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Four problems Maharashtra can’t wish away by chanting #BharatMatakiJai

Kalpana Sharma

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Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has joined the chorus of voices demanding that every Indian stand up and shout, “Bharat Mata ki jai!” to prove their loyalty to the country. Like his fellow believers, he suggests that those who refuse should leave India.

The daily dose of exhortations about BMKJ is not just tiring and boring but utterly irrelevant. Let me spell out for our chief minister, who assumed office promising governance and action, that shouting BMKJ has limited value for the residents of his state.

Even if all the struggling farmers of Vidarbha and Marathwada, who are staring at the prospect of another long and desperate season of drought, united to shout BMKJ every single day from now until the monsoon breaks, it would make no difference to their plight. In any case, few of them will be in the mood to shout celebratory slogans.

An estimated 90 lakh farmers in this state are in dire straits. They are indebted, their crops are failing, there is no water and no real respite in sight. Out of Maharashtra’s 43,000 villages, an estimated 27,723 are affected by drought.

Relief measures

Recognising that a village is drought-affected means that the government is compelled to intervene. It has to provide relief in various ways ̶ such as 33% waiver of school fees, discount on power bills, waiver of land revenue and no stoppage of electric supply on account of non-payment of bills. Given the burden on the state’s finances, there is a tendency to delay until pushed.

In Maharashtra, the Fadnavis government was pushed by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court to recognise that drought was affecting not just farmers in Marathwada, who had been recognised, but also in Vidarbha. On March 18, the bench of Justices Bhushan Gavai and Prasanna Varale stated: “We find the approach of authorities sitting in AC offices in Mantralaya totally callous, without taking into consideration hardships faced by poor farmers.” This nudge finally pushed the state government to declare additional villages in Vidarbha as drought affected.

The monsoon is still some months away. But water stress in the state’s rural and urban areas has already reached a crisis point. The water table has dropped perilously in many parts, dams are running dry and even in larger cities like Latur, municipal water is supplied only once every 6-8 days. What will happen by May if this is the state of affairs at the beginning of April?

Cane crushing

Meanwhile, there is no policy to restrict water use for the much-favoured sugar industry. Despite the water shortage, cane crushing has continued in factories in water-starved Marathwada. An average of 25 lakh litres per day are needed to crush cane. These are not easy choices to make but is anyone looking at this? Or will this too require an intervention by the court?

Of course, even if the court directs, there is no guarantee that the government will meekly oblige and implement the court’s orders. We have seen an instance of this over this last weekend. On April 1, the Bombay High Court reminded the representatives of the Maharashtra government that they ought to implement their own law, the Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act 1956 that guarantees women entry into any temple. The government promised the court that it would do so and reiterated that it was against any form of gender discrimination.

Yet a day later, when the Bhumata Brigade led by the determined Trupti Desai attempted to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar, she and her group were physically stopped. When Desai went to the police station to register an FIR against the Chief Minister for not following the High Court’s orders, she was once again stopped. “The court has clearly said that anyone who stops women from entering a place of worship should be arrested,” she told the press. “However, the police and district officials remained mute spectators even as we were beaten up and dragged inhumanly.”

Broken promises

So where is the promise of better governance? Why does the Fadnavis government need the court to remind it about the definition of drought, or to explain the contents of a law that are already on the statute?

Meanwhile, even as the chief minister urges people to shout BMKJ, his minions in Mantralaya are busy devising a way to defy another court order. The Supreme Court has ruled that dance bars are not illegal and that the women who work in them have a right to earn a livelihood. But Maharashtra’s lawmakers are busy trying to figure out how to define obscenity in the rules governing the registration of dance bars so that, in effect, they cannot exist. In a state where there is a water crisis of enormous proportions, where farmers are killing themselves in despair, is preventing dance bars from operating so important?

And while the Mantralaya mandarins worry about dance bars, Mumbai’s residents are breathing in foul air every day from the unstoppable fires at the Deonar landfill. Mumbai has earned the unenviable distinction of being more polluted than Delhi on some days. This is a competition that Mumbaikars certainly had no desire to win.

Instead of figuring out what to do about this, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ally Shiv Sena are busy squabbling over who is to blame. And while they do this, and the fires continue to burn, and the foul air continues to choke Mumbai’s residents, a team has been dispatched from the Union Ministry of Environment to share its “wisdom”. Given that ministry’s record, Mumbai’s residents are advised not to hold their breath.

And finally, or rather despairingly, while the chief minister obsesses over BMKJ, tribal children continue to die of malnutrition a few kilometres outside Mumbai, a city that hosts some of the richest men in the world.

According to recent newspapers reports, in the last 10 months there have been 1,274 recorded child malnutrition deaths in three districts. As with all such data, this is bound to be a gross underestimate. The definition of a malnutrition death excludes many more children who succumb to simple diseases because their starved bodies are just not capable of fighting any disease.

Tribal rights

The three districts are Nandurbar (662 deaths), Palghar (418 deaths) and 194 deaths in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai. These are all tribal areas, where basic health care is missing, where families live at abysmal levels of poverty and often survive on what they can get from receding forests. Here is a simple test of good governance that successive governments continue to fail spectacularly. Slogans will not save starving children.

The chief minister was quoted as saying in Nashik: “Some people say we will not say Bharat Mata ki jai. Then what? Pakistan ki jai or China ki ai?”

No, Mr Chief Minister. No one “ki jai” if your farmers are killing themselves, your children are dying, there is no water in thousands of villages and towns, women have to fight to enter temples and courts have to remind you how to govern.

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