A Camp For All Seasons

by | Apr 19, 2019

When you work at a rapidly expanding NGO like Mann Deshi, things happen at a frenetic pace. I realised this when I got back from India Fellow’s midpoint training. Even though our training days were packed with sessions and activities, it took me a few days to adjust back into my life as an employee of an organization.

I was already a bit sad that I had missed out on most of the Mann Deshi Mahotsav, one of Mann Deshi’s biggest events. For four days, vendors and artisans who we work with, from many parts of Maharashtra and even Karnataka, travel to Mumbai with their produce in order to give urban customers a taste of rural culture. The exhibition is accompanied with music and dance performances by bands and dance troupes from in and around Mhaswad. I was able to attend the last day of the Mahotsav and learnt a lot about the culture and performing arts of the Mann region. During this time, I also met several inspiring women entrepreneurs, who were beaming with happiness at the interest people were showing in their products. One of them was Kantabai, about whom I had written earlier.

Returning to Mhaswad from the high of the Mahotsav brought me back to the ground realities of life in Mann. The area was facing a severe drought due to a lack of rainfall. There were no other natural sources of water, with the Mannganga river having long dried up. Rains had not blessed the area since 2016. Groundwater levels had plummeted. Farmers were helpless, as not only were they unable to cultivate their land, but also could not arrange for fodder and water to feed their livestock. Assessing the situation, Mann Deshi decided to organize a cattle camp (chavani) for farmers. This was not the first time; a similar camp had been organised in April 2012, when the Mann region had faced one of its worst droughts in recent times. That year, the chavani had continued for almost one and a half years. This time, the drought situation was so intense that the camp had to be opened in January itself.

In fact, in the second half of 2018, after the scanty monsoon passed, the Devendra Fadnavis government had declared a drought-like situation in 180 talukas of Maharashtra. Mann taluka was one of them.

That was all that the government had done so far.* A few villages in drought affected areas were being provided with tankers after every five days, but this was hardly enough water to sustain a family, let alone cattle and livestock. Mann Deshi already had experience of running a chavani and so, it stepped in to address this issue. Despite the severity of the situation, the magnitude of the response to the camp was beyond what anyone had expected. Within the first few weeks, almost 7,000 animals had been brought. People,along with their animals, trekked for kilometres (some for more than 15 km) across parched countryside to reach the camp. Many families were forced to split up. While some members, in most cases, women, stayed back at the camp to look after the animals, the rest of the family remained in the village.

When I first visited the chavani, all I could see was a sea of green makeshift animal sheds. As I roamed around, I saw that the sheds were accompanied by tents, which were the temporary homes of residents. These were then organised into different wards. Usually, the occupants of one or adjoining wards came from the same village. The spatial divisions within the village had also implanted themselves in the chavani, as different caste based communities occupied different parts of the ward.

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Animal sheds and makeshift tents

While life continued as close to normalcy as possible in the villages, life here was different. A typical day involved getting up early in the morning to clean the sheds, milk the cattle and collect fodder and water for the animals. The fodder (sugarcane stalks) would arrive in large tractors from fertile areas of Western Maharashtra such as Akluj. The cattle owners would collectively help unload the tractors. The sugarcane would then be weighed and distributed to the owners according to the number and breed of their cattle. The Jersey cows required more water and fodder than indigenous cattle breeds such as Khillar, and hence their owners were entitled to five kilos more.

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A fodder weighing station

The work didn’t end merely at collecting water and fodder. The long sugarcane stalks had to be chopped into smaller pieces that cattle could easily ingest. Most people had brought machines for this, from their villages. The chopping continued intermittently throughout the day, and even at night. I got an opportunity to see this first hand when I accompanied a journalist from PARI, Medha Kale, who was visiting the chavani for her piece and had planned to stay for the night at the camp.

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A cattle owner carrying fodder from a collection point

We were living in the tent of Sangeeta Tai, a woman from Masaiwadi village. At 2 am, in the bitter cold, she, along with many other cattle owners, would wake up to cut more fodder for their cattle. Her day would begin again at 5 am, when she would wake up to bathe and begin with the daily chores. Since the arrangements for bathing at the chavani were minimal (with just a saree draped around four poles), the women preferred to bathe while it was still dark. After that, they would attend to the cattle, in some cases, cook food for their family, which would be packed into tiffin carriers and collected by their family members.

Life at chavani was certainly not easy, and the women felt the brunt of it, the most. Yet, as more and more people started pouring in, the place began to develop a community life of its own. Since most of the wards had people from the same village, men or women living alone had a reliable support network.

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A road between two wards

Enterprising business owners (of kirana stores, tea stalls) had already set up their shops to cater to the needs of the residents. Mann Deshi was also doing its bit to ensure that everything functioned smoothly at the camp. Milk vans would come around every morning and evening to collect the milk, which would be sold to nearby dairies or in the town. Dung of the animals would be collected and dumped in a composting pit. Veterinarians would make their rounds daily, attending to sick cattle, administering vaccinations and conducting artificial insemination.

A few months earlier, I may not have even understood the significance or requirement for a camp like this. I had always thought of the relationship between people and their livestock as a purely transactional one. Animals were to be bought and sold as per the needs of the family. But in the last few months, I have slowly begun to realise how I had completely misjudged the importance of animals in rural life.

For many poor families, even accumulating the capital required to buy cattle is a major event. Once bought, these animals become a part of the family. They would be affectionately given names and their well-being would be prioritised over people’s own comfort. I saw this happening at the chavani, where livestock owners would go to great lengths to care for their animals; carrying heavy loads of fodder and water for them, making sure to keep them clean and healthy. Many animals had been with their owners for more than ten years. In fact, the story of chavani’s origin also illustrates this strong bond between humans and animals.

A farmer named Kerabai had approached the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, during the severe drought of 2012. She wanted to mortgage her jewellery to buy fodder for her cattle. When asked by Mann Deshi’s founder, Chetna Sinha, as to why she was mortgaging her gold, Kerabai replied that it was the only way she could collect enough money to buy fodder. She also said that with some extra money, she could still get fodder, but no amount of money would help her access water for her cattle. This galvanised Chetna Ma’am to start chavani for the first time.

If there’s anything that profoundly changed my understanding of the human-animal relationship in rural India, it was the time spent at chavani.

As the weather changes from the dry, bitter cold of winter to the intense heat of summer, residents of the chavani are preparing themselves for a long stay. The number of cattle at the camp has now crossed 10,000 and it seems that Mann Deshi will have to start turning people away for lack of space in the near future. Below normal rainfall has been predicted for the coming monsoon, and the situation does not seem likely to improve anytime soon. With the National Elections coming up, farmers’ distress and agrarian crisis are beginning to draw the attention of the political and urban elite. However, it remains to be seen whether this will ensure any effective government relief measures.

I could continue to go on about the chavani and the lives of its residents, but in the interest of brevity, I feel obliged to conclude. This piece is only a personal account of my impressions, and certainly not an exhaustive one. If you are looking to read more about it, please do refer to these excellent pieces:

As Drought Looms, Villages in Satara Are Migrating to a Cattle Camp

Medha Kale’s incredible series of articles not just on the chavani but also on the impact of drought on people of Mhaswad

Lastly, I must thank the incredible journalists and researchers who had came to Mhaswad to cover the chavani. I got an opportunity to interact with a few of them: Sukanya Shantha from The Wire, and Medha Kale and Binaifer Bharucha from PARI – People’s Archive of Rural India; and observe closely the methods they used to conduct interviews and collect information. They not only allowed me to tag along with them, but also took out time to translate bits of the conversations that I could not understand. They made me aware of the larger, systemic forces that had contributed to the drought situation and the ways in which those forces influenced the local dynamics of the Mann region, including Mhaswad. As women, they also inspired me with their confidence, their local knowledge and the ease with which they interacted with people. Their dedication to document the realities of disadvantaged and marginalised communities was truly inspiring, to say the least.

*At the time of writing this piece, there had been no efforts by the government apart from providing water tankers to drought-affected villages. However, since then, 557 cattle camps have been set up in Maharashtra, mostly in districts of Marathwada such as the politically sensitive Beed, Osmanabad and Jalna. While some of these camps have been directly set up by the government, many have been set up by cooperative institutions associated with party workers. I have also heard about, but not personally seen, smaller cattle camps that are being run by government associated institutions in villages in Mann taluka.

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