Vidarbha (Maharashtra) : On 30 April, the eve of Maharashtra Day, the village of Vairagadh in Buldhana district of the state held a meeting of the gram sabha (village administration). Tired of waiting for the government to deliver basic infrastructure and services, the villagers decided to take matters into their hands. They wrote a letter, not to their local leaders or even to the state government, but to Narendra Modi, chief minister of the neighbouring state of Gujarat.

“Dear chief minister," the letter said, “we request the state government of Gujarat to adopt our village. Our region is facing issues such as poor electricity supply, bad roads and lack of agriculture development, and all villagers want to implement the growth plan of Gujarat’s ideal village in Vairagadh."

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It was an extraordinary move from a local panchayat (village council), variously dismissed as a publicity stunt (by the local Congress assembly) and applauded (by Modi’s public relations team, who were quick to spread the story).

Road to nowhere: The main street of Vairagadh village. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

The inhabitants of Vairagadh concede their letter was a last resort, designed to grab the government’s attention and to humiliate local leaders into action. “One of the farmers here committed suicide a fortnight back," says Amol Sathe, the young sarpanch (village council head) of Vairagadh, “He didn’t have enough money to marry off his daughter. Since Independence, we’ve had only one road," he says, indicating the main street of the village: a short cement track, which quickly turned to mud. “I went to Gujarat last year and saw villages getting electricity and water. Similar things are happening in western Maharashtra. But here in Vidarbha, we feel discriminated against."

Vairagadh’s stunt is symptomatic of a general sense of disillusionment in the region. But not everyone thinks that getting help from outside is the solution. In Ahmednagar district, villages under the Adarsh Gaon Yojana (Ideal Village Scheme) have proved successful through collective action at extracting money directly from the state for rural development (read part II of this series). Their success contrasts with Vairagadh’s frustration, but both cases indicate an impatience among the populace with the current systems.

Seeking secession

Vairagadh’s choice of Modi as an adoptive parent was not random. Gujarat has become a second home to some of the families, who migrate there seasonally for winter work. Their experience of Modi’s renowned development schemes has been positive. “Even the beggars in Gujarat are happy people," declared Sathe, beaming. “There are 10-15 families here who are connected with Gujarat. They go there to work on construction sites or as carpenters and factory workers. One man got a permanent job in a factory and stayed. He is making around Rs18,000 a month now—much more than we could earn here."

With a growth trajectory that outpaces the rest of the country, Gujarat has been praised by analysts as a model state (its percentage increase for 2010-11 gross domestic product was almost 12% compared with less than 9% for the country). A recent Economist article compared Gujarat with Guangdong province, the industrial powerhouse of the Chinese economy in the 1990s.

However, Pravin Mahajan, who runs the non-governmental organization Janarth, based in Aurangabad, questions the advantages of seasonal migration. “Gujarat is one of the largest destinations for sugar harvesting," he says. “It becomes natural for people to cross. But I would hesitate to argue that the migrants are getting a better deal there."

Janarth commissioned a yet-to-be-published study by the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, on seasonal migration from Maharashtra. “My guess is that between 50,000-75,000 families migrate each year," he says. “They have their own traditional links to the destination states now."

Vairagadh’s small community of Pardhi migrants lives in a temporary encampment. The families have been employed part-time in projects under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), such as building a farm pond for the village. But the money came sporadically and after a three-month delay, and so the workers quit the project before it could be completed, according to Sathe.

Shalik Ram Dinupam, an elder of the tribal community who migrates to Gujarat and western Maharashtra to find work, says that he makes about Rs250 per day in Gujarat doing small jobs and begging. “I go there every winter, to Surat, to work on construction sites," he says. “There’s no difference to us where we go, we are just interested in getting work."

Governance hurdles

It isn’t that money for development is unavailable. Maharashtra’s state budget of 2010-11 made substantial provisions for rural development projects, including a special provision of Rs650 crore “to remove the physical backlog" in irrigation projects in five districts, including Buldhana. The rural development department has also begun channelling more of its annual budget into district-level planning schemes (Rs75 crore was provided specifically for basic infrastructure facilities in panchayats), noting that they are “more effective and results are also good due to the attention of local public representatives on the quality of works".

But too often, implementation lags because village-level leaders are not aware of the options available or are caught up in political infighting.

Vairagadh is in a Congress-administrated block, in a Shiv Sena district, but Sathe is a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “I went to the local MLA (member of the legislative assembly) to get a cement roller at least 10 times," says Sathe. “But he never came until we wrote this letter."

Others in the village are ambivalent about party politics. “We don’t believe in government—panchayat, state or central," says Sathe’s brother, Ravikant, himself a member of the village’s gram panchayat. “The letter was a cry for attention. We wanted the government to get its act together, it’s been an embarrassment for them, but despite that, none of the state officials have come here to see us."

Outside the village, along the banks of a dwindling river, the concrete foundations of a half-built dam, promised by the earlier Shiv Sena government 12 years ago, according to Sathe, are crumbling into the stream.

“Twenty-five lakh (rupees) have been spent already on that project," says Ravikant. “It could irrigate about 1,000 hectares of fields—enough for four villages to have water. No land would have to be taken from farmers."

As further evidence of the governance deficit, Sathe pointed to a water tank outside the village. “Fifteen years ago, that tank was built by the government," he says. “After four or five years, it stopped working. It is still empty. Under the Vidarbha package, the government was supposed to give us a grant for constructing wells. Five people dug their wells, but no one got the money."

According to Sathe, the average farmer’s income, relying on rainfall for their cotton crop, is Rs6,000-7,000 per acre, after expenses. With irrigation, he says, this would rise to Rs25,000. “There would be no need for us to go to Surat or Pune then," he says.

But Vairagadh’s problems pale in comparison with some of the more remote areas of the state. The village of Kolzari in Yavmatal district, a Naxalite area in southern Vidharbha, is eerily quiet. Its main square is almost deserted, except for the mules that pick their way around the debris from the tumbledown buildings. There is no school or medical centre, no daily newspaper comes.

Kolzari was at the centre of what the media called Maharashtra’s “suicide epidemic". In the summer of 2006, responding to the crisis, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due to make a condolence visit to the families there. One of the people he would have met was Pramad Pawar, whose brother committed suicide that year, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, overwhelmed by debt to the banks and local moneylenders.

“He never came," says Pawar. “There was too much rain that day and so the route was changed."

The few wells in Kolzari are privately owned, so most farmers rely on rainfall. The villagers are third-generation migrants from Rajasthan, and they speak Banjara, a mixture of Gujarati and Marwari. Two of Maharashtra’s chief ministers have hailed from the area, and yet the villagers feel no affinity with politics, local or national. “I hate politics," says Sunil Digambar Meshram, a young farmer. “It is self-centred. It’s totally a taboo for me; I could never be involved."

Despite the extreme poverty, no one from Kolzari has left. Their isolation is such that migration is unthinkable. “Outside it will be worse," says Meshram. “We don’t know anybody in places like Mumbai or Pune, we don’t know how to migrate. We would be scared." No one had heard of MGNREGA.

“I asked the Prime Minister, through a journalist, to adopt our village, to provide education and roads," says Pawar. “But it’s best not to rely on the government. It’s not for poor people."

Villages across Maharashtra have encountered problems of accessing funds for rural development projects at the local level, but they are dealing with the issue in contrasting ways. Mint examines this phenomenon in a two-part series.

Next: The model villages of Maharashtra. How Anna Hazare’s Adarsh Gaon Yojana is helping communities to organize their own development