Vasai: Come election season and it is time for various communities to come together, threaten major disruptions and yank out concessions from the establishment. The first in the lot is the Agri community who have threatened a highway roko at Shirsad, Virar on Friday, February 8, if their long list of demands are not met. And it is a long litany that the Agri Sena has put forth. This variety of Sena is demanding everything, from jobs in local projects, to permanent licenses for sand mining from river beds, to conversion of wet lands into residential zones.
A particular caste within the Hindu fold, with less than five lakh population, the Agris are basically concentrated in Mumbai, Thane, Raigad and Palghar districts, and have been living in the villages for generations. The word Agri comes from agar, a collection of rectangular vats where the sea water is dried and processed to make salt. The agris are so called because they were originally salt farmers. Later on, they diversified to include rice farming and fishing in their repertoire of professions, but their original identity is bound with the name of their community.
The Agris were sidelined and marginalised. As more and more tracts of land were converted into city zones and modern municipal corporations took shape, the children of the salt pans were relegated to nooks. In the MMR, there were many clusters of Agri villages, but now it is a multicultural hot-pot, with bustling centres of commerce, and immigrant population from all parts of the world. To accommodate the burgeoning population, huge projects rose from empty plots. And as the landscape of the area changed, so also the Agri community.
Most Agri farmers sold their farmlands to developers and property dealers. Some developed projects in partnership with builders or started small businesses. Because they were farmers even as recently as three decades back, there was never any emphasis on industry or education. Most of the youth joined the family business or took up small-time jobs. While migrant communities brought with them schools, colleges and a focus on education, the Agris remained uneducated. Even to this day, education is not a priority.
Therefore youngsters leave schools very early to take up small jobs or enter politics for which they don’t need education. The Agris got money by selling their lands and their children became complacent. Since they did not get proper guidance to utilise their money judiciously, they did not plan for the future, or invest in wealth creation projects. Moreover, their fondness of the good life, like tasty food, drinks, flashy cars, opulent bungalows and gold ornaments were also their undoing. Nobody taught them to live simple lives and save and invest money in industries. In fact, menfolk wear more gold than the womenfolk.
A lot of them squandered money in bars which have sprung up all over the area to accommodate travelling businessmen, but are heavily patronised by the Agris. Their predilection for gold is hereditary, and also cultural. When their ancestors earned money, they put it all into gold which was the best saving instrument in those days. But now this habit has now degenerated into a show of lavishness and wealth. Other communities will invest their savings in business, or education of their children, but Agris will spend them all in gold ornaments.
That is the way they are. In politics, they could not make any big headway as most parties used them only for announcing slogans on loudspeakers, or got them for pushing stranded campaign vehicles. Moreover, this is a divided community, and the divisions within themselves have prevented them from emerging as a powerful political bloc and make the changes they want to see in their areas. They just don’t have a united communal voice. Therein lies the story of an undeveloped community.