Mann taluka in Satara district is ground zero for the drought now ravaging interiorMaharashtra. The only cattle camp in the vicinity, being run by the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank and Foundation, provides a snapshot of the widespread distress.
This region, known as ‘Manndesh’ in Marathi folklore, falls in the rain shadow area of the state. Over the last three years there has been poor rain or none at all and the local lakes, ponds and wells have dried up. Ironically, Mann falls in the parliamentary constituency of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who recently claimed to have spent millions shoring up irrigation facilities inMaharashtra. It is also adjacent to the ‘sugar belt’ – sugarcane is incidentally a notoriously water intensive crop – which Maratha politicians consider their stronghold, having poured in a lion’s share ofMaharashtra’s development funds here. Yet, ‘Manndesh’ continues to remain at the mercy of capricious rains.
The cattle camp, spread over an expanse of five acres, presents scenes right out of a refugee camp. Thousands of animals and people stand under the scorching sun with not a tree in sight. There are, thankfully, green coloured tents to provide some shelter from the elements.
The idea of the camp emanated from social entrepreneurs Chetna and Vijay Sinha, who were political activists associated with the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the Seventies. Chetna Gala-Sinha, a micro-finance expert, is founder-president of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, the only women’s bank in ruralMaharashtra. Along with innovative financial products and services for the rural poor, she has been banker to nearly two lakh poor local women and understands the adverse implications that droughts have on their lives. She says, “Women find the drought harder as they have the primary responsibility of providing food and water in the household. Moreover, they are the main caregivers to the animals.” Nowadays, many are cooking and caring for two households, one at the village and another in the camp, adding to their already tremendous workload.
Of course, the couple could see the bad times coming. Says Vijay Sinha, a newly elected leader of the Mhaswad municipality, “The oncoming devastation was obvious as summer set in. We simply had to do something and couldn’t wait for the government to wake up.”
Laxman Nana Bhosale, a farmer from Hingane village captures the drought’s severity, “In earlier droughts, our village did well. When water of the local lake went down it offered us good arable land. This time even that land has turned arid.” He, like hundreds of farmers here, has had no option but to seek refuge in this cattle camp where water and cattle feed has been provided.
Running an endeavour of this magnitude, without government help, may be a formidable task but the camp’s staff seems up to it. After all, they are used to the meticulous functioning of an RBI-monitored cooperative bank. Naturally, to ensure its smooth functioning, some innovative systems and delivery mechanisms have been set up.
The entire camp is divided into zones based on where the villagers come from, as also the time of their arrival. The delivery of cattle feed follows a roster system. Rekha Kulkarni, CEO of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, explains, “Each person has a card with the number of animals, and the feed they are entitled to. This is tick-marked every time a person receives the daily quota. Each big animal gets 15 kilos of dry grass, sugarcane, and corn per day and three kilos of processed cattle feed per week. Water is poured into big tanks around the camp and people carry it to their animals in buckets. Two water tankers make five trips a day to a pipeline 11 kilometres away to bring in the required three lakh litres of water daily.”
The expenditure for feed is Rs 80 (US$1=Rs 55) per animal, which the government will pay for eventually. But the water – its transportation and delivery – costs more and government funds don’t cover this. The camp requires over Rs 2 lakh every day and the Sinhas have appealed to industrial houses, banks, sarvodaya organisations and animal rights groups to help.
Kisnabai Atpadkar from Varkute Malavadi village walked 16 kilometres with her animals to reach the camp. Talking about the situation in her village she says, “The tanker comes every 15 days. My six cows need over 200 litres of water daily. Where can we store this? If I decide to sell my cattle now, I would loose my life’s savings.”
Atpadkar has got timely support, but the situation in ‘Manndesh’ is critical. Says Rupesh Mane,CampManager, “Drought for the last three years has meant that even a borewell 300 metres deep does not yield water. Each big animal needs around 60 litres of water every day. There is no water in the wells, taps run for two hours every four days and tankers hardly reach the villages.”
With all this in mind, the cattle camp began on April 21. By the end of May, the number of animals reached over 4,000 and the camp threatened to become unmanageable in terms of fodder, water and other internal logistics. So the organisers decided to stop new entries.
When this news spread people from faraway villages gathered their animals together and brought them to the camp by trucks and tempos. In two days the number rose by over 1000. On the third day, when people reached the boundary of the camp and found the gates closed many were reduced to tears. For them, the difference between being inside or outside of the camp meant the difference between life and death.
But no one has been denied entry. Today, there are 2,500 people and over 7,000 animals here. “Our camp is a small village now. But this village has everything, from cooking facilities to neighbourhood support. We have also organised a dairy truck to provide milk every morning,” informs Vanita Shinde, Chief Administrative Officer at Mann Deshi Bank.
The local farmers have a deep connect with their livestock. They call them by their names, chat with them and despair over their fate. Says Jijaba Bangar, an elderly villager, “My wife goes home every evening to care for our school-going grandchildren, but she weeps when she has to leave her animals. She says our home looks desolate without cattle at the door!”
As the evening breeze picks up, we sit around and chat with some farmers. ‘What if this camp wasn’t there?’ we ask. They reply in unison, “Half these animals would have gone under the butcher’s knife. We would have to sell them and in these times there are no other buyers.” The first to go would be the majestic Khillari bulls, the pride of Manndesh. These snow white, stately animals have their horns brightly painted, and serve the community by hauling carts or during harvesting operations.
In this situation the government is conspicuous by its absence. Manndesh has been let down in two ways – neither has there been effective planning for water here, nor has the drought-hit community been helped adequately.
But the atmosphere remains hopeful. People neither curse the government nor their fate. They accept the reality and try to move on. The days get spent tending to the animals, the evenings in convivial conversations with neighbours.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the skies for evidence of rain clouds. The fortune tellers with their Nandi bulls have forecasted early rains and the Sinhas are constantly being told that the blessings of the mute animals they are helping keep alive will yield them golden results. Says Shinde, “Hopefully, we will get better rains this time and there will be no need for such interventions.”
Are better times just around the corner?
(© Women’s Feature Service)