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PMAY(U) subsidy delayed, thousands of beneficiaries forced to live in shanties or half-finished houses

Of the 2.19 lakh homes sanctioned in Maharashtra under Beneficiary Led Construction (BLC) component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship housing scheme, only 22,000 have been completed. Most beneficiaries – including those who have finished work – await release of Rs 1.5 lakh central subsidy

Delay in the release of Central Government share of PMAY(U) subsidy has halted construction of houses in many towns of Maharashtra for several months now. Roofless under-construction houses have become a common sight in small towns of the state. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

ATIKH RASHID

Beneficiary led construction (BLC), one of the four components of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY)– Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme to construct affordable houses in urban areas by 2022, when India will mark the 75th anniversary of its independence – has emerged as the most popular component of the scheme.

The high demand for BLC, especially in small cities and towns, is because of the comparative flexibility it offers to beneficiaries to construct stand-alone houses on their own plot. The other three components of the scheme are the Credit Linked Subsidy Scheme (CLSS), Affordable Housing in Partnership (AHP) and In-Situ Slum Rehabilitation (ISSR).

Under BLC, the central government provides an assistance of Rs 1.5 lakh per beneficiary for construction of a new house, with a carpet area not exceeding 30 square metres or enhancement of 9 square metres to an existing house. Several states have also offered their own financial assistance to the scheme, with the Maharashtra government offering an additional Rs 1 lakh per dwelling unit (DU).

Homes sanctioned under BLC are more than those sanctioned under three other components combined.

The popularity of the scheme in the state can be gauged by the fact that 2.19 lakh DUs have been sanctioned under the scheme since 2016 under 350 urban local bodies (ULBs), including municipal corporations, municipal councils and nagar panchayats, till date.

However, the initial enthusiasm of the beneficiaries of the scheme and the urban local bodies (ULB) is now replaced with uncertainty and dismay. This has been caused by delay in the release of the promised central subsidy of Rs 1.5 lakh – in whole or part – to the beneficiaries who have already started the work. As a result of the 2.19 lakh houses sanctioned between 2016-2019, only 22,000 houses have been completed.

The state and union government officials involved in PMAY(U) insist that there is no shortage of funds for the scheme but the release of funds has been plagued by the failure by the ULBs to submit utilisation certificates (UC) for funds earlier released and the inability of a section of beneficiaries to show progress.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the prolonged lockdown has only made the matters worse in the state as a large number of beneficiaries are not able to pitch in their own share towards the construction of the houses. The result: Over 1 lakh beneficiaries in the state have not shown any progress despite receipt of first few instalments.

At the national level, of the total 67.44 lakh DUs have been sanctioned under BLC 36.67 lakh have been grounded and 17.08 have been completed. As many as 13.44 lakh have not shown any progress.

In Maharashtra, of the about 80,000 projects are incomplete most have reached up to lintel level and are standing roofless. The first instalment of Rs 1 lakh from the central assistance will only be released for them after the roof has been cast and many of the beneficiaries expressed inability to do so. The Indian Express found that many beneficiaries have now given up hope and started putting old tin sheets over the newly constructed walls where an RCC roof was intended to be cast.

Many beneficiaries have given up hope and have moved into half-constructed houses by putting old GC sheets over the walls instead of waiting for the funds to cast the RCC roof promised under PMAY(U). (Photo Credit: Atikh Rashid)

Officials with ULBs say that despite repeated follow-ups with PMAY(U) authorities, no solution is being found to the issue of incomplete houses although desperate beneficiaries continue to badger them with queries about the release of funds.

Desperate wait for the new house

It’s been over eight months since Mukhtar Begam’s family in Pathri – a town of about 40,000 in Parbhani district – moved into a metal sheet shanty erected on an empty plot under high-tension electricity wires. After her house was sanctioned under PMAY last year, the family dismantled the kuccha house to build a new two-room home, with a kitchen and a toilet, as promised by the scheme. Since then, she has come to repent her decision.

The construction progressed until the lintel-level when the money ran out. The family has spent over Rs 2 lakh on the house, including the Rs 1 lakh they received from the state government. Her husband is a woodcutter who earns Rs 300 on the days he manages to find work. His income has dried up since March, when the nationwide lockdown came into effect in India.

“He has to travel to cut trees and during the lockdown, all the travelling came to a halt. We were struggling to survive,” said Mukhtar Begum, who is mother to three daughters and a son.

Monsoon has been especially challenging for the family. While they are used to a leaking roof, life in a makeshift shanty during heavy rain has posed some new and frightening challenges. The overhead high-tension wires often snap in strong winds and fall on the tin roof of her house, turning the entire tenement into an electrically-charged unit.

LIkes hundreds of others the work on Mukhtar Begum’s home has halted in absence of money. (In the inset, she points to the overhead electricity wires that she sees as a mortal danger for her family). (Photo Credit: Haseeb Shaikh)

“It happened thrice till now. Sometimes we rush out and other times, when it’s raining, we have to stay inside. I hold my breath and start chanting god’s name – clutching my youngest child to the chest,” said Begum, pointing to the wire over her roof. “I’m repenting for having demolished my house and came into the lure of having a nice pucca home for my kids. Often, I cry over this. My husband has even threatened to abandon me because of the constant cribbing over the house,” she said.

About 100 metres away, in Vilas Gople Nagar, Babarao Tambe is repenting that he picked PMAY (U) over Ramai Awas Yojana, Maharashtra Government’s housing scheme for poor families from SC/ST, which also provides the 2.5 lakh subsidy for a new DU.

“My cousin who got a house sanctioned in Ramai at the same time I got mine under PMAY. I have so far received Rs 1 lakh and have spent Rs 3.60 lakh on the house. Of this, Rs 2 lakh of I have borrowed. My cousin has received Rs 2.5 lakh in subsidy and his house is ready and he has a loan of about a lakh to repay. I would have been better off if I had applied through that scheme,” said Tambe. He demolished his mud-house in February 2019 to build a new and shifted to an empty tenement in the neighbourhood. The stay has turned out to be for over a year now. The new house looks strong and imposing but needs further work such as plastering of the inner walls, installation of doors, windows and fittings in the bathroom and the toilet. “I don’t have any money left and am waiting for the next instalments of the subsidy which are now due,” he said.

Babarao Tambe stands next to his new house being built under PMAY (U). Behind him is the tenement where his family has been living for about a year and must continue until the work on the new home is over. (Photo Credit: Atikh Rashid)

In the entire town of Pathri, 1153 DUs were sanctioned under the scheme since 2018 and work started on 1050 tenements between January 2019 and January 2020. As of October 5, only 200 homes have been completed while 621 remain various staged of incompletion. All these houses have received Rs 1 lakh in two instalments from the state government’s share– one of Rs 40,000 and then Rs 60,000 – and are awaiting further funds to complete the work. About 250 have shown no progress.

In Jintur, about 60  kms from Pathri, only 175 beneficiaries who have completed the construction out of 1250 sanctioned DUs and even they are awaiting one to three instalments (Rs 30,000 to 1.5 lakh) of central assistance. As many as 500 remain without a roof (have progressed till lintel level) and in rest of the cases, the work did not start at all.

In the Hingoli town, headquarter of the neighbouring district, construction of 1098 houses was sanctioned and work orders were issued in 951 cases. Of these 448 DUs have been completed while 503 DUs are stuck at the lintel level. Most of the beneficiaries who have completed their houses have not received central assistance.

“We received 11.33 crore from the state government and should have received Rs 16 crore from the central government but are in receipt of 35.40 lakh. Utilisation certificates of all the funds have been submitted – not once but four times – but further release have not happened. In fact, for some of the beneficiaries we used unspent funds from the state government assistance,” said HIngoli Municipal Council Chief Officer Ajay Kurwade.

Most desperate is the section of beneficiaries who had moved into rental accommodations after dismantling their existing homes to construct new, better ones under PMAY(U), say local politicians.

“In Pathri, many beneficiaries are staying in rented houses and have spent a considerable amount in rent. Due to the long delay in the release of third and fourth instalments of the subsidy, many have now started to return to half-constructed houses by covering them with tin or plastic sheets because they can’t afford pay rent anymore,” said NCP leader from Pathri and MLC Abdullah Khan Durrani. The high cost of sand (at Rs 25,000 per brass) has also made it difficult for poor families to finish the construction on their own, he added.

COVID-19, lockdown hampered EWS families’ ability to invest ‘beneficirary share’

Beneficiary Led Individual House Construction under PMAY (U) aims to provide ‘assistance’ to economically families constructing a new house or enhancing an existing house. An estimated cost of the work is pegged at Rs 4 to 6 lakh. As per various proposals sent by local bodies from Maharashtra, such a house (with the desired strength, size, design and finish) requires an investment ranging from Rs 4.5 to 6.5 lakh and thus the beneficiary needs to put in about Rs 2 to 4 lakh from his own pocket to complete the house.

It appears that the local bodies either failed to apprise the beneficiaries that they will have to put in such an amount or the contingencies of the ongoing pandemic – prolonged lockdown, loss of wages – has deprived them of the resources that they could otherwise have put in.

“Many seem to think that PMAY is like previously implemented schemes where the government was providing all the money. In PMAY (U) you have to pitch in your own share. If they are not able to do that, the work lags,” said Dilip Muglikar, Executive Engineer, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) which is implementing PMAY(U) in the state.

Naseer Shaikh is one such beneficiary who is palpably desperate to finish the work but is unable to invest more than Rs 50,000 for the construction. “I have spent Rs 50,000 by borrowing from friends and family – apart from Rs 1 lakh subsidy received – and can put in no more. I work in a bakery and due to the lockdown, my earnings have suffered in the last six months. I don’t have a penny to put in the house and the officials are telling me that I would not get the next instalment if I don’t finish casting the roof for which I will need about Rs 80 to 1 lakh,” he said.

The rainy season has been “very tough” on Naseer Shaikh this year who demolished his existing kachcha house in the hope of building a better one under PMAY (U). Without money to finish the work on his own, he is left with no option but to wait for the next instalment of subsidy. (Photo Credit: Haseeeb Shaikh)

Last week, municipal officials in Pathri issued notices to 250 beneficiaries whose work had not progressed satisfactorily. “Most pointed to the lockdown having affected their earnings,” said a staffer requesting not to be named. “They are also unwilling to put in money because they see that those who did are also stuck because of non-release of subsidy in the latter stages of construction,” he added.

A year ago when the scheme picked up and beneficiaries were getting subsidy amounts on time, suppliers of construction material were willingly supplying cement, steel and bricks on credit. “They knew that the money was coming –in a week or two. But now since no funds have been released for months they have grown cautious and turning away those seeking to buy on credit,” said civic worker from Parbhani.

PMAY (U) officials blame non-submission of Utilisation Certificates by ULBs for delay

As per Muglikar, the factor that has caused withholding of the central assistance from the beneficiaries whose work has progressed satisfactorily is the failure a section of ULBs to submit utilisation certificates (UC) of the central funds received by them.

“Funds from the sanctioned central subsidy are held up because of the issue of submission of the UCs. As per the rule, the state will have to submit UCs for at least 70 per cent of the released funds to seek further release. Of the Rs 600 crore odd central assistance released to ULBs in Maharashtra, we have so far submitted to the MoHUA only 214 crores. Another UCs for Rs 200 crore have been received from ULBs and will soon be sent to the union ministry. Once the number crosses 70 per cent (about Rs 450 crore) our case to seek the release of next rounds of funds will be strengthened,” said Munglikar.

Officials suspect that the ULBs may have failed to submit the UCs because a section of the beneficiaries may have spent the money elsewhere. “The Covid-19 pandemic and the prolonged lockdown may have played a role,” said Muglikar.

When contacted for a comment, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) did not provide an official response. On condition of anonymity, a highly placed officer said that the Ministry was aware of the issues being faced in the implementation of the BLC in Maharashtra and was taking urgent steps to resolve them. “We are in regular touch with the MHADA officials and have now written to the state government. The issue is not caused by a lack of funds. We are seeking submission Utilisation Certificates (UC) and will soon resolve the problem,” said the MoHUA official.

ULB officials and local politicians are not ready to buy ‘non-submission of UC’ argument. “If some ULBs have not submitted the UCs then they should be affected. Why should the funds of hundreds of other ULBs be stopped and thousands of poor beneficiaries be left in the lurch? People are suffering terribly due to the delay and have lost confidence in the scheme. It will be difficult for us to approach newer beneficiaries who had earlier shortlisted to be included in future DPRs,” said a municipal council chief officer requesting anonymity.

This boy walked 11 kms to school every day and scored 82% in Class X.

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Ananta Doiphode (16) outside his house in village Varghad.

ATIKH RASHID

WALKING 10 kilomtres to school and back is the kind of a thing that one has heard one’s parents and grand-parents complain about. Millennials, by and large, have had much easier with the opening of schools closer to homes and availability of school buses and other means of transport to reach school.

Ananta Doiphode, a 16-year-old boy from Velha taluka of Pune District, doesn’t belong to the lucky lot.

For the last three years, Ananta had to walk for four hours per day to access secondary education. He walked to school 11 km away from his home on foot and back, thus clocking 22 km six days a week. Most would find this routine tiring, Ananta did too. But he tried not to let the fatigue affect his studies.

He scored 82.80 per cent in Class X in the Maharashtra State Board results announced on Thursday.

“I would wake up at 4 am and study till 6. Then sleep for an hour before waking up and leaving on foot to the school,” says Ananta. After returning from school, he studied late into the night every day.  “I knew it was an important year for me,” he says. Ananta is oldest among three siblings who reside with their mother in old, dwarfish mud-house. His father works as a waiter in a canteen in Pune and visits them once in a few month. The house is dark even during the day. There’s no fan in the house.

“I will go to Pune for junior college. I want to prepare for UPSC to become a civil servant,” said Ananta who is not happy with his performance. “I was hoping to score 90 per cent. I may have achieved that had I stayed at the hostel near my school. But we didn’t have money. Walking four hours a day tired me out,” he said.

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Ananta at his school in July 2019.

The family stays in village Varghad in Velha tehsil of Pune District. The village is barely 60 km from Pune city but is located in the hilly part of the district that is topographically closer to coastal Konkan than plains of rest of the state. The village has a population of over a thousand but barely 50 families have stayed back, rest of chosen to migrate to cities to earn a living and have a better life. Children can study until Class VII at a Zilla Parishad run primary school located within the village. The closest high school where Class 8 to 10 education is available is in Panshet, 11 kms away. Ananta studied at this school.

He is one of the three students from the village – which has about 50 households – who walk to school every day. There’s a bus that connects Varghad and other villages on this route with Pune and can be used by children to go to the high school in Panshet, but the timings that are not suitable. In the mornings, the bus from Tekpol to Swargate (in Pune) starts at 5 am and reaches Warghad at 6.

“The bus service is not reliable. In the morning, the bus reaches Panshet very early and in the evening there’s no fixed time as it may arrive at 6 pm or 10 pm. Hence, students and others often choose to walk than to wait for the bus,” said Ananta’s mother. The students say that a lot of them can’t afford the monthly fee for the concessional pass for the bus. “The bus pass for boys is expensive about Rs 660 per month. For girls, it’s just Rs 30. Also, we need to go to Swargate (in Pune city) to make the pass, making it inconvenient and more expensive,” said Avishkar Pasalkar, Ananta’s classmate. Some days when the kids have money and if the bus turns up on time, they take the bus ride by paying cash. But that’s rare, they say.

As per Swargate Depot Manager of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC), the reason they don’t run more services with convenient timings is due to lack of ‘demand’. “The buses in this area get very few passengers. The only service we run to Tekpol is suffering losses,” said D M Shinde.

MIGRATION WOES

Every other village in the area has the same story. Emigration to Pune or Mumbai has thinned out most of the villages in Velha as has been the case with other hilly tehsils in Mulshi, Bhor, Maval and Purandar. As families chose to move out of villages due to lack of livelihood opportunities as well as that of basic facilities, those who chose to stay behind face worse. Empty villages mean that government machinery finds providing them services, for example, a bus connection, more and more unaffordable. “The power supply is poor. It’s difficult to find a doctor. We have to struggle to get even the most basic amenities,” said Ananta’s mother.

The worst effect of the emigration has been on education of children in families which have stayed back in the area. Due to emigration, the number of students enrolled per school has gone down very every passing year. As per data obtained from Pune Zilla Parishad’s Primary Education Department as many as 60 primary schools run by ZP have been closed down in the district due to lack of students. Of the 3652 primary schools that were operational in the district in the academic year 2018-19, as many as 379 schools – mostly in the hilly talukas mentioned above – had less than 10 students; 143 schools had less than 5 students and as many as 14 schools had just one student.

“This obviously affects the quality of education imparted in these schools as most of these school are now run by a single teacher,” said an official with Pune ZP’s education department. The Zilla Parishad is mulling the idea of starting clusture schools – schools for a group of villages instead of running one in each – and making transport arrangements to enable the students to reach the school. “This idea faces some resistance from villagers as they do not want the village schools to close down, even if there are hardly any students to study there,” said the official.

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Priyanka Dhebe is the only student at her school in village Tekpole about 10 kms from Ananta’s home in Varghad.

At Shri Shivaji Vir Baji Pasalkar High School, Panshet – where Ananta is a student – there are many like him who walk several kilometres to school in absence of transport facility. “We have students who walk 10 kms to 22 kms every day. These are very poor people who can’t even afford the concession students passes. There are many villages which have no bus connection,” said Asha Kutwal, a teacher at the school.

Ananta’s teachers are hopeful of his future. They say – “He is the brightest student in class”. “He is an excellent orator.” And yes, he does all this despite walking 22 kms every day.

 

For over 10 lakh workers who returned to Marathwada, scheme for migrants offers little help

The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.

ATIKH RASHID

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a scheme to boost livelihood and employment opportunities for migrant workers who have returned to villages from metro cities due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.

GKRA is a programme to provide livelihood opportunities to returning migrant workers by employing them under 25 government schemes. The works include laying of gas pipelines, water supply, internet set up, building housing for the rural poor, waste management infrastructure, rural roads and work on Anganwadis, among others, under 12 different Union ministries.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the districts chosen for the scheme are those where more than 25,000 migrant workers have returned in the last few months. These districts are estimated to cover about 66 per cent of such migrant workers.

The lack of a plan to provide employment to returning inter-district migrants – especially skilled workers – is most apparent in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region where more than a million migrants have returned from Pune, Mumbai and other major cities in the state after the lockdown. In most of the eight districts, the administration is counting on the returning migrants to go back to the cities after the pandemic subsides. “Some are already returning,” said an administration official, with a whiff of relief.

Each of the eight districts of Marathwada – a region known for low socio-economic development and migration of rural population – has seen a much higher number of returning migrants than the 25,000 eligibility mark for GKRA since March 2020, when the pandemic started affecting life and livelihoods in Mumbai, Pune and other big cities in comparatively wealthier western Maharashtra.

Numbers obtained by The Indian Express from district authorities show that about 10.8 lakh migrants have returned to the eight districts in the region with each seeing anywhere between 60,000 to 2.5 lakh returnees from cities in the last three months. The highest count of 2.5 lakh is in Beed district, which sees very high seasonal migration of sugarcane harvest labourers to various sugar factories in western Maharashtra, in addition to other skilled and semi-skilled migrants who move to cities such as Mumbai and Pune in search of better wages.

Other districts in the region — Aurangabad (about 2 lakh), Latur (1.43 lakh), Nanded (1.5 lakh), Osmanabad (1.1 lakh) Parbhani (1 lakh), Hingoli (65,000) and Jalna (60,000) — have also received migrants in numbers that are many times higher than the 25,000 threshold fixed by the central government for inclusion in GKRA scheme for inter-state migrants in six states.

Most districts counting on return of migrants, work under MGNREGA

While those looking for manual work back home can, possibly, be accommodated via MGNERGA works, for skilled workers there is very little to do in these districts. In most districts, the only possible solution is going back to the big cities, again, to look for work.

“In the last few months, we have issued thousands of fresh job cards under MGNERGA, of which about 2,000 would be returned migrants. For skilled workers who were working in industrial units in the city, we have very little capacity to accommodate them as there are almost no industries here. We are in talks with a few units, which had earlier employed north Indian workers who have now left, to employ the locals who have returned,” said Hingoli Collector Ruchesh Jaywanshi.

When asked about the district administration’s plan for the migrants, Collector of neighbouring Parbhani, Deepak Mugalikar, said the migrants have returned to their native places, but only temporarily. “They will be going back. In fact, some have already started,” said Muglikar.

“The first priority for us in connection with the returning migrants is to ensure that they do not spread coronavirus. We are keeping them in 14-day institutional quarantine followed by another 14 days of home quarantine. If they seek jobs under MGNREGA, we have ample work…,” he said.

But the Rs 202 per day wage under MGNREGA is nowhere enough for a skilled worker like Pramod Harkal (24), who used to earn over Rs 600 a day as a helper in an automobile assembly unit in Alandi, Pune.

Harkal, who hails from Gunj Khurd village in Parbhani district, said he returned to his village two months ago and has been unemployed since. “I can’t get any suitable work in the village. I tried to find some in Pathri (the tehsil headquarters) but to no avail. I am now looking to go back to Pune once transport opens,” said Harkal.

Pankaj Gajmal at his hometown Pathri, waiting to return to Mumbai for Work. (Credit: Haseeb Shaikh)

Pankaj Gajmal, a 30-year-old from Pathri town in the same district, had returned in April from Mumbai, where he worked as a support staff in a data centre of a nationalised bank via a third-party contract. “Although my office was open, I couldn’t go as the local train service had sopped in Mumbai. I returned home in April. I tried to find some work online but there isn’t any,” said Gajmal, who plans to return to his earlier job in Mumbai, or get a new one in the city, as soon as the local train service resumes.

Experts believe that schemes like GKRA may help migrants survive the pandemic period by providing them minimum income. But GKRA, like MGNREGA, can’t keep the population of migrant workers back home, who leave their homes looking for better wages.

“A scheme like GKRA will temporarily discontinue the inter-district migration during the ongoing pandemic. Most of the migrants – especially in districts such as Beed – migrate to western Maharashtra looking for better wages and advance amounts from muqadams (contractor) to undertake major expenditure, such as on marriages or tackling an emergency. The government schemes have limitations to provide these benefits and… these schemes may not help them stay back in the native districts,” said Nishikant Warbhuvan, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences, Swami Ramandand Teerth Marathwada University (SRTMU), sub-centre, Latur.

(This story was published in The Indian Express on June 23 2020)

Maharashtra’s internal migrants desperate to return home

While state agencies have set their focus on transportation of inter-state migrants stuck in cities like Pune and Mumbai, very little is being done for internal migrants who came to big cities from poorer districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha.

ATIKH RASHID

Sunita Katar, a 40-year-old widow from Daithana in Parbhani district, had moved few months ago to Ahmednagar, about 250 kms away, to earn a living as a farm labourer. Although the nationwide lockdown implemented on March 24 closed all avenues of finding employment, she stayed back in Ahmednagar until the end of the second phase of the lockdown, which ended on May 3. On that day – when the movement of stranded persons was allowed but only with prior permission – she decided to walk home from Ahmednagar to Daithana by surreptitiously crossing the two district borders.

By Tuesday morning, she had covered 200 kms and had reached Manwat in Parbhani district. She was 48 km away from her home when she was reportedly crushed by a vehicle. Local police said it was not clear if she was mowed down while crossing the road or if she was trying to stop the vehicle to hitchhike. “She was travelling alone and illegally. Since it was very early in the morning and there are no closed circuit cameras, we don’t know what really happened,” said Shivaji Pawar, assistant police inspector with Manwat police station.

While the state agencies have set their focus on transportation of inter-state migrants who are stuck in cities like Pune and Mumbai, very little is being done for internal migrants who came to the big cities from poorer districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha in search of employment.

According to government estimates, there are approximately 3,00,000 students and migrant labourers stranded in cities, who want to go back to their homes in Marathwada or Vidarbha. On Wednesday, state Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Vijay Wadettiwar said his ministry has decided to use Maharashtra State Road Transport Coproration (MSRTC) buses to transport the stranded internal-migrants home from big cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur.

“We are chalking out a plan. An expense of Rs 20 crore is expected for this and it will be borne by the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. The transport minister has agreed to provide MSRTC buses for this purpose. It will be a free service for the stranded persons,” said Wadettiwar.

He added that a final decision regarding the same will be announced in next two-three days.

Meanwhile, stranded migrants were running from pillar to post to obtain the travel passes to return home. At various police stations in Pune, where applications for transit passes are being accepted, those who approach with a request for an inter-district pass are being turned away.

“I submitted my request five days ago and have received no response yet,” said Puja Tambe, a student who wants a pass to return home in Beed district.

Of the total 28,773 requests the Pune Police has accepted at its 30 police stations by May 5, none was for travel within the state, said an officer. According to the police, although applications were not being received through police stations, they have been granting transit passes through their online platform, punepolice.in, but only in cases of “extreme emergency”, such as medical situation or death of a first relative.

‘Home districts reluctant to accept migrants’

Pune District Collector Naval Kishore Ram said several district administrations in Marathwada region were not willing to accept migrants workers wanting to return home from Pune or Mumbai.

“They are resisting the return. We are in discussion with them,” said Ram.

When asked about this, Parbhani District Collector Deepak Muglikar said at present the district has just one COVID-19 positive patient and the administration was aspiring to keep it that way.

“We are in orange zone now and are striving to return to green zone status. We can’t go for blanket acceptance of all migrants who want to return to Parbhani, especially from Pune and Mumbai, which have become hotspots of COVID-19. It’s not only administration, local residents too do not want anyone from outside to enter Parbhani district at this stage,” said Muglikar. He cited the example of a 19-year-old youth, who travelled from Pune to Parbhani on his bike.

“After the boy tested positive, we had to test 41 persons with whom he had come in contact with during his illegal drive from Pune. Another woman who came from Aurangabad and tested positive in Selu made us test and isolate 69 persons. We can’t open our boundaries for incoming persons as it would affect our efforts to become a ‘zero patient’ district,” said Muglikar.

(This item was published in The Indian Express on May 7. It can be accessed here

 

If we don’t get food, we will leave for home again, say migrant labourers stranded in Pune

Around 150 people – comprising migrant labourers from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, started their long journey home, about 1,000 km away, on foot, They were, however, intercepted by Pune police only two hours after their journey.

ATIKH RASHID

A group of around 150 people — comprising migrant labourers and their families, staying in and around Katraj area of Pune and natives of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, started their journey home, about 1,000 km away, on foot. Their journey was, however, cut short by the police even before they could cross the city limits Wednesday morning. They had walked for two hours carrying just the bare minimum needed for the journey, when, around 3.30 am, the police stopped them and gave them two options: either go back to their rented houses in Katraj, or stay in a government shelter for migrants.

There are 60-70 families of migrant daily wagers from Damoh and Jabalpur districts in MP and Balodabazar in Chhattisgarh who stay in tin-houses in Babaji Nagar, Anjali Nagar, Sachhai Mata Mandir, Sund Mata Mandir localities of Pune near Katraj and Wadgaon Budruk areas.

Most of the daily wagers had arrived in Pune two-three months prior to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. They said whatever money or saving they had was exhausted. They said they were largely dependent on food packets being distributed by social workers in the area and that no help has been offered to them from the government.

“The food packets distributed are not enough for us. They give one small packet each for adults and kids. We couldn’t go on like that and hence decided that since the 21-day lockdown was to close on April 14, we will leave that evening to go home on foot as we didn’t have money for fare,” said Chhote Lal, a labourer in his 40s. They said they were not aware that the lockdown has been extended till May 3.

Guddu Pal, another daily wager, said that after the police intercepted them they had no option but to return. “They had taken us to a school in Kondhwa where there was no space. They asked us to stay in the open. We decided to return here,” says Pal. According to him, the police had promised them that they would be provided food twice a day and would be given no reason to complain.

“We didn’t leave for fun. We prepared ourselves and our kids to walk 1,000 km because we are suffering. If we don’t get enough food, we will leave again,” said Pal, patting his belly, adding, “Even if that means getting beaten up by the police.”

One of the women brought out a food packet she had saved to eat later to show the size of the helping. “This is how much we get per person. Is this enough for even a small child?” she asked.

The younger labourers said they were aware that the lockdown is on but felt they couldn’t continue to stay on in Pune as they were facing trouble getting food and there was no end to the lockdown in sight. “Can you tell for sure that lockdown will end on May 3?” asked Bhagchandra Pal, who hails from Damoh, MP. “We left our homes to earn some money. We can’t work now and don’t have enough to eat and don’t know when things will normalise. So what’s the point of continuing to live here like this!” Pal said they had estimated that they will reach home in 15 days if they walked only during the nights (to escape heat).

Police Inspector Vinayak Gaikwad, in-charge of Kondhwa police station, detailed how the police spotted the group. “When they had reached Khadi Machine Chowk, our team stopped them around 3.30 am, about two hours after they had started from Katraj. We convinced them that there was no way they could be allowed to head for their native places and that arrangements for their food and shelter will be made by the government. They were taken to Darekar School in Kondhwa, which is a designated shelter camp. But they said they will prefer to go back to their homes in Pune.”

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)

ATIKH RASHID / SEPT 27, PARBHANI

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.

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.”

Maharashtra drought drags ‘Open Defecation Free’ villages back to fields

As villagers can’t afford to flush litres of water down the toilet, Narendra Modi government’s Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) is badly hit in drought-affected areas of Maharashtra.

open-defecation-free-759
A man from a Parner village heads to the fields to relieve himself despite having a lavatory at home due to water shortage. (Photo by Sandeep Daundkar)

ATIKH RASHID

Ekurke was a success story that inspired many. In 2013, this village in Osmbanabad district’s Kalamb tehsil built 350 toilets in a short span of one-and-a-half months to end the shame of having to defecate in the open. The concerted efforts by the villagers led to the transformation of their village once “infamously dirty” into one where each household has its own toilet.

Three years later, with Osmanabad reeling under one of the worst droughts in the region’s history, almost the entire village is back to doing the morning ritual out in the fields notwithstanding the fact that each family has a toilet in the backyard. Reason: There’s no water to “waste” to flush the toilets.

The sight is common in hundreds of villages in the rural Maharashtra, including those which have officially been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). Men, women, children and elderly are forced to visit the fields not only in villages of Marathwada and Vidarbha, but even in comparatively better western Maharashtra. The officials monitoring the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) concede that unavoidable circumstances of drought have temporarily hit the campaign.

Rajebhau Bhise, a resident of Ekurke who was at the forefront of the campaign to build toilets in the village in 2013 under the Nirmal Gram Yojana espoused by the United Progressive Alliance government, says, “What choice do we have? We are dependent for water supply on two private borewells and one well in the village which is presently providing us just enough water to sustain. At the moment, we provide 200 litres of water to every family every day, which is much higher than what is being given in nearby villages. But can it be used to flush the toilets? If so, the entire quota will be exhausted in flushing toilets. Barring elderly, every one is going to the fields in the morning.”

Osmanabad district has 44 Gram Pranchayats which have been declared ODF by the committee comprising senior officials of Union and State government agencies. While villagers and officials concerned unofficially say that most of these villages have taken to open defecation again due to water scarcity, there’s no method or mechanism to monitor the ground scenario.

“The government is not interested in knowing if the villagers are actually using the toilets. All they want to know is whether toilets have been built or not. If we show them that every household has its own toilet, the village is declared ODF. I don’t think there’s any village in the Osmanabad district that can afford 100 per cent toilet use in such a bad drought,” said a class II revenue department official from Kalamb tehsil.

In Parner tehsil of Ahmednagar district, barely 80 kms from Pune, villagers wonder how they can afford to use water for flushing toilets when they are assigned 20 litres of water per person per day.

“I have seven members in my family. Let’s consider that every member needs 5 litres of water for toilet use. I would be able to sustain a pair of buffalos on 35 litres of water rather than letting it go down the drain,” said Tatyasaheb Shinde, a resident of the village in Parner tehsil.

Another resident says, “A population of 1,630 gets 30,600 litres of tanker supply every day. Those who can afford to buy private tanker water, at Rs 250 for 1000 litres of water, can use the toilets. At the moment, 80 per cent men are going out to the fields while women use recycled water to flush.”

Since the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on October 2, 2014, the state has built 13.35 lakh toilets with 6,756 villages earning the ODF tag. The officials coordinating the campaign rue that water scarcity has also hit the toilet building exercise. The effect is most visible in Marathwada region which is the worst hit among the five administrative regions in the state.

Suryakant Hazare, Deputy Divisional Commissioner, Aurangabad Division, who is responsible for monitoring SBM in eight districts of Marathwada, says, “I won’t be able to tell you how many of them are using the toilets and how many of them aren’t, but it’s certainly true that the construction of new toilets has slowed down due to lack of water. If a village is facing a severe shortage and even struggling to meet the drinking water needs, we can’t press them to build toilet blocks. We will have to wait until it rains.”

Of the 10,639 Gram Panchayats in the Marathwada region, 644 have been declared ODF by the authorities. In 2015-16, the region got 2.35 lakh new toilets against a target of 2.49 lakh set for the year. The campaign is not likely to start before June, officials say.

Government officials working at the village level say the present situation may have far-reaching effects on the village sanitation and campaign against open defecation.

“Convincing villagers to get rid of the habit of open defecation is not an easy job. Many months of efforts in awareness campaigns, flying squads which click the picture of violators, door-to-door visits, getting government subsidies to build toilets for economically weaker families and many other things go into the campaign. The drought relief attempts have ignored this aspect completely. It’s not clear how the government has decided ‘20 litres/person per day norm’. If a person decides to use toilet, he may spend half of his due quota on flushing alone,” said a Deputy Chief Executive Officer working with Aurangabad Zilla Parishad.

(This story was published in The Indian Express on May 22 2016.)

 

A village takes a gap

Without enough water to irrigate a summer crop, a village in Maharashtra takes a three-month holiday.

ATIKH RASHID

Hivre Bazar,a village with a population of 1,300,is on a three-month holiday. Residents of this village in Parner taluka of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, most of them farmers who otherwise spend this time of the year nurturing summer crops of groundnut or tomato, are organising fairs, arranging cultural programmes, taking sight-seeing tours or just enjoying leisure at home.

The decision to take a three-month break from farming, from March to May, was taken by the villagers in a gram sabha (village meet) unanimously. According to villagers, due to a sparse rainfall last monsoon, there wasn’t enough water to sustain a summer crop and a crop failure was likely. That would have been a wastage of effort,money and water. So instead of planting a summer crop, we unanimously decided that we will rest and also allow our fields to do the same, says Sakharam Tukaram Pawar, a villager.

According to Popatrao Pawar, the deputy sarpanch who played a pivotal role in converting this drought-prone village into a model village, the villagers had gone on a similar break in 2003, again due to less rainfall.

Ahmednagar is among the 12 drought-hit districts in Maharashtra. The drought has resulted in severe shortage of drinking water and has forced many farmers to pull out standing crops as they had no water to irrigate them.

Pawar says, “We have a water audit system in the village which is run by village students. Our experience of the past 20 years shows that if the village receives 400 mm of rainfall in the monsoon season,we get enough water to meet our drinking and crop needs in all the three seasons kharif, rabi and summer. This year,we have had only 190 mm of rainfall,which means just enough water for drinking and kharif and rabi crops. Had we planted a summer crop, we would have exhausted our drinking water.”

Once a drought-prone village,Hivre Bazar now has two percolation tanks with a collective storage capacity of 10,000 million cubic feet. A weak monsoon failed to fully recharge these last year. Apart from percolation tanks, there are 294 wells,16 earthen dams and seven cement storage tanks. The village has won accolades for watershed development work and rural welfare schemes.

Once the water audit done in February showed that the water stored in the dams would just be able to meet drinking needs of villagers and the livestock,the situation was explained to every villager in a gram sabha which unanimously decided against planting the summer crop. “We told them that only 25 per cent families in the village could plant a summer crop with the water from their wells. But they will have to risk a crop failure. In that case,the remaining 75 per cent will have to depend on tanker water for drinking. So these 25 per cent families sacrificed the summer crop for the water needs of fellow villagers”, says Pawar.

Currently, every household in the village gets 500 litres of water through the village water distribution scheme which is run entirely by women. Pawar says the decision to hand over control of water to women was taken because as homemakers,they are the ones who have to deal with the scarcity of water.

Sakharam Patil,another villager,argues that sacrificing his summer crop doesn’t actually mean that he has to forgo the income from his field. There were strong chances that my summer crop would fail or generate very little yield, resulting in losses on the investment. Avoiding these losses is also a kind of profit. Besides, it’s tiring to toil in the field year after year. Now we have holidays and have also allowed our fields to take some rest. A rejuvenated soil will also give us a better yield next season, he says.

Villagers are making the most of their free time by organising fairs and cultural programmes. We are busy holding jagran-gondhal and bhajan-kirtan. Women are using this opportunity to make pickles and poppadums. Some families have gone out. Once it rains,we will resume work in the farms with renewed vigour, says Raosaheb Pawar, a villager.

Running rings around onion

Pointing to low production this year,Balasaheb Darade says don’t call us hoarders without taking into account ground realities.

ATIKH RASHID

EVERY time onion prices spiral up,traders in Lasalgaon—often called Asia’s largest onion market—are dubbed villains in an insidious plot to put the otherwise humble commodity out of reach of the common man. That’s about the only time Lasalgaon,a village of around 15,000 people,located about 60 km from Nashik,makes news.

Among the 40-odd traders operating in the Shri Chhatrapati Shivaji Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) of Lasalgaon,which exclusively deals in onion trade,Balasaheb Darade is bewildered at how the fate of even distant governments comes to rest on his bulbous produce. According to him,that’s because of the entirely baseless media portrayal of them as hoarders, without taking into account either trade mechanisms or the marketing chain.

Claiming that production has been low this year due to drought,the 30-year-old says: It is a business like any other. We buy the produce from growers and sell it to traders across the country keeping a certain profit. Depending on the market behaviour we sometimes make profit and there are also days when we lose money. While certain amount of produce is stored like in any other trade—the allegation of hoarding of huge quantities is baseless. If production is lower,the prices are bound to increase.

As per state government estimates,there has been a 40 per cent drop in market arrivals between April and July at Lasalgaon. While in 2012,the four months saw arrival of 12,58,995 quintals,in 2013,the same period saw just 7,51,833 quintals.

Unlike other agriculture markets which open very early in the morning—almost at the break of dawn—Lasalgaon traders such as Darade start their day late. The market here opens at 9 am.

“In the onion trade you have to be very careful about the quality of the produce. During day time you can inspect the produce thoroughly,” says Darade,who gets up at 7 am and has a quick bite and tea before he reaches the market, 2 km away, by 8-8.30 am.

Before the market opens,Darade speaks to buyers in markets such as Delhi, Kolkata, Bhopal to confirm the demand. “Based on their demand,I go around the marketplace inspecting the produce and placing bets in auctions. The morning session ends at 12 pm. The market resumes again at 3 pm and closes at 6 pm. Remaining in contact with prospective buyers is most important part of the business,” he says.

They can only flourish if traders even far away associate their name with good quality, Darade underlines.

On any given day, he can be seen among the reddish-brown heaps Lasalgaon traders do not deal with produce in gunny bags inspecting the onions closely. We traditionally deal with loose onions. The grower has to empty his truck in front of us. It makes quality control easier,you can check the produce thoroughly and it reduces the chances of a farmer selling you spoiled onions hidden at the bottom of gunny bags, says the trader. No other onion be it from Karnataka, China or Pakistan can rival the Nashik varieties in taste, size and colour. But you have to make sure that you only supply best of the best to do good in the long run.

On an average,the Lasalgaon market receives 8,000-10,000 quintals of onion everyday. This is down to 5,500 to 6,000 quintals this season.

Darade has been in the business for 13 years,having inherited it from his father. “My father worked in another trader’s shop for decades as an employee. Later he set up his own shop in the APMC. I studied in a local college till Class XII and then dropped out to help him in the business. For the past five-six years,I have taken over entirely,” says the father of a two-year-old daughter.

There is another reason the accusations of hoarding large quantities don’t hold water,Darade says. During periods of supply shortage,the marketing board vigilance is so strict that it is impossible to hoard big amounts illegally. “This year several traders had stored onions,which were bought from farmers in April-May during the harvest glut, at Rs 1,000 per quintal. However,when the prices started climbing up in July and reached Rs 1,500 per quintal,most of the stored produce was sold off at a profit of Rs 500 per quintal. We had not imagined that the prices would go as high as Rs 4,500. At present,we are buying and selling onions at a margin of Rs 50 to 100 per quintal. The APMC administration checks the total buying,total selling and storage on a daily basis and sends a report to Mumbai,” he says.

Storing also comes with its own costs as well as the ever-present risk of prices falling. “You have to pay the rent of godowns and there is a 15-20 per cent weight loss of produce due to evaporation. There have been years when we had to sell a produce which was bought at

Rs 1,000 per quintal at Rs 800. You can’t store the produce longer,for onions get spoiled, Darade says. Even if you take utmost care and make sure that not a single onion rots, you lose 20 per cent of produce weight to evapo-transpiration in a couple of months. There’s no way you can escape it in the hot weather.

Giving a more recent example, he points to a pile of onions lying in his shed. “I bought two truckloads of this (400 quintals) on August 14 at a price of Rs 4,500 per quintal. The next day was Independence Day and by the morning of August 16,when the market reopened,the prices had collapsed by Rs 1,000 per quintal to Rs 3,500 due to news of banning of exports and imports from China and Pakistan. In the past few days,the prices have further come down and now I will have to sell this produce at a net loss of about Rs 1,000 to 1,200 per quintal. Such is this business,” he says.

After getting home from work,Darade likes to spend some time with family,which mostly involves business discussions with father and taking strategic decisions on investment. “Before going to sleep I spend some time with my daughter and watch TV. I like comedy shows and Hindi films,” he says.

The tears shed over onion daily on news channels don’t escape his attention, but Darade is not disheartened. Irrespective of the highs and lows,I will stick to onions because it is the business of onion which has not only sustained my family but the entire region for decades,” he says.