"Why are you giving us bheekh (alms)?"
That was the angry question posed by chemist Shafique Ahmed Mohammad Salim (39) to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh as they tried to distribute cheques of Rs 50,000 to families of seven of the 37 dead in the bomb-hit town of Malegaon.
"If we had proper hospitals, so many would not have died. Arrest those who caused these blasts, and we will present you with Rs 10 lakh," said Shafique. His dead son Sajid (18) scored 84 per cent in his higher secondary examination and was looking forward to joining a medical course at Jiujiang Medical University in China’s Jiangxi province on September 19.
Sonia Gandhi, eye-witnesses said, embarrassed by the outburst, replied, "Shanti se boliye (Talk softly)." Patil and Deshmukh hastily stepped in, thanking citizens for avoiding a communal flare-up and promised "necessary aid".
But spurred by Shafique’s outburst, his brother Shakeel, who also lost his son Shahbad (17), joined in. "The government just levies taxes on us while we get nothing on return," said Shakeel. "Four decades ago, Malegaon was even more prosperous than Nashik. But today it is in a state of decay. Who is responsible for this?” Representatives of three other families, too, refused aid.
Shafique and the others told HT that they were protesting the “government’s apathy” that had transformed a town once known as the “Manchester of Maharashtra” into a “laawaris sheher (abandoned town)”, devoid of proper drains, roads and other civic infrastructure.
They may as well have been speaking on behalf of the 6 lakh people of Malegaon — at least 70 per cent Muslim — known more for a violent history of communal clashes than its struggling powerloom industry.
“All that we get are promises,” said powerloom worker Javed Sheikh.
"In the aftermath of the October 2001 riots, Deshmukh had promised us a government hospital, which is yet to see the light of day."
Contacted by Hindustan Times for his reactions to the rejection of the aid, Deshmukh hung up his cellphone.
In almost grimy lane, the complaints are the same: clogged or no drains, bad roads, frequent power outrages and widespread poverty. Sprinkle that with an administration that has no particular improvement plans and you have a town on the brink, said residents.
The two municipal hospitals have 50 beds between them - you will often find cattle tied outside the wards of one hospital - and aside from saline drips, there are no other medicines. There are no ambulances.
"The two municipal hospitals in the city are supposed to cater to 6 lakh people. After the blasts, people had had to rush the victims in handcarts," noted Waqil Ahmed, owner of a beef shop. "The civic hospitals instead of tending to the injured, referred then to private hospitals." He alleged: "Many died on the way."
The poverty in the town forces many youth to drop out of school and start working as powerloom workers. They live is shanty towns, and, as local police claim, serve as "cannon fodder" for hardline religious outfits.
The once-thriving powerloom industry faces upto eight hours of shortages. This pushes workers and owners into even greater distress.
Waqil reasoned, "The fassad (disturbances) in Malegaon are born more out of economic reasons than religious ones."