Beyond farming: Rural and Restless

The ongoing Maratha protests bring to the fore a new phenomenon of discontent among aspirant educated youth in the countryside.

Written by Shubhangi Khapre | Solapur | Updated: September 29, 2016 1:33 am
maratha protests, maharashtra education, youth employment, reservation, india news Sangharsh Dongre with his father Tau Trimbak Dongre at their farm in Adhegaon village, Solapur. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Sangharsh Trimbak Dongre completed his Bachelor of Engineering from the S K N Sinhgad College of Engineering at Pandharpur in Maharashtra’s Solapur district in 2015. His family, which farms 12 acres at Adhegaon, a village in the rain shadow Mohol taluka of Solapur, spent Rs 7 lakh for his four-year undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.

More than a year later, the 24-year-old is yet to find a job and has gone back to farming. His sole consolation: “Only one out of the 189 who passed out of my batch has managed to land a job at Tata Motors. The next batch, too, has graduated this year and they are all jobless like us.”

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Sangharsh was among the lakhs of aspirant educated rural youth from the Maratha community who took part at a rally in Solapur on September 21. Such mammoth rallies have been taking place in towns and cities across Maharashtra all through this month. A central demand in these protests — by peaceful, but angry young men and women — has been reservation quotas for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions.

At the heart of the unrest is an agrarian crisis stalking Maharashtra’s rural countryside, stemming from shrinking landholdings over time and magnified by the back-to-back droughts and price crash — whether of

sugarcane, cotton and soybean or onion and milk — over the last two years. Coupled with the overall bleak jobs scenario and inability to cope with the high cost of education in private professional colleges, it has stoked discontent amongst the community that is being reflected in the spontaneous street actions now.

maratha protests, maharashtra education, youth employment, reservation, india news

Sangharsh’s engineering education — as of many others from his background who saw investment in higher professional studies as a passport for a future beyond agriculture — was financed largely by a loan of Rs 4 lakh from the State Bank of India. His younger brother, Vinayak, is doing his first year of BHMS (Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine & Surgery) at Satara’s Sawkar Homeopathic Medical College, yet another private ‘educational trust’ institution. The annual expenditure, at Rs 1.10 lakh, is lower than the Rs 1.50 lakh or so incurred for Sangharsh’s degree, though the course here is of four-and-a-half years followed by one year of internship.

“We chose BHMS because admission to a regular medicine (MBBS) course would have entailed donation of Rs 15-20 lakh on top of annual fees of Rs 4-5 lakh. Also, we decided not to go for any loan and fund from our own incomes and savings,” says Sangharsh. That hasn’t been easy for the family of four — including his father Tau Trimbak Dongre and mother Savita — exclusively reliant on agriculture.

Till 2012, Sangharsh’s father grew sugarcane before shifting to pomegranate due to uncertain availability of irrigation water. “Our average net yearly income has been Rs 2.5-3 lakh. The last two years have been particularly bad because of the monsoon totally failing. Although pomegranate requires less water compared to sugarcane, we have had to use tanker water for irrigation even in this case,” complains Sangharsh.

The family’s agricultural woes, combined with the zero returns from investment in an engineering degree, have been an obvious source of frustration. All through this difficult period, Sangharsh has kept touch with his erstwhile college colleagues through a WhatsApp group, which they use to exchange notes and information on prospective job openings. He’s also part of a separate 250-member group linked to the ongoing pan-Maharashtra Maratha protests.

Sangharsh relates to both the key demands expressed in the protests: Scrapping the SC & ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (“which is used to harass ordinary farmers like my father”), and reservations for Marathas in government educational institutions (“how can we afford expensive private education with the meagre income generated from our farms?”).

At every rally — from Pune, Ahmednagar and Solapur to Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Latur, Nanded, Hingoli, Buldhana and Amravati — the emotive plank that has united rural Marathas is reservation. The Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM), the organisation spearheading the massive ‘muk’ or silent marches, has sought to highlight the economic backwardness of the community, even though it is considered socially forward by virtue of owning much of the agricultural land in Maharashtra.

“We constitute a third of the state’s population, but three-fourths of our people are still engaged in farming where incomes are uncertain. Investment in education is the only way to secure the future of our children. That is, however, beyond the means of most rural households,” points out Sachin Gaikwad, an MKM activist and sports director at the Brahmdevdada Mane Institute of Technology in Solapur.

Bhanumati Pawar, who was present at the rally in Nanded where the women outnumbered men, is most concerned about the high cost of private education. “If my son gets admission in any private engineering college, the minimum fees would be Rs 1.5 lakh a year. If he can secure a seat through quota in a government institution, our financial burden will reduce considerably,” observes this 45-year-old, who cultivates 10 acres at a village in the outskirts of Nanded.

The irony is that many of the private education institutions dotting the state are promoted by Maratha politicians, mainly from the Opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Prominent names include D Y Patil, Patangrao Kadam, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Rajesh Tope and Balasaheb Thorat, each of them controlling ‘education trusts’ or ‘deemed universities’ running a chain of engineering, medical, pharmacy, management and other professional course colleges.

These institutions were originally the offshoots of cooperative sugar mills, dairies and banks that came up across rural Maharashtra from the mid-fifties to the eighties. The founders were mostly grassroots Maratha leaders, who used the cooperatives both as vehicles for development of their regions and also for furthering their political interests. “Education was an extension activity, which unfortunately degenerated into a money-making business. The public trusts that many of these leaders created effectively become private family-controlled institutions,” admits a former NCP minister, who himself controls one such cooperative-cum-educational empire near Pune.

“The politically dominant Maratha leaders well-versed with agricultural issues are themselves responsible for the backwardness of our community,” alleges Ashok Prataprao Patil, a farmer from Chakur in Latur district.

According to official data, Maharashtra has 19 government and government-aided engineering institutions with an annual student intake capacity of 6,097. On the other hand, there are as many as 348 such ‘unaided’ (private) institutions with an aggregate intake capacity of 1,47,770. The picture is practically the same in every other technical stream, barring medicine where the private sector has comparatively less presence.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena administration has been sympathetic to the Marathas’ demand for reservations both in education and jobs. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has declared his government’s commitment to grant reservation to the community, while noting that “the students from rural areas are restless, as they cannot afford the higher fees in private colleges.”

At the same time, though, Fadnavis has drawn attention to the fact that even a 16 per cent quota in government engineering institutions would translate into just over 900 seats. Equal, if not more, emphasis should be laid on skill development and providing new avenues for employment in rural-based industries. The state government is working on a scheme for skill development linked to the setting up of district-level hubs for textile, food-processing and allied industries. The proposed project also aims at roping in private partners for training of rural youth, who can find employment in the units that would come up in these hubs.

That, of course, is a more durable solution to a problem with both short- and long-term implications.

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