‘It is our death that catches your attention. Our lives are worthless…”

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Remember this story of love and loss…

She lived in Chennanur thanda. Some nights, they spent together. Some days, they lived apart. Even in those moments, they remained with each other. Outside the window that led to the hall where lights flickered ever so slightly at night, we caught him stumbling his way across the courtyard. He looked for silence in places bereft of memories. His careless whispers were heard by none. A few days later, we’d find him on the doorstep saluting every passer-by as they walked in.

They never noticed him.
He didn’t care.

She was Lambani, and he was Muslim. With changing seasons, their love blossomed. Fate had brought them together. “We were in love. I thought we would spend the rest of our lives with each other. When the villagers found out about our relationship, they asked her to leave the thanda. They forbade her from returning to her home ever again. So, she decided to leave everything behind: her home, her family, her memories,” he said with a crooked smile before whispering, “And, me…”

There was someone else. They say he didn’t know. They say he’s a fool. We watched him speak slowly with a deliberate drawl as if to draw our attention to his words.
He looked for her everywhere. She was long gone before he felt distraught.
In broken promises, he found her every now and then.

“I drown my sorrows and memories of her, of us in alcohol,” he said one night as he slept on the couch. After all these years, she lived in his memories. Perhaps, in the pain, he sought faint reminders of their long-lost love.

For theirs was a story that remained unfulfilled, and unfinished…
So, he hoarded them: reminders and memories; moments that crossed his mind from time to time. He could never escape them.

He didn’t want to.

A few days later, we walked to the fields at sunrise. It was our last day in Chincholi. There were no words left to share amongst us. They knew this day would come. So, did we. One never gets used to them: goodbyes.

Ali gave us another mathematical puzzle to solve. This was a tough one. He gave us riddles and puzzles almost every day. Sometimes, we couldn’t understand them. It amused him to no end. Beneath hazy skies, where the horizon gleamed every dusk, we stared at wreaths of smoke curling up and disappearing into the fields as travellers rode past us oblivious to our presence.

He was a poet but he stayed hidden. He mumbled verses some evenings when the sullen murmur of summer winds brought stories from lands afar.

In his smiles lurked crumbling memories: those that resurfaced from time to time. Such moments never lasted long. That was his destiny, he told himself over and over again

Phool hilta nahin use hawa hilati hai,
Ladka bigadta nahin use ladki bigaadti hai,
Dil diya dildaar samajhkar,
Tune jala diya mujhe agarbatti samajhkar,
Kitne din chupegi teri patang ke aadh main,
Ek din toh aana hai Mohammed Ali ke daad main,
Khuda garat kare motor banana waale ko,
Ghar se baidat kar diya motor chalane waale ko…

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There they stood near the gate: an old man, a jilted lover, and a loyal companion waving their arms in the air as we drove away, shedding tears of remorse for two strangers who promised to return some day.

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Amidst barren fields, we sat underneath a tree seeking shelter from the heat. These regions were semi-arid. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. Where the crossroads met, there once was a thriving farm.

There’s nothing left now. Beside us, an old woman carried large bundles of sticks on her back. Her feet were bare. Her steps were measured and deliberate. There were many like her, distant figures walking in the heat; their veils swaying in the summer breeze.

Some farms were left unattended. Nothing grew there anymore. The landscape wreaked of abandonment and helplessness. And, we felt it. So, did they.

We watched them for a long time until they disappeared.

Gulbarga was a few hours away. We hoped to meet a government official who was introduced to us by a mutual friend to discuss what we had learnt so far in Chincholi. An hour later, we stopped again. We couldn’t drive any further. The weather had taken a turn for the worse.

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Summers had just begun in these regions. But they lasted forever.

Farmers toiled in the heat. It would worsen weeks later. Animals, farms and human beings starved themselves that year. They were deprived of water, food and life. They had nothing.

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At Gulbarga, we lost all network signals. Some blocks away, the cable wires were destroyed and it would take a few hours to repair them. The city had changed in the last few years.  Blocked lanes leading to traffic snarls on both sides made it impossible to drive to opposite corners. A large crowd gathered around vendors who sold sugarcane and sweet lime juice in a narrow alleyway.

In half hour, the skies turned gloomy. The heat spell was broken, and the winds howled through the trees. Dust rose in swirls engulfing the city in shards of grey. Water dripped from perforated sheets hanging above the tea stall. When it began, everything stood still.

“It’s early,” whispered a man blowing smoke into the air. A few miles away sheaves of harvested corn lay on the ground, soaked and destroyed. The rains brought relief to those who lived in places where sprawling clusters of grey structures towered the skies. In distant lands where shadows of birds flitted across scattered farms, it meant another loss.

Of Crops, Of life and of hope.

The next morning, we left in haste. The blanket of grey had disappeared at sunrise. Blaring horns and cacophonous shrieks shrouded the city as we drove away. We never returned there.

Violence over water shortage in Maharashtra, said the headlines a few days later. Some newspapers reported that prohibit orders were implemented in drought hit regions of Latur. The order forbade the assembly of more than five people in areas surrounding the wells. Water wars had begun, claimed experts.

Death tolls rose to staggering numbers. And, that’s what the lives of farmers were reduced to in these regions: numbers. “Death is the only certainty in a farmer’s life. There’s nothing more, nothing less. Our lives have no value. If a farmer dies, his or her family will get compensated by the government. You see, our deaths are far more interesting to them than our lives. We have reached a point today where children of farmers are ending their lives,” said Sattar Patel, President of Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, a few weeks later as we took a stroll through a farm dotted with dying pomegranate saplings.

Meherbani nakko hak havet, said one of the farmers as we sat underneath a banyan tree. Two years later, we heard similar slogans on the streets of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

And, they all asked for the same things: right to live, right to dignity.

Right to be heard…

 

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State President of Shetkari Sanghatana Mahrashtra, Sattar Patel

 

That dusty afternoon, we drove through rocky paths meandering into lanes that were yet to be completed or had never begun. We couldn’t tell. Where one village led to another, the borders merged into one another. There were no lines dividing the states, no distinction in landscape. For the longest time, there was nothing around. In plunging depths of nothingness, we traipsed through unknown lands where the men wore white and women were drenched in colour. Broken barks and dead saplings made an occasional presence.

At a junction, we stopped for some pineapple milkshake. “You have to turn around,” said a local man pointing in the opposite direction. “You have overshot your turn. This road is going to a different town.” Through the village where narrow lanes led to a cluster of old dilapidated structures, we came across a large gathering of people chanting verses and singing religious songs. Their heads were adorned with red, gold and saffron. A few men carried a large chair on their shoulders.

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Her eyes were lined with kohl; her red bindi sparkled in the afternoon sun. Her cheeks were crimson while her face was coated with talcum powder. Her toes wiggled underneath her veil. Her feet were daubed with alta. She held a nonchalant gaze as they carried her to the next alley.

What if she was a child bride? we wondered aloud as the car came to a screeching halt. The alleys were cordoned off for several minutes.

It wasn’t a wedding for they sang praises of the divine. She was the reincarnation of a Goddess. So, they celebrated her existence. She was the chosen one. By whom, we wondered? They walked in a single file and disappeared behind the alleyway.

At night, Latur seemed like any other town. Congested lanes led to cluttered streets. Traffic ran in all directions. In some places, no one moved. Lights flickered in alleys where cramped in one corner were pizza joints and tea stalls. Flower vendors occupied pavements in the city market.

An old man pushed his cart in the opposite direction. Heaps of vegetables and fruits wobbled as he struggled to keep his cart steady. A few tomatoes ran down the street while he took long strides towards the adjoining pavement. There they all stood: a cart with no wheels, a vendor with no footwear on a street with no name.

There were no street lights on this lane. Sewage water overflowed onto the roads as we parked the vehicle before a lodge. The halls were dimly lit. The roof had red and blue lights. The manager looked at us suspiciously and made an entry in his register. “I need your IDs. One of the boys will take you to the rooms upstairs. Go ahead, take a look,” he said scratching his head.

Dark, dingy and smoky: that’s how we remembered the first floor. It was the kind of place that you wouldn’t forget; the kind that would remain etched in your memory. The corridors didn’t have any lights in them. They were meant to be that way: gloomy and unkempt.

The red stains on his teeth leaked into the corners of his mouth. His teeth were broken. There were ink stains on his shirt. His hair was greasy and his orange vermilion held its shape. A middle-aged man walked out of his room scratching his enormous pot belly. He eyed us with disregard. He barked his orders at one of the boys standing at the end of the corridor.

The man accompanying us opened the door. And, as suspected the room was overpriced and unhygienic. Everything seemed disjointed here. The room had a tiny vase with a broken plastic flower. The broom never touched the floor in these places. The lodge didn’t have a parking space. We wondered aloud if it would be wise to leave the car parked on the road all night. He sensed our hesitation and looked at us and said, “We can join the beds too if you want,” with a sleazy smile.

We left without saying anything.

One of our friends helped us get in touch with one of his batch mates who was an IPS officer. He contacted the SP of Latur who asked us to meet Inspector Bhaokar. We then drove to the police station opposite MIDC.

They were seated in red plastic chairs. Outside the station, a few constables walked in circles. Inspector Mali shook our hands and asked us to join him. We sensed apprehension in their demeanour. We told them we wanted to explore the ongoing farmer crisis in Latur in depth and see how we could help them. They listened to us with great patience for a while before asking, “Are you going to address anything pertaining to the Naxal situation?”

“If their presence has an adverse effect on local dynamics, then we wouldn’t hesitate to explore the situation,” we told them.

They didn’t say anything. Not for a while before one of them broke the silence by explaining, “Water scarcity in Latur has reached catastrophic proportions today. We rely on tankers for our regular water supply. You will see tankers running throughout the day. In the city, we still have means and resources to sort out water supply for our family. Empty pots left near hand pumps is the unfortunate reality of villagers in the surrounding areas.”

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The primary responsibility of the authorities, we were told, included efficient water management in the Marathwada region. Since, most of these places have been experiencing drought for several years, it is imperative that the situation is addressed with absolute criticality. There have been several newspaper reports suggesting that universities had to advance the dates of examinations and send children back to their villages because there wasn’t enough water for everyone. Hospitals couldn’t afford to perform critical surgeries for they feared they would run out of water soon.

The city had run its course and there was no water left in the ground anymore. They feared it was too late to react now.

“Farmers have to suffer the worst. They don’t have any option but to rely on tankers. Borewells have failed in the region. Those who have some water can manage to cultivate on their farms,” said Bhaokar.

***
They suggested that we visit the Sub Divisional Magistrate’s office tomorrow. He would be able to guide us on the villages we should visit and how we could help them. “We will send someone to accompany you in the morning. That way, you can sort out a meeting with him tomorrow,” Mali explained.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we decided to call one of our contacts from the police station. He met us outside the lodge and suggested that we take a detour from the main road.

In half hour, we reached the SDM’s office. He was in a meeting. We were asked to fill a form indicating the purpose of our visit. We were then led to a small room filled with files occupied by two employees. There was a woman typing away into her computer. She was a copywriter. There was another elderly man chewing betel leaf and staring outside the window. He spat a few times and strummed his fingers on the table.

We scrolled through news reports that delved deeper into the situation of Latur. The number of suicides in the Marathwada region had increased in the last few months. There was no hope left. None, whatsoever.

There were 2017 tankers operating in the region. However, only 126 were run by the government, and the rest are privatised. This is between 1035 villages and 2044 hamlets. Some reports stated that Bhatangali, Bhatkeda and Sonavati village in Marathwada seemed to be in a dire situation. The Manjara dam had run its course. If the region received no rainfall this year, farmers feared the situation would reach catastrophic levels.

It did. Some paid attention for a while. The rest moved on.
Farmers lived, farmers died. Everyone lost someone, that year.

There were other reports published almost every day. Water tankers were being hijacked near the Dhanegaon water reservoir. In 2015, riot-like situations broke out near the Osmanabad-Beed border where people fought over water. They had completely stopped the supply to Latur. That year, residents were seen bathing on the steps of municipal headquarters in an attempt to get the authorities to deal with the looming crisis. The pipelines meant for water supply hadn’t been laid yet.

In 1972, when a similar drought-like situation plagued Latur, the then government discouraged farmers from planting sugarcane and urged everyone to grow food crops instead. However, in 2014, the Maharashtra government encouraged farmers to grow the cash crop promising them better rates and profit margins by setting up sugar co-operatives whose operations have failed miserably over the last few years. Most of these government-run co-operatives are largely embroiled in corruption.

An elderly man asked us to proceed towards his office. We entered the SDM’s office and he wasn’t there yet. He was in his meeting room inside the cabin. We spotted his name plate beside us. His name was Dr Prathap Kale.

 

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Then Latur SDM Dr. Prathap Kale

 

“A lot of work is underway, right now. But the focus of our administration is concentrated only on addressing water scarcity in these regions,” said Pratap as he gestured us to sit beside him, “There are 118 villages in my jurisdiction. Topographically, some of the villages are in decent condition. However, a few are horribly affected by the situation. And, you must visit these villages to believe what you hear. Their state is pitiful and requires urgent attention. Some of them are slightly inaccessible. Perhaps, I could suggest someone to come with you who could help you with translation too.” In a short while a young man joined us from the adjoining room. He was the SDM of Vilanda taluk.

He then turned to us and explained that it was imperative we provide a long-term solution in the area for there were several organisations who already offered help to farmers by addressing their immediate needs such as tractors and water tankers. “I would suggest that you take up a village where both water and soil conservation could be done. It is best if you adopt some village and facilitate programmes that will work towards improving their situation. The main objective of jalyukta yojana is water and land conservation. We are also focusing on deepening and widening of water bodies.  The ground water level has to improve and we have to do everything we can to improve the water table. If you have enough funds, you can take up a village where there is an immediate need for water conservation,” he said.

In Rajasthan, the government has made it mandatory to conserve rain water. However, in Latur owing to diminished rainfall, it is impossible for them to store any water let alone implement rain water harvesting schemes. “People here are struggle to get drinking water. So, conservation has a long way to go. The city too is struggling to survive. The condition has worsened in the last four years here. Many of our water sources have dried up,” he said.

We wondered aloud about the possibility of tankers managing water supply in the city for all their sources had run dry. Latur which boasts of a population of 500,000 relies on such tankers and residents have no option but to manage with whatever was supplied to them. “These days we have outsourced the supply to regions that have some water since our sources have completed dried up,” he said.

We then pointed out that this wasn’t a feasible solution in the long run. “Yes, we are quite worried about that too. We are trying to come up with a solution with varied possibilities including getting water through trains. We are trying our best,” said Prathap.

Two weeks later, the first train carrying water tank wagons reached the Latur station. 500,000 litres of water were supplied everyday to surrounding villages. Scores of them gathered at all hours waiting for the vehicle to arrive. Kids climbed atop the tanker while their fathers screamed at the rest of the family to straighten out their pipes.

He was curious to understand the situation of drought-hit regions in Karnataka since we mentioned that we had spent some time there. We told them that although things were taking a turn for the worse in Davangere, the situation wasn’t as critical as Latur. While some villages struggled to get water at 1000 feet, some farms were well-irrigated. “Here, borewells have to be dug at least 700 to 800 feet. Two years ago, the CEO of Gulbarga visited Latur and had to submit a report on Jalyukt-Shivar Abhiyan and understand how they could implement similar schemes there. Many decades ago, we had both water and food scarcity in the region. However, this time around it is just water. There’s ample food available here. The government has announced some very good schemes for farmers here wherein they get ration every month,” said Kale.

Owing to water shortage, farms in these regions have dried up. Villagers are migrating to cities in search of jobs. There’s no agricultural work happening here any more. “The situation is getting worse everyday. People are also moving to towns where they have relatives. Most of them look for construction work. However, owing to water shortage all construction work has been put on hold here. Nothing can be allowed to function simply because there isn’t enough water. There aren’t any crops in the fields then how can we allow anyone to use water for construction work,” he said.

We asked him if other normal activities have been affected in the urban environment. “We have reduced the used water usage norm,” he explained and added, “If we had decent water water supply, on a normal day, we would provide 80 litres per person. Now, we have now reduced it to 40 litres per day in the cities,” he said.

We told him about articles stating that the government plans to impose Section 144 in certain regions for they feared an outbreak of water riots in Latur. “Unfortunately, the report has been sensationalised and misinterpreted by news agencies. There isn’t any fear of water riots breaking in the region at all. Section 144 has been imposed only in the regions/areas where the tankers are filled near our water filtration plant. This has not been imposed at the collection points nor at the distribution points. This was done to avoid people unnecessarily rushing to collection points for water. We also wanted to avoid political people using their influence to get water supplied to their areas through wrongful means. We also wanted to protect the tankers and ensure that water reaches appropriate regions on time. This was done as a precautionary measure,” said Prathap.

In an hour, he mentioned that he would send his field officers to the village with us. They were to help us communicate with the locals in the area. He then advised us to first analyze the situation and understand what was required in these areas. We then agreed that together, in a collective manner, we would be able to address and improve the situation.

***
At night, we sat and discussed everything we had learnt so far. We switched on the TV and saw several local news channels broadcasting news from villages in Latur. There were serpentine queues for water in the region. And, that had become a regular sight here.

As we drifted off to sleep, we wondered aloud about the situation of farmers in the area. Helpless and distraught, most of the families are being pushed to the brink of committing suicide.

A year later, farmers took to the streets and cut off supplies to major cities. Milk was spilled and intellectuals debated boisterously over the possibility of farmers getting their dues. Another year passed by, and thousands of them marched again. Blistered feet and bruised souls walked beside one another demanding the government to fulfill their promises. Thousand miles away, farmers from Tamil Nadu protested in the state capital. Some held rats in their mouths, some held skulls in their hands, and some drank their urine.

Another year, another march. Farmers have now returned home.
Carrying a sack of unfulfilled promises alongside their broken spirit.

“We won’t give up. As long as we can breathe, we will keep marching,” said Sattar Patel one morning, a few months ago. “It won’t matter, you know. Unless we all die. Then, they’d have something worthy to discuss about.”

“It is our death that catches your attention.”
“Our lives are worthless…”

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

 

 

 

 

 

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