A Konkan state of mind

Prabha Bandhankar (left) and her daughter Meena at their home in Pen. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Prabha Bandhankar (left) and her daughter Meena at their home in Pen. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Prabha Bandhankar’s (46) mood is as black as the angry clouds hovering over Pen. The retreating monsoon is preparing for one last assault on the town 80 km south of Mumbai, famous for its Ganesh idol-makers. Her husband Lakshman (54) is one of them.

The walls of her home are lined with shelves full of idols waiting to be painted, while from the ceiling hang unfinished idols of goddesses. Nobody in her family ever votes. “We don’t see why we should,” she says.

The hard rain that submerged Mumbai on July 26, 2005, destroyed 300 idols and several precious moulds in the Bandhankar household. Prabha says they were all insured but the insurance company refused to cover the Rs 2 lakh loss. “Politicians assured us of help, but did nothing,” she says. Ultimately, it was the consumer court that came to their rescue.

Prabha’s younger daughter, Veena (20), is mentally challenged. She used to go to a special school, but doesn’t any more. A few years ago, she saw her teacher beating a boy with a wire. The teacher warned her against telling anybody, but Veena couldn’t hold it in and informed her parents.

Terrified about the repercussions, Veena started getting fits and, when the trustees showed no empathy, her parents decided to take her out of the school.

Veena needs a school and medical treatment, but neither seem even a distant possibility where the Bandhankars live.

Says Meena (24), Prabha’s older daughter, “Sometimes I wonder why we need politicians. After all, we manage everything on our own… We just don’t care any more.”

*** 

Seated at the galla in his hotel at Wadkal, 5 kilometres down the road, its 35-year-old owner is at his profane best when talking about politicians. “Those #@*^& are only interested in lining their pockets,” he says. “I am an educated man — I hold a Master of Science degree — but I have never voted in my life. I am my own sarkar,” he says, refusing to be named.

“I recently applied for a home loan. My papers were in order but the bank officer kept stalling, angling for a bribe,” the hotelier says. “I asked him upfront whether he considers himself in the same class as a politician. That shamed him into passing my loan in two days.”

He says it’s time to take a stand. “We have a saying in Marathi that everybody wants a Shivaji-like revolutionary, but not in their own families,” he says. “We all want a revolution, but don’t want to be the revolutionaries. I won’t vote – that’s my revolution.”

*** 

As I drove 400 km south of Mumbai along winding mountain roads, it seemed as if a giant paintbrush had painted the world green. When I looked down into the valleys, I realised I had never seen more shades of the colour.

In Oni, a village on the edge of Ratnagiri district, a crowd gathered around a spanking new Tata Nano. The village folk said they had only heard of it before.

An exasperated Arvind Sakhalkar (53) got into the driver’s seat, saying: “People gather wherever I take it.”

Sakhalkar, a Pune-based former bank employee, was in the village to inspect a three-acre plot he had bought. On it, he is building a retirement home and will start an agro tourism property.

“I have seen illiterate villagers make trip after trip to the electricity board office, begging for a connection. Among them are widows and the desperately poor. When the connection never materialises, they simply break down,” said Sakhalkar.

I don’t know whether it’s an image that haunts him. But it’s one many will carry into the polling booth with them on October 13.

*** 

Tailpiece

Signs on the Mumbai-Goa highway:

  • Jaagte raho, kal ho na ho
  • Safety on the road is safe tea at home
  • This is a highway, not a die way
  • Control your nerves on curves (indeed!)
  • Raste pe nahi jaati kisi ki jaan, mera Bharat mahaan

This blog emerged from a report I did for the Hindustan Times’ pre-election series in September 2009.

Ground reality

Yogesh Chandak at the grocery store his family owns. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Yogesh Chandak at the grocery store his family owns. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Yogesh Chandak (33) can’t stop grinning. Sitting on large boxes of grain, surrounded by bars of soap in his family’s grocery shop, the real estate developer in Igatpuri animatedly explains how land prices have touched the sky in the town 133 kilometres north-east of Mumbai.

“An acre would cost Rs 8 lakh earlier. Now, you can’t buy an acre for less than Rs 40 lakh,” he says wide-eyed. “Some plots that touch the Mumbai-Nashik highway cost Rs 1 crore per acre!”

It’s the highway, which is being widened at a cost of Rs 752 crore, that has sparked off the real-estate feeding frenzy.

Recalls Chandak, “In 2004, we sold land to an investor for Rs 3 lakh an acre. When we wanted it back a couple of years later, we had to fork out Rs 17 lakh an acre.” But it was worth it, he laughs. Top-rung schools and industries are expected in the area and land values can only rise.

The highway, by making landowners rich and stimulating development, has had another, more profound effect. It’s changed the way people think about their vote.

Igatpuri, a town of 40,000 to 50,000 people, has an 80 per cent literacy rate but used to vote along traditional caste patterns, says Chandak, a former Shiv Sena corporator. “Now, all people want is development,” he smiles.

This election, says Chandak, Igatpuri’s priorities are clear: good schools and a decent hospital.

The unspoken message is clear: If politicians can’t deliver, they can expect to be voted out the next time around.

This blog emerged from a report I did for the Hindustan Times’ pre-election series in September 2009.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Narbadesh Upadhyay at Manas Lifestyle, Igatpuri. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Narbadesh Upadhyay at Manas Lifestyle, Igatpuri. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Narbadesh Upadhyay (41) squints at the highway marker that says Mumbai lies precisely 133 kilometres to the west.

The Mumbai-Nashik highway, also known as National Highway 3, is being widened. Work began in 2007 and the Rs 752 crore being spent on it is expected to generate trade and jobs once it is complete.

But Upadhyay says that is already happening. In the last year, says the front office manager of Manas Lifestyle resort at Igatpuri, business has grown by 10 per cent because of the faster access from Mumbai that the highway provides.

About 200 guests walk in on weekdays and 400 on weekends. Most of them make a beeline for the new coffee shop that the resort opened to cater to them. “We’ve also opened a bar-cum-restaurant and a buffet outlet,” says a proud Upadhyay.

It helps, he points out, that the seven- to eight-hour traffic jams that regularly plagued the highway are distant memories.

Most importantly, it’s created 10 more jobs at Manas. Many of those jobs have gone to Adivasi villagers, who had few means of sustenance earlier.

Chandrakant Jadhav, an Adivasi who works at Manas Lifestyle. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Chandrakant Jadhav, an Adivasi who works at Manas Lifestyle. Photograph by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Chandrakant Jadhav (45), a bellboy, is one such Adivasi. A resident of Chichal village, he walks 30 km every day to work and back. But, he says, that’s a better life than the one he had earlier. “My village has 1,000 residents. Like most of them, I was unemployed, doing odd jobs whenever they were available. The most I made was Rs 2,500 a month. Now, I have a guaranteed salary of Rs 3,500,” says Jadhav.

That means his sons, he says with the glint of pride in his eyes, now go to college.

Several other Adivasis have found employment with Manas, but neither Upadhyay nor Jadhav give credit to politicians. “They come and go,” shrugs Jadhav. Adds Upadhyay, “Local politicians didn’t build this road [it’s a union government project], so why should we vote for them?”

Skepticism, it seems, can thrive amid hope.

This blog emerged from a report I did for the Hindustan Times’ pre-election series in September 2009.

A smile as wide as the highway

Deepak Chitwade, who sells garlands at Taswade toll naka, 325 km south of Mumbai. Photo by Anhsuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

Deepak Chitwade, who sells garlands at Taswade toll naka, 325 km south of Mumbai. Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar for the Hindustan Times.

For some, survival is all-consuming. An election is merely a marker that whooshes past on the highway of life – sighted one instant, forgotten the next. Deepak Chitwade’s is the story of millions. Illiteracy, poverty, struggle are words far removed from our reality, but they describe the grim, crushing life that people like Chitwade lead. Yet, I have never seen a smile wider than his.

At the Taswade toll naka, 325 km south of Mumbai, Deepak Chitwade (42) says the Pune-Bangalore highway is what puts food on his table.

He scurries from truck to truck as they slow down at the toll booth, urging drivers to buy the garlands of bright yellow marigolds that he’s hawking.

He lets on that he is illiterate and used to be a tutaari (traditional Maharashtrian trumpet) player in a wedding band. That wasn’t steady income and he had no other skill to exploit. With two children to raise, he needed to think of something else fast.

“Now I sell Rs 5 garlands to truck drivers, making a profit of Rs 2 per garland,” he says.

Chitwade says his father was a drunkard, which meant his then young shoulders never carried a school bag. Instead, he bore the burden of running a home.

Chitwade says his illiteracy doesn’t allow him to make an informed choice during the Maharashtra elections that will be held on October 13. “I get so confused when I’m at the polling booth, I just press the first button I see,” he laughs.

 This blog emerged from a report I did for the Hindustan Times’ pre-election series in September 2009.