Author – Shirish Shinde
We are living in an age of ‘hyper-communication’, where not even a single incident of any significance goes unreported. If the issue is ‘sensational’, then it is over-sensationalised. People engage on social media, which has provided individual space to anyone to express their opinion freely, without any constraint of time and space.
In this backdrop, the farmer suicides in Maharashtra, particularly in Marathwada, have produced millions of gigabytes worth of discussions. Yet, the crisis continues. The government seems to be pulling all stops to provide succor to the affected region. NGOs are working round-the-clock to alleviate the farmers’ plight. The bureaucracy dishes out statistics on farmer suicides at regular intervals. The latest update: 140 farmers have ended life when reports last came in. Over 1,100 farmers took the extreme step in 2015.
I had worked around two years in Aurangabad as a journalist a few years ago. I also visited a few villages in the Marathwada region and wrote about the crop damage and crop failure due to unseasonal rains, hailstorms and drought. It made me ponder over the issue. I wondered whether this is the first time that such a crisis has occurred in Maharashtra?
If you look at the history of Maharashtra, whenever there was an attack from outside or from within, the Marathi farmer rose up in arms – literally, and fought the enemy and won most of the time. The Maharashtrian farmer is a warrior as well. Is there a dearth of such people today? I also came across examples, where farmers fought against odds and emerged victorious. Farmers who lose their will to overcome adverse conditions hang themselves. However, there are those who have carried on with their struggle and have later led a much better life. There are many dimensions to the problem such as illiteracy, poverty, lack of moral or financial support, etc. During one such visit, I witnessed a positive story on how a village or a community of farmers has developed their village.
I had read about Patoda located on the outskirts of Aurangabad. Here was a village that provided free flour mill service to its villagers, who pay regular taxes; a barren land was turned into a thick green cover and; the village harnesses solar energy to provide cheap and eco-friendly power to its residents. One day I, along with a colleague, travelled to the village, whose population was around 3,300. Soon after we entered Patoda, we were directed to a house, where the architect of this development was living. Bhaskar Pere, the former sarpanch of the gram panchayat, welcomed us and told us the story over a cup of tea.
In the late 1990s, Bhaskar Pere was a typical drought-hit farmer, who used to do odd jobs in city to eke out a living. He wanted to give a full stop to this vicious cycle of drought-crop failure-debt. Pere, along with a handful of villagers, decided to bring that much-needed change to their lives. Water is a precious commodity in Marathwada, so they decided to save every single drop. They recycled sewage water and used it for crops. So, even in a rain-deficient year, their crops survived, which boosted their confidence. Other villagers, who initially didn’t participate in their work, started taking interest.
Later, Pere and his team were elected to the Patoda Gangapur Nehri Group Gram Panchayat. They streamlined the panchayat’s daily work and implemented proper solid waste management, covered drainages, banned open defaecation, ran the primary school and anganwadi, and planted trees. Within a few years, results were for everyone to see. Besides getting rid of infectious diseases due to the lack of cleanliness, the green cover following tree plantation gave a pleasant atmosphere to the village. The panchayat revenue rose due to incentives that villagers got in the form of free flour mill service, cheap but clean bottled drinking water as a result of paying taxes on time. All mud roads in the village were surfaced and pavements covered with interlocking blocks, while solar street lamps reduced the power bill of the gram panchayat.
In Patoda, it is mandatory for every household to build a toilet and install water meters. Solar water heaters, besides providing cheap power, save trees. Pure drinking water is supplied from a reverse osmosis water purification plant through a water vending machine at a nominal cost. Solid waste management of the gram panchayat puts even the best municipal corporations in the country to shame. Further, around 100 CCTV cameras keep round-the-clock vigil throughout the village, while its anganwadi matches the best kindergartens in cities.
What had brought such a sea change to their lives? Bhaskar Pere said, “These villagers are peace-loving. I urged and persuaded them to help themselves. I requested with folded hands to those, who did not want to join to at least not be trouble-makers. They followed what I wanted to say. We didn’t plead with the government to provide monetary support. We kept party politics out of the village boundary. Within few years, we started reaping positive results. Now, bureaucrats and politicians are taking interest in our work. They have also helped us and we are grateful.”
If one single Patoda village can turn the tide around through integrated rural development, why can’t other Marathwada villages become self-sufficient and beat the drought?