As soon as the doors of the goods wagon slid shut at the railway yard in Vadodara, a group of women tiptoed in, armed with brooms, sieves and cloth bags. They gently slipped under the wheels of the train, each staking claim to a spot.
Then, they carefully started scooping up and sieving the grain that had spilt over and got mixed with the cement, dust and stains of crude oil on the tracks. A couple of hours later, they silently signalled to each another and moved out, evading the security guards on duty.
For these tribal women of Dahod, who do not figure on the official Below Poverty Line (BPL) map of Vadodara despite settling here 10 years ago, this is the only way to keep their families from starving. Even if that means scavenging for dirty grain on the railway tracks.
“These grains help us survive for a few weeks or even a month. We fear being caught for trespass and being harassed. We come here only to collect some grains that are of no use to anyone,” says Surti Pagra Bhil, a widow with two sons and a daughter, who was able to gather more grain in a plastic bag she had picked up on the way.
“The menfolk are unable to earn much money as daily wage labourers,” says Surti, dressed in a frayed cotton skirt and blouse, with a dupatta covering her head.
From the yard, the women hire autos in threes to carry the grains to their encampments along the Narmada canal in the Chhani area, where UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon had inaugurated the country’s largest canal-top solar power plant last January.
Outside each hut, they spread out the grains to pick out the bigger impurities — crushed train ballast, cement chunks and weeds. “We wash the grains in water and dry them before crushing them with our stone-grinders at home. Each of us manages to collect about 4 kg wheat from the tracks. It is sufficient to last our families for a few weeks. For the rest of the days, we survive on what our men earn,” says Dholki Damor, another tribal woman from Dahod.
Most families here were part of the slum census carried out by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation in 2010. Surti even has a hut identity card, with a magnetic chip, issued by the civic body in her name.
But she says what she really wants is a BPL card. “My son, who lives with his wife and three children in the adjoining slum, earns about Rs 2,000 per month. But no one has told us about the BPL card. We do not have any such card. The authorities gave us this (hut identity) card when they conducted a count a few years ago,” says Surti.
When contacted, District Collector Avantika Singh said that the families that migrated from Dahod, mostly in search of work, fall under the limits of the civic body.
Kavita Desai, project director of the urban community development programme of the municipal corporation, said, “We are following the BPL list from 2000.”
However, sources in the Vadodara collectorate said that the BPL list is due for a revision soon.
Until then, the train wagons remain the only hope for these families. “The women are given the task of keeping an eye on the grain wagons. As there is no fixed schedule, we often visit the yard to see what wagons have come in,” says Dholki.
If the women are lucky, two trains full of grains arrive in a month. “We often return disappointed as cement and sand comes in more often. Then, we rummage through dust bins to look for food,” says Dholki.
Vadodara’s railway yard sees wagons bringing in grains for the Food Corporation of India (FCI) as well as private dealers — mostly rice and wheat. Wagons carrying cement, crude oil and other chemical or construction material also arrive here.
This week, the wagon that the women gathered around belonged to the FCI. Says Anil Shrivastav, area manager (Baroda), FCI, “It is very rare that grains spill out off bags while loading or unloading. Even those that can be retrieved are picked up by our workers as we have to tally the weight from the loading and unloading points. Only those grains that get mixed with impurities are discarded on the tracks.”
Shrivastav added that there is no fixed schedule for the trains. “The grain wagons come in as per the requirement put forth by the state government. The grains are offloaded at Vadodara and stored at the FCI’s Chhani godown. On an average, the FCI sees grain wagons coming in every two weeks,” he said.