Every day thousands of people visit Shirdi to pray at the auspicious temple of Shri Sai Baba. The numbers increase by tenfold during Ram Navmi. Asking and pleading or thanking the higher power for his gifts or his mercy. But, there is a bitter truth that confronts those who live there, every year. A scarcity of Water.
In summer of 2016, there had been several reports on how railway ministry stood up to send water laden trains to Latur in Maharashtra, to help drought affected areas. Water problems are nothing new for these districts, but last year was certainly the most difficult. How do we tackle these issues? So there wasn’t enough rainfall. Do we blame the government for not being supportive, or the villagers for not being prepared, or just leave it aside thinking its nature’s fury and, pff, who are we to go against the almighty’s wrath. So, let me tell you the story of how Kushal, a young man, came face-to-face with this shocking reality.
On a trip to Bangalore, a city with an amazing nightlife, Kushal & his friends decided to hit the pub. As he was standing at the counter waiting to order.
“My eyes fell on a guy’s keys on the counter which were resting on his bill. The bill amount was Rs. 77,000!”
Kushal’s father had moved to Shirdi for work before he was born. Due to Shirdi’s Saibaba Trust, the situation was still manageable, they were provided with drinking water every week. An engineering graduate from a college in Pune, Kushal had friends who were from places where the situation was far worse, Latur for instance.
“Mere dost ghar nahi jaate they kyuki waha paani nahi hai (My friends didn’t visit their homes as there was no water). They were trying not trouble their families or themselves.”
The 5-digit figure of 77,000 was stuck in his brain all along when he was coming back from Bangalore. Witty use of the internet, government websites, and news pieces gave him, what I would call, a ludicrous piece of information.
“You could live on ₹30 a day in a rural area in Maharashtra.”
Now here comes a bold move on curiosity, Kushal decided to go visit these areas and live in 35 Rupees a day for food. He just wanted to see on-ground what was on paper (or the screen for that matter). He didn’t have drought on his mind. All he wanted to do, was to see if survival was as easy as it looked on paper.
“Mera pehle se esa tha ke waha jaake photos nahi lena (I had decided that I won’t take photos when I go to these places). I just wanted to live there like they do.”
With a bus pass of Rs. 1400, which lets you board a bus anywhere in Maharashtra. He had no wallet, just the calculated per day cash, and a simple phone. He visited his friend in Beed (a district in Maharashtra) as to how he could go about this and which areas could he visit. And he started his 7-day journey.
The first day was extremely difficult. But then he made a plan to eat at a time of day which wouldn’t leave him too hungry by nightfall. To stay he used to look for a shade, a school, or a temple. This is when Kushal began noticing the problem that the media talked about – Water crisis. He recounts things he saw during his entire trip.
“The situation was far worse than what was shown in the news. Yes, water was supplied to districts, but it never reached outside the, say, 20-25 km radius of the centre where it was delivered.”
“One evening, I was talking to a chaaiwaala that the government is sending water to help, but he told me no water reached there. Drought is the last thing they want to talk about. They have already suffered so much, that they have adapted to the situation of no food, no water.”
When the villagers run out of food they boil tandul kunjara (low quality not fully grown rice), and even if that isn’t available they boiled and ate what cattle consume. Kushal told me he ate the same with a family when he stayed in one of the districts.
“I stayed with a family in their shades, who had sold their cattle. They were reluctant to give me the food they were eating as they thought it was not befitting my background. But I asked them to serve me what they ate. It was what is served to cows and goats. They boiled it and added salt or sugar for taste.”
Kushal was in touch with his friend via phone. A place or two where he got off, the turn around time of the buses was 2 days, which he didn’t know. They (Kushal and his friend) couldn’t even find on the internet. He shares the effort people put in to fetch water. At Sarola,
“I had gotten off the bus midday. I saw a family, the man, his father, his wife, two young boys and an adolescent girl. They were carrying empty water containers. I followed them. An hour and half later, I asked them how far were they going? 15 kms! When we reached the place, there was a crowd waiting to draw water from hand pump with a very slow rate of flow of water.”
We were at a cafe coffee day, I couldn’t meet his eyes, not that I wasn’t listening. I was watching the condensed water drop trickle down the side of the glass when he told me about the next district he visited.
“I reached Parbhani. I asked the elders for a place where I could stay. He directed me towards a small temple down the road. Near the temple I saw a tree, with three ropes hanging. For an moment I stood there, and then it clicked me. Kisi ne udhar suicide kiya tha (someone had committed suicide).”
A guy who took care of the mandir nearby told him very rudely, ‘these are people who give away in the face of drought’.
People have found ways to sustain themselves by migrating to places to make a living by working at fertile places in Maharashtra for three months at a time. Being a part of a fellowship working in an educational sector, Kushal tells me how these things are also affecting the education of kids who also migrate with their families. They don’t get to study, and hence they can’t empower themselves to change. Trapped in this vicious cycle. A few weeks back, I spoke to Zenrainman, and that account made me ask him if they (villagers) ever tried to sustain using rainwater harvesting, however little, for when it did rain. ‘Too much effort and money’ is required, is what they told Kushal. They don’t have tractors, digging a well is a distant story.
“When someone from village gets educated, and advises them, they are very caustic towards them. Jyada sheher dekh liya kya tune? (Been around too much, have you?). People who come from outside don’t stay more than a year. I think an organisation which settles there between a cluster of 2-3 villages and regulates things, will help.”
Kushal lost 6 kgs when he came back from his 7-day trip. Till date, he hasn’t told his family about what he did. Post this he had even applied for another project called ‘drought duty’, by initiatives like Swaraj Abhiyan and activists like Medha Patkar, but he had already stressed himself during the Maharashtra journey and fell ill.
Kushal doesn’t want to stop here. He plans on visiting other states as well. But his travel in Maharashtra was very difficult. Since he knows the regional language, he was able to fare well. He’s looking for companions who can join him in this journey. If you would like to reach out to him to get to know him better or join him in his journey, reach out to him at kushal(dot)sonawane2015(at)teachforindia.org
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