A Shelter Near Mumbai Provides Temporary Relief to Refugees Escaping Drought in Latur

Shobha, a refugee from drought-hit Marathwada who was injured in a train accident.

Shobha Pawar, a refugee from drought-hit Marathwada who was injured in a train accident.

Thane: Last week, Vitthal Rathod got a desperate call from his son who was in his village in drought-hit Latur district. “Take the morning bus and just come back,” the young one pleaded to his father.

Vitthal could hardly concentrate on anything after the phone call. His wife Mirabai and he had come to the city in search of work. Their journey had cost them Rs. 3,000. It would take them more than four days work to earn that amount. The costly fare had meant they could not bring with them their three children, their ages ranging from 11 to 15.

The Rathod couple, like hundreds of drought migrants from affected parts of Maharashtra is currently staying at the drought-relief camp in Thane on the outskirts of Mumbai. The camp has been set up by Shiv Sena leader and Minister Eknath Shinde.

“The children buy water and ‘dabbas’ [tiffins] from the neighbours. Sometimes they do their own cooking. When we were leaving they implored us not to leave them alone and started crying, but bringing them was too expensive. We could not afford the extra fare,” says Mirabai.

This is the first time the couple has stepped out of their village. “When there is no water at the district and taluka level, how can there be any water in the village? Schools were shut due to water scarcity. This is the first drought that has forced us to migrate,” said Vitthal. By all accounts this is a monumental drought of the kind never before seen in the region.

Children left behind

With children left behind in the villages without caretakers, small farms lying fallow due to yearly droughts and cattle kept in custody of friends and acquaintances, the migrants are counting the days before they can return home to their life; but that cannot happen till the rains arrive.

Shobha Pawar is another migrant but a few days ago, she fell off a packed train on the platform while returning from her workplace in suburban Thane. Badly injured, she had to be rushed to the hospital and received four stitches at the back of her head.

Her head swaddled in bandage, Shobha is waiting for it to heal so that she can resume work. Meanwhile, she loses Rs 300 in daily wages. She is among the 500-odd migrants who came from Nanded, Latur, Osmanabad, Hingoli and Buldhana districts in search of work and water

The irony of her condition does not escape her. “I tried to escape the drought back home only to come here and get injured,” she told The Wire. Her survival and that of her family is based on the daily work. “Think it will be eight more days before I can work again,” she said.

Many of the camp residents are first-time migrants, who survived earlier droughts, but this summer was particularly cruel. Shobha recalled the daily water disputes in her village: “People fight to fill their pots when the tanker arrives. Each of the 500 houses got only one or two pots of water.”

With four children in tow, she and her husband came to Mumbai, first settling in the Bhattwadi area in Ghatkopar with other fellow migrants. However, the living conditions there were so poor that the Bombay High Court last month, issued directions to the State government to look into their plight.

Several of the migrants were then shifted to Shinde’s camp, set up on an open MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) plot in Thane’s Wagle’s industrial estate – a cluster of small factory units, plants and shops, in his electoral constituency of Kopri-Pachpakhadi.

The facility, erected on an empty area adjacent to a nullah, is covered with tarpaulin and other fabrics and equipped with the bare necessities of life. It is serviced by public toilets and water tanks. With no walls or partitions to demarcate families, the camp is an uninterrupted communal space with groups of people chatting, sleeping, cooking, eating and going about their mundane activities. Two security guards operating in shifts guard the entrance and maintain a register of visitors.

“We have 120 families or a total population of 275 people here. We have provided three tanks of 5,000 litre capacity each, in addition to the two bore wells. There is a public toilet nearby and electricity for use. We have also built an emergency shed for unseasonal rain. Nearly 160 men and women are engaged in cleaning work in government buildings, offices and establishments, such as court building, zilla parishad office, government bungalows, industrial training institutes and police stations,” said local Shiv Sena leader Shivaji Divte who is overseeing the camp management.

Cleaning jobs

Every morning, a van transports the workers to their respective workplaces in and around Thane and Navi Mumbai. Most are engaged in cleaning jobs. For returning to the camp, they have to make use of the public transport. Those who are new to city life, like Shobha, dealing with the city’s infrastructure and hectic pace is an ordeal in itself.  Vitthal Rathod, for instance, dreads the trains. He has never travelled by one, preferring the familiar bus journey instead.

Work assignments are distributed jointly to married couples or among pairs of workers and so is the wage structure. One couple earns Rs. 700 a day – Rs. 400 for men and Rs. 300 for women. This is a slight improvement on the paltry village rate of Rs. 200 and Rs. 100 for men and women respectively for farm labour.

Children from drought-hit regions of Maharashtra in a relief camp in Mumbai

Children from drought-hit regions of Maharashtra in a relief camp in Mumbai

Apart from their earnings, each family has been provided utensils, household items and 10 to 15 kilogramme of food grain. Buckets, vessels, mats, mops, brooms, clothes, sacks of grain, kitchen provisions and firewood for cooking are arranged in neat piles near the hearth of each family. By evening, the camp turns into a large kitchen with several fires rising from make-shift stoves made of paver blocks. A fire extinguisher has been tethered to a bamboo as a safety measure.

“This camp was built much before the High Court directions. Following some media reports on the deplorable conditions in the Ghatkopar camp, all the people were shifted here. The Maharashtra government is implementing the ‘Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan’ [Irrigated Farmlands Programme] and the ‘Magel Tyala Shet Tale’ [Farm ponds to all those who ask for their farms] scheme so that farmers can face such droughts. This year’s drought has affected the entire regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada,” Shinde, minister for Public Works (Including Public Undertakings), told The Wire.

Around 15,000 Maharashtra villages are hit by drought. The forced migration caused in its wake has particularly impacted children and the elderly. High cost of travel to the cities meant that they were left behind to fend for themselves in the scorching heat in rural Maharashtra.

Sonabai and Priyanaka Chavan, who are relatives have also left their children aged three and four years with old in-laws in their village in Latur. “There is no one to take care of them. Only when it rains we will go back home,” says Priyanaka. When the water tanker arrives in the village, the old in-laws have to scramble to fill water.

After a fortnight at the camp, the women finally found their first cleaning job on Thursday. However, since the manager was absent they would get their pay a day later. They together own three acres of land. “What to do with the land when there is no water?” said Sonabai.

She brought along her other daughter who is just one-year-old. With parents at work, little children outnumber adults during daytime and the camp wears a deserted look. Mostly seen are older children pacifying their infant siblings when they cry or tots playing games to pass the afternoon till their parents return.

June 5 has been tentatively declared as the date when the camp will shut as monsoon is expected to set in.  Sanjay Jadhav from Nanded has decided to return on June 1. “I came alone because my children are still little. I send money home. This is the first time we have had to leave home due to the drought,” he said.

The drought has crippled village incomes to such an extent that Sahebrao Dalvi from Hingoli district had to borrow money for the fare to the city. A former worker at a sugar factory, he lost his job in 2012 along with 57 others during a retrenchment exercise.

Some heading home

According to local Shiv Sena leader Shivaji Divte who is overseeing the camp management, there are 275 men women and children. “One or two leave daily. I will return on June 1. It will take some time for the earth to soak in water before we start the sowing process,” said Sanjay Chavan from Nanded, a small farmer owning one and a half acres, who has been at the camp for a month.

On Thursday, Parmeshwar Chavan and his family were already preparing to leave by the 5 p.m. bus to Nanded. His uncle Santosh Rathod has been ill for five days. “Perhaps the climate here does not agree with him. We took him to a doctor, but his condition has not improved. We are therefore taking him home for treatment. Our village has good medical facilities. We own some land on which we grow ‘jowar’, but our economic condition is not good,” said Parmeshwar, who gave his class 12 exams this summer.

Many estimate that by the beginning of June half the people would have left. Most of them would be those who own land back home. Others, with nothing to go back to, will just spread out in the city looking for jobs and shelter.

All photos by Rahi Gaikwad