The residents of Ambapani would greatly relish the opportunity to host an aspiring Member of Parliament or two, to feed them corn bhakris with fresh flour from a home grist-stone, or sweet charoli fruit plucked by children who scamper up the tree for fun.

No political representative of note has ever visited them, though — not one in the five decades that have passed since people first built their homes of bamboo, mud and dung. Scattered across a series of slopes of the stony, rugged Satpuras, the hamlet lies 13 kilometres uphill from the nearest motorable road.

Ambapani, with a population of 818 (Census 2011), has no road access, no electricity line, no running water, no mobile phone network, no fair price shop, no primary health centre and no anganwadi centre. The residents are all Pawaras, listed as a Scheduled Tribe in the state. Most of the 120 households trace their lineage to four or five large clans with roots in Madhya Pradesh, barely 30 kms north as the crow flies.

Located in a network shadow zone, there are neither television sets nor smartphones. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warnings about women’s mangalsutras to the Congress’s exhortations on protecting the Constitution, not even the shrillest episodes of the 2024 Lok Sabha campaign have reached Ambapani’s voters.

“A road, maybe,” says Ungya Gurja Pawara, voicing what would be an attractive poll promise. The 56-year-old is a descendant of one of the original settlers of the hamlet. About a decade ago, when he’d saved up money for a steel almirah for his home, four men carried the 75 kg cupboard uphill, “like a stretcher”.

Farm produce headed for the Mohrale market 13 kms downhill is ferried on two-wheelers, about a quintal at a time on a treacherous dirt track along steep inclines, past a series of drops and rises, sharp turns and switchbacks, loose gravel, mountain streams and the occasional sloth bear.

“On the other hand, however,” Ungya muses, “one would have to think about whether a road would escalate illegal lumbering.”

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Left: Ungya Pawara and his immediate family in front of their home in Ambapani . Right: Ungya's wife, Badhibai's toe was almost sliced off when a hatchet she was using to chop firewood fell on her leg. There is no clinic nearby to treat the gash

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Ungya Pawara’s home (left) in the village. He is a descendant of one of the original settlers of the hamlet . A charoli tree (right) outside the marital home of Rehendi Pawara, Ungya and Badhibai's daughter. Climbing the tree and plucking its sweet fruit is a popular game for the children of the village

His wife Badhibai has been hobbling around for the better part of the month, after a hatchet fell on her toe while she was chopping firewood. The gash is deep, but she did not so much as bandage it. “ Mohrala kinwa Haripuraparyant jaave lagte [I’d have to go to Mohrale or Haripura],” she says about why she ignored the injury. “Will any party give us a good dawakhana [clinic] here?” she laughs.

At least one infant in Ambapani was diagnosed as malnourished, though the family does not know how acutely malnourished the little girl is. There is no anganwadi , though approvals were received nearly a decade ago, say people in the village.

Instead, an anganwadi worker from Mohrale has additional charge of Ambapani, and makes the difficult journey once every few weeks to supply packages of take-home ration for the beneficiary children and pregnant women as well as iron and folic acid tablets for the latter. “If we had an anganwadi here, at least small children could go there and learn something,” says Badhibai. Ungya says there are more than 50 children in the village up to the age of six years, the age-group meant to benefit from the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS), through which the anganwadi centres are run.

Babies are traditionally delivered at home, though some younger women have in recent years made the journey to clinics in Mohrale or Haripura, a distance of 13 kms.

Ungya and Badhibai have five sons and two daughters, and a large brood of grandchildren. The unlettered couple tried to put their sons through school, but it was never a realistic goal without a road.

A school ‘building’ emerged about two decades ago, a bamboo and thatch room that might be the village’s most ramshackle structure.

“There is in fact a teacher appointed, but do you expect somebody from elsewhere in the tehsil to ride up here every day?” asks Roopsingh Pawara, a resident of Ambapani, and son of Bajrya Kandlya Pawara, another original settler of Ambapani. Locals claim he had 15 children from his two wives. Only expert bikers and locals venture to undertake this 40-minute ride. The ride is not for the fainthearted, he says, and even forest department guards have found themselves lost en route.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

A school building (left) came up in Ambapani two decades ago but a teacher is yet to arrive . Roopsingh Pawara (right) from the village asks, 'there is in fact a teacher appointed [in the school], but do you expect somebody from elsewhere in the tehsil to ride up here every day?'

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

The dirt track on which a dangerous 40-minute motorbike ride uphill is the only route to Ambapani village in Jalgaon district’s Yawal taluka

One of Badhibai’s grandsons, Barkya, is back for the summer holiday from the ashram shala (residential schools, run by the state government especially for children belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Nomadic Tribes) in Dhanora, in neighbouring Chopda tehsil . Another grandson attends a different ashram shala .

At Ambapani, we were served river water in steel tumblers and tiny ceramic cups of black tea. The four young girls who handed it out said they had never been to school.

The marital home of Badhibai’s daughter Rehendi is about a kilometre or two away, along a winding dirt track built by the Pawara men themselves, cutting downward through the side of one hill-slope and up the next.

Rehendi says some voters may think about whether government processes to obtain a caste certificate could be made simpler. Other men gathered around say about 20 to 25 per cent of the village does not have ration cards.

The ration shop (public distribution system) is in Korpawali village, about 15 kms away, further south of Mohrale. Children as old as six years are often not yet registered for a birth certificate, and without institutional deliveries, this has meant that families struggle to get Aadhaar cards made for younger members or include them as beneficiaries in the family’s ration card.

The women said access to water was the most important thing to ask politicians for.

There are no wells or borewells in the village, nor hand pumps or pipelines. Villagers depend on monsoon streams and tributaries of the west-flowing Tapi for drinking water and for irrigation. Acute water scarcity is rare, but the quality of water deteriorates as the summer wears on. “Sometimes we send the men with cans to bring water on motorbikes,” says Rehendi. Mostly, women and girls carry pots of water home, several times a day, lithely stepping on to rutted pathways, often barefoot.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Clear mountain water trickles through a rudimentary pipeline in Ambapani. There are no wells, borewells, hand pumps or pipelines in the village

Along the dirt track leading uphill towards the school building, Kamal Rahangya Pawara is squinting at the bark of a sal tree, scraping against it a conical metal cup with sharp edges. Slung across his wiry torso is a worn rexine bag carrying about three kilograms of fragrant resin from the sal tree ( Shorea robusta ). It is mid-morning, and the previous afternoon’s 44 degrees Celsius maximum looks set to be breached.

Focusing intently on ensuring he collects every bit of the available resin, Kamal says he expects a price of about Rs. 300 per kilo in the Haripura market. He has spent about five hours collecting the resin, filling the bag over four days. Locals call the sticky resin ‘dink ’, though it is not the edible gum used in dink laddoos , a popular winter-time delicacy in Maharashtra. This resin has a woody and slightly musky fragrance, making it a sought-after raw material for incense sticks manufacturers.

Tapping the resin involves carefully stripping away the outer cover of the tree bark in a few sections about a metre from the ground, then waiting a few days for the resin to ooze out, before repeating the process.

According to government officials, deforestation on account of resin-collection by scorching the base of the tree — another method of inducing formation of the gum — is an emerging problem. Kamal says that Ambapani’s dink -collectors opt for the traditional bark-stripping method. “Our houses are in the same area,” he reasons, “so nobody lights fire here.”

Collection of forest produce including tree resin, leaves of the sal tree, berries, tendu leaves and mahua flowers is neither a year-long occupation nor lucrative. Men like Kamal earn approximately Rs. 15,000 – Rs. 20,000 a year from resin, and similar sums from other forest produce.

Twenty-four families in Ambapani received land titles under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act , 2006. With no irrigation, the land remains fallow during the dry season.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Kamal Pawara collects resin from sal trees which he sells for about Rs. 300 per kilo at the market in Haripura, 13 kms away

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

He scrapes a conical metal cup (left) against the sal tree to collect the sticky gum. Slung across his torso is a worn rexine bag (right) carrying about three kilograms of fragrant resin

About a decade ago, as families grew and living off the land was no longer sustainable, Ambapani’s Pawaras began to join the annual migration seeking work as sugarcane harvest labourers. “Every year, about 15 to 20 families now travel to Karnataka,” says Kelarsing Jamsing Pawara, a labour sub-contractor who earns a commission of Rs. 1,000 for each ‘koyta ’ he signs up for the harvest work.

A ‘koyta ’, literally a scythe, is the name given to a unit of labour — a husband-wife couple — in Maharashtra’s cane fields. As inexperienced cane workers, the Pawaras are paid a lower lump-sum advance, about Rs. 50,000 per koyta , than most others in the sugarcane plantations.

“There is no other work available,” Kelarsing reasons. For approximately Rs. 10,000 a month, a couple works 12-16-hour days, slicing and cutting the cane stalks, bundling them up and heaving them to tractors that drive off to the cane factory, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.

Roopsingh says Ambapani has recorded two deaths of labourers who went off on the cane harvest. “The advance payment gets spent in days,” he says, “and there’s no medical assistance or insurance or compensation for accidents or fatalities.”

The men gathered at Rehendi’s house say they wouldn’t work as cane harvesters if they found employment closer to home. They cite language problems, the hardships for women and children during the harvest period when they live in tents near the cane fields and the dangers of trucks and tractors. “The conditions are terrible, but which other job will pay a lump-sum advance?” asks Kelarsing.

About 60 per cent of the menfolk in Ambapani have worked as sugarcane harvest labourers, he says.

A sizable advance payment is useful not only for minor home repairs or purchase of a bike but also for the bride price that Pawara grooms must pay the parents of prospective brides, a sum negotiated and enforced by the Pawara panchayat.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Many resdients of Ambapani migrate to work as sugarcane harvest labourers. Kelarsing Jamsing Pawara (left) earns a commission of Rs 1,000 for every husband-wife couple he signs up for the sugarcane harvest in Karnataka. Most have been on the sugarcane harvest trip (right) over the past few years. They say they wouldn’t work as cane harvesters if they found employment closer to home

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Left: The EVM in the village will be placed in the school building which is essentially a bamboo and thatch room . Right: A broken toilet block outside the school

Norms governing social and marital relations among the Pawara tribe are unique. Roopsingh explains how the panchayat rules on marriage disputes. The two sides sit a few dozen yards away from each other during a negotiation, a process called jhagada . Occasionally, a bride is returned to her parents a few days after a wedding, along with a payment called izzat , but if she elopes with another man then the bride’s family must pay a compensation equal to twice the bride price collected.

“Ambapani is truly a distinctive village,” says Ayush Prasad, Jalgaon’s District Collector. Locals say he was the first DC ever to have trekked up 10 kms to meet them, in December 2023. “It [the village] has unique challenges on account of its topography, but we have initiated the process to provide better services.” A central legal challenge has been that the village is not recognised by the revenue department, having originally been a settlement on forest land. “Work on making Ambapani a gaothan has begun, and many government schemes can follow,” said Prasad.

For now, the school room, a broken toilet block outside it, is where the 300-odd registered voters will cast their ballot on May 13. Ambapani falls in Raver parliamentary constituency in Jalgaon district. The EVM and all the other voting paraphernalia will be carried uphill on foot and on motorbikes.

The booth has witnessed an average 60 per cent turnout during General Elections, and officials said everything required for Ambapani to exercise its democratic right would be available. Only the rewards of democracy will be slow to come.
Kavitha Iyer

Kavitha Iyer has been a journalist for 20 years. She is the author of ‘Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought’ (HarperCollins, 2021).

Other stories by Kavitha Iyer
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David