Banabai Kamble's service to her village: How a Kolhapur woman fights corrupt officials, alcoholism with steely determination
Banabai's work covers a large spectrum of issues, from sanitation to tackling alcoholism, to battling casteism and helping people with their documentation work.
This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
Banabai Kamble will never forget the year 1972. “I was 11 and forced into marriage,” she recounts of this volatile time of her life. As someone who was married to an alcoholic 10 years older than herself, Banabai hopes that no one has to suffer the same fate.
The year 1972, and the one that followed it, also marked the period when Maharashtra reeled under one of the worst droughts the state has faced, affecting over 20 million people — 57 percent of rural Maharashtra. “It seemed as though everything in my life had collapsed,” says Banabai. The pain is evident in her voice and face. She is also a survivor of domestic abuse, which stopped only when her husband was paralysed a decade ago.
An unlettered agricultural labourer, Banabai didn't even have a chance to "climb the steps of the school." For five decades of her life, the 60-year-old was forced to toil as a labourer in the Nimshirgaon village of Shirol taluka in Kolhapur district.
What Banabai did learn early on was the ability to face life's difficulties — 35 years ago, during her battle with endometrial cancer. Her father was nervous about the line of treatment suggested by the doctor and was bent on taking her home because of the risks involved. But Banabai was determined to get better, and emerged from the hospital after a fourth month-long stay. "I defeated cancer. There was nothing to fear anymore,” she proudly declares.
Despite overcoming this challenge, she was confused about the course her life would take in the following five years. The catalyst for change was Minabai Kamble*, a woman in her 60s, who knocked on Banabai's door early one morning. "She was a devadasi, and her pension was stopped because of incomplete paperwork,” Banabai recounts.
Devadasis are young girls and women predominantly attached to the temple of Goddess Yellamma. Majority of them belong to Scheduled Castes. A report by the Centre for Equity Studies notes, “Devadasis are therefore victims of the worst forms of child labour. These women are trafficked into the practice and subjected to forced sex, rape, and other violent atrocities from early adolescence. The Devadasi practice is much more abhorrent than sex work; it is a form of caste-sanctioned rape, made socially acceptable by giving it the status of local culture.”
In Maharashtra, devadasis are entitled to a monthly pension. “I didn’t even know what documents were required. At first, I denied her request.” However, after multiple appeals, Banabai gave in to the pressure. “I just knew I had the determination to fight.” She took her to the talathi’s office in Shirol taluka, where she learnt that Minabai had not submitted a letter from the temple authorities which identified her as a devadasi.
“The authorities wouldn’t issue her a letter unless they were offered a bribe.” Enraged by this, Banabai narrated the entire incident to officials. “It didn’t make any difference,” she says. She soon figured out that resolving this issue would require multiple visits — six rounds and consistent follow-ups, to be precise. This incident sowed the seeds for the work she would go on to do.
Banabai has spent much of her time in Shirol taluka, protesting for various causes, such as the exploitation of agricultural labourers, caste-based atrocities, and the government's schemes which were anti-poor. It is the approach she takes when following-up and taking activists along to governmental offices doesn't work. She would often meet Narayan Gaikwad, a farmer and an activist from the nearby Jambhali village, at these protests. "He would always guide me, take me to the government offices and show me how the system works," she says. Soon, she began receiving requests from the marginalised people of her village to look into their documentation work and help them avail of social welfare schemes.
A year later, an officer from the Shirol taluka came to Nimshirgaon’s Panchayat and asked the Panchayat peon to call Banabai. She was afraid at first, and then surprised, because the officer went on to ask the villagers to consult Banabai about any governmental schemes. “She’s the one who can battle corrupt officials and help everyone.” This inspired her deeply.
She has helped over 500 senior citizens to avail of the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. She has worked towards helping the disabled and widows to avail of welfare schemes. She has also helped 30 people avail of Rs 1.2 lakhs under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana that aims at providing pucca houses to the homeless.
Often, she has to face the consequences of this work: She helped four farmers belonging to Scheduled Castes to get Rs 3 lakh to construct a well on their farm. Success in endeavours such as this comes at the expense of losing her own income, since she works as an agricultural labourer.
As per economists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera, and Meghana Mungikar, the Government uses the Census 2011 data to calculate eligibility for the National Food Security Act. This has left over 100 million people outside of this act, that enables families who fall below the poverty line to get rations at subsidised prices using their ration card.
But in Banabai's village, as is true of many other parts of India, the process of something as simple and essential as obtaining a ration card is filled with hurdles. Officers don't show up on time; sometimes they ask labourers to return a month later, citing their workload; mandal officers don't finish documentation work in a timely manner; the person applying for a card is expected to bribe officials at every level. To avoid this, they resort to paying agents large sums of money to get their work done. The result is that it can take anywhere between six months to several years, and cost people multiple workdays, to obtain a ration card.
The average female agricultural labourer in Shirol taluka is paid Rs 200 for eight to ten hours of work. “How can she afford to skip this work to get any scheme initiated?” asks Banabai.
Banabai's work covers a large spectrum of issues, from sanitation to tackling alcoholism, to battling casteism. In 2019, Narendra Modi declared rural India open defecation-free. However, the NSSO report released a month later pointed out that over one-fourth of rural households didn’t have access to a toilet. “Corrupt officials deprive people of their right to sanitation by not clearing documents,” Banabai says. Malti Hegade, an agricultural labourer from Nimshirgaon, was denied Rs 12,000 for constructing a toilet. “For eight years, I asked officials to clear my documents, but it happened only after Banabai intervened,” she says. Banabai has ensured that over 50 toilets have been constructed in her village.
In the mid-2000s, alcoholism became a major problem in the village. “There were over 10 illegal country liquor shops,” says Banabai, who was part of the Rama Mata Mahila Mandal, a local volunteer group of women. She was frustrated because the group hadn't initiated any strict action. “I met the group’s head and asked her to give me permission to fight this issue,” she says. First, she met the local politicians and told them about her plan. “Most of them didn’t support me and laughed it off.”
She then submitted an application in the Ichalkaranji, Jaysingpur, and Kolhapur police stations, demanding stricter action. “The police officials would inspect the shops on one day, and the next day, the shops would restart,” she says. One day, Banabai and two of her associates, Shardabai Dhanavade and Bibu Mohite, went to one of these shops. “I dumped at least 500 litres of liquor on the road,” she says with pride. This left all the community strongholds scared. Soon, over 50 women joined Banabai. This mission lasted two years, though it did come with its share of troubles.
“The liquor was brewed in the nearby village of Danoli, where my parents and brother stay,” Banabai says. Often, the men of her village would threaten the family members and pressurise them. But none of them succumbed to the pressure. “They stole two of my goats to threaten me,” she says. The alcoholics then began drinking in the nearby villages, and would collapse on the highways as a result of being intoxicated. “The community's women began fearing for the men's lives and would often tell me how darubandi is having a negative effect,” she says. A few months later, all the liquor shops were functional again. “I won't term it a failed experiment. Even today, I can do exactly the same thing and have all the liquor shops shut down," Banabai says.
She was elected as the Sarpanch of the village in 2015 and has always contested as an independent candidate. “No political party will want a rebel woman like me,” she says with a laugh. During her term as Sarpanch, she experienced caste discrimination. "Why is there a separate lot of vessels in the houses of upper caste people for Dalits? Who says casteism doesn't exist today?" she asks.
Now, she files cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 in response to instances of casteism.
Banabai doesn't charge for her services, and people only pay if they wish to, and in amounts that they can afford.
With the multiple lockdowns and a smaller staff, it has become increasingly difficult for her to visit governmental offices. Despite this, she has managed to help 30 senior citizens with their pension. These days, she's actively training the next generation of villages, especially encouraging younger women from her community to take up her work.
“People always called me adani (unlettered). I don’t understand how schooling can be a measure of one’s success,” she says with a laugh. After her years of community service, Banabai has earned a new name for herself — people fondly call her Bana akka (elder sister) now.
*Name changed to protect identity.