THANE: She lights a match to start the makeshift stove, adds a bowl of rice to the boiling water and a pinch of salt before she covers the vessel, all the while keeping an eye on an impatient toddler. Sitting in a temporary shelter in Thane set up for families of drought refugees – those who fled the drought in Marathwada to look for work in the city – Lalita’s everyday chores would not have been so out of the ordinary, but she is only 11 years old.
Even before she could take her class 5 exams, her parents packed her off to the city, with her uncle and aunt, so she could to take care of their children while they went out looking for work.
Lalita’s village in the Mukhed taluka in Marathwada’s Nanded is in the throes of a punishing drought. “My uncle and aunt are out at work. I take care of their children and make food for them in the day,” she says, as she deftly removes the metal vessel from the stove with a pair of wooden sticks.
“There’s no water in our area. We used to walk a lot in the day just to look for it. Often, people would shoo us away saying they had none to spare. It was so hard.”
Her cousin Ashok, 13, adds, “I would walk to the well, at the other end of the field, to get one pot of water. Every day I had to make at least five such trips.” Ashok and Lalita moved to this shelter just three days ago with approximately 400 others — all of them from farming families who fled Marathwada and reached Mumbai and Thane in search of work.
Earlier, they lived in a filthy open ground at Ghatkopar in suburban Mumbai. “That place was so dirty, we hardly got any water to drink, bathing was a luxury,” she says. Ashok adds, “We ate where we slept and there would be pigs and dogs who would roam around in the camp, stealing any food that they managed to find.”
Lalita misses her school and hopes she can return home soon. Ashok knows that is only possible if it rains.