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Maharashtra: 700 drought-hit farmers living in 'houses' with no walls or roof

As far as work is concerned, the opportunities are few and far in between. Some men have become daily wage labourers and do whatever work they receive at the Ganesh Mandir Naka, while the women do odd jobs sometimes.

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Maharashtra: 700 drought-hit farmers living in 'houses' with no walls or roof
Migrants from Nanded district take water from tankers at the Dattaji Sadwi ground in Barwenagar of Ghatkopar on Monday; (left, top) People hold their ‘identity cards’ in a queue for food that NGOs are donating; and a child waits for food at a camp for Marathwada people
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Balaji Ram Chauhan, who looks towards the sky every day in hope to see some clouds, lives in a house that has no roof or walls, only a number. His 'jhopdi' no. 60 is, in fact, a small section of ground with two bamboo sticks demarcating his territory.

And he is not alone. A community of approximately 700 drought-affected people, mostly farmers, are living literally on a land of sewage and muck at the Dattaji Sadwi ground in Barwenagar, Ghatkopar (W). The camp was set up by BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, where 212 families live under the open sky, amid boars and mosquitos.

As many as 160 families have a placard documenting their identity, whereas others have smaller IDs, which do not guarantee them ration. Though Somaiya's workers frequent the camp to contribute in whatever manner possible, it does not change the bigger picture.

Most of these families have been living at this location for at least a month or two, unlike the migrant farmers in Thane and Navi Mumbai. "As many as 20-30 families have been coming to live here every year for the last two years, during the summer months. Last year there was little water, but this year, there is absolutely none. Almost half the people from my village are here right now," said Chauhan.

Chauhan and his family of three are from Nanded. Almost all other families also come from that district. According to them, they are facing terrible woes but anything is preferable to lack of water. A BMC tanker comes to the camp everyday, and people collect water in empty oil containers. "We do not have a lot of utensils. We definitely do not have buckets and mugs. A few families that do bought them by putting together their savings," said Koshabai Shankar Rathore, whose primary requirement is a toilet.

Shankar Rathore, a resident of jhopdi no. 100, owns an acre of land in Nanded, where he used to grow hybrid jowar till two years ago. "Without sufficient water, the harvest is terrible. I was reaching the point of debt, so I stopped," he said.

"There are 700 people here and more are arriving daily, but we don't have a single proper washroom. My three-year-old child runs around in this muck and we have no soap, to wash our bodies, utensils or clothes," said Koshabai.

"This is no condition for human beings to live in," said Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder of NGO Alternative Realities. "The state requires emergency shelters to deal with people who are practically refugees of natural disasters such as drought." Bharadwaj is mobilising resources from Navi Mumbai's housing societies to aid the farmers living there. Whitfield Cooperative Society of Hiranandani Meadows in Thane (W) has also raised funds to provide clothes at Navi Mumbai.

As far as work is concerned, the opportunities are few and far in between. Some men have become daily wage labourers and do whatever work they receive at the Ganesh Mandir Naka, while the women do odd jobs sometimes. The children, however, bear the brunt of this lifestyle, often falling ill with malaria and other diseases.

"This community needs to be moved to a sanitary shelter. A mobile creche or Anganwadi is also the need of the hour," said Bharadwaj.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of philanthropy, environmentalist Elsie Gabriel will soon be providing 300 solar lanterns to the people who do not have a single source of light. "Women and children are the worst affected. After visiting the site, we decided to help with the safety aspect in an ecologically friendly way through the lanterns," she said. NGO Earth 5R also arrived on April 25 to provide training to the women and children to make paper bags.

Also, Nirja Bhatnagar, regional manager at ActionAid Maharashtra, who has already conducted an outreach programme with the farmers in Thane and Navi Mumbai said, "We will provide relief packets to the people at Ghatkopar, which will include nutritional food, multivitamins and mosquito nets. We also request Eknath Shinde, guardian minister of the district, to provide aid to those in Navi Mumbai as well, instead of doing so just in Thane."

Bharadwaj also suggested that a city-wide census of these temporary migrants be conducted, so that aid reached all, instead of just those living in Thane.

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