In the primary school in Lengarwadi, a tiny village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, seven hours south of Mumbai, Kavita Lengre, a Class 5 student, packs her books and dashes to the next classroom to help her younger brother Sunil as soon as the final bell rings at 5pm. They sprint home, both bags hanging from Kavita’s shoulders.
Eleven-year-old Kavita and Sunil, a year younger, last saw their father Mahadev four months ago, when he returned briefly to the village to attend the wedding of a relative. When leaving home again, a day after Diwali, Mahadev gave Kavita Rs350 for her and Sunil to live on for the next three months. He has no option but to leave them to fend for themselves.
Not enough rainfall had turned the sorghum crop on his acre of land to cattle fodder. Left with no choice, Mahadev went to find work in the sugarcane fields of Astha Dhangaon in Karad, about 100 km from his village.
In his absence, Kavita has assumed the role of parent to her younger brother. There are thousands of such families orphaned by the drought in Maharashtra’s countryside.
Kavita’s home is a kilometre from school. She unlocks one of the two rooms that comprise her house; her cousins and aunt live in the adjacent room while her uncle, like her father, is away.She takes out a handful of cattlefeed from a sack and puts it in a bucket, which Sunil fills with water from a plastic drum. She carries the bucket to their buffalo, tied to a pole under a neem tree in the small courtyard.
Buffalo fed, Kavita turns her attention to feeding her brother and herself. She prepares bhakri (sorghum chapatis) while Sunil cuts onions and other vegetables for the bhaji. They eat quickly.
Dinner is followed by an hour of study and it’s lights out at 10 pm. Kavita must wake up before 5am to cook breakfast and lunch, feed the buffalo and fetch water from a well 50 metres away – all before leaving for school with Sunil.
At dawn, Kavita draws water from the well, 500 feet deep, fighting the fear that it evokes in her daily. One night in January three years ago, while trying to retrieve a bucket from this very well, her mother lost her balance, fell into it, and died. Scores of women here die this way every year.
Kavita’s ability to tackle adult problems and take care of her brother at such a tender age make her exceptional, but her circumstances are far from unique.
For many years now, hundreds of children in this part of Mandesh, spread across six rain-deprived talukas of Satara, Sangli and Solapur districts in western Maharashtra, have been forced to live as orphans every few months,their parents travelling to find work in fields and factories hundreds of kilometres away.
As incomes from agriculture and cattle breeding continue to diminish thanks to repeated failed monsoons, more people are migrating to distant towns or sugar factories in Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur for alternative work, leaving their children behind. The lucky ones get to live with relatives; others, like Kavita and Sunil, are alone.
Bhagwat Lengre, a teacher at the village school, says no less than 15 students in his class live without their parents. “In the coming days, this number will increase to 60-70 as the remaining water sources dry up,” he says.
The signs of this are everywhere. Huge locks hang on the doors of several houses. Satish Gaekwad, taluka president of Swabhimani Ksetkari Sangathna, a farmers’ forum, says 300 of the village’s 800 inhabitants have already gone to work in sugar factories in Karad. Most leave their children behind as life in these distant places can be even harsher than back home.
“Forget water for agriculture, there is already an acute shortage of drinking water in our area,” says Gaekwad. The government’s supply - water from a single community tap for one hour every five days - triggers near-riots. In these desperate circumstances, the villagers must reuse water any way they can, says Gaekwad. “Water is collected after bathing and given to the cattle to drink,” he adds.
Ajit Patil, the tehsildar at Atpadi, says, “The situation is grim. There was just 350mm of rain last year, as against the region’s average of 355mm. This, too, is far below the state average of 1,200mm a year. Over 70% of crops have been destroyed. Water in the taluka’s three reservoirs is depleting quickly. Groundwater has shrunk to 900 feet below the surface.Providing drinking water to 1.38 lakh people across 60 villages will be a huge task for us in the coming days,” he says. Though there are no official figures of how many have left the area to find work elsewhere, Patil admits it is not an insignificant number.
“Over the years, providing water has been at the top of every political party’s election manifesto, be it for local body or assembly polls. However, once the elections are over, this promise is forgotten until the next election dates are announced,” says Vijayrao Lale, bureau chief of Pudhari, a Marathi daily.
Anil Babar, an MLA who has been representing the area (as part of the Khanapur constituency) for the past 20 years, with a defeat in 2004, blames the lackadaisical attitude of successive governments for the dire situation. “This time, I am determined to bring water,” says Babar, who switched to the Shiv Sena from the Nationalist Congress Party just before the last assembly elections.
Whether or not Babar is finally able to deliver water and restore normal life to the region remains to be seen but, to his constituents, who’ve heard countless identical promises for years, he must sound like little more than a broken record.