From a distance, the municipal ground at Bhatwadi in Ghatkopar in Mumbai does not look any different from the few open spaces that manage to survive the onslaught of a space-starved metropolis. But over the past couple of weeks, the ground has become the centre of attention and is buzzing with activity.
Hidden behind a large municipal water tanker is a sign that announces the existence of a camp for distress migrants from the region of Marathwada in Maharashtra. As the morning sun grows harsher, municipal workers clean the ground and fumigate the area while senior officials look on. While the BMC workers claim that they have been cleaning the ground for the past month, the migrants say that the civic body arrived and the camp was set up only after media coverage.
In a small tent, a woman checks the growing list of people who have left their villages in the hope of a marginally better life. Journalists and photographers saunter around, armed with notebooks and camera tripods. A concerned woman — speaking fluent Gujarati one minute and equally fluent Marathi the next — brings theplas. An 11-year-old boy named Sachin offers water to his six-month-old brother in the scorching heat in a 6×8 brick-marked area allotted to them, while his parents are away working at a construction site. He later joins the queue where food is being distributed.
Five-year-old Sheela helps her teenage sister to store buckets for the day after a quick trip to the water tanker. Outside the ground, kids gather around a man who is distributing a handful of brand new notebooks. A few metres away, a group of local boys play cricket with a tennis ball and argue over who will bat first. For them, the drought is not a set of prime-time television news visuals, but a neighbourhood reality.
While there has been much media fanfare this year on migration from Marathwada to Mumbai, this is by no means the first year that this has happened. Most of the migrants are from Nanded, Jalna and Latur as the districts have witnessed a huge amount of migration of the young population over the past couple of years. This has been due to water scarcity, unemployment and lack of resources. Some have made Mumbai their second home, and have been coming to Ghatkopar for more than two decades.
One of them is Devidas Rathod from Mukhed, who says that he has been coming to Mumbai for 25 years. He comes to Mumbai for a few months and then heads back once the monsoon starts. “I own a couple of acres of land in my village. But this year, the monsoon was not enough and the crops failed. So, I have been here since Diwali, working as a labourer. While my elder son had initially stayed back in the village, a few months earlier, he called me and said he would not able to survive there. So, I called him over to Mumbai as well.”
Shrikant Gavit, coordinator of the camp, said: “These people have arrived after Diwali. With every new entry, we note their details, allot them a place and a name plate. Accordingly we distribute them basic supplies. Initially there were only 156 families, but since we have started distributing food and water, the number shot up to 325 in 10 days. Thanks to the donors, each family has received almost 20 kg of rice, oil, mats, tarpaulin sheets.”
But life at the municipal ground at Bhatwadi has its own set of challenges. Contractors who take labourers to work sites generally pick the ones whom they know personally, because of which new entrants find it difficult to find work. Each day spent without finding work makes the already dire situation even worse. There is competition from locals, as well as migrants from other parts of the country.
The vulnerability of the migrants is compounded by the fact that they are, in the eyes of the law, encroachers on public land. After some probing, the women residing in the camp said that they were initially being asked to pay Rs 200-300 per head by the local goons for living in the settlement.
Mayuri Rathod, 23-year-old from Mukhed, said: “I have been living here for the past 20 years. Till now we used to pay for land and water. The local goons used to harass us if we did not comply. They used to come in at any time at night and trouble us. A woman was hit at night once while she was on her way to the toilet. This has stopped only from the past 10-15 days since the camp has been set up. After we approached the police, the goons have stopped extorting money. In the past 20 years, never once was a camp erected here. Only when the media paid attention, they have started providing us free food and water. But I’m sure this won’t last for long.”
However, the local police have rubbished these incidents as rumours.
A senior police official said, “A police chowky was set up near the ground in August. After this, the police have been regularly looking after the security of the migrants. The claims of incidents of assault are not true.”
As the number of migrants increase, local political leaders have undertaken relief work in terms of providing food and shelter. This includes Mumbai North-East MP Kirit Somaiya and Ghatkopar (West) MLA Ram Kadam. Speaking to Firstpost, Kadam said, “This is an attempt to do some good work. My objective is not to gain any publicity from it.”
Even as the media has been criticised for responding late to the drought in Marathwada, it appears to have indirectly helped to bring some measure of relief to the migrants. But what could be a plausible long-term solution remains to be seen.
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