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In parched Marathwada, farmers want to give Modi another chance

Last updated on: May 01, 2019 13:14 IST

Most farmers want to give Modi a second chance.
They hope the BJP loses at least 50 seats, so that it is dependent on its coalition partners who will then keep a check on Modi.
Jyoti Punwani reports from Marathwada.

Remnants of a chopped tree on the way to Parbhani

IMAGE: Remnants of a chopped tree on the way to Parbhani. Photographs: Jyoti Punwani for Rediff.com

A world away from the politics of patronage, caste and religious identity that dominate the cities of Nanded and Aurangabad are the villages around them. There, only one thing matters: Water.

Everywhere, people can be seen carrying plastic pitchers full of water. Men on cycles, women on their heads and at their waists.

They collect water from the nearest source -- maybe a still functioning well, or someone who has a tank.

For, say villagers of Sayal village, 31 km from Nanded city, their taps have been dry for the last five years. Their wells dried up after last Dussehra, and they have to dig 400 feet deep to find water.

The nearest source of water may be three km away, but there is no avoiding the journey. Be it menstruating women or little girls, no one is exempt.

A few days before Rediff.com reached the village, a girl had tripped, hurting herself and spilling the precious water in the pitcher on her little head. The next day, a woman fell.

That's when the villagers decided to collect the signatures of women and take a delegation to the tehsildar.

Now, tankers are being sent by the panchayat so that half the village gets water every alternate day. This water however, can't be used for cooking; for that, large jars of Bisleri have to be bought.

 

Shanta Rathod's home is spacious and well-furnished. But she can't remember a time since she entered this village as a bride, that there wasn't a water shortage.

"Do you?" Shanta turns to her neighbour Shabana, who shakes her head. "And I was born here," adds Shabana wryly. Both women have a ready reply on whom they would vote for: "Whoever brings water here."

Trouble is, no one is promising that.

Shanta's eldest child attends a residential school in a nearby town. She has not seen him for months but she doesn't want him back home: She can't imagine dealing with one more thirsty family member.

How would the homesick teenager be spending his long hot summer holiday, I wonder.

Like Shanta, Sayal's villagers are well-off, owning land and cattle. But with no water to till their land, and temperatures touching 46 degrees, daily life is hell.

They have nothing but curses for their local MLA, Hemant Patil of the Shiv Sena. "He hasn't shown his face here," they fume.

Ironically, back in Nanded, BJP functionaries say while Congress candidate and former chief minister Ashok Chavan is a formidable rival in the city, in the villages of this constituency, the BJP stands a good chance because the Sena-BJP MLAs are in touch with the people.

Under the blazing sun as the villagers start yelling about what lack of water has reduced them to: A bath once in two days; no fodder or baths for their beloved cattle, and persistent backaches for women, one hesitantly asks about the PM, Pulwama and Balakot.

The villagers mutter under their breath, too polite to express their feelings in front of city-bred female visitors.

In Holambe village, Beed district, the sun is so merciless it is difficult to absorb what Congressman Vasant Munde is explaining: Why Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis's pet scheme, the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, has failed in this arid area. But one astounding fact stays in mind: The scheme is being implemented on private land without the landowners's permission or even prior knowledge.

"The way they have dug up the earth on my land," says farmer Devnath Dahifale helplessly, "neither can I till it nor can I graze my cattle on it."

This is confirmed by a group of farmers in Hatnoor village, 50 km from Aurangabad city.

A list is made in some government department, they say, contractors are assigned work, and the farmer is the last to know.

"The kisan is the one who knows the lay of his land," says Kasambhai. "He can guide the contractor best as to which direction the water would flow. But he is the last to know that his land is being dug."

Though the farmers admit that the scheme has brought relief in some places, owners of the earthmoving machines needed for it have benefitted the most, they say.

In Beed, reveals Munde, the scheme is being investigated by the economic offences wing after the agricultural commissionerate found substance in a complaint against it.

The idea behind the scheme is water harvesting, but Marathwada has traditionally been rain-deficient.

Munde points out that those for whom agriculture is a second profession, can afford expensive but long-lasting water harvesting structures. `"But those dependent on agriculture have to depend on the rains," he says.

2015-2016 was a severe drought year, but even since then, say farmers across the belt, rains have not been enough. What has made things worse -- apart from the water spent on sugarcane, which is a political issue -- is the continuous tree-cutting that is taking place across the dry region, says Laxman Kele, former sarpanch of Hatnoor village.

On the road from Beed to Parbhani, Rediff.com saw row on row of sturdy old banyan trees cut for road widening.

"The Congress at least never cut 200-year-old trees," says Kele. "With electric machines, many trees can be felled in an hour. This government boasts of its tree plantation drive, but the old trees are being replaced by decorative bushes or small trees, which give no shade."

"Trees cut?" frowns Professor Ram Budhwant, the BJP media-in-charge in Aurangabad, when I interrupt his list of BJP achievements, which includes new highways. "You want big roads or not?"

Surely that question should be asked of the farmers who frequent those roads.

 Pandarinath Birve, Kasambhai, Ramchandra Kale

IMAGE: Pandarinath Birve, Kasambhai, Ramchandra Kale.

"Modi has no agenda for farmers," says farmer Ramchandra Kale of Hatnoor disgustedly. "The Congress had a connection with us."

Chief Minister Fadnavis does care for farmers, he adds, but gets no support from the Centre.

'Digital India' is a catchy phrase for the BJP. For farmers, however, it has meant nothing but trouble.

"75% of farmers can't deal with online forms," laments Pandharinath Birve. "I had to make four trips to the Seva Kendra with my wife before our application for loan waiver could be accepted. Her thumb prints didn't match those on her Aadhar card."

For a farmer, explains Birve, every trip can mean travelling as much as 7 km, for there is one Seva Kendra manned by one computer operator for every 10 to 12 villages. Some can afford motorbikes; others simply walk.

The loan waiver application has to be signed by both husband and wife.

"That means that day is wasted: You can't attend to your farm, you can't feed your animals." Birve had to keep his hair cutting saloon closed for four days.

Repeated trips are necessitated by a variety of reasons: Between 200 an 400 applicants a day; the computer may hang; the server may be down.

Even as I am talking to them, Birve receives a message on his mobile from the agriculture university: 'Use less fodder in this dry season.' "As if we have a choice!" he says angrily.

"That's Digital Shining India, where the reality of empty stomachs of farmers and their cattle don't matter," laughs Kale.

"Online processes eliminate corruption," admits Kale. "But there is no infrastructure to support them."

The beef ban, on the other hand, is a law designed to encourage corruption. "After the beef ban, we are getting the best quality beef," says an Aurangabad resident.

The police patil has been the ban's biggest beneficiary, say farmers. Animals past their productive age are still being sold for slaughter, for no farmer can afford to keep them; but on paper, they are being sold to other farmers. Prices for them, though, have touched rock bottom.

What about loan waivers, crop insurance and the PM's promise of Rs 2,000 per month? These schemes are so burdened with caveats, be they fixed deadlines for applying, or eligibility criteria, say the farmers, that the aim seems to be to filter out as many applicants as possible.

Or, sheer inefficiency has derailed them.

Kasambhai submitted a list of 365 names from his village Palaswadi (Khuldabad tehsil), who have not received the promised Rs 2,000. Their money had reached the bank a month ago, but the account numbers sent by the higher-ups were wrong.

Simultaneously, the fertiliser subsidy has been reduced. And, in a departure from the Congress regime, the authorities today are super strict in collecting dues.

For instance, there may be no water, but electricity bills for running water pumps are collected scrupulously, points out Kasambhai.

"The government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other," say the farmers.

"We really don't want these sops," says Kale. "Just give us a good price for our produce, like Manmohan Singh and Sharad Pawar used to (under the UPA government)."

Raising the minimum support price had been one of Modi's most-repeated pre-poll promises.

The Maharashtra government had promised a rise in the compensation amount from Rs 100,000 to Rs 500,000 to widows of farmers who committed suicide. Actually, they need Rs 5,000 a month till they become self-sufficient, says Kasambhai.

But the Rs 500,000 decision was never taken. And RTI inquiries reveal that the majority of applications for compensation have been rejected.

"We are very unhappy," says Kele. "Yet, the majority of farmers in Marathwada will vote for the BJP. They don't see the Congress as an alternative. It should have started preparing seriously for the election much in advance, but it has no cadre."

Most farmers want to give Modi a second chance, says Kele. They hope that the BJP loses at least 50 seats, so that it is dependent on its coalition partners who will then keep a check on Modi.

The second reason they are willing to vote for Modi again despite everything is the hope that "Five years more will expose the BJP so thoroughly that it won't have a leg to stand on, like the Congress didn't in 2014. Then it will be decisively kicked out."

JYOTI PUNWANI in Aurangabad
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