entries out of the 2.4 lakh students enrolled in the state-aided ashram schools could be fake. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

The politicians and headmasters understandably deny political interference, and teachers refuse to speak about it, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Former MLA Vivek Pandit says the term political interference does not convey the gravity of the practice. “It is political control,” he says.

Bandu Sane, an activist who has been working with tribals in Vidarbha for the longest time, says the placements at ashram schools often go to the relatives or friends of the politician whose NGO is running the school. “Tribal schools get a lot of donation, and it is hardly monitored. Precisely why most of the tribal politicians own one,” he says. “I have seen teachers and non-teaching staff campaign for political leaders who employ them. They cannot say no even when they are used like donkeys.”

A teacher, requesting anonymity, says as the elections approach, workload increases, as he has to double up as a teacher as well as a cadre. “We are asked to campaign, distribute money, maintain accounts, prepare posters and everything that is done ahead of the elections,” he says. “It is a given that we have to work during the elections. It is an unsaid rule that we cannot question.”

While no political ideology or stream is immune to it, the indoctrination of tribal students at the Arvind Smriti Ashram School is quite
blatant. Tribals have traditionally not had a religion, and this appears to be a drive to bring them into the Hindu fold.

Dhiraj teaches his younger colleagues to maneuver lathi and martial arts, or Niyuddhi, as he likes to call it. “We need to be equipped enough to protect the Hindu Rashtra from any danger,” he says. Danger from whom? He smiles unsurely and says, “Outsiders.” Upon probed further, he seems clueless.

On special occasions, the RSS ideologues from the nearby shakha visit the school, says Dhiraj, and address the students. “We are taught the importance of our festivals,” he says. “We pay our respects to Shivaji on Shivjayanti, we salute the saffron flag on Gurupurnima, we also celebrate Dr. Hegdewar’s birth anniversary.”

On Raksha Bandhan, students of the school travel to various villages in their locality and tie a rakhi to an elder member of every house they visit, Dhiraj says. “It is a token gesture and a reminder of our pledge to protect the Hindu Rashtra,” he says, at which point the headmaster comes and stands beside him, encumbering his flow. He is suddenly reluctant to speak. I thank him for his time. The headmaster shakes my hand and leaves, and I go after Dhiraj again. “Are you not taught about Christmas or Eid?” I ask him.

“No,” he gives me a sarcastic smile. “They are not our festivals. Not in Hindu Rashtra.”

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?”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 3: Abysmal security, sexual assault cases remain an alarming concern

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 18 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 third part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

When the rest of India was ready to welcome 2017, tribal students at the state-run ashram school in Aswali village of Palghar – about 120 kilometres from Mumbai – were in for an unpleasant shock. At around 11 pm on 31 December, the principal of the school, Yashwant Wagh, barged into the hostel in a drunken state and physically abused the students.

A nine-year-old boy, when asked about the incident, stood up and positioned himself on the floor as if getting ready to do push-ups. But he soon touched the floor with his tiny elbows and arduously pushed himself forward on the ground. Around 30 students were made to do this on the rough, stone cold floor. The boy then said the principal even kicked some of the students and stood on them. They were being “punished” for not doing their homework.

When the local media took up the issue, the principal apologised, but the petrified students said they have seldom felt safe around him. He was later suspended.

Tribal students in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Tribal students in a school in Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

In Maharashtra, over 5 lakh tribal students are enrolled in 1,109 tribal residential schools – 554 state-run and 555 state-aided – spread across 16 tribal-populated districts. While the conditions in which these tribal students live are repugnant, security of the students, or rather the lack of it, has remained an alarming concern. Apart from being beaten up and ill treated, the cases of sexual exploitation are rampant and it is merely a tip of the iceberg, believe activists.

In November last year, the whole state of Maharashtra woke up to a horror — a tribal school in Buldhana was derecognised after reports emerged that girl students are being sexually assaulted there. The incidence only came to light after a girl, who was visiting her parents, complained of stomachache and was later found to be pregnant. As the episode unfolded, several other girls came forward complaining of sexual harassment, and at least three of them were pregnant. Eleven people were arrested, including school trustees, the headmaster and a few teachers.

Incidentally, a report led by the former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe, was submitted to the Maharashtra governor a month before the Buldhana incident, warning of sexual crimes at tribal ashram schools across the state. The report noted that an alarming 1,077 deaths had transpired in 15 years at the tribal schools, 493 of them were girls. Sexual assaults, suicide, lack of medical help, malnutrition and negligence were cited as major causes for the deaths.

“In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” states the report, adding that schools could not produce any data regarding 12 percent deaths while vague descriptions like “unknown cause”, “severe illness” and “sudden death” were the other reasons. “We had a feeling that the girls were being sexually exploited, but it was obvious they were under pressure from teachers and the management and would not open up to us,” Salunkhe had reportedly said. “Since death certificates in most cases were vague, missing most crucial details, reason of their deaths cannot be ascertained. Sexual exploitation angle cannot be ruled out.”

An ashram school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

An ashram school in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The report suggested the setting up of an internal committee that would address the issue of gender violation according to the Vishaka guidelines. It further stressed the need for teachers and the staff to be appropriately sensitised to gender violations and child rights. The governor wrote a letter to the chief minister asking for lady officers to periodically visit the tribal schools.

After the findings of the report, the Maharashtra government towards the end of 2016, promised to take corrective measures, including a woman’s squad for the safety of girls, ambulances and posting of auxiliary nursing and midwife. However, the promises did not have a deadline, casting aspersions on the sincerity of the move, for all those years, even the most basic security measures had been palpably missing.

The Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive study to the government on ashram schools, which noted only 25 percent of the aided and 46 percent of the government-run schools actually had a concrete compound wall marking the premise of the school. With many of the schools located along the road, lack of concrete fencing magnifies the chance of an accident. The state-run ashram school at Thane’s Aaine village presents an amusing and disturbing example. It takes a while to differentiate the school from the village as the houses used for the school are some of the rented apartments of villagers living in the neighbouring houses. The classes function sans any privacy or silence with locals going about their day outside. Building a compound wall for the school would practically cordon off the whole, or at least a part, of Aaine.

TISS further highlighted that only 31 percent aided and 39 percent government schools had a security guard. More shockingly, the post of female warden is vacant in almost 80 percent aided schools and 42 percent of the government schools.

At the government-run ashram school in Palghar’s Sakhre village, the principal, SS Sooryavanshi, said he uses the cook as a security guard at night. “There is only one security guard for 352 students staying here,” he said. “I use him to guard the girl’s hostel. The cook is deployed where the boys live.”

The ground reality at the moment indicates the callousness with which the delicate issue of security is handled by the state. With lack of female wardens, inadequate number of security guards and no compound walls, the schools provide an easy access to any outsider to merely stroll into its premises without being scrutinised. As a result, cases of sexual harassment and assaults on tribal students often crop up every now and then, which activists say are more acute than what the citizenry finds out.

“Tribal families are poor and police do not take them seriously,” said activist Bandu Sane. “Moreover, the fear of dishonour intimidates them against filing a complaint. Other times, the families are paid off to remain silent. And when they conquer all adversities and decide to fight the case, they often find out that the perpetrators have better contacts and their might overwhelms the tribals.”

 

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 2: Students stare at malnutrition due to poor food, filthy kitchens

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 17 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 second part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

A month and a half back, tribal students at the state-run Ashram School in Thane’s Aaine village finally got what they had wanted for months: A bit more rice. Priyanka Kinnar, 13, standing on the street with no lights that passes through the school, meticulously looked here and there and sheepishly made a small cup with her right palm to show the amount of rice the students were served, along with one chapati and vegetables. When students asked for more food, their request was turned down.

Priyanka said she would overhear the kids asking each other for leftover food to pacify their hunger. When students gathered courage and complained to the headmaster, it fell on deaf ears, according to the students. Around two months back, the headmaster was missing when activists of former MLA Vivek Pandit’s Shramjeevi Sanghatana that works in the tribal belt of Palghar, Dahanu and Thane paid a visit to the Aaine school. It gave the students an opportunity to divulge their gripe.

“We found out that the students were served half the amount of rice they are supposed to get at a time,” said Santosh Dhinda, one of the activists who then took up the issue with the local media. “After the cameras arrived in this remote village, the quantity of rice has increased.”

kitchen-listice

The kitchens in the tribal schools are mostly unhygienic. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

In June 2015, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had pronounced there would be no compromise on the quality of food served to the tribal children. To avoid the monotony of khichdi, the state had planned “nutritious meals” that would include roti, pulao, mixed vegetables, aloo matar and aloo jeera, while fruits, eggs, poha and upma would be served for breakfast.

A pilot project of central kitchens was launched in Palghar and Nasik districts the following month, and it was supposed to be replicated throughout the state covering over 5 lakh tribal students by December 2015. “It is my dream project that has come true after 12 years. Nutritious food in ashram shalas will lead to a major socio-economic change,” Fadnavis had said.

More than a year down the line, the socio-economic change seems to be far from achieved, with only a handful of schools being covered by the central kitchens. “The quality of food is relatively better wherever they have central kitchens serving food to a selected schools,” said Vivek Pandit. “But majority of the schools receive ration and food is cooked at the school. The vegetables are rotten, pulses are adulterated. At times, the quality of food is so bad; it makes the food served in jails look good.”

food-listicle

Poor quality food and inadequate variety remain a concern in tribal schools of Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

The NCP has accused the current ruling dispensation of serving banned, expired food, but interactions with staff members at various schools, while validating the accusations, indicate the situation had been no better under the earlier regime. The staff is keen on sharing details of the deteriorated food quality and lack of adequate variety on the menu, but the moment one asks their name, they stop. “We intend to keep our jobs,” they say.

Upon assuring their identities would be protected, the teachers as well as the non-teaching staff resume, “We also eat the same food. Human beings don’t deserve this kind of food. For very student, the aided school gets Rs 900 a month and government schools get Rs 2500 a month. How is it possible to serve two all-round meals and breakfast in that amount?”

When Shramjeevi Sanghatana surveyed schools in their area, it transpired that the gap between two meals at certain places was as wide as 13 hours.

In August 2015, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a report in which it noted that out of all the schools across Maharashtra – just over 1,100 with half of them being aided and other half state-run – merely 6 percent aided and 3.6 percent of the government tribal schools served breakfast according to the menu. Further, 33 percent of the schools has their gas facility and utensils in good conditions but the kitchens were unhygienic.

At the Arvind Smruti Ashram School in Palghar’s Vikramgad, which is tribal minister Vishnu Savara’s school, an open space marked under a tin roof held on a few bamboo sticks serves as a kitchen that makes food for more than 1,300 students. The kitchen is open on two sides and lined with bricks on the other two. Two cooks are in charge of three large vessels, as they prepare food in the company of constant stench.

It has been over five decades since the establishment of ashram schools for tribal students in Maharashtra. Even after all these years, it turns out the tribal kids cannot even take the basic necessities for granted.

The students across Maharashtra received raincoats in October, when the monsoons begin in June. Upon questioned, Savara had said the rainy season is still going on. The Opposition had also alleged the purchase orders for raincoats had been done in violation of norms, without calling for tenders.

Pandit said the whole tribal department runs on contractors, where contracts of crores of rupees are given for various purchases, in which there is rampant corruption. When the department decided to provide sweaters to students during winters, it said the cost of each sweater was Rs 2,100, while its market price was estimated at Rs 500. After a lot of clamour, the idea was amended and the government decided to give the amount directly to students, bypassing contractors and middlemen.

When food and clothing – two of the most fundamental requirements – are predicated on the whims and fancies of the state, it is a fair reflection on the holistic conditions the tribal students across the state are subjected to. In 2014, 40 students in a tribal school of Gondia district had walked out after they found glass and plastic in their food. In October 2016, when former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe submitted his committee’s detailed probe into the deaths at tribal schools in Maharashtra, it cited malnutrition as one of the major causes.

Activists believe the students do not protest as fiercely or frequently over food because they are not aware of what they are entitled to, and their needs are indeed innocently basic. Back in Aaine, Priyanka said the situation is better for the past one and a half months. The cup made from her right palm widened a bit. “They have started serving non-vegetarian food once a month,” she said with a smile. “At times, we also get eggs and bananas.”