With little assistance forthcoming, 41 of them have been threatening to push for merger with Karnataka

Malabai Solankar has been waiting since six a.m. on Saturday to collect fodder at a makeshift depot in Sordi village in Sangli's Jath taluka. Now well past noon, she is struggling to not to lose her patience, as are others gathered there. Located on the Maharashtra border, Sordi is part of 41 villages that have been threatening to push for merger with neighbouring Karnataka if the Maharashtra government fails to provide relief in view of the current drought.

In the last one month, politicians have paid them visits and promised relief from the government but nothing has transpired.

“Uddhav Thackeray [Shiv Sena executive president] had come yesterday [Friday], and he told us not to go into Karnataka. He promised that we would get help from the government. But how long will we wait?” Malabai asks. “This is the first time we are getting subsidised fodder in the last two months. We have been starving ourselves so that our cattle get food. We cannot afford to have them dying,” she says.

Asked if she would support the Gram Panchayat's move to be a part of Karnataka, she says: “What else can we do? We are tired of the government. Assurances don't mean anything unless there is concrete follow-up action.” Pomegranate farmer Pandurang Kale echoes her sentiment, saying: “The Ministers have turned our villages into drought-tourism spots. They come and see and tell us they will come back. We haven't even been getting water tankers on time. They promise to send the tankers every day, but we only get water once in three days.”

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had also visited the region in the last month. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi visited the neighbouring district of Satara.

“The Ministers come and then blame each other. We would have benefited more if the money spent on their trips was utilised for providing water,” Prakash Sopale says. “I spent Rs. 20,000 on digging a well, but even at 1,000 feet we didn't get any water. Even my pomegranate fields have gone dry. I cannot spend any more on keeping them alive.”

According to him, the Karnataka government reportedly takes better care of its people. “They get free seeds, and in drought areas the electricity bill is waived. They get enough water, and don't have to struggle like us,” he says.

State pride

For some though, the pride of being in Maharashtra is more important than anything else. “How can we leave Maharashtra? It would be a great shame to the State if we did. Besides, what is the guarantee that things will be better there?” Pandurang Kale asks. But he admits that this year has been the toughest to live through. “There is no electricity for 12 hours a day. Even if we dig a well, we cannot lift the water. We have not even got wages for the past ten weeks for working in the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [MGNREGS],” he says.

For the people in the protesting villages, water is a prized commodity and the situation has only worsened because of the drought. “The Maharashtra government had promised an irrigation project from the Krishna River in 1986, called the Takari-Mhaisal project. It is still not complete, and we are still suffering,” Revappa Pujari of the Sordi Gram Panchayat says. The project would have cost the government around Rs. 82 crore, but now the costs have escalated to Rs. 2,224 crores.

Like their drought-hit counterparts in Satara who demanded permanent solutions from Mr. Rahul Gandhi last month, people in these villages too believe that temporary measures like increasing the number of tankers in the village will not prevent a repeat of the situation. “When will the government wake up?” Pujari asks.

Migration a necessity

In Doddapur village in the Jath taluka, migration has become more of a necessity than a choice. “We move to the sugarcane fields every year for six months in November. We return in the month of April. There is no relief even when we come back. What is the point if we have to spend all our earnings on buying water?” Razakbi Bagwan says, as she waits by the village well for the tanker to arrive. Buying a tanker of water costs Rs. 350. The 1,000 litres don't even last a week. Digging a bore well costs up to Rs. 30,000. “How can we afford that? I don't know if it's better to move to Karnataka. There, at least is some hope left,” she says.

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