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Landless and voiceless in Nashik

india Updated: Sep 25, 2009 02:02 IST
Purva Mehra
Purva Mehra
Hindustan Times
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Fertile fields stretch out on either side of Baburao Datir. For all the promising land he purveys in Ambad, the farmer only feels resentment at what he has lost.

About 170 km north-east of Mumbai, this is one of Nashik’s three industrial districts where villagers have been battling unsuccessfully since 1972 for their pending compensation: Jobs in the factories that have come up on their land.

“Our 40 acres were bought by MIDC [Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation] for Rs 3,000 an acre,” says 60-year-old Datir. “The money was split four ways between my father’s brothers and our stakes have dwindled long since.”

Neither Datir nor his two able-bodied sons were, as was specified in the MIDC contract, granted employment in the factories that were sold their land.

Though formidable in stature, Datir’s eyes betray a defeated spirit. He feeds his family of eight by tilling his uncle’s remaining 3.5 acres of land, the profit from which is split between the two men.

Datir is a symptom of the malaise plaguing Nashik’s three major industrial estates of Satpur, Ambad and Sinnar.

Over 15 years, the MIDC acquired land from farmers at prices as low as Rs 2,300 per hectare. Automobile and electrical goods plants now occupy these plots.

The farmers, now landless and unemployed, are forced into contract labour, where the work is harder and the pay often below minimum wage.

After years of dealing with flouted labour laws and impervious government officials, Ambad farmers have lost their faith in the government.

“Political parties are fighting not for us but for their seats of power,” says Ramdas Datir, a landless labourer from Ambad. “The MNS [Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena] is no different. Once they lost the Lok Sabha seat here to the NCP, no one has bothered to check on us. We are merely political pawns.”

Across the region, D.L. Karad, state general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been helping farmers and workers organise protests.

“Labour laws need to be implemented here,” he says. “The working class must be united politically,” Karad says.

In the seemingly tranquil Satpur industrial district, a band of sari-clad workers in a makeshift tent holds vigil outside Autofits, a company that manufactures caps for medicine bottles.

“We’re making sure no new employees are allowed into the plant,” says Rekha Mahajan (38) a former employee.

Mahajan and 109 others were dismissed by the company two months ago when they demanded higher pay for their daily 12-hour shifts.

“We’ve all worked here for more than 12 years. They haven’t made us permanent and they didn’t even pay us fairly,” says Mahajan, who volunteered for the strike on the suggestion of CITU chief Karad.

Without a job, Mahajan is having trouble feeding her family — husband and two school-going children — but she says she will not give in.

A source in Nashik’s Labour Department attributes the simmering discontent to the three vacancies in their office.

“We are constantly fire-fighting on this job,” he says. “We are merely conciliators. Adjudication of labour laws is a power vested only with the labour court.”

In the village of Malegaon in Sinnar, about 30 km north of Satpur, protest has given way to resignation.

Landless farmers live in decrepit homes not far from the land they once owned, now occupied by behemoth industries.

“The electoral process cannot salvage us,” says Suman Jadhav (62), who sold all 17.5 acres of her land to the MIDC in 1989.

After running around for months and pleading with MIDC officials to get her two educated sons (both have Bachelor’s degrees in Commerce) the jobs they were promised in the medical plant on their land, she finally gave up in 2006.

Her sons, aged 34 and 25, moved to Mumbai, where they now work.

“As for our vote, the truth is we have no voice,” she says.