Together they walk through the busy station at Vangani, weaving their way cautiously through the crowds. A beep from the metal detector tells them they have reached the platform. Santoshi and her eight-year-old son Akash join a group of visually impaired people that’s waiting for the train to Mumbai, an hour-and-a-half hour ride away. In the evening, they will retrace their steps back to Vangani, after a long day of hawking their goods to passengers on the train. This has been their routine for the past many years. Over the last 15 years, Vangani, a small town in Thane district’s Ambarnath taluka, has become home to a large number of visually impaired people. At present, their numbers are about 350, with the majority having migrated to Vangani from across Maharashtra.
It all began in 1998 when Ravi Patil, a local politician announced free houses to the visually impaired. The response was immediate — more than 50 families migrated to Vangani in the next few months. They came from all corners of the state with hopes of a new home and a new life. Their dream was interrupted when just a few years later Patil, the man responsible for getting them to Vangani and who was working on giving them houses, was killed as a result of a political rivalry. By then, over 300 visually impaired people had already come to Vangani. Their hope for a permanent home shattered, they began looking for jobs. Most of them now hawk trinklets, chains, locks and paper soaps on the local train to Mumbai and back.
Starting afresh in a new place away from their extended family hasn’t been easy. Ask Gajendra Pagare, 43, who has a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Pune and lives in Vangani with his wife and three children, all visually impaired. “I was four when a side effect of a medication left me completely blind,” he says. Like many others in Vangani, the Pagares have sent their children to government-run residential schools for the blind in Panvel and Mumbai. “I used to run a PCO in Mumbai earlier but the government demolished that. About five years ago, we moved to Vangani. I earn about Rs 50-100 a day but on some days it’s even less. Sometimes the police harasses us, throws us out of trains and confiscates our goods. I have filled so many forms for a government job but the three per cent quota for the disabled in government jobs is a big joke,” says Pagare.
Shankar Pawar agrees. The unofficial spokesperson of the community in Vangani, Pawar has been relentless in his efforts to make the lot of his community better but says it has amounted to nothing. “Our wish list is not too big. We want some stable source of employment instead of having to hawk stuff in overcrowded trains. The travel every day saps our energy. We also need some financial assistance to build houses. We all live on rent,” says Pawar who teaches children in Vangani.
But the most pressing demand of the community has been for a foot overbridge to the railway platform from where they board the train to work. At present, they cross the railway track to reach the platform, a journey fraught with danger and one which has already resulted in many accidents.
In their demand for a foot overbridge, the community has found a vocal supporter in Dr Atul Jaiswal of the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), who is collaborating with a few advocacy groups. As a result of their efforts, Rs 1.5 crore was sanctioned for the bridge in 2013 but just after a few months construction slowed down to a halt. “If this one basic demand can be addressed by the authorities, it will do wonders for the safety and morale of the people there,” says Jaiswal, who stayed with the community at Vangani for two years and prepared a project report on their need before moving to Canada from where he continues to monitor the progress on the bridge.
Their work aside, the community does not meet often. Fifty-year-old Krishna Khopole whose wife passed away a few years ago and who now lives with a friend, spends most evenings alone. In a town of 25,000, there are not many facilities and occasions for people like Khopole to socialise. “We have been fighting to get more facilities. The battle on the social and emotional front has not been easy either. When I came here 25 years ago, there were many instances of couples separating, families splitting and children suffering because of that but that has reduced. There are other issues though. There are people in the community who are homosexual but find it difficult to come out,” says Dr Anogha Patil who runs a hospital at Vangani and is a rallying point for the community. “When Ravi Patil was alive, we would hold events and fairs, we would celebrate Louis Braille Day but now there aren’t too many programmes,” she says.
But there are occasions when the community meets. Music is one of the reasons that brings them together. Last year, Patil put together an orchestra whose 16 members are all visually impaired. The orchestra has already given around 10 performances in the state. Currently, the orchestra is rehearsing in Patil’s house for a concert in Mumbai on December 11. Dheeraj Giri, 30, belts out a melodious duet, singing both the male and the female parts. The husband-wife duo of Santosh Tapre and Deepa join in. The sound of music and conversation fills the room and for a brief time, the group assembled inside forgets its troubles. But only briefly.
As the rehearsal ends, singers Shankar Pawar and Pradeep Kumar make their way back slowly home, walking along the railway track. A woman comes rushing from the other side and runs into them. “Can’t you see? Are you blind?” she asks in irritation. “Yes,” answers Kumar with a laugh. Pawar joins in.