Raigad: For Narmada Naik, a 40-year-old woman belonging to Maharashtra’s particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), one of the 75 classified tribes, the onset of summer is the harshest. To reach her tribal hamlet Malwadi in Pen taluka, located on a hilltop, it takes a 30-minute trek. With both her knees severely affected by arthritis and no other adult members in the family to help, Naik has to climb up and down the hilly path at least four times every day to fetch eight-ten cauldrons of water. The village, with over 80 houses, all belonging to the extremely impoverished Katkari community, has no access to water.
Malwadi, in the Ambivali panchayat of Raigad district – around 61 kilometres from Mumbai – is one of the many Adivasi hamlets in the region neglected by the state administration. Women here are seen juggling buckets, washing clothes and carrying children all day long. Most men travel to neighbouring villages in the taluka to work in brick kilns. These tribal families are mostly landless. Scarcity of water prevents those who own small patches of land from cultivating. Water, or rather the lack of it, looms large in their lives.
“Until I was 15, I lived in a nearby hamlet where water was never an issue. After getting married, I came here. Since then, I haven’t spent a day without lifting gallons of water on my head,” says 30-year-old Manisha Waghmare. She is returning home at 12:30 pm, after spending over five hours at a public tap on the Goa-Mumbai highway, which cuts past the access road leading to their village.
Women are expected to fetch water since the men go out looking for daily wage labour. Most women set out in pairs, with buckets and cauldrons and clothes to be washed at the public taps. The taps are 2 km away and provide water to the bastis along the Mumbai-Goa highway. “There are very few taps and many who depend on them. Frustrating, long waits in the queue sometimes end in bitter fights,” says Waghmare.
Most women are malnourished and look much older than their age. Their wilted, bony structures struggle to carry the load, but they do not have a choice. “Besides the three months of rains, we have to drag ourselves up and down the hill, each day without fail. Quite often, we lose balance and skid on our way up. It is a precarious affair,” explains Radhika Naik.
Children left out of mid-day meal scheme
The water problem is acute and the terrain difficult to manoeuvre. Children do not have anganwadi (rural child care centre) facilities. Almost 25 children in the village, between 0-6 years of age, can’t avail the mid-day meal scheme since the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers are not willing to come here.
“If they agree, they will have to trek each day with food prepared for 25 kids. There is no water to cook food here,” tells Naik, whose children are left out of the mid-day meal scheme. “We were asked to send our children to the nearest village, which is 3 km away, for an anganwadi. Imagine a six-month-old being made to travel every day on the muddy path just to eat that khichdi and puffed rice,” adds an exasperated Naik.
The only school here, until Class IV, has five students. Two male teachers come here every day – one from Pen taluka and another from Panvel.
Unlike the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra, the Konkan belt (covering 30,746 sq km) is the state’s most prosperous — and water rich. There is abundant rainfall here. That a hamlet like Malwadi still struggles to access water is only symptomatic of how tribal citizens are neglected.
The villagers here say they are tired of petitioning the local governing body and the state government. “Every election, you will find local activists of every party climbing up to the village to tell us who to vote for. But they go missing as soon as the elections are over. We exist only as their vote bank. Our problem has never moved the MP or the MLA of this region,” says 30-year-old Sudhir Naik, who works as a security guard in a nearby school run for poor and orphaned children.
District declared ODF, but none of the houses have toilets
In 2014, Anant Geete, sitting member of parliament, and Shiv Sena’s lone member in the Union cabinet. was one of the first politicians to have aggressively promoted the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The SBM’s dashboard shows that in 2014-15, only 14.95% households in Raigad district had toilets. However, in 2017-18, the district apparently attained open defecation free (ODF) status.
When Naik showed this reporter around the village, not a single house has a toilet attached. The only toilet structure built here is for the school. “But that too was never used due to water scarcity,” Sudhir says. The plastic door has come off and there is no attached tap. Children use the space to play hide and seek.
Geete is seeking a seventh term as the member of parliament from Raigad district. He has been elected since 1996. His strongest opponent, Sunil Tatkare of the NCP, lost in 2014 by a mere 2,100 votes. This election, the third strongest party, the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWPI), has decided to extend its support to the NCP candidate. But villagers here say neither of the candidates have paid attention to their most basic needs, forget the overall development of the community.
Vaishali Patil, a social activist working on land and Adivasi rights in the region, says the Katkari community is the most neglected in the region. “The community is lagging behind on every human development index. The socio-economic condition is poor and even the most basic state schemes take forever to reach here,” she says. Patil’s assessment seems accurate. Several villagers are trying to avail food grains under the Antyodaya scheme. Only two old and widowed women have managed to get money under the pension scheme.
Ujjwala Yojana yet to reach the hamlet
Similarly, under the NDA government’s flagship Pradhanmatri Ujjwala Yojana, only two houses in the village have got LPG connections. But they have abandoned the cylinders, returning to firewood. They say the cylinders, which cost around Rs 700, are beyond their reach. “When we got the connection, we assumed a cylinder would last several months. But with seven persons in the family, the cylinder lasted less than a month. We don’t have the money to refill it,” said Pramila Waghmare.
The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana aims at safeguarding the health of citizens, specifically women, by providing clean cooking fuel. The scheme, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 1, 2016 in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district, aims to cover over five crore below poverty line families under it. Even though Rs 8,000 crore was allocated towards its implementation, several villagers in the region have ditched using LPG cylinders, mainly because it is unaffordable.
The Waghmares are now negotiating with the district administration to revert to the public distribution system (PDS) scheme which earlier provided them with two litres of kerosene every month. “Modi promised that lives of rural women would improve because of his schemes. Here I am, struggling to cook two meals every day. At the end of five years (Modi government’s tenure), I am left without a gas connection or kerosene to run my family,” she laments.