Every morning Gulam Sheikh treks over ten kilometers to make it to the cloth shop he works in Mahagaon, a dusty roadside market in Maharshtra. Sheikh, 80, is not alone. There is a group of former farmers who trek through the thick undercover of the nearby forest, braving wild animals and forest guards, who often make it a point to mistake them for poachers, to work in a group of printing shops, kirana stores and factories in Mahagaon and nearby areas.
This stream of people have been steady, but has intensified in the last few years. They are the former farmers, who quit their land and non-viable farming option and turned construction workers and other job seekers. Elderly like Sheikh, have opted for easy jobs like working in shops.
Sheikh and his two sons worked in the 60 acres of land and grew cotton, pulses and vegetable until a few years back when drought turned their lives upside down.
“We don't have irrigation facilities. All the water sources have dried. We get very little as loans from banks. We have lost our land to moneylenders. My sons have gone to Mumbai for jobs and I have opted for the job here”, says Sheikh, managing the shop. The job pays him Rs. 1,000 a month, i.e., 33 rupees per day, for toiling almost 10 hours a day.
It is an irony that Mahagaon is just under 100 kilometers from Sevagram, which has the ashram of Mahatma Gandhi, who worked for the upliftment of people like Sheikh, who have been exploited by the wealthy.
Listening to the speeches of the leaders of Sangharsh Sandesh Jatha in a nearby meeting ground, Skeikh's fellow traveller Prakash Kinjawadekar says, “We didn't leave our farm land on our own. If and when we get it back, we want to get back to farming. But it is difficult”. Kinjawadekar, took a loan of Rs. 30,000 in two instalments to invest in a well and irrigation facilities. All lost, he became a fellow traveller of Sheikh.
Another problem the region faces is, shortage of agriculture labourers, as the relatively younger population has migrated in search of jobs and other livelihood options.
The Maharashtra leg of the Southern Jatha was welcomed in Mahagaon by a group of party members and sympathisers who are largely farmers.