For past four weeks, villagers visiting the tehsildar’s office at Selu Taluka in the Parbhani district of Maharashtra have been stopping at the doorway, unsure about how to enter the office without stepping over the ashes spread all over. Most of them scurry away from the entrance on overhearing conversations of a person being cremated there on 19 July. This is an unusual situation and villagers are both bemused and worried about the dead being brought to the administrative office for cremation. What transpired on 19 July was a spontaneous act of protest against the unavailability of a crematorium in the project-affected and recently resettled village of Devla in Parbhani district.
After a prolonged illness, 72-year-old Asruba Pandure died on 18 July. His family along with other villagers visited the earmarked space in the village for cremation, only to find the land was no more available to carry out the final rites. "The land, we were told (to be used as a cremation ground), was given away to a private builder, without our knowledge or consent and we were prevented from entering the space," said Pandure’s 35-year-old son Vithal.
The Pandures are the only family in the village belonging to the Koli community. Almost all 450 families living in Selu, including the Pandures, are landless. While the Pandure family lives off fishing, other families, mostly belonging to Dalit, Muslim and other backward communities work as daily wage labourers.
With no place to carry out the cremation, around 250 people including women, children and the old visited the tehsildar early 19 July.
"It was already several hours since my father had died. His body had slowly begun to decay. We approached the tehsildar hoping he would intervene and make immediate arrangements. But he turned us down," Vithal claimed.
The villagers said they tried to reason with Tehsildar Swarup Kankal for over nine hours before unanimously deciding to cremate the body right outside his office.
"Where else could we go? So, we got the firewood, rested the body on it and lit the pyre. No one intervened or tried to stop us," said Madan Choubhe.
When this reporter met Kankal, he said, the issue had already gone out of his control and any kind of intervention would have only aggravated the situation. “I took charge just a few days before the incident. I did not know the depth of the issue. Emotions were running high and no one was in the mood to discuss," said Kankal.
Although, the initial reaction was to proceed with legal action against the villagers, Kankal said, "We decided against it later."
A tehsildar is a fiscal and administrative head of the villages under his jurisdiction.
Devla is one of the 22 villages of Jalna and Parbhani districts to be affected by the lower Dudhana irrigation project, initiated in 1984. As part of the displacement and rehabilitation process, the village was shifted from Jalna district to Selu Taluka in Parbhani district in 2007. Although a patch of land had been earmarked and the villagers had carried out final rites in as many as 22 deaths in the past, they alleged that the land was recently sold to a private builder. This land, the villagers pointed out, was already acquired from its old owner under Section 4 of the (old) Land Acquisition Act, 1894, only after which the state can take any land under its possession.
"Selling it to a third party is unlawful. And more so, the villagers were kept in the dark. No alternative arrangements were made for them either," said Ashok Uphade, a land rights activist working in the Marathwada region.
Kankal, however, said he was not aware of the transactions and that his predecessors could be in the know of the decision. "I am not aware of the legal proceedings in the case. I will have to study the case closely to be able to comment on it," he added.
Even ten years after the displacement, the villagers in Devla continue to struggle for access to basic amenities.
“Road, water, electricity, toilets, rationing office, nothing has reached the village yet. We are dependent on the neighbouring villages even for our daily needs," said Indubai Bobade, 40, an OBC woman who has been at the forefront of the struggle.
Most families in Devla live in thatched roof houses built out of a meager sum received as relief package.
“The deal was land for land and a house for a house. Since we did not own any land, we were only given money to build a house here," said Pandurang Kamble, a member of the rehabilitation committee of the village.
Most houses in Devla are half or poorly built.
"The compensation paid was between Rs 30,000 to Rs 60,000. What can one build with that amount?" asked Sulabai Kamble, another villager.
The larger issue: crematorium and Dalit’s struggle for dignity
The incident that transpired at Devla is only symptomatic of the struggles that over 17,000 villages of Maharashtra face due to lack of burial or cremation grounds. And, in addition to the government’s apathy, caste conflicts make things even worse, especially for the marginalised communities. Unlike the urban areas, where burial or cremation ground is accessible within the city limits and is mostly allotted as per religion, in rural parts, it is the caste identity that defines its accessibility.
Land rights activist and Lal Sena (a left-leaning political outfit) leader Ganpat Bhise, says, in his over a decade-long work, he has come across several cases of caste atrocities inflicted on the landless while carrying out the final rites.
"The dominant landed communities in the village are not impacted. They use their own land for this purpose. Even if one does not have any land, his caste members in the village would generously make land available. But it is the landless Dalit families which suffer deeply," Bhise adds.
Desecration of a dead body, disallowing usage of grazing land to carry out the rituals and violent attacks on the marginalised communities are commonly reported from rural Maharashtra.
While cremation ground remains a problem across Maharashtra, Bhise says, it is worse in the Marathwada region. Marathwada's eight districts — Jalna, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Latur, Osmanabad and Beed accounts for 16.84 percent of the state's population. Among them, 14.96 percent belong to Scheduled Caste and nearly 4.01 percent are from the Scheduled Tribe category. Over 30 percent of Maharashtra's Below Poverty Line (BPL) families live in this region.
"Abject poverty and caste violence have made lives of Dalits very difficult here," Bhise adds.
This reporter also visited few other villages in Selu Taluka and found that the situation was no different. The problems stood out starkly in villages which had a considerable number of land-owning dominant caste houses.
At Hissi village, the Buddhist, Matang and Waddar communities were dependent on the land-owning OBC or Maratha families' benevolence for some space to be made available to carry out the final rites. These landless families are settled on the eastern side, at the periphery of the village.
"Even the Gharkul Yojana (state’s housing scheme) ensured we were allotted houses outside the village," said Mukta Shinde.
“One Mali (OBC caste) family has provided us 7x4 square feet space at the corner of their field, adjoining the mud road. The sludge that gathers here during the rains makes it difficult to burn the pyre. But we have to make do with it,” said Dinkar Shinde, a villager who recently cremated his brother at that spot.
As for villages were a cremation ground exists, they are in the control of the upper and the intermediate castes.
“Any space frequented by the upper castes invariably gets controlled by them,” Bhise says.
Santosh Mekhale, a research scholar from the Tata Insitute of Social Sciences, who recently completed his study on the conditions of crematoriums in the Marathwarda region, blames state apathy for the situation.
"Caste discrimination and untouchability prevail because the state machinery does not adequately work in the villages. Life in villages is already challenging for the landless. The non-implementation of government policies makes it even worse," says Mekhale.
Bhise believes that unless a radical change in attitude is brought out, things will remain the same. "Since 1985, several notifications and ordinances have been issued. The recent one was in 2010. Each notification points at the lack of implementation of the earlier notification," says Bhise, adding that unless a separate space is earmarked for Dalits and an active interest is shown in building an equitable, democratic culture in the villages, Dalits would be denied dignity even in their death.
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Updated Date: Aug 15, 2017 14:23:23 IST