Saida Wagayachiwadi Water Rights Meeting: Formation of the Mokhada Pani Adhikar Sangarsh Samithi
After a long spell of delayed rain and the hopes of food security, which kept the community preoccupied with agriculture, the Mokhada Water Rights Campaign renewed its course with a well attended meeting on 16th September 2014. Over a 100 villagers, activists, community leaders, panchayat presidents and members attended the meeting at Saida Vagayachiwadi on the Khodala-Trimbakeshwar road. The invitation for the meeting was extended through a pani–yatra undertaken by a team of four activists of the Kashtakari Sanghatna, which focused on revival of the water campaign, kept on the back-burner during the monsoons. Now it was time to revive the campaign through carefully designed and organized steps. The first was to revive aspirations of drinking water at your doorstep, recognizing the ground realities of repeated promises and repeated failures in the past to uphold them.
Analyzing the water realities of Mokhada is necessary at this point. The water crisis is not new. Over the last decades, the water crisis in Mokhada begins when wells run dry and water sources can be accessed after risky labour either entering into the wells and collecting water seeping into the well drop by drop and filling ones pitcher and climbing back up the well wall with the pitcher, a task undertaken by the women in the dead of night. The other option was long arduous treks to a water spring in the forest, once again filling the pitcher drop by drop and then undertaking the arduous walk back home, only to begin the process all over again when the pitcher was empty. The burden was that of women and they had to carry the burden with stoic silence, which was over the decades built into their consciousness as a necessary condition of their existence, which had to be accepted in silence.
It was not that water supply alternatives were not taken up. The Maharashtra Water Supply Board, a Government of Maharashtra organized proposed water schemes to the village panchayats, wherever a water source was identified. Given Mokhada’s topography, the water source would inevitably be located in the valley. A tube well was drilled, a submersible pump installed and water supply delivered to a beaming village panchayat president and cheering women. Only the joy did not last very long as either the source ran dry in the hot summer months, or power supply was erratic to ensure regular water supply, or the submersible pumps burnt down due to power supply fluctuations or pipes and supply channels developed defects due to poor quality hardware or workmanship or the panchayat defaulted on payment of bills for want of finances. Mokhada soon emerged as a water engineer’s nightmare and a graveyard of failed water supply schemes. The residents of Mokhada were resigned to their fate, the women bore the burden in silent resignation. The backwardness of Mokhada was a complex mix of remoteness, aspirational deficit, futility, political expediency and the resignation to failure of their endeavours.
The irony in the situation was the metamorphosis of water scarcity into tanker multiplicity, providing a regular source of income and sleaze money for politicians, administrators and middlemen. Thirst spawned a number of contractors to supply the villages with water, only its quality could not be guaranteed, though the price was negotiable albeit with a measure of greasing palms. The conditions of scarcity spawned contractors, who were drawn from the economic elite, the political class and sections in the administration. They managed the water sources, the public demands, the water supply, the transport, the recording and the billing. Water supply became both a promise and reward of political allegiance or loyalty, even while it became a source of funds for the politicians and incomes for the enterprising. Everybody loves a thirsty public.
The organizers of the campaign were acutely aware of the reality of patron-client relationships between the political leaders of the village panchayat and the villagers and the great degree of subservience that pervaded the narrative between the leader and followers or patron and clients. The organizers remained aware that the villagers rarely stray beyond the diktat of the ruling party of the village panchayat. Building a non-party platform that would spawn a peoples’ movement necessarily required that political adversarial relations were realigned to non-competitive supportive relationships across the political spectrum, thereby ensuring that all could bask in the glow of success when it came. The campaign had to address many challenges of the situation building, sustaining, strengthening while simultaneously negotiating the tortuous journey of mobilizing consciousness and collective will to overcome the widespread sense of futility that pervades their sensibilities after repeated experiences of being manipulated to achieve political ends at their cost.
It is in this context that the campaign was continuously thinking on its feet to strategize change. The character of the forces which were drawn into the campaign were debatable, the motivations of the leadership mixed, the participation of the public uncertain beyond a point. It meant building a campaign character of its own which tolerated uncertainty while giving an assurance, of created new linkages between friends and foes with the campaign leadership retaining its unanimity. The campaign had to traverse a rugged terrain not very different from the geography of the area.
Ms. Shiraz Bulsara, an activist of the Kashtakari Sanghatna, called the meeting to order on behalf of the Kashtakari Sanghatna invited Shri Balu Patil, a highly regarded senior leader and the Chairperson of the Mokhada Block Panchayat during the previous decade to chair the meeting and guide the proceedings. Shri Balu Patil graciously accepted the invitation to chair the meeting. Recognizing his seniority, the panchayat leaders from the different political parties accepted him as chair of the meeting that intended to take a small step towards forming an `All Party’ people’s platform. This choice of the ex – President of the Block Panchayat to chair the meeting was a strategic decision considered necessary given the fact that the population of Mokhada is sharply divided on political lines of four different parties, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena (SS) and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). The latter two parties are the ascendant political entities and hold the majority of the village panchayats and the block panchayat, hence the chair of the meeting, a political heavyweight of yester years who did not pose a major threat to the new political formations in the block, was deliberately chosen.
The choice of Balu Patil, a tribal leader, widely known as upright and honest, but slowly fading into the sunset of his political career, lent both gravity to the meeting and contributed to a leveling of political differences and creating a sense of camaraderie between the five political forces in the hall. He posed no threat to any of the political parties but was still held in esteem by the local people. The Kashtakari Sanghatna, the moving force behind the campaign, known for its consistency and recognized for its non-partisanship, the Nationalist Congress Party a party that was in a trough after basking in the limelight for two decades, the Shiv Sena which had edged out the NCP from its pedestal in the villages and the block panchayat, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a break away section from the Shiv Sena which made inroads in the area using the water issue as a lever and the Bharatiya Janata party, which was successfully jostling for political supremacy.
Hence the meeting revolved basically around three actionable goals. The first actionable goal was leveraging the water rights issue as an issue in the impending elections and electioneering by pressuring the candidates to take a stand on the issue. The second actionable goal was the formation of a core committee to take responsibility for the campaign process and draw other actors into the campaign. The third goal focused on planning for campaign in the short term as well as creating an actionable plan for the elections to the Block and District Panchayats, necessitated by bifurcation of Thane district into two districts; Thane and Palghar. The bifurcation automatically resulted in the dissolution of the two institutions of self government at the block and district level. The election campaigns of the various candidates to both these institutions could provide an impetus for the campaign to establish the right to drinking water, beginning with Mokhada and hopefully expanding to cover the state and subsequently the nation, as was carried out by the Kashtakari Sanghatna in the matter of the rights of the adivasis to the forest, its land and its produce.
The decision of projecting the water rights issue was readily accepted, though it followed a trajectory that reflected the mindset of the local leadership. When the discussions began on how we would go about the task, Mr. Balu promptly declared that we should form a Mokhada Pani Puravta Samiti which translates as Mokhada Water Supply Committee. The suggestion however did not find many takers among the villagers as well as the representatives of the Kashtkari Sanghatna and was when speaker after speaker affirmed that they were speaking of right to water, the recognition of that right in pursuance of which water is make available to the citizens, the appellation of the committee metamorphosed into Pani Hakk Sangarsh Samiti which reads as Water Rights Struggle Committee. The change was an organic process, not prompted by any of the organizers, but reflecting the sentiment of the citizens from 10 villages. The unprompted shift was not lost on the organizers or the audience. The issue of the right to water could soon become part of the narrative of the water seekers of Mokhada.
The Water Rights Struggle Committee was formed with 20 representatives from the villages of Adoshi, Nashera, Kiniste, Saida, Palaspada, Ghomghar, Udhale, Pachghar, Dhamshet and Dolara. It counted among its members a rainbow coalition of an ex Block Panchayat President from the Nationalist Congress Party, a Block Panchayat Vice President from the Bhartiya Janata Party, a Village Panchayat President from the Shiv Sena, Village Panchayat Members from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Kashtakari Sanghatna. Two activists of the Kashtakari Sanghatna were co-opted as advisors.
The Committee was assigned two tasks. The first was widening the membership of the Struggle Committee to include two representatives from each of the 16 villages that are part of the plan prepared by the IIT faculty and the second was to organize a function on the 30th of September in which the members of the Struggle Committee would call upon the candidates standing for the elections to the state assembly to openly declare their position on the Campaign for Water Rights and what steps they would take to further the campaign and ensure that water rights are established in reality, whether they were elected or not.
Reflecting on the progression from the Convention in Khodala on 31st May 2014, which focused on the call to make Mokhada Tanker Free to the Wagayachiwadi Meeting where unprompted shift took place from Water Supply to Water Rights, a perceptible mindset shift was observed which could pave the way for a perspective shift in the understanding of the leadership of the issue of water scarcity as denial of a right. While it would be too early to conclude that the people in the villages would react the same way, the response of the leadership could provide an opportunity to the campaign activists to stimulate thinking among the villagers starting with the women focused on the regime of rights rather than welfare handouts. Thereby the Right to Water Campaign could provide the energy for the citizens of Mokhada to withdraw progressively out of backwardness construct that has been imposed on them for decades.
The campaign could also become the stimulus for the citizens of Mokhada to recognise resource extraction and a resource drain as part of a wider matrix that both stimulates backwardness and sustains it as a subterfuge to hide the drain of multiple resources from Mokhada, water, land, agricultural produce and labour behind the curtain of passivity born out of the futility of resistance. Thereby the ‘consciousness’ of water deprivation and resource extraction could trigger efforts to recover resources and stimulate agriculture to an order that is clearly visible in the adjacent plateau of Nashik where access to water has rendered the area a vegetable and horticultural paradise in almost identical circumstances.
The labour community of Mokhada provide the knowledge and skill resources that sustain the paradise across the ridge to the east, but have internalized ‘backwardness’ as a inescapable conditionality of the present and the future. Perhaps electoral dynamics centered around water could provide the impetus, a task goal for the meeting of the expanded Water Rights Struggle Committee preparing for the interface of the candidates with the electorate during the following fortnight.