Why residents of Parbhani are paying the highest price for petrol?

Fuel stations in this dusty town in Marathwada are selling petrol and diesel dearer than any other place in the country, as Parbhani is situated farthest from the nearest oil depot. The national attention the town is getting thanks to its precarious situation is troubling and amusing to its residents at the same time.

On September 27 2018, Parbhani residents were buying a litre of petrol at Rs 92.05 and diesel at Rs 79.25. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)


EACH time NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar does a ‘Prime Time’ show on the issue of fuel price hike, youngsters in Parbhani brace themselves with cellphones firmly in their hands. As the graphics of cities and towns paying the highest price for petrol in the country are flashed on the TV screen, the cameras click to secure the moment. Parbhani, their hometown whose name hardly rings a bell outside Maharashtra or even within, always tops the list. These pictures are then circulated on social media with a sense of pride.

The fact that the town can ‘boast’ of something, at last, is enough for them.  The last time it had made national news was in November 2003 when a bomb ripped through a crowded local mosque injuring 31 namazis gathered for Friday prayers. Itwas the first incident of a bomb blast at a Muslim place of worship.

On Wednesday, fuel stations in the district were selling petrol at Rs 92.05 a litre and diesel at Rs 79.27 a litre on Wednesday. And yes that was the most expensive fuel anywhere in India.

People of Parbhani, a town with a population just above 3 lakh, have very little they could boast of. The only thing that people find worth mentioning is that it headquarters the Marathwada Agricultural University, one of the four state agricultural universities in Maharashtra.  The town hardly gets a national attention.

“We are used to reading and watching news about what’s happening elsewhere. Nothing happens here so we don’t make it to national news,” said Hasib Shaikh, a college student.

As per petrol pump owners, the reason for the districts in the mainland Maharashtra paying the highest price for petroleum despite enjoying a good railway and road connectivity, is the distance they are situated from the nearest refinery or the fuel depot.

As per Sanjay Deshmukh, President of Parbhani Petrol Dealers Association, there are two depots of the three oil companies namely Indian Oil, Hindustan Petrolium and Bharat Petrolium are situated in Manmad and Solapur. While the former is 311 kms away, the latter is 250 kms from Parbhani.  Hence, if petrol price in Manmad is Rs 90.78 per litre there, cost of transport including toll tax adds about Rs 1 rupee and some paisa to per litre cost.

“There’s not a single refinery or a depot in Marathwada. If the depots were closer, the petrol price could have been slightly cheaper,” said Deshmukh.

‘Residents of one of the most backword districts are paying the highest for fuel’

Parbhani was among the 90 ‘minority concentrated backward districts’ in the country with “unacceptably low” infrastructure and social amenities as per a survey done by Ministry of Minorities Affairs in 2007. As per locals, in absence of any employment opportunities in the town, a majority of youngsters migrate to Aurangabad, Pune or Mumbai. There’s little for the educated to stick around.

This year a deficient monsoon has made things more difficult as the district is already staring at crop failure in the Kharif.  Even though the end of monsoon is close,  the district has so far received only 592.4 mm rains as opposed to the normal rainfall of 741 .6mm thereby falling short by 20 per cent. Inflation in fuel prices have only compounded the problems of the residents.

“You can gauge the state of the local economy from the fact that the average sale of petrol per customer is Rs 50. About 80 per cent of the customers that visit our petrol pump buy just about half a litre of petrol. Less than 10 per cent customers spend Rs 500 at one go,” said Musa Shaikh, an attendant at Bhikulal Petrol Pump. “It’s a big irony that residents of one of the most backward city are paying highest for the petrol.”

Situation is equally bad in Nanded and Jalna, which border Parbhani, in terms of price of fuel. (Pic: Atikh Rashid)

Situation is equally bad in Nanded (Rs 91.02) and Jalna (Rs 91.16) which had made to the list of most backward 115 districts in the country published by Niti Ayog earlier this year. In fact all seven districts in Marathwada, the drought prone region in Maharashtra, have crossed Rs 90 a litre mark about a week ago and are now inching towards a 100. The value added tax levied by Maharashtra on fuel is highest in the country (39.12 per cent in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane and 38.11 per cent for rest of Maharashtra for petrol) which includes surcharges such as drought cess, Krishi Kalyan cess and cess to make up for loss suffered by state during ban of sale of liquor along highways.

The spiralling price has expected effects on the local economy with prices for transport, vegetables and other essential goods going up. “Earlier we used to charge Rs 10 for a shared rickshaw ride from Railway Station to Jintur Naka. Now we are taking Rs 15 for the same distance. We lose some business due to the hike but if we continue to operate on the old rates, we don’t make any money,” said Akshay Kale, an auto-rickshaw driver..

In Parbhani, Motorists often carry bottles to measure petrol before it’s poured in the vehicle tanks to ensure that they are not cheated while buying the expensive commodity. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

At fuel stations people often carry one litre water bottle to make sure that they are getting the right quantity. They ask the attendant to put the hose inside the bottle instead of the fuel tank and observe if it’s the right quantity and the attendant is not cheating them by using some trick.

“We can’t afford to get cheated by the pump when the fuel is so expensive,” says a customer as he downs the bottle carefully in the fuel tank making sure that every drop lands in the tank.

On Wednesday, several opposition parties organised a protest rally in the dusty playground off the state transport bus station. At this rally, held opposite District Collector’s office in the town, speaker after speaker pointed out, in sarcastic tone, how the Central Government has ‘managed’ to give Parbhani an identity of its own on the national map.

“Outside Maharashtra, many had not even heard the name:  Parbhani. But thanks to Modi Government, today the entire country has come to know our existence,” said a speaker, his tongue firmly in the cheek. “These days, whenever we travel to other cities, people ask us ‘Why is it that petrol is most expensive in Parbhani?’. How the hell we are supposed to know?,” he says adding a hint of anger to his tone as the audience laughs.

Breaking Barriers

Jordanian author Fadi Zaghmout on his popular blog The Arab Observer and writing on subjects considered taboo in his homeland


IN 2006, Jordanian author Fadi Zaghmout started a blog that discussed issues pertaining to individualism and sexual freedom in the Arab society. The blog, written predominantly in English, proved popular among Arab netizens as it delved into social issues that were not addressed traditionally by the media in Jordan. However, when he decided to write his debut novel a few years later, Zaghmout turned to his mother tongue — Arabic. According to him, the decision was an outcome of his urge to contribute to the discourse in his local language, when there weren’t many liberal voices.

Though the blog was a convenient tool to spread ideas, it had limited audience. “I felt the blog was limiting with regard to the audience I wanted to reach. Since the issue of sexual freedom and body rights was highly censored in Jordan before the internet, I thought maybe I can explore the same themes I talk about on my blog using traditional media. I wanted these discussions to be printed in a book in Arabic to reach more people. The transition wasn’t easy but during my years of blogging I practised writing short stories and short film scripts, which helped me compile a list of ideas and themes that helped me write Aroos Amman (The Bride of Amman),” says Zaghmout in an email interview. The UAE-based author will be in Pune next week for the Pune International Literary Festival.

The novel proved to be an instant success and also raked controversies for dealing with taboo themes such as homosexuality, inter-religious marriage and more freedom to women, among others. The novel has five main characters — four of these are women, each with her own predicament, and a gay Muslim man who is married to a woman — with each trying to cope with the societal pressure to conform to their gender roles. It looks at the institution of marriage as a means to regulate sexuality, which is seldom successful. It critiques the Arab society for still following age-old beliefs, expecting a woman to be a virgin before marriage, while a man is responsible for building and maintaining the household.

While women readers wrote to him saying the book is a source of strength for them, some even went to the extent of calling it their “personal constitution”. The novel’s portrayal of women and their eternal struggle to claim lost ground has earned Zaghmout a sobriquet, from those who hate his work: the feminist mouthpiece. “I take it as a compliment. I really love it when a woman calls me and asks how can I be very accurate in describing the emotions of women. Having said that, to me it is more than being a ‘female mouthpiece’, it is about social justice. I am a mouthpiece for gender equality, sexual freedom and body rights that help us all live a better life. I believe that strict gender roles are harmful for both men and women equally,” he says.

Since Bride of Amman, Zaghmout has written two more novels, Heaven on Earth (2017) and Laila and the Lamb (2018). The latter features a “sexually dominant” woman as its protagonist. As per reports, Jordianian authorities saw it as a work with “a problematic premise” and stopped the entry of the book into the country. Zaghmout, however, feels that the themes and characters that populate his works come from real men and women who exist in Arab society. “There are indeed many homosexual men in Jordan and the Arab world who opt to marry a woman in order to fit in a society where homosexuality is still not accepted and same sex marriage is not legal. The same applies for women who fall in love with men from another religion, as marriage is still a religious institution in Jordan. I usually build my characters by borrowing characteristics from people I know,” he says.

On his maiden visit to India, Zaghmout hopes to learn about Indian society, which he sees as one with diverse cultures and attitudes where women may face the same prejudices as Arab women. “Although I have few Indians friends in UAE, I am yet to know more about Indian society. I have the impression that India is a large country with diverse cultures and attitudes. I understand that patriarchy is a dominant force across modern cultures and I can see that Indian women face many of the same prejudices Arab women are facing these days, especially the pressure to get married and adhere to strict gender roles,” says Zaghmout.

Toilet as a home

Many migrants to Pune, from a range of social backgrounds, work as caretakers of public toilets in the city. While they often face ridicule and abuse because of their jobs, the perk of a free accommodation in an expensive city, even if that accommodation happens to be within the toilet-complex used by hundreds, makes it a viable option for them.

Raj Kumar Singh climbs up through an opening to reach his residence located on the second storey of a toilet block in Chinchwad. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

Name: Raju Sawant. Address: Sarvajanik Shauchalaya, Tilak Road, Pune-30

This must be the least flattering address in whole of Pune. However, for five member Sawant family, it’s a reality of life. Sawant (52) works as a caretaker at the public toilet and stays in a small room constructed within the lavatory block along with his family – wife and three sons. The family has been staying like this since 2003 when he migrated to Pune from Latur in interior Maharashtra in search of a livelihood.

Sawant is not alone. There are as many as 349 families and individuals in Pune and adjacent Pimpri Chinchwad who have taken up the job to maintain public toilets constructed by municipal corporations of two cities because of the accompanying benefit of free accommodation in the expensive cities.

Those working as resident caretakers for public toilets in Pune and PimpriChinchwad mostly come from eastern and central districts of Uttar Pradesh, north-eastern parts of Bihar as well as from Marathwada and Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

The model is not unique to Pune. The NGOs which adopt the toilets and then recruit caretakers to look after them, operate on the same model in various cities across the country. Sulabh International, one of the NGOs and biggest among them, has as many as 8500 toilets with residential caretakers across India.

Information obtained from official sources shows that Pune city has a total of 1192 toilet blocks – each block consists of separate urinals and lavatories for men and women – constructed by Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). Of these, 797 are community toilets meant to be used by slum-dwellers who don’t have a latrine at home and 395 are public toilet located at public places such as roads, parks, transport hubs and market places. Of the total, 294 are maintained by non-governmental organizations (rest maintained by PMC’s own staff) who typically adopt them for a tenure of 30 years. In Pimpri Chinchwad, there are 874 toilet blocks of which 55 are maintained by resident caretakers.

Only formula to success

Arun Mishra at the cash counter at the lavatory in Shivajinagar, Pune. The brown door behind him opens in his residence.

As per experts in the field and those working with NGOs such as Sulabh International, SPARC (society for the promotion of area resource centers), which are involved in construction and maintenance of public toilets in various cities, the only viable option for a public toilet to remain in business successfully in the long run is to make living arrangements for the caretakers in the toilet complex.

Sulabh came up with the model of constructing a cottage for the caretaking team in every toilet it builds in 1970s. This model assures that the team is available for work 24×7, the lavatories are well maintained and, most importantly, it makes recruiting caretakers for toilets much easier due to the offer of free ccommodation.

“We believe that without having a residential caretaker a public toilet can’t succeed. And no caretaker will agree to work at a public toilet in a big city without having accommodation facility,” said Santosh Kumar Singh, Deputy Controller (Admin), Sulabh. “Even though number of users is considerable, many people don’t pay the user fee and hence revenue generated by public toilet is not enough to pay a high enough monthly salary to Sanitation Officer (euphemism for ‘toilet cleaner’) and Sanitation Manager (caretaker) which will enable them to sustain in the big city and make some savings,” said Singh.

Once the caretakers (which can be a group of men or a family), have a place to stay, the biggest expense is taken care of. Now they have to spend only on food and other minor expenses thus allowing them to save a big portion of the monthly earning.

As per Vinod Pathak, who has been working in the field for over 25 years, in many cases families take up the responsibility with one or two members looking after the lavatories while others – wife, sons, brothers or relatives – work elsewhere in the city and earn to supplement the family income. If it’s not a family, it’s a group of related or closely acquainted men some of whom work outside as mechanics, labourers, cooks, helpers taking advantage of the accommodation at the toilet complex.

Molding the caste

In India, employment in sanitation sector is generally perceived to be taken by those who come from castes that are traditionally known to be involved in scavenging such as Mehtar, Bhangi, Chuda and Lal Beg. However, residential caretakers in public toilets in the cities seem to defy this norm as upper caste individuals coming from Bramhin and Kshatriya families are found to be taking up the jobs due to unemployment and lack of opportunities in the city elsewhere for want of education and skills.

Arun (49) works as a sweeper at a toilet maintained by Janseva in Shivajinagar area of Pune. He’s reluctant to reveal his family name – Mishra – which gives away his Bramhin identity. “It’s been ten years since I’m working here. My relatives wouldn’t approve of my working as a sweeper in a toilet but ‘how would they know?’ Unko lagta hai ke pardes mein ja kar kama raha hai. (They only know that I’m earning a living by working in a foreign land). Personally, I don’t feel any inferiority in doing my task. This is public service,” said Arun.

Inside view of Raj Kumar Singh’s residence where he stays with mother, father and grandfather who is visiting the family.

23-year-old Raj Kumar Singh, who is in-charge of a toilet block run by Sulabh in Cinchwad, belongs to Rajput family coming from Vaishali, Bihar. The toilet block has a single 200-square feet room built on the second storey, above the lavatories, an arrangement more agreeable than having the residential quarters right next to the latrines. The residence can be accessed by climbing an iron staircase which stretches to the terrace through a circular opening in the roof. The room – which functions as bedroom as well kitchen, is shared by the family of three – Raj, his father who works as an electrician elsewhere and mother. Recently, his ailing grandfather too has moved in travelling from their hometown for better treatment.

Health – of body and mind

Prolonged exposure to human feces is known to cause a plethora of health issues. These include infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis and lung ailments. Santosh Singh of Sulabh, brushes aside the apprehension of residential caretakers or their family members contracting diseases, saying “I have not received any complaint regarding this. People who work in other industries such as construction, brick kilns or plastic product manufacturing where particulate exposure is more, are more susceptible to lung related illnesses. In fact, many times, people quit these jobs and come to us.”

While there has been no study to conclusively link or de-link work in public lavatories with infectious diseases, municipal health officers seem to believe that working with and staying close to human excreta is hazardous for health for the caretakers.

A Medical Officer with PMC, said, “These caretakers, especially women, are at high risk of being nfected with urinary tract infections. There is also an imminent possibility of them contracting bacterial and viral diseases. Also, in our country public toilets are favorite spot to spit, their occupants are susceptible to air-borne droplet infections such as tuberculosis.”
Keeping bodily health aside, having a ‘toilet’ for a home, has its own psychological implications, specially for kids, if not for adults, if the caretaker stays with the family.

Raju Sawant’s wife Sharada with son at the public toilet on Sinhagad Road.

“My sons often complain to me that their friends and classmates ridicule them for staying in a toilet,” said Raju Sawant’s wife Sharada who also blames working and staying at a toilet for her Tuberculosis.. “We have been staying here for last 15 years. All my kids have grown up here. Since we stay like this, miscreants consider us easy target. There are fights every hour of every day, they refuse to pay, abuse us and threaten to throw us out.”