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In-depth reporting

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.”

‘Vinegar syndrome’ ruining film treasure at National Film Archive, reveals data from film assessment project

NFAI fails to maintain the desired temperature and humidity within its vaults, causing rapid film decomposition; AC units break down frequently and remain unattended for prolonged periods, documents show.

Air-conditioners and dehumidifiers installed inside the vaults often break down and remain in disrepair for months.

ATIKH RASHID

IN February 2009, P K Nair, the film archivist who is credited with setting up Pune-based National Film Archive of India (NFAI), wrote a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, complaining that “25,000 reels of rare archival footage” at NFAI had been disposed of because the staff “could not stand the foul smell emanating from the reels”.

Nair, who retired as director of NFAI in 1991 but continued to keep an eye over the institution, said the reels disposed of contained “some rare national award-winning films for which no negatives or duplicate material exists anywhere in the country to the best of my knowledge”.

The ‘foul smell’ mentioned in his letter is the stench that emanates from acetate base film reels once they start decomposing after being exposed to heat and humidity. Preservationists call this ‘vinegar syndrome’ since the chemical released by films while decomposing is ‘acetic acid’, known commonly as vinegar.

In September last year, present NFAI director Prakash Magdum had told The Indian Express that the institution had disposed of a total of 28,400 reels in two tranches — in 1995 and in 2008. Nair, it seems, was referring to the second instance in his letter to the PMO.

Vijay Jadhav, director of NFAI when Nair made the complaint, passed away in 2010. Nair died in 2016. But the ‘vinegar syndrome’ continues to ruin the treasure of films stored at NFAI.

Information obtained by The Indian Express shows that a majority of the film reels stored at NFAI was affected by the ‘vinegar syndrome’ and a considerable number of them had been damaged irretrievably.

As part of the ‘Film Collection Assessment Project’, which is the first stage in the National Film Heritage Mission (NFHM) launched by I&B Ministry, NFAI is, among other things, gauging the extent of damage caused by ‘vinegar syndrome’ to its collection. While the project is ongoing, data from 10 of the 19 storage vaults shows that of the 58,670 reels checked with acid detection strips by the end of November 2017, only 17,052 had remained unaffected by the syndrome. A total of 27,387 reels were in various stages of vinegarisation – from mildly affected, to rapidly decomposing – and 14,231 had reached the stage where the film gets irretrievably damaged due to decomposition.

A Preservationist’s Nightmare

In 1940s, acetate film base, often called safety base, emerged as an answer to the ephemerality of highly-inflammable nitrate film which was the only available film base till then. Use of cellulose nitrate for photographic film was slowly phased out, with filmmakers relying more and more on ‘triacetate cellulose’ base. In fact, a majority of surviving nitrate film collection was transferred on acetate film, hoping that it will be secured for the future. Sadly, it soon became apparent that the safety base wasn’t stable either. While it was not inflammatory, the acetate film has the tendency of ‘deacetylation’ — breaking down into simpler compounds — when exposed to high temperature and humidity. The acid, thus, released then acts as catalyst for further deacetylation, causing rapid deterioration of the affected film and even infecting the un-damaged acetate films stored nearby.

In advanced stages of decay due to vinegarisation, the film shrinks, the image layers gets delaminated from the base, the film may become brittle, crystal deposits and bubbles are formed on the surface of the film. The film reel is, thus, rendered unsuitable to be projected, or, in most cases, even copied.

NFAI’s struggles with heat and humidity

The best way to avoid and check ‘vinegar syndrome’ is to store the film under controlled temperature (around 2 to 4 degree celsius for colour, 12-14 degrees for B&W) and relative humidity (25-30 per cent for colour films, 50 per cent for B&W). Lower temperatures and drier conditions slow the decomposition process and the films stored in right conditions may last for several centuries.

The systems installed to control temperature and humidity at NFAI, and their upkeep, are grossly unsatisfactory, documents obtained by The Indian Express show. Not only the air conditioning systems and dehumidifiers break down frequently but, more alarmingly, it sometimes takes four to six months to repair them.

I P Mishra, Executive Engineer (Electrical) Civil Construction Wing of All India Radio which is in-charge of setting up and maintaining infrastructure at NFAI, while speaking to The Indian Express in September last year, had blamed the continuous operation of the AC systems inside the vaults for frequents breakdowns. He said that since the spare parts needed for repair are difficult to procure, the repair work gets delayed.

“The air conditioning system run 24 X 7 which leads to wear and tear, resulting in breakdowns and need of maintenance,” Mishra had said.

Documents show that between November 2014 and November 2017, air-conditioning systems and dehumidifiers in Vault No 8, Vault No 9, Vault no.10 and Vault No.11 remained out of order for a prolonged period of time. Despite requests for repair by NFAI officials, the Civil Construction Wing (All India Radio) remained unresponsive sometimes for months.

The Result

The film condition assessment data accessed by The Indian Express shows that the shoddy upkeep at NFAI has taken a toll on the films, especially in vaults where temperature and humidity control devices remained dysfunctional.

The situation was worst in Vault No 8 where, of the total 7,591 reels on which AD strip tests were performed (of 8,067 reels stored in that vault), only 53 were unaffected by vinegarisation. Around 2,688 reels were in various stages of deterioration while as many as 4,850 reels had reached an acidity level of pH value less than 4 which damages the reels permanently. These reels contain over 300 films, including all nine double reels of Awaara, seven out of eight reels of a print of Do Bigha Zameen, all eight reels of release positive of Mother India, two prints of Kalia Mardan containing five reels each, and three prints of Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam.

Similar was the case in Vault No.11 and others (see box).

NFAI Director Prakash Magdum and Official on Special Duty (NFHM) Santosh Ajmera did not respond to queries despite multiple attempts to contact him. Former director K S Sasidharan pointed to peculiar maintenance system at NFAI which may be working to the detriment of the film heritage. While NFAI is custodian of the reels stored in the vaults, the responsibility of maintaining the vaults in ideal conditions of temperature and humidity is with CCW (AIR), whose officials do not have any training or understanding of film preservation.

“These people have no cinematic sensibilities. Although they are responsible for day-to-day upkeep of films vaults and other facilities, they are not given any orientation training in cinema and its heritage value in the context of history and culture. Also, NFAI has no control over them,” said Sasidharan who served as director between 2002 and 2008.

Bhujbal Arm-strong: Once a vegetable seller, now charged in a Rs 800 cr scam

He once borrowed money to sell vegetables. Now the man who jumped parties and loyalties with ease is charged in a Rs 800 cr scam.

ATIKH RASHID, SHUBHANGI KHAPRE AND ZISHAN SHAIKH for The Indian Express

SOMETIMES in the fifties, at an inter-college competition, a young man had gone up on stage to deliver a power-packed performance in a one-act play. The winner that day was Chhagan Bhujbal, a student of Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute College in Matunga, Mumbai, and the runner-up was Amjad Khan (of later-day Sholay fame).
Those who know Bhujbal, the 69-year-old NCP leader who was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on March 14 for alleged corruption during his stint as PWD Minister in two terms of the Congress-NCP government of 2004 to 2014, say that’s one skill that has stayed with him — theatrics. All he needed was a stage and in his four-decade political career, he had several — first with the Shiv Sena, followed by the Congress and then the NCP.

Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray and Chhagan Bhujbal (in black coat). Express archive photo (20.6.85) Former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Chhagan Bhujbal (in black coat). Archive/Express Photo
Much before this rise and fall was a story, one as unexceptional as any. Young Bhujbal and his siblings grew up in the narrow lanes of Bagwanpura in Nashik, where his family lived cheek by jowl with several Muslim households. His parents died early and the family moved to Mumbai when Bhujbal was two. “My siblings and I were raised by my mother’s aunt Jankibai (whom he called grandmother). She was a feisty lady,” Bhujbal had recalled in an earlier interview. Jankibai’s husband was a policeman and the family struggled to make ends meet.

Those were tough days. Bhujbal would later often talk about a family function in his childhood home in Nashik, where he had to dilute the curry with water because he feared there wouldn’t be enough to go around. The story goes that in Mazagaon, Chhagan and his elder brother Magan would trudge from their one-room chawl in Anjirwadi to the Byculla vegetable market every morning where members of the Mali community (the OBC community of gardeners to which the family belonged) would pool money and help the brothers buy vegetables.

Chhagan Bhujbal, third from left, with Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray at the start of his political career.

The two brothers and their aunt would then sell the vegetables outside their Mazagaon home. The Bhujbals later managed to secure a 35 sq ft vending spot for themselves at the Byculla vegetable market. The bond that Bhujbal shared with his elder brother during those years of struggle is one of the reasons why he took his nephew, Magan’s son Sameer, under his wings after his brother’s death in the early ’80s. Sameer is now in judicial custody in the money laundering case that the ED has filed against Bhujbal and his relatives. The ED is probing alleged kickbacks received by the Bhujbal family for favouring contractors in construction of the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi and the Kalina Central Library in Mumbai.

Political Leader Chhagan Bhujbal and Bal Thackarey. Express archive photo Chhagan Bhujbal and Bal Thackeray. Archive/Express Photo
Bhujbal, the man who borrowed money to sell vegetables, would later come to be known as the ‘strongman from Nashik’ who combined opportunism with calculated risks to further both his politics and business. As a senior NCP leader says, “Bhujbal struck a perfect balance between his politics and business. But it appears he took some wrong decisions and entrusted his nephew Sameer with his business. He should have exercised caution and ensured good advisers around him when in power.”

THE MAN, HIS EMPIRE
The sprawling campus of the Mumbai Educational Trust (MET) in Bandra stands as testimony to Bhujbal’s business acumen. The campus, spread across prime real-estate, came up in 1989 and offers multiple courses such as business management, engineering and pharmacy and even has a “rishikul” for children. The Trust also runs Bhujbal Knowledge City, an “educational hub” with four colleges in Nashik.
“Unlike politicians who own sugar mills and district banks, I decided to invest in education. Those accusing me of charging high fees should know that I have to pay electricity bills of Rs 25 to 30 lakh a month,” Bhujbal once said.
But in 2013, Bhujbal had a fallout with his chartered accountant Sunil Karve, with whom he had set up MET. Karve had accused Bhujbal’s family of misappropriating funds from the Trust.

Over the years, Bhujbal acquired prime land in Nashik and Lonavala, among other places. The Bhujbals’ family home in Nashik, inside the sprawling Bhujbal Farms, underwent a major revamp in 2012-14 when Bhujbal was PWD minister.

“It’s a huge mansion and is situated in the heart of the 5-acre Bhujbal Farms, which has a swimming pool, a tennis court, library, home theatre and a mini auditorium. The mansion is known to have imported furniture and expensive artefacts. It was built in phases over two years. The family moved here in May-June 2014,” says a Nashik-based journalist with a Marathi newspaper. He says very few people among those who have access to Bhujbal Farms — and there aren’t too many — can go to the mansion.

Shiv Sena Leader Bal Thackarey, Vamrao Mahadhik, Chhagan Bhujbal, Promod Navalkar and Manohar Joshi 12.10.86 Express archive photo Former Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, Vamrao Mahadhik, Chhagan Bhujbal, Promod Navalkar and Manohar Joshi. Archive/Express Photo
“Most of those who visit Bhujbal Farms are not allowed to go beyond the office building. Only family members and very close aides can go to the bungalow,” says a former aide of the Bhujbals. Bhujbal Farms is enclosed within a 7-foot-high compound wall and a dense growth of Ashoka and bamboo plantation within these walls block out any view of the mansion from outside.

About 15 km away, at Shilapur village on the Nashik-Aurangabad Road, stands Armstrong Energy Pvt Ltd, a biomass power plant owned by Bhujbal’s son Pankaj and nephew Sameer. The name ‘Armstrong’ is a translation of ‘Bhujbal’.
The plant, which was supposed to have generated 6 MW electricity, has been dysfunctional since it was set up in 2009. A guard at the entrance claims repair works are on inside and says he is under instruction not to allow anyone to enter.


“Trucks would sometimes bring in bagasse from sugar factories. But the plant has hardly functioned — if it was open for a day, it would remain closed for two,” says a tea stall owner outside the gate. Officials at the Nashik District Co-operative Bank says the firm had defaulted on a Rs 11-crore loan. “It hasn’t paid back a single penny. Since Bhujbal enjoyed a lot of clout, nobody uttered a word. The firm again applied for a Rs 20-crore loan. But by this time, the state had appointed an administrator for the bank as it had run into huge losses and the bank rejected the loan straightaway,” an official of the bank says on condition of anonymity.

According to a complaint filed by Anjali Damania of the Aam Aadmi Party with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), the contract for furnishing Maharashtra Sadan was given to Armstrong Energy and another company owned by the family. Not so far from the biogas plant is Jai Electronics, formerly owned by actress Amisha Patel’s father Jai Patel. After this firm reportedly defaulted on a Rs 11.75 crore loan from Canara Bank, it was bought by Armstrong Energy a few years ago. At the entrance gate, which remains shut, is an Armstrong banner.

The Bhujbals own several other properties in Nashik — besides Bhujbal Knowledge City, they own Armstrong Water Purifier, Chandrai Bungalow, Ganesh Bungalow, an eight-acre agricultural plot, among others. Laxman Savji, a BJP leader from Nashik, blames Bhujbal for making the “politics of Nashik money-oriented”. “All this has happened in the last 10-12 years. Now it has became impossible for a common political worker to fight elections. Before Bhujbal came to Nashik, he had been a mayor of Mumbai. People hoped he would bring in change, but during his reign, only money and muscle ruled,” he says.

Bhujbal with Nationalist Congress Party head Sharad Pawar.


In Nashik, there are several stories of his alleged high-handedness. In 2009, then Nashik police commissioner V D Mishra reportedly attempted to extern four politicians with known criminal records, including one Kailas Mudaliar, who is said to be close to Bhujbal, but the act allegedly led to Mishra being transferred. It was only after Nashik residents took out protest marches that the suspension was revoked.

His critics also accuse him of treating Nashik as his fiefdom, having ensured an Assembly ticket for his son (Pankaj is MLA from Nandgaon) and a parliamentary ticket for his nephew (Sameer was elected Nashik MP in the 2009 elections), while keeping Yeola (from where he is MLA) for himself.

Despite several attempts by The Sunday Express to contact Pankaj Bhujbal, who is also named in the ED case, for this story, he remained unavailable for comment. Over the years, Bhujbal’s real-estate interests spread beyond Mumbai and Nashik too. In June 2015, after cases were registered against Bhujbal over the Maharashtra Sadan scam, the Maharashtra ACB raided his property in Achvan village, 15 km from the hill station town of Lonavala.
According to ACB officials, the estate, which oversees a valley, is spread over 65 acres and has a six-bedroom bungalow replete with rare artefacts. The estate also has a pond and a stream with a barrage over it.

Villagers say the family bought the property and bungalow around eight years ago. “As long as he (Bhujbal) was in power, he used to come here, especially during festivals. The family would always be here around New Year. But no one has come here since last year’s raid,” says a villager.

THE POLITICIAN
“Nobody is questioning his politics or leadership,” says BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, whose complaint to the ACB in 2012 brought out the Maharashtra Sadan scam. “There are serious corruption cases which have been established and he is facing the consequences. But if he has done something wrong, the law will apply to him as to any other citizen,” he says. As a diploma student of engineering in Matunga, Bhujbal had attended a Bal Thackeray rally at Shivaji Park, where he was so mesmerised by the Sena chief’s oratory that he decided to join the Shiv Sena. With his bombastic and aggressive style, Bhujbal was a natural fit in the party.

Mumbai: NCP President Sharad Pawar with party leader Chhagan Bhujbal during a meeting with the party workers of Thane district in Mumbai on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI7_1_2015_000139B) *** Local Caption *** NCP chief Sharad Pawar with party leader Chhagan Bhujbal during a meeting with party workers of Thane district in Mumbai. PTI Photo
In 1973, Thackeray helped him become a BMC corporator. Bhujbal would later go on to become mayor twice. In 1985, he became Shiv Sena MLA from Mazagaon, which he represented for two terms. But soon, things started souring for Bhujbal within the Sena, especially with the rise of the soft-spoken and tactful Manohar Joshi. In 1991, at the peak of the Mandal agitation, Bhujbal decided to quit the Sena, saying the party was against OBC reservation. He had by then fashioned himself as an OBC politician, but those who know him have always maintained that the real reason he left the party was because he felt sidelined. After the 1990 Assembly elections, when the Sena-BJP alliance won 85 seats, Bhujbal thought he would be named leader of Opposition. Instead, Thackeray chose Manohar Joshi.
After he quit the Sena, Bhujbal joined the Congress led by Sharad Pawar. He reportedly spent 10 days in a safehouse in Nagpur to ensure he was not attacked by the Sena.

When Pawar left the Congress to float the NCP in 1999, Bhujbal followed the Maratha leader. The same year, the Shiv Sena lost power and the Congress-NCP government came to power. Bhujbal was made Deputy CM and also handled the Home portfolio. As Home Minister, he did the unthinkable, moving against his mentor Thackeray. In August 2000, he cleared the arrest of Thackeray over his “inflammatory” writings in the Sena mouthpiece Saamana. It was a technical arrest and Thackeray was released on bail a few hours later, but the damage had been done and the Thackerays declared war. It took about 15 years for the two to patch up.

Inside Bhujbal Farm: The 5 acre premise houses several bungalows – with a recently added ‘palace’ and an office is on Agra Road, Nashik.Express Photo By Pavan Khengre,17.03.16,Nashik. Inside Bhujbal Farm: The 5 acre premise houses several bungalows – with a recently added ‘palace’ and an office is on Agra Road, Nashik. Express Photo/Pavan Khengre
For someone who has never hidden his ambition for the CM’s post, the Deputy CM’s post seemed like the start of bigger things. But ironically, that’s when the slide began. In 2003, he had to resign over his alleged role in the fake revenue stamp case, popularly called the Telgi scam. Though he subsequently received a clean chit from the investigating agencies, he sat out for the rest of the government’s term. But when the Congress-NCP came back to power in 2004, Bhujbal was made PWD minister. For someone who had been Deputy CM before, that was a letdown but it was a key portfolio. One that has returned to haunt him in the form of the Maharashtra Sadan case.

High net-worth: ASSETS ATTACHED

  • The ED has attached a 97,000-square-metre Navi Mumbai property worth Rs 160 crore belonging to the Bhujbal family in the name of Devisha Infrastructure. Devisha Infrastructure Pvt Ltd runs a housing project in Navi Mumbai called Hex World Housing Society.
  • Besides, the agency has attached two properties of the Bhujbals in Mumbai – Habib Mahal in Bandra and La Petit Fleur in Santacruz – worth Rs 250 crore. Habib Mahal is owned by Pankaj and Sameer Bhujbal, according to ED’s investigation. The other building, La Petit Fleur, was built by Parvesh Construction, a real estate firm. Pankaj and Sameer were directors of the firm from 2007 to 2011.
  • The ED is now planning to attach Girnar Sugarcane Mills in Malegaon that belongs to the Bhujbal family.

What does it take to run India’s longest ‘water-train’?

From special orders procuring equipment to the shunting of trains to give Jaldoot preference. From men working day and night, to hurdles, expected and unexpected. From water Miraj is withholding from own, to water now coming to Latur.

ATIKH RASHID in Miraj & MANOJ MORE in Latur

It was in January 2013 that Maharashtra first considered running water trains. It was again to provide water to drought-hit Marathwada. At a Cabinet meeting, then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said that initial discussions had been held with the Railways to arrange three wagons to transport 5 lakh litres of water daily.

Last year, as the drought in Marathwada persisted, the idea was thrown about again, this time to transport water to Latur from Pandharpur’s Ujani Dam, 190 km away.

Finally, when the government picked Miraj, Sangli, 342 km from Latur — the longest distance for a water train in India — to supply water, it was the most natural choice.

The Krishna basin, extending over Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, is known for its prosperity. The Warna Major Irrigation Project, with a capacity to store 34 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) water and holding 15 TMC of water at present, keeps the area around Miraj one of the few Maharashtra regions unaffected by the drought.

Among lush fields of grapes, sugarcane, banana and raisins, farmers say they haven’t faced water scarcity in years. Residents talk about getting water supply “twice a day”.

The water train to Latur, since named Jaldoot by Pune Divisional Railway Manager B K Dadabhoy, draws its water from the Krishna river downstream of Warna dam.

From there to a Latur doorstep, it is a Rs 2.8-lakh, 25-hour operation now, for every run with 10 wagons. The wagons are clover-green in colour, having been delivered clean and freshly painted from the Railways’ Kota workshop. Eventually, the Railways plans to carry 50 wagons every trip.

Day and night at Miraj

The first of the 50 ‘BTPN’ tank wagons arrived on April 10, one day before the trial run. The Kota division of the Railways was chosen for supply of the rake because it has an “expertise” in cleaning tank wagons, says Chief Workshop Manager P K Tiwari.

“Tank wagons are primarily used to transport petrol, vegetable oils, molasses and crude oil. Earlier, we had cleaned crude oil wagons to be employed for high-performance petrol,” says Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer Haripal Singh.

To carry water, the wagons were steam-cleaned, then cleaned with chemicals, scrubbed, and finally washed with high-pressure water jets, he adds.

At Miraj, preparations were on by then for the task ahead.

A jack well set up by the Railways in 2009 at a ghat 4.5 km away used to already pump 16 lakh litres of water for daily use at the rail junction. The water would first be piped to a water treatment plant through underground pipelines before reaching the station.

Water being emptied in a well in Latur (Photo by Pradip Das)

Water being filled into tankers near the Latur station. 50 rail wagons would hold water equal to 450 tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das) Water being filled into tankers near the Latur station. 50 rail wagons would hold water equal to 450 tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)
For supply of 5 lakh litres to Latur every day, the Miraj administration has reduced its own demand to 13 lakh litres. Still, that means that for the additional water, the jack well and the pump are working overtime. The four-hour resting time at the water plant, which has a capacity to filter 1.5 lakh litres per hour, has also disappeared.

Right now, it is taking three hours to fill a single wagon with 50,000 litres of water at Miraj. Work is on to set up bigger, 315-mm-diameter pipes for carrying water from the plant so that the 50 planned wagons can be filled in 10 hours. Eventually, officials also plan to fill 25 wagons simultaneously instead of two-three wagons.

“The distance between the water treatment plant and the Miraj rail yard is 2.7 km, which needs to be covered using this pipeline,” says an official with the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran, the state Civic Water Supply Department.

A legendary well next to the station, Haidar Khan bawdi, is also being emptied out and cleaned, before it is filled with water again for use as and when needed.

Fifty-five-year-old Julekha Begum, who claims to be the traditional “mujawar (caretaker)” of the bawdi, says it “never dries up even in the worst of droughts”.

Four teams of labourers supervised by engineers are working day and night to finish the work. “There are about 40 personnel working at five different sites. Apart from laying of pipes, the work involves erecting a water-filling facility at the rail yard, installing a bypass valve at the water treatment plant, creating two small tunnels under the railway tracks so that the pipes can cross the railway lines and installing new pumps at the well,” says Prashant Joshi, who is a site engineer with the contractor hired by the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran.

Since the work began, hurdles have been constant. For instance, a farmer over whose land 100 metres of the pipeline had to be laid refused to cooperate, threatening he would “confiscate” the pipes if they kept lying there “a day over two months”. “It took one and a half days to allay his doubts,” says Joshi.

Besides, work near the tracks can only happen when there is no train traffic, which is mostly between midnight and 3 am. “Mainly freight trains operate at this time, apart from one express train,” says Vivek Kumar, Transportation Officer, Miraj.

Getting the PVC pipes from Jalgaon, 400 km away, also proved problematic. Pipes with a diametre of 315 mm or more are made only on order. “Of the total 2,000 metres of PVC pipes we need, we have only received 600 m,” says a supervisor.

At the station, two teams of Railway’s technical staffers and labourers are working in shifts, supervised by senior officers, to make sure that the water-filled Jaldoot is dispatched at the soonest (four trains, of 10 wagons each, have run so far in five days).

After the first Jaldoot ran on Monday April 11 morning, it took the Miraj junction administration another two days to dispatch the next one, due to problems filling water, although the plan was to send the next one on Tuesday.

It takes 3 hours to fill a wagon with 50,000 litres at Miraj right now. Plan is to cut this to 10 hours for 50 wagons. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon) It takes 3 hours to fill a wagon with 50,000 litres at Miraj right now. Plan is to cut this to 10 hours for 50 wagons. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)
Currently, a majority of the BTPN tank wagons which arrived from Kota stand idle, with only 20 in use so far. The capacity of each wagon is 54,000 litres, but they are being filled only till 50,000 litres.
To hasten the filling of the water wagons for the first train run, officers of the Carriage and Wagon Department had even stopped the water supply to three other platforms at the railway station. However, this had led to a series of pipe bursts.

Since then, filling of the wagons has been divided into three shifts — 9 pm to 4 am, 6 am to 9 am and 2 pm to 8 pm. At the end of every shift, the train is moved from platform no. 2 (where the filling usually happens) back to the yard, to make space for other trains to halt at the station.

“Many other trains require water-replenishment at Miraj. We can’t avoid that although it slows down the filling of Jaldoot due to low pressure,” says Kumar.

However, others too claim their supply has been hit. Residents of the railway colony right next to the Miraj junction claim they have not received drinking water for four days. The supervisor of the toilet and urinary block at platform no. 1 says its water supply has been cut off since April 11, leading to complaints from visitors.

Concedes B K Dadabhoy, the Divisonal Railway Manager, “At present, we are filling the wagons by curtailing the water supply to railway staffers’ colonies at Miraj and by only half filling the other trains… We are doing our best.”

Senior Railway officials have also been travelling in the engine and guards cabin of the Jaldoot, travelling for at least a couple of stations to ensure everything runs smoothly. On Wednesday morning, during the second water run, the excitement was palpable, and once the train picked speed, many of them took out cellphones and clicked photographs aboard the Jaldoot.

“It’s not for fun,” clarified one of them, travelling in the engine room. “We will send these to our officers so that they know we have done our job well and responsibly.”

At the other end of the train, guard P U Asaware almost stood constantly, clutching the green flag and waving it every few minutes as the train crossed stations overtaking other passenger trains parked on the side to let the Jaldoot pass.

“Other goods trains remain parked at the station for hours for want of line clearance. The first Jaldoot took 17 hours to finish the seven-hour journey as it was detained in Osmabanad. Hence, now the rail administration is making every effort to ensure it reaches Latur in six-seven hours,” says Asaware.

Senior Commercial Manager (Solapur division) R K Sharma admits that this track being a single-line section is a problem. However, he adds, the restrictions placed for Jaldoot don’t affect express trains, whose timings don’t coincide with the water train. “Yes, some goods train do get affected, but that is negligible.”

The well near the Latur station. where water from the water train is emptied, can hold 17 lakh litres. The well near the Latur station. where water from the water train is emptied, can hold 17 lakh litres.


Sleepless at Latur

At the Latur station too, Jaldoot arrives to a special welcome. The Railways have dedicated a special track, that ends behind the main station, for the water train to halt.

Rubber pipes help empty water from the wagons into an 850-m-long RCC pipeline, leading into a well nearby. The emptying of water takes upwards of three hours.

The RCC pipeline was laid by Sunday night, before the first trial run. Later, holes were drilled into the concrete pipeline for inlet pipes coming from the wagons.

Officials say they began work as soon as Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse, deputed to Sangli by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, made the announcement on April 5. Officials of the Latur Municipal Corporation, the district collectorate, Railways and the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran held an emergency meeting and ordered the RCC pipeline and a 250-m high-definition plastic pipeline, to be delivered by a contractor on priority.

Once the pipelines arrived, over 300 Railway men were put on the job. “The work to lay the pipelines was carried out round-the-clock,” say officials of the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran.

Latur Municipal Commissioner Sudhakar Telang says the government sanctioned Rs 3.50 crore on an emergency basis for laying the two pipelines, and another one on which work is on.

Most of the work, say officials, was done in 48 hours.

The jack well for pumping water was provided by an S R Deshmukh, for free. “We requested him to make his jack well available for some time, and he readily agreed,” district officials say.

After the RCC pipeline takes the water from the wagons to a nearby well, which has a capacity of 17 lakh litres, the other, 250-m pipeline takes it to an open ground nearby. Here, water is filled into four tankers and sent to Latur’s water treatment plant 3 km away, before being supplied to different parts of the city. “The water we get from Miraj is treated, but we are re-treating it to check against any contamination as a result of transportation,” says Latur District Collector Pandurang Pole.

Pipeline being laid at Latur railway station. The idea is to cut down time taken in use of water tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das) Pipeline being laid at Latur railway station. The idea is to cut down time taken in use of water tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)
He adds that the filling of the well, and carrying water away from it to the filtration plant is simultaneous. Now a pipeline is being laid from the well to the water filteration plant too so that tankers eventually aren’t needed.

Giving an idea of how the water train would help Latur, Pole says, “It will ease our water travails. Instead of providing drinking water every six to eight days, we will be able to provide it every four days.”

The water brought by 50 wagons would be equivalent to 450 tankers supplying daily, he adds.

However, Railway officials say, the 50-wagon train will be only making trips every two to three days as filling water takes time.

Latur city, with a population of five lakh, has 1,000 borewells belonging to the civic body, and an estimated 15,000 private borewells. “The city used to get 60 million litres of water daily from Manjara dam, which has run dry. Now our sources are Terna dam and Dongargaon, private and civic borewells, private tankers and the train,” says the municipal commissioner.

The Latur district rural areas, with 943 villages, have a population of another 18 lakh. The water levels in the 131 smaller dams in the district are also depleting fast.

The villages have been demanding that the Jaldoot be stopped en route to provide them water too and not just to the city. Shailesh Saroday, president of the Harangul Budruk, a students’ association, says they have urged the district collectorate to stop the train at Harangul railway station, outside the Latur city limits. “Since the train is bringing in 5 lakh litres of water, they should at least make one wagon available to us,” he says. “Why cater only to city areas?”

In Ward No. 9 in the heart of Latur city, with 15,000 residents, water was supplied from the third Jaldoot that arrived Thursday night. “We have all heard that water from the train will help us get drinking water in a much shorter time,” said Sanjay Rajoure.

Half of Najma Pathan’s husband’s income, of Rs 4,000 per month, from selling household wares on handcart, goes into buying water.

Why did they have to wait so long for Jaldoot, she asks. “Why don’t they bring in more trains and more water from wherever it is available?”

The Precedents
Australia used rail networks to transport water as far back as the late 1800s. In 1952, drought-relief water shipments were sent to the mining town of Broken Hill in New South Wales via six water trains a day. In 2008, the Queensland Rail Freight of Australia delivered water to Cloncurry town in north-central Queensland.

The US has also used water trains for long. As per Illinois State Water Survey, 1971, Mount Vernon got drinking water by railway tank cars in 1905, 1925 and 1945. The January 1945 operation, with 100 tank cars, lasted 45 days and cost over $50,000 then. As late as 2015, rail cars were proposed in the US to provide potable water to small communities in California, reeling under a four-year drought.

Muslim friends, Jordan visit & missing foreskin: How was a bomb blast victim treated as the prime suspect

Dayanand Patil’s case is a sad commentary on the state of Indian terror investigators who let preconceived notions and assumptions guide the probe than the evidence at hand. A year after the serial low-intensity blasts on Jangli Maharaj Road, Atikh Rashid travels to Basavkalyan in Karnataka looking for Patil, the humble tailor and the only person injured in the blasts, who spent two months in police custody as a “prime suspect” before being let off.

A member of the Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad (BDDS) at work on August 1 2012 (Picture: Arul Horizon for The Indian Express).

ATIKH RASHID

THE blasts on Jangli Maharaj Road were said to be of low intensity, but they were strong enough to devastate the life of the sole injured – Dayanand Patil (32), a tailor who worked at a shop about 200 metres from the blast sites. A  year after the August 1 incident, shockwaves of the blasts are still felt at Patil’s house in Kohinoor village in Bidar district of Karnataka, around 420 km from Pune.

The old stone-built one room house, which the five occupants fear can crumble any moment in this year’s strong monsoons, stands testimony to the family’s hardships. According to Janabai Patil (70) Dayanand’s mother, the blasts for which Dayanand was initially blamed — not only ruined his reputation but also rendered him unemployable, thus worsening the financial situation of the poor family dependent on farming for survival.

A year ago, Patil (32), who worked as tailor at a local dye-cleaning shop and stayed at Uruli Kanchan in city outskirts, had shot to infamy after eye-witnesses of the serial blasts on Jangli Maharaj Road claimed that one of the bombs had gone off in a bag carried by Patil. The “possession of the bomb” had led to local police and the anti-terrorism squad seeing him as the prime suspect in the blast conspiracy.

Later, the investigators exonerated Patil and booked four other persons who were arrested by Delhi Police for the planning and execution of the blasts. ATS charge-sheet in the case names Patil as a witness. Police would later reveal that Patil who had initially maintained that he had picked up the bag “mistakenly” told them later that the  polythene bag, lying unclaimed at the protest site, contained a cake box and he had picked it hoping to take it home to surprise for his three-year-old daughter.

For two years before the incident, Patil stayed in a one room tenement in Mhetre Chawl in Uruli Kanchan – about 40 kms from his workplace on Shirole Road, with his wife Satyakala, daughter Kirti and niece Deepali. He would take a train from Uruli to Shivajinagar and then walk to reach h reach Namrata Laundry where he would do ‘rafoo and alter’ jobs for clothes that came for washing and ironing.

Mhatre Chawl in Uruli Kanchan a day after the blast (Photo: Sandip Daundkar for The Indian Express)

Patil was detained by the police immediately after the blasts and a couple of teams would swoop down Mhetre Chawl in Uruli looking for evidence. They would pick up Satyakala for inquiries, leaving behind Kirti and Dipali with neighbours. (She was dropped back home a day later) After two weeks of active interrogation, ATS claimed that Patil was let go. But he wouldn’t reach home for much longer.

“He was with the police for a total of two months, while all kinds of false stories were circulated about his role in the blasts,” Jijabai Patil, Dayanand’s mother tells The Indian Express, a year later. As per Jijabai, during her son’s two-month detention by police, he was kept at a lodge near Gunjan Theatre in Yerawada.

“For around a month, we had no clue about his whereabouts. After a month of detention Dayanand demanded that the police allow him to meet his family once. It was then that an ATS team came to our village and took me, his father, wife and brother to the lodge,” said Jijabai.

Post-Diwali, ATS men dropped him home and told them that he was not responsible for the blasts.

“For months he refused to step out of the house for fear that people would taunt him over his terror links. We advised him to visit our relative’s houses. But people knew about it everywhere. He would stay at home and refused to talk,” says Jijabai.

According to his cousin Venkat Patil, Dayanand sat idle for two months but the family could not afford it. “We sent him to Basavakalyan to find work. However, his newfound notoriety made sure that nobody offered him a good job. He did some petty work but couldn’t earn to sustain the family. This went on for six-seven months. About a month ago, his Mumbai-based sister invited him there to find a job,” said his mother.

Patil’s family refused to share his Mumbai address or contact details of the sister with whom he was staying.  The family also requested Express not to contact Patil as it “would disturb him and may also jeopardise his employment”.

‘Worshipping an Islamic saint, having Muslim friends’

According to Patil’s family, during the early stages of the investigation, the police and anti-terrorism squad suspected that Patil was a Muslim convert “and hence” could have had possibly played a role in the low-intensity blasts, led to harassment at the hands of the police and media and remains a stigma which the family still struggles to come out of.

According to Patil’s family, there were several ill-fated co-incidents which led police suspect Dayanand’s role in the blast during initial stages of investigation including –apart from picking up the bag with the bomb – recovery of a passport which showed that Patil had visited Jordan for nine months a few years ago, that almost all persons he was close to were Muslims hailing from Karnataka—home state of notorious terror operatives Bhatkal brothers– and that a before and after the incidents Patil he had received several calls from his Muslim friends.

Dayanand’s wife Satyakala with daughter Kirti at her maternal home in village Wadarga village in Bidar district. (Photo: Sandip Daundkar for The Indian Express.)

Ramzan Shaikh, one of the friends who stayed in the same chawl, told the Express that he was picked up by the police the same night. He had called Patil at 8 pm, the time when bombs were going off on Jangli Maharaj Road. “Although both of us come from Karnataka, I got to know Patil only after we got acquainted in Pune. We used to take the Daund Passenger of 8.05 pm daily to return to Uruli after work. If anyone of us got late he used to call others to check if the train has left the railway station. That day I was getting late so I called Patil on his phone. It seems this raised suspicion and the Police detained me. I had nothing to hide so I told them everything,” said Ramzan.

According to Dayanand’s mother Jijabai, one thing which triggered the “conversion theory” was a discovery made by doctors who performed a medical check-up on him soon after he was admitted to Sassoon Hospital for the burns injuries he had received from the explosion.

“After he was dropped back home by the police, he told us what had triggered the speculations of his conversion. He said during his medical examination at the hospital soon after the blasts the doctors had noticed his circumcised genitalia which raised police’s suspicion especially in the light of the Muslim company he kept. His explanation that it was ‘natural’ did not satisfy the police. And it’s one explanation we have given to hundred times to the police team and the media personnel.”

From the family’s description, it appears that Patil had a rare congenital abnormality called Aposthia in which the thin skin that covers the penis – the prepuce – is missing.

The family had to provide clarifications for several others things, such as the fact that why they, A Hindu family, worshipped a Muslim saint.

Venkat Patil, Dayanand’s cousin and a teacher, said, “This was another question which came our way repeatedly: Why we being Hindus worship a Muslim saint? People would overlook the fact that Madar Sahab was our village deity and that every family in the village worshiped him. That no new work started without taking his blessings. But all the coincident: Dayanand’s visit to Jordan, his Muslim company and circumcision coupled with the possession of the bomb bag led police and others believe that he was a Muslim convert with possible terror links. We had to clarify it over and over.”

As per Venkat, despite the Dayanand’s eventual exoneration, the family still continues to struggle with the the shadow of ‘converted Muslim with terror links’ story.

“In the villages the social stigma develops very quickly. When the blast occurred these speculations were making rounds and were being broadcasted through TV and newspapers. Police teams carried out searches at our houses and interrogated the relatives. This amount Dayanand got for planting the bombs. They even linked with the Bhatkal brothers taking since they were also from Karnataka. Because of all this, when Dayanand returned home after spending two months with the police he would refuse to step out of the door. The embarrassment was overhelming. Even today nobody in the Basavakalyan Taluka is ready to employ him and hence he had to go to Mumbai to look for a job,’’ added Venkat Patil.

Another thing the family finds difficult to comprehend is the media behaviour. They said that when his name cropped up immediately after the blasts scores of media men rushed their house taking sound bytes on ‘possible reasons for his act’, however when his name was “cleared” by police months later none of them showed up.

“All we wanted them to tell the people that Dayanand was innocent. So that our neighbours and relatives would have believed that we were not involved in any wrong doings,” said Venkat.

According to the neighbours, the financial situation of the household was so bad that his comparatively well-to-do in-laws took away his wife and daughter Kirti a few months ago. Satyakala has been staying with her brother Ramesh Wadekar in Wadarga village.

“It was difficult for me to stay in that house. I came here so that Kirti could go to kindergarten,” said Satyakala.

Dayanand Patil and his family is only one of the hundreds who have been condemned to live a life of social exlusion and stigma after being picked up for terror charges by police and anti-terrorism agencies of the state. The agencies sometimes do not charge the individuals they pick up, sometimes they are charged but acquitted by courts, however the loss to the reputation suffered by these individuals is never compensated.

A wine story loses its sparkle

With govt doling out lavish incentives,a total of 72 wineries came up in Maharashtra by 2008. Three years on, around 30 have shut shop with production exceeding demand.

ATIKH RASHID

IN the year 2008, Nashik,a district in northwestern Maharashtra known to produce quality grapes, earned a sobriquet that of the ‘wine capital of India’. None could contest that as of the total 79 wineries in the country, Nashik alone had 34. Its contribution, along with that of neighbouring Pune and Solapur, made Maharashtra produce 95 per cent of the country’s wine in its 72 wineries.

Observers said whatever was happening in Maharashtra, especially Nashik,was nothing short of revolution and the wine movement in the state will catch more sparkle with the passage of time.

But today, in 2011, barely three years later the phenomenal wine story has gone sour with more than 40 per cent of the wineries shutting shop.

“As of now,about 28-30 wineries of the total 72 have stalled production completely. Around 20 are functioning at 70 per cent of their crushing capacity and a dozen at 20-30 per cent of the crushing capacity, informs Secretary, All India Wine Growers’ Association, Rajesh Jadhav.

Consequently, the wine grapes that were produced on over 9,000 acres in 2008, now cover only 5,000 acres of land in Maharashtra.

Most of the farmers who had switched to wine grape farming, have returned to growing table grapes.

“It’s unlikely that anybody from our village would grow wine grapes in the near future. For the first two-three years we made good money but things went awry soon. No winery owner was ready to buy the grapes. We had to junk a lot of them,” said Amit Patil,from,Dindori in Nashik District.

Jadhav, who has stalled crushing at his winery in Nashik,wants growers to be cautious. “We have told them that they should plant wine grapes only after a winery asks them in writing to do so,” he says.

The downfall

Though the Grape Processing Industry Policy in 2001,till year 2003-04 there were only half a dozen wineries in the state with Indage and Sula being the leaders. Nashik, in 2001,had just one winery.

The efforts to boost the wine industry with subsidies,easy loans,easy licensing and promotion of wine culture started bearing fruits in 2005. In next three years,new wineries came up in the state and by 2008 the number stood at 72.

“We thought we had hit the jackpot. We were making good money. Everybody around us was moving to wine grape farming. In my village itself, four wineries were set up,” said Rajesh Patil, a farmer from Abhona village from Kalwan taluka Nashik who had planted wine grapes on his 12-acre plot, but has now gone back to growing table grapes.

Almost all newly established wineries were owned by rich farmers from Nashik and Pune districts who had little or no knowledge about marketing. They had made a foray into the business with the aim to avail the benefits of government subsidies and make the most of the wine boom.

“Government assisted in setting up the wineries,it assisted in production, but gave no assistance in marketing. With increased number of wineries. the production exceeded the demand in the state. The consequence,obviously,was a glut,” said Mahindra Shahir, president, Maharashtra Grape Growers’ Association.

Then came the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai which cut down the flow of tourists. The global meltdown followed made things worse.

“Though the recession had little impact on India,the major wine producing countries like Australia,South Africa and European nations were severally hit. While India had somehow survived the recession, these countries started sending their unsold stock of wine to India at throwaway prices. This resulted in the piling up of stocks of wine produced in local wineries. Now,the wineries couldn’t afford to crush fresh grapes having neither the storage facilities nor could they afford to store the wine. And they had to repay the loans,” said S D Shikhamany,former director, National Research Centre for Grapes, Pune.

Wine grapes,having no other use than making wine,remained in the fields and rotted. The losses of farmers ran into several lakhs per head.

“Winery owners had already invested Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 5 crore to establish a winery. They didn’t have the financial strength to wait for years and let the wine mature. The banks were running after them for recoveries. Farmers were asking us to buy fresh grapes while the wineries had no buyers for the wine produced in the last season,” said Shahir.

Many winery owners were forced to breach the contract with grape growers.

Next season, farmers chopped of the wine grape shoots of varieties like Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay and grafted the rootstock with table grapes varieties like Thompson Seedless and Sonoka.

Little hope of a high

Experts say that the chances of local wine industry gathering the lost momentum are bleak.

There are several hindrances. Firstly,Indian wine cannot compete at the international level and has a limited domestic market. In India,though wine-culture is slowly catching up,the per capita consumption of wine remains dismal,at 9 ml per person,as compared to 25 litres in the US and 20 litres in Australia.

The quality of most varieties of the wine produced in the country doesn’t match up to the quality of wine that is in demand in the international market.

“The basic rule in wine making is that lesser the yield at the vineyard,the better the wine produced from such grapes. On the contrary,the local wine-grape growers take as much production as they can to earn more profit. A high yield is a major reason for the low quality of Indian wine,” said Vijay Vangane, a winemaker for over 20 wineries in the state.

Another reason for the Indian wine not making the cut at the international market is the popularity of reserve wine the wine that is matured for many years by storing in oak barrels.

Almost no wine producer in India has the infrastructure to mature the wine for years. Most of them are desperate to sell it off as soon as they distil it after crushing. They simply cant afford to wait,” said Vangane.

Experts say that if large private firms with strong financial and marketing arms enter the business,these problems can be resolved.

But till now, barring a few exceptions,large firms have abstained from entering the business.

Another major hindrance is the different wine policies of different states. In most of the states,wine is counted as liquor and it’s import,even from fellow states,attracts heavy excise duty. This discourages the growth of growth of the industry in production of state.

“States like Maharashtra and Karnataka have come up with good wine policies. Today,Maharashtra is producing wine in excess than its need but it’s difficult to market it. Even the state government can do little outside the state. For the wine business to flourish and attract farmers towards it by earning the dividends,we need to have similar wine policy (like Maharashtra and Karnataka) at the national level,” said Shikhamany.