Apart from its fiery masalas and its functional chappals, Kolhapur evokes images of prosperous sugar farmers and an economy known for its record-setting purchases of Mercedes cars. This is a different Kolhapur.
Vilas Patil lives in Karandewadi, in the Karveer taluka of Kolhapur district. He has three acres of rainfed land, not all of which is cultivable. Even of the good land, he manages to plant only on a portion because he can no longer afford the inputs. In a good monsoon, the land provides rice and ragi enough to feed his family for a part of the year. There is never any surplus to sell in the market. Patil makes ends meet in the ‘employment’ of a brick merchant. He is bonded by his debt to this brick merchant for many years now. His financial year begins with the sowing season, when the merchant lends him the money to sow his crops. The most recent instalment of this loan was Rs 70,000. It goes to financing his farming activities and also to tending to household needs. After Diwali, Patil and his wife will go to the brick merchants and work for six months making bricks. They are expected to produce 1,000 bricks a day for which they are credited Rs 600, adjusted against their debt. Making 1,000 bricks requires the couple to work in two shifts, from 3 am to 12 pm and then again from 3 pm to around 7 pm. They do this six days a week. On Sunday (or the market day), they get the day off and Rs 500 to purchase their week’s worth of groceries. At the end of the season, the merchant tells them how much they have repaid and what their outstanding debt is. Nothing is written down; everything is verbal and unsurprisingly, their debt never seems to end. This earns the merchant the rights to their labour the next year as well.
Patil’s son was pursuing a BSc degree at a college in Kolhapur. His parents asked him what the point was, but he insisted on studying. To save money, he would walk the six km from the Kolhapur bus stand to his college. One day while on this walk, he lost his wallet and all his money with it. He was inconsolable. The injustice of losing all his money even as he was trying to stretch every rupee as far as it could possibly go was too much for him to bear. The incident broke his spirit and he has stopped going to college since.
Wondering about leakages in the local public distribution system (PDS) supply, I asked Patil why they needed to buy grains from the market despite having their own production and PDS rations. Patil, however, thought I was questioning why he needed to consume so much food. With guilt-filled eyes and an apologetic tone, he offered his explanation, “Bahut mehnat ka kam hai, kya kare saheb bhuk jyada lag jati hai, kabhi kabhi bhakri do ka teen ya char ho jata hai (It is very hard work, what to do sir it make us hungry, sometimes we need three or four bhakris instead of just two)”.
I was mortified. I was mortified by his submissive eyes. I was mortified at my own insensitivity. I was mortified that so many among us still view their daily bread as a carefully rationed commodity. I was mortified by the thought that rather than freeing him from the burden he carries, the government is obsessed with ensuring that he defecates out of our sight. But I was most mortified that he accepted my question as legitimate. That he felt the need to justify how much he ate to a perfect stranger. It was the reaction of a man who has never been allowed to experience his freedom. The structures of power that surround Patil require him at every step to prove his legitimacy, self worth and indeed his right to exist. It is this constant battering that has mentally supplicated him to the point where he has stopped believing in his own sovereignty. I would have been happier if he had asked what gave me the right to question his food intake, but instead I got a glimpse of the depths of his bondage. The struggle for freedom has still along way to go.
With millions like Patil and their families still struggling to free themselves from systemic subjugation, I cannot help but wonder where our priorities should lie. Should we be obsessing with ‘fixing’ these people so that we may appear swachh, shiny, developed and pleasing to the world? Or should we instead be seized with an urgent desire to bring them the experience of freedom? Maybe these words from B.R. Ambedkar suggest the answer:
“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”
Sachin Rao works for Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan.