At around noon on Friday, Anasuya Chavan felt dizzy while at work and collapsed. Her relatives rushed her to a nearby clinic, where the doctor announced that a combination of heat and stress had caused her blood pressure to spike.

Chavan is one of countless migrants who, impelled by the drought, left their homes in rural Maharashtra to search for work in Mumbai. Unlike most migrants, who are scattered in small groups across the city, Chavan is among a relatively more fortunate set who found shelter in the end of April at a large camp for drought refugees set up by Shiv Sena MLA Eknath Shinde in Wagle Estate in Thane, on Mumbai's north-eastern periphery.

Until last week, the camp – a series of tents with the face of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray emblazoned on a banner at the entrance – housed around 140 families in cramped quarters. With the monsoon approaching, the camp was to be shut on Sunday. Around half the families accommodated there had already left last week.

It was the churning thoughts of returning to the uncertainties of her home in Mukhed in Nanded district that led to Chavan’s collapse. Still weak on Friday evening, she lay on the ground in the camp as her son massaged her arms and legs. Her voice was faint with the effort of speaking.

“This entire week I have only been thinking of how we will manage when we go back,” Chavan said. “They have given us so much here. One night they gave us not only rice, but biryani, enough for a marriage. We get blankets and vessels and everyone is leaving for home with so much more. There is nothing for us at Mukhed. No farm, no work, no water.”

Homeward bound

Until the end of April, the families at the Thane camp had lived in a far more squalid camp in Ghatkopar, a central suburb of Mumbai, where migrants from Nanded and Latur districts have been coming for decades. The ground, just outside a large maidan where children play cricket, is set on the slopes of a hillock, which is ordinarily occupied by mounds of garbage and wild pigs and dogs. The shelter in this camp is crude and is spread out haphazardly. Pre-monsoon showers in the last week turned the mud into dark sludge that flowed into tents and damaged the migrants’ meagre belongings.

In April, when the media began to report about the squalor in which migrants were living, local politicians stepped in. Kirit Somaiya of the Bharatiya Janata Party adopted the Ghatkopar ground and Eknath Shinde of the Shiv Sena took 140 families to the ground in Thane. Chavan, with her husband and son, was one of the families that went with Shinde.

Most people at both camps are Banjaras from Nanded and Latur in the Marathwada region. These migrants drift towards specific places in Mumbai in times of distress with the help of a network of village and family connections. Some come to the city looking for work and sustenance every year. For many more, this is their first time.

This year, for the first time, migrants at both the grounds received weekly rations – wheat, rice, dal, cooking oil – issued against crude temporary ration cards. Both politicians also organised donations – including blankets, cooking and storage vessels, and toys for the several children in the camps.

Shinde even arranged for daily work with the Public Works Department for those living in the Thane camp. The job involved sweeping roads and offices. The daily wages of Rs 700 for a couple working together – Rs 400 for men and Rs 300 for women – were at least twice as high as that available back home.

As Chavan said, there is little work in Mukhed. She has no land to till and labours with her husband on others’ fields. This year was the third consecutive year without enough rain in Nanded, so there was no water either.

“Even if we don’t want to, whether we are sick or not, we have to walk three or four kilometres just to ask for water from someone who has a borewell,” said Chavan. “And that is for just one pot. How many times will we walk in a day? And if we do not go to get water, we cannot even ask our neighbours because they too have had to go so far to get their own water. They will ask us why they should give us anything.”

Most migrants at the camp have left elderly relatives and children at home, who need to be sent back money to get by in the village. One person in a family at a camp might return to the village for a day once a month to check on those left behind, and to give them a part of their earnings.

Others, like Prabhu Rathod, 40, a migrant from Latur in the Ghatkopar camp, brought their children with them. But when both his sons fell sick because of the poor living conditions there, and because the construction work did not agree with them, Rathod decided to send them home.

Some bring their children to run the household.

This is 14-year-old Asha Chavan's second trip to Mumbai. Two years ago, she came with both her parents and stayed in a tent at Shilphata near Dombivali. This year, her mother stayed at home because her brother had to attend school, while she accompanied her father, uncle and aunt to cook for them and mind the younger children when the adults were at work.

“Thieves have been coming in at night and threatening us for our money,” Asha Chavan said. “Then the pigs come and they try to eat our food, cooked or uncooked.”

Staying back

The camps will be shut by June 15, or whenever the rain arrives, organisers said. After that, the migrants will be on their own. Both camps slowly began emptying last week as scattered pre-monsoon showers hit Mumbai. The ones to leave first are the few who own land back home. It is the landless who remain, and who are most eager to find some shelter in the city.

Not many seemed enthused at the prospect of returning home. Ganpat Jadhav, living in the Ghatkopar camp, is one of them. His half acre of land on a hilly outcrop in Mukhed, on which he attempts to grow tur, moong and urad dals, is not enough to sustain him.

“If we go back, what will do?” he asked. “Eat mud? At least if we work here, we will get food. Only if we earn money can we eat.”

Another major problem is water. A government tanker visits Jadhav’s village once a week. There are 5,500 people in the village, but the tanker brings only somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 litres – a little more than a litre per head for the entire week. And if they want to get water from elsewhere, it might cost him as much as Rs 20 for a small vessel at a time when there is no other agricultural work to sustain them.

“People like us [Banjaras] live in the hills where the soil is hard and there is no water,” explained Rathod, who had to send his sons back home. He is a migrant from Latur, the home district of Vilasrao Deshmukh, former chief minister of Maharashtra. “The rich Marathas stay on the flat land so they have no water problems.”

Until this year, the Banjara quarter of his village did not even have a road leading to it. Tankers used to come to his village once every four days. But now that nearby wells are dry, they have stopped coming. This is Latur, where a train was commissioned to bring drinking water to the city and district headquarters.

With not enough water either to grow cane or to process it, sugar factories, normally a relatively stable source of income for migrating Banjaras, have not been working to full capacity this year. Rathod is aware that the factories that employ him are also responsible for the lack of water.

“They are bade log, they are Vilasrao [Deshmukh]’s children,” he said. “Who looks out for poor people? This is what we have to do.”

“We can’t all go to the same place so we go to different places and adjust,” said Baliram Rathod, a Nanded resident at the Thane camp, explaining how people chose where to migrate. “Some go to Aurangabad, some to Pune and some here.”

Like others, Baliram Rathod too wants to remain in Mumbai. At the Thane camp, he and his wife get an assured Rs 700 each daily for the work they do for the Public Works Department.

"In the village, we have to work the entire day to earn even Rs 300," he said. "Here we do half a day of work and get twice that."

With these wages, he might even be able to afford to rent a room in Mumbai. But what daunts him and others like him is the prospect of the Rs 20,000 deposit they will have to pay above the rent. The average room rent for a month is Rs 2,000. That is the same amount he would have to spend on seeds for his farm the next sowing season. Faced with two uncertainties, Baliram Rathod chose his farm.

Those at the Ghatkopar camp, where politicians have not organised daily work, do not earn as well. They go to labour nakas to search for construction work. Old timers like Jadhav say that the lack of rain has affected the amount of work available because there is not enough water to mix cement.

Even so, Jadhav said that he would remain at the Ghatkopar camp as long as he could manage, despite the threat of a wild monsoon.

“Bhagane wale tumhi hai, baithane wale tumhi (You are the ones who can make us leave or stay),” said Jadhav. “Can you help us to get place in this city? We only want to live. How many days can we keep roaming Maharashtra and India?”