Joke is on Ajit as protest swells

Mumbai, April 8: Not dams maybe, but Ajit Pawar has watered a protest.

The man whose eight-week-old sit-in to highlight Maharashtra's drought situation prompted the deputy chief minister to take a crack about urinating into dams has been getting a stream of visitors at his protest theatre since the Saturday-night gaffe.

The spotlight has turned on Prabhakar (Bhayya) Deshmukh, a farmer-turned-activist who has been sitting on a "dharna andolan" since February 5.

Giving him company at Mumbai's Azad Maidan are 50 other protesters from different villages in Solapur's Mohol taluka.

"The issue is finally coming into focus, Bhayya," said a man who had come to meet the 40-year-old. "Everybody is talking about the drought."

Among those who have visited Deshmukh are leaders from many parties, including Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party and the Republican Party of India.

"He has been on a fast…. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it?" Pawar, nephew of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, told a rally in a drought-stricken taluka in Pune.

Deshmukh, who has been asking for water to be released into the Ujni dam in Solapur, said Pawar's comment was "derogatory and bad in taste".

"How can a leader the people have chosen to represent them make such an irresponsible and insensitive comment?" he said today.

The government today came up with an updated state-wide tanker report that says Solapur district, which was being provided drinking water through 103 tankers till March 31, was now receiving water through 454 tankers for its 356 villages.

Activists, however, said the Ujni dam, one of the largest in the state, has received no water.

Deshmukh, who owns six acres and founded an organisation called Solapur Jilha Janhit Shetkari Sanghatana five years ago, said he has approached various authorities, including Pawar.

"We sent at least 20-25 requests to Pawar's office to bring to his notice the plight of our villages. We wrote to him about farmers committing suicide. We did not get even one response from him."

Deshmukh said the Ujni dam, which provides drinking water to Solapur city and rural areas of the district, has run dry and not received water from other dams despite repeated requests for the past six months.

"Villages receive drinking water through tankers once a week. There is no water for their farms and many have been forced to sell their cattle to slaughterhouses due to the scarcity," he said. "How will our ministers who are always in the comfort of air conditioners and have mineral water to drink understand our situation?"

At Azad Maidan, Deshmukh and his fellow protesters have been surviving on one vada pav a day. "Most of us have left our families behind to come here and beg for water," he said.