[Commentary] Why the drought did not matter in Marathwada during polls

  • The Marathwada region of central Maharashtra consists of eight parliamentary constituencies where parties were battling it out in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with BJP and Shiv Sena finally winning a significant majority.
  • Marathwada is ridden with a water crisis and drought, leading to farmer suicides. The Employment Guarantee Scheme has not provided any evident support to unskilled rural labour.
  • However, ground issues took a backseat in the elections as broader issues like the country’s security, hostility with Pakistan and a vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi took precedence, writes Meena Menon in this commentary.

Two months ago, when the rest of the country was preparing for the Lok Sabha elections, 22-year-old Kanchan Kalyan Dongre’s life was about to take a turn for the worse. Burdened by debt that he could not repay, her husband Kalyan, a farmer in central Maharashtra’s Beed district, killed himself, leaving his wife and daughters to fend for themselves. Kalyan couldn’t earn a living from the two acres he cultivated in Wadwani taluka in the drought-prone region of Marathwada and the couple had been working as sugarcane cutters for six months a year.

Kanchan, like many others, came to Beed city looking for work as there was little under the state’s Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), which promises manual work for unskilled rural labour. For women like her, without work and support, there is not much the government has to offer and NGOs like Jagar Pratisthan have stepped into the breach. It has identified the most vulnerable single women and the elderly and is giving give them food supplies provided by a generous donor, to tide over the next few months. The younger, able-bodied women cannot find work and have no means of an income.

Burdened by debt, Kalyan, a farmer in Beed district, killed himself, leaving behind his wife and daughters. Photo by Meena Menon.

Ordinarily, the EGS would have been enough to give work and wages as it has done since 1972, when drought became a regular feature in Marathwada. A calamity gave rise to an opportunity then, and to the launch of the massive employment guarantee scheme (EGS) which became a landmark programme in the country. Food for work somewhat assuaged the troubles from the lack of rain for the farmers and the EGS scheme became a permanent fixture.

Yet in 2018-2019, as drought loomed over the region again, there was hardly any EGS work in evidence in the months of March and April and the calamitous water situation made it worse. Issues that mattered to people hardly figured in the election campaigns as if the daily struggle for basic amenities was a thing of the past and as if by supplying tanker water, the state’s responsibility was fulfilled.

The unrest in people caused by the evident lack of governance before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls didn’t translate into votes as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena alliance continued its majority, accounting for 7 of the 8 seats in Marathwada. If anything, the dividing lines between communities seem to have hardened and for the first time since 1999 the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was unseated in Aurangabad with Chandrakant Khaire of the Sena narrowly losing to Imtiaz Jaleel of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. Jaleel, a former TV journalist, chose to focus on the ground issues, but Khaire’s defeat in Aurangabad can also be explained by the votes being diverted to an independent candidate, Harshvardhan Jadhav (2 time MLA in 2009 and 2014), formerly of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Shiv Sena, who polled 23.68 percent of the total votes.

The outcome of this election matters little to women like Kanchan or to others who have lost their husbands to the agrarian crisis.

Polarisation on caste and religious lines, while ground issues are ignored, is not new in Marathwada. The region has witnessed agitations on caste-based and communal issues over the years which has seen the Shiv Sena and BJP gain strength and Congress and NCP lose power in the region.

A narrative on broader problems like the country’s security, took away from the ground issues like water crisis, in the election time discussion. Photo by Meena Menon.

Tangade of the NGO Jagar and his wife Manisha Tokle have worked for many decades in Beed as activists. Never before has the situation been as critical as it has become today. Over the years, people have stopped looking to politicians to resolve their issues, said Tangade. This election campaign in fact didn’t focus on the ground issues like agragrian crisis and water shortage, impacting the people. It was all about the big picture, the vote for incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for the security of the country, riding on an anti-Pakistan sentiment and not for more pressing life and death issues like drought, water supply or food and work. Political parties too avoided the commonly used election time word, vikas (development), because there was little to show.

The only evidence of development in the region are the roads under construction all over. These were the glimpses of the achche din (“good days”, referring to a slogan from the BJP’s 2014 election campaign) that people saw and hoped for a strong, secure nation. Beed boasts of Members of Parliament like BJP’s Pritam Munde, daughter of the late Gopinath Munde (former MP and minister) who, according to reports, did not spend 40 percent of her allocated budget under the MP Local Area Development (MPLAD) scheme. Most of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance MPs from Marathwada didn’t use up their allocations fully, while the two Congress MPs Ashok Chavan from Nanded and Rajeev Satav from Hingoli exceeded their budget allocations. Chavan lost the elections this time while Satav didn’t contest.

Political feuds, power struggles dominate in water-starved Marathwada

Pritam Munde won the by-election to Beed after her father died, by a record margin of 6.96 lakh votes in 2014. She has been re-elected in 2019 as well to a constituency which is severely drought affected. Her sister Pankaja Munde is a minister in the Maharashtra government. In Beed, the rivalry is between the Munde sisters and their cousin Dhananjay Munde, leader of the opposition in Maharashtra Legislative Council and member of NCP. In the 2019 elections Pritam Munde was up against NCP candidate Bajrang Sonawane.

Khaire, a four-term politician from Aurangabad who got displaced these elections, presided over a constituency that is in the grip of a water crisis, as is Jalna and Osmanabad and the rest of the region.

Power in Marathwada is often in the hands of a few families. In Jalna, Ankushrao Tope founded a sugar and education empire which his son Rajesh Tope of the NCP, a former minister and MLA, benefitted from. The Mundes emerged as a force to reckon with on the same pattern as the western Maharashtra politicians – by setting up sugar factories and the like. Gopinath Munde was also responsible for consolidating the backward caste vote in this region (he is from the Vanzara community) and his daughters have inherited his political legacy. They are in direct contrast to activists like the late Dwarkadas Lohia and his wife Shaila, Vijayanna Borade of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Jalna, Vishwanath Todkar of Osmanabad and others who have tried to forge a sustainable approach to development in this region. While their work continues, that may not be enough to stave off an unprecedented ecological crisis. The drought of 2018-19 could be the worst yet.

In some places the people have had to fight for their rights. For instance in Osmanabad district, in Shingoli village, Anita Mane and other women say that the women here agitated in December 2018, for water, which is why their village is supplied by tankers water twice a day now. Each house gets about ten litres and they have to make do with that. Cattle camps are more than 20 kilometres away and no one has sent their animals there as it is too far. Sometimes the tanker doesn’t show up and the situation is precarious especially for the cattle.

The drought here is ironically a milking cow for politicians who often run the cattle camps, or manage fleets of tankers, for which the state government reimburses them.  It is a profitable business as Tangade and other activists point out. The politicians are in no hurry to end or mitigate such a lucrative crisis.

[Meena Menon is an independent journalist and author].


Banner image: The Marathwada region of central Maharashtra consists of eight constituencies where parties battled it out in the 2019 Lok Sabaha elections, with BJP and Shiv Sena finally winning a significant majority. Photo by Meena Menon.

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