While the BJP is invoking the Pulwama terror attack and the subsequent Balakot airstrikes in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls to woo voters, for the people of two villages in Satara district, known for sending most of their youths to the armed forces, unemployment and scarcity of water are what will drive them to vote on April 23.
While Apshinge Military village has the distinction of producing a soldier from each household, Lasurne has sent the most number of soldiers to the forces from a village.
The Nikam family in Apshinge Military village, 16 km from Satara town, has sent 22 members to the armed forces. But for Shankar Nikam, who along with his four brothers had served in the forces, water shortage is a major issue. “Scarcity of water and lack of agricultural land have made villagers look to the armed forces for livelihood. The village has been serving the forces since the British regime.”
“We are aware of the politicians invoking the sacrifices made by soldiers while seeking votes but we can’t do anything. I am glad that my family has served the country for generations but at the same time, kept away from politics,” he added.
Sitting at a temple alongwith a dozen of senior citizens, retired soldier Pandarinath Nikam (65) said: “Around 100 youths from the village are currently serving in the armed forces. There are over 500 ex-servicemen in the village. It hurts to see the parties using the forces in the elections… In reality, no party is really bothered about soldiers.”
With three days left for polling, no candidate has visited the village once till now. Only party vehicles with loudspeakers are making rounds of the village appealing for votes. “The village faces problems of bad roads, insufficient water supply and social issues but no one pays attention,” said Nikam.
In Lasurne village, which is 10 km from Satara town, Ramchandra Lokhande has a similar story to narrate. “We are not respected by even local politicians. Soldiers stand for uprightness, so they are not welcomed by politicians.”
The ex-servicemen here themselves have set up a self-help group that works for their welfare. “We are exploring new sources of income for retired soldiers and their families. While the pension received is sufficient for a family to survive, it cannot assure a better life and future for the next generation,” said Lokhande, who had lost his only son in service a few years ago.
Lasurne gets water once in two days. It lacks roads and there is no infrastructure. “The candidates have not even visited the village. We don’t know whom to approach with our problems,” said Lokhande.
Collector Shweta Singhal said that the district has the maximum number of soldiers serving in the armed forces. “A total of 12,144 soldiers have registered themselves for ballot poll. We have started receiving their ballot papers, which would be opened on counting day,” she added.
The Sainik welfare officer of Satara, Lt Col R R Jadhav, said there are around 13,000 soldiers registered with the Sainik Welfare Board here seeking employment. But there are no jobs. “Around 50 soldiers register with the board here every month after retiring. This number keeps on increasing but we are unable to provide them jobs as there are no vacancies in the government departments,” he said, adding that while retired soldiers are ready to work in the private sector, the district lacks such exposure.
Amol Bhosale had retired from the forces a year ago. At present in Khatav village, Bhosale has served for 17 years but is now sitting idle. “I was told there are no jobs in Satara. So, I registered myself with the Mumbai Sainik Board branch. I have not received a single interview call.”
“Life after retirement is painful… there is no respect for a retired soldier,” he said.