Maharashtra is all set for the polls, but many from this village won't be voting

No Aadhar card, voter ID, ration card, housing, drinking water, jobs or toilets … that’s how 35 families from the de-notified bhil tribe have been living in a small hamlet not very far from Mumbai

Varsha TorgalkarVarsha Torgalkar   19 Oct 2019 5:59 AM GMT

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Maharashtra is all set for the polls, but many from this village wont be voting

"I won't be voting as I don't have a voter identity card. In fact, I have never voted in my entire life," said Indubai Laxman Gaikwad, an old, wrinkled-faced lady sitting cross-legged outside her house. She does not know her age. She tells us that her two grand-daughters are married.

Indubai lives in Bhil basti (hamlet) at the far end of Alegoan Phata village, about 70 kms from Pune in Maharashtra. The 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections are set to take place on October 21, but there isn't any excitement in this basti.

Indubai, whose grandparents lived in the same village, has no Aadhar or ration card. She has no idea who the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) is or when is the voting.

But she is not an exception. Around 35 families belonging to the Bhil tribe -- one of the de-notified tribes (DNT) -- stay in this hamlet, but only 14 families have ID cards like voter's card, Aadhar and ration card. Bhils are the members of de-notified tribes who were once registered as criminals and had to register with local authorities.

Sunita Bhosale, an activist who belongs to the de-notified nomadic tribe and works for them, said: "Can you imagine they don't have any proof of being Indian citizens despite their forefathers having stayed in this village?"

When we spoke to Manisha Bhosale, sarpanch of the village, she accepted most of the families here don't have voter's card. She said, "Some of them did not apply for them, and few of them have migrated from other villages. But we are gathering information so that all of them get a voter ID, Aadhar and ration card."

When asked whether she can provide data about the number of Bhil families in the village and how many of them have these important documents, she said she would call later. She did not respond to our calls after that.

Around 35 families belonging to the Bhil tribe stay in this hamlet, but only 14 families have voter's card, Aadhar and ration card. Pic: Varsha Torgalkar

"Hamlet lacks basic facilities"

When Gaon Connection visited the village, Indubai and other women were sitting on the floor swabbed with animal dung in front of their thatched houses at the hamlet. Indubai said: "I am not entitled to get food grains from the ration shop here as nobody in my family of two married sons and two married daughters has ration cards."

The hamlet does not have basic facilities like water supply, toilets, concrete houses or gas cylinders. In fact, the land where they live belongs to the government is not in their names.

Kaushalya Sunil Mali, a skinny, middle-aged woman wearing a Pink saree, showed us the hamlet which is spread across half-acre land and had over 40 thatched huts made of grass, wooden sticks and plastic covers. Most of the rooms were less than 10 feet wide. The walls were swabbed with mud or cow dung. A few goats were tied to trees.

Kaushalya, who was sitting in her courtyard next to a stove and a heap of wooden sticks, said: "We want the government to build houses for us under the Gharkul Scheme. Under this scheme, all poor families get houses. Why don't we get selected? Roofs of our houses leak and water gushes down during rains. It is too hot during the summers. We don't have any option, but to stay here."

Bhosale, the sarpanch, confirmed that villagers haven't got homes under the Gharkul Scheme or the Thakkar Bappa Integrated Tribal Habitation Improvement Programme Scheme, under which tribals get housing.

Sayyed S, the gramsevak of Alegoan Phata and the sarpanch, accepted that the villagers don't have homes. Bhosale said, "They stay on Gairan land (government land where cattle go for grazing) and don't have land in their name. If they have to apply for a house under any scheme, they need to have land in their name."

Bhosale, who is also an activist, said: "It's not difficult to allocate land to these families, but nobody takes the problems of DNTs seriously."

The hamlet does not have basic facilities like water supply, toilets, concrete houses or gas cylinders. Pic: Varsha Torgalkar

"No water supply"

When we entered the hamlet, a number of utensils were kept in a line near the only water tap through which water was trickling down. Women, along with their kids, were waiting for their turn. Kaushalya said: "This water is supplied by a farmer who has a farm on the other side of this road. He stopped the water supply after a fight broke between our men and other villagers. The villagers inserted a wooden stick in the tap. Now the flow of water is too slow. It takes half-an-hour to fill one bucket. At times, the flow stops completely. Then we have to beg to the villagers to allow us to fill water from their wells or public hand pumps."

The gramsevak said that nobody from the hamlet had come up to him saying they don't get regular water supply. He said, "All the hamlets in the village have borewells. Besides, we have recently passed a proposal worth Rs 1 lakh to build a water tank near the hamlet."

Residents here are aware of their rights that they should receive drinking water, housing and toilets. They often go to the gram panchayat to ask for help but are often ill-treated by the gram panchayat members and other villagers.

Kaushalya, whose voice choked while narrating an incident, said: "On August 15, we all went to attend the gram sabha with a hope that our request to get water would be met with. First, the gram sabha members and villagers looked at us like we were criminals. Then they started laughing and told us that the gram sabha was over. Do we look like retards? Aren't we supposed to participate in the gram sabha? They treat us like this whenever we go to the gram panchayat."

When asked, Sayyed S, the gramsevak, refuted these claims.

Kaushalya added that politicians visit the hamlet during elections, but later don't bother about us. She said, "As elections are approaching, many politicians visited our hamlet and asked for votes. Just before the elections, they will lure our men with fake promises and make us vote for them. Later, they will not both to visit us."

Kavita Suresh Kale, another middle-aged woman who was holding her three-month-old baby and was being trailed by three other kids, was sitting in her hut that didn't have more than 15 utensils, a few torn blankets. She requested whether she can get a ration card. She said, "My husband had a ration card. But another man from the upper caste tore it after he had a fight with my husband. Now we have to buy food that is expensive."

Kavita delivered her fifth baby two months ago at her home as she was not aware of whether she would get free treatment at the government hospital. Kavita didn't take any medicine or went for screening during the nine months of her pregnancy. She informed her child was vaccinated only once.

There are over 40 kids living in the hamlet who were seen in torn clothes or were half-naked. They were fooling around when they should have been at the school.

Kavita said, "There is no Anganwadi nearby. We want the gram panchayat to start the one at this hamlet as all kids will gather there and get food to eat. But nobody listens to us. All the women here work as labourers either at farms or at construction sites. We don't have the option but to get our kids along who play at the farm. Those who are six and above go to the government school in the village."

At another end of the hamlet, in a hut, Sangita Mali, who had recently delivered a baby, was resting on a bedsheet on the floor in a room plunged in darkness. A glass of water and some food was kept nearby. As per a tradition among the tribe, the women who deliver babies, are considered to be untouchables and are kept at a separate hut for a month. Sangita said her major problem is that there are no toilets and washrooms at the hamlet.

Kaushalya said: "Everyone at the hamlet has to go to nearby farms when they have to defecate as there is not a single private or community toilet here. It's risky to go out at night or when it's raining. Sometimes villagers don't allow us to go to their farms. The villagers have built their own toilet by tying their sarees to bamboo sticks. This is where women and children take a bath."

When asked the gramsevak said: "They need to have land in their name only when we can approve a toilet in their name."

This tap through which water trickles down is the only source of water for people living in this hamlet. Pic: Varsha Torgalkar

"No livelihood opportunities"

The major challenge for people here is a lack of livelihood opportunities. In the absence of employment opportunities and ration cards, residents struggle to get two meals a day.

Sunil Balu Pawar, a resident of this village, said: "We catch fish in nearby ponds and river streams and sell them in the village. Sometimes villagers don't allow us to sell fish in the village."

Indubai said, "We go to their farms to do work, but they pay us only Rs 150 whereas women from other villages get Rs 200 for the same work. We don't get work regularly. Like, last year, we didn't get much work because of drought. We should get regular work under the Employment Guarantee Act."

MP Agawane, the village accountant, said that he is aware that many families are not getting food grains. In 2016-17, 18 families who had received ration cards, didn't get food grains from the fair price shops. I had intervened then. However, other families in the hamlet did not come forward to inform me that they didn't have ration cards, voter IDs or Aadhar Cards."

When asked whether she can provide data about the number of families not having these important documents, the gramsevak said: "I am not sure whether any such data is available. If not, we need to go to each house and find out."

Also Read: "I request the government to build toilets in my village"
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