EVERY DAY until he was suspended last week, Babasaheb Tandle’s working day revolved around counting, one by one, approximately 12,000 animals. Twice over.
A graduate employed as talathi of 11 villages in Marathwada’s Beed district, Tandle, who uses a crutch to walk, would visit cattle fodder camps being run by contractors on his modified three-wheel scooter, riding approximately 60 km a day. With consecutive seasons’ crop failure and farmers’ fodder reserves running low, a key government intervention as Marathwada’s drought drags on is the provision of free fodder and water to cattle. The camps, 297 of them, are in operation in Beed, Osmanabad and Latur districts, with 208 in Beed alone.
At each of the seven camps assigned to him, Tandle would walk through rows of animals, counting. Talathis say they take approximately half an hour to complete the count at a camp of about 1,500 animals, Tandle likely a little longer. And according to rules, he was to conduct the count twice a day.
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On March 8, Tandle was suspended pending enquiry after a surprise check revealed the number of animals to be inflated at one of his camps. The talathi’s response was that he had formally intimated the government two months ago that the travelling alongside the additional work of monitoring the government’s multiple drought relief measures was proving to be too gruelling for him.
Tandle’s miscount is only the tip of the iceberg — with the state government spending several thousand crores on drought relief works, mostly through contract jobs, monitoring these efforts has turned into a seemingly unresolvable tangle.
There are now 2,75,961 cattle at the camps. They have to be physically counted, minus any technology, twice a day, while also accounting for farmers who may take their animals in and out during the day. Each large animal is to be fed 15 kg of fodder, again something that the army of talathis is expected to monitor. The talathis, the Revenue Department’s lowest-rung staffers, almost all graduates, are expected to hear complaints from farmers at the camps regarding short-feeding or lack of water or poor quality of fodder.
The talathis themselves say it’s unrealistic, and monitoring is abysmal. “On an average, one talathi is responsible for four to 10 villages, and has four or five such camps in his area, each with 500 to 2,000 animals. So each talathi counts about 6,000 to 10,000 animals, twice a day, travelling to camps located several km away from one another, mostly using two-wheelers, in 40 degree Celsius temperatures,” says P K Rakh, a circle officer in Beed.
“We cover approximately 50 to 100 km a day travelling from office to various camps and back,” says Laxman Dhakne, another talathi. “Fuel costs have to be borne ourselves.”
That there are leakages because perfect monitoring of relief measures seems impossible is now apparent to the district collectors, who are conducting surprise checks and visits.
There are other relief works that are even more complex to monitor. Every arrival of the water tanker in every village requires a signed note from the gram sevak, but checks on the 2,189 tanker operators’ records for 1,632 villages and 598 hamlets in Marathwada can hardly be done every day. MGNREGA works are supposed to be underway everywhere but in village after village, farmers with job cards say works haven’t begun yet. Foodgrain is being supplied in drought-hit talukas (wheat at Rs 2 a kg and rice at Rs 3 a kg) but only for land-owners. Landless labourers complain bitterly about this.
“It’s a situation where the government is omnipresent, the state’s presence is everywhere from water supply to food to animal care to labour availability, but there is nobody keeping a real count of whether the really needy are the real beneficiaries,” says Amol Jadhav, a resident of Nandurghat village in Beed’s Kaij taluka. Nandurghat saw six suicides in the last quarter of 2015 and one suicide this year already. While the Devendra Fadnavis government recently announced Rs 3 lakh for a farm well for the families of suicide victims, the implementation is spotty. “I heard about it, but no official has approached me,” says Chandrabha Khomne, wife of Kalyan Khomne who committed suicide in a hamlet outside Nandurghat last June. “Am I supposed to approach somebody? Who?”
Meanwhile, the bill for the relief measures keeps rising. According to the state’s memorandum seeking assistance for drought relief works from the Centre, the government expects to spend Rs 83 crore this year on cattle camps alone, a November 2015 estimate that now appears too low.
Rs 50.67 crore was disbursed for Marathwada’s cattle camps earlier this month, including Rs 30.44 crore for Beed alone. Yet, cattle camp operators throughout Beed and Osmanabad said their bills were still to be cleared.
The relief works are also a political minefield. For example, the large majority of those running cattle camps have political aspirations or, at the very least, affiliations. “We certainly get some political mileage out of running camps,” says one contractor, a mid-level BJP leader in Ashti. “But the more selfish cause for me is that my field gets all this organic fertiliser from cattle dung.” At one camp in Kaij, a contractor was providing free meals for the animals’ owners in addition to the fodder. At a camp in the Dhamangaon area of Ashti, a BJP-affiliated sarpanch was organising weekly kirtan sessions. “It’s political campaigning at the government’s expense,” says a local NCP leader in Beed with two camps of his own. Posters and hoardings directing farmers to these “chaara chaavnis” or fodder camps across Marathwada bear the names and photographs of political leaders of all hues.
By the time the summer hits its peak in May, an estimated 3.5 lakh animals will be in the fodder camps. “The cattle camps’ numbers and bills would have risen, the number of tankers would have risen, there will be much more chaos. And our talathis will still be counting animals,” said one IAS officer posted in Marathwada.