‘Even in the heat, there is some guilt if I drink the water…’

This story first appeared on PARI on 29 June 2017.

Kewalbai Rathod, 60, is operating a heavy handpump. Every forceful draw is accompanied by a grunt, the veins in her forearm standing out, the wrinkles on her face deepening. For all her effort, the water barely trickles into the pot. Several villagers await their turn. And the pump might run out of water at any time.

An hour later, at around 5 p.m., Kewalbai has managed to fill two pots. Her husband Ramu, 65, sits on a nearby rock, gazing into space. “Zaala re (It is done),” Kewalbai calls out in Marathi, and Ramu stands up, but does not move. She picks up one pot and walks up to him to hand it over. He parks it safely on his shoulder, while Kewalbai picks up the other. She then takes his hand and places it on her shoulder, and the two begin to walk towards their home. “He is blind,” she explains, looking at my puzzled face.

‘He is blind’,  Kewalbai explains as she leads her husband Ramu uphill to their home in Kashiram Somla. They ferry water she has painstakingly filled before they return for more

The handpump atop a borewell is at the foot of the hilly hamlet of Kashiram Somla in Udgir taluka of Maharashtra’s Latur district. Every trip entails a 15-minute walk up the hill. Each pot can hold around 12 litresof water and, when full, would weigh nearly 12 kilos. Kewalbai leads Ramu up and down the rocky pathway several times a day. “We are a family of seven,” she says, on reaching their house at the corner of the hill. “I have three sons, two are married. All of them go out in search of work [as agricultural labourers or at construction sites in Udgir town] early in the morning. Fetching water therefore falls upon the two of us.”

The family owns neither farmland nor livestock. The daily wages of their sons and daughters-in-law sustain the household. “Ten pots a day [each containing 12-15 litres] is what we target. The two of us make five such trips every day,” says Ramu. “We only need water for our basic needs like cooking, washing and bathing. Those who farmland and rear livestock have to work even harder.”

Left: Kewalbai, 60, washes her pots before filling them with water. Right: Her husband Ramu sits by as she works the handpump 

When I meet Shalubai Chavan, 40, at her home at 11.30 a.m., she has already spent five hours collecting water. She belongs to a Banjara (Scheduled Tribe) family of five, with two acres of farmland. “Our main source of income is milk products,” she says. “We rear two bulls, three cows and four buffaloes. Maintaining the livestock requires a lot of water.We need over 20 pots a day.”

Shalubai lives right along the curved road on the hill in Kashiram Somla, and has to walk a few minutes before descending towards the handpump. “There were two handpumps at the start of the summer,” she recollects, while washing clothes outside her home. “But one broke down. Now the entire hamlet of 400 people depends on a single handpump. Even in this heat [of May], there is a bit of guilt if I drink the water. The collector started supplying water through tankers, but they are irregular and we cannot rely on them.”

This is why pots are lined up at the handpump before dawn. “Fetching water after sunrise, with temperatures crossing 40 degrees [Celsius], is really exhausting,” says Shalubai, who is in the queue with four pots every morning at 4 a.m. “Still, the line is unending. I fill 12-15 pots in the morning and 5-8in the evening between 4 and 7. Waiting for my turn takes three hours, and the trips back and forth another two hours. It is 9 a.m. before I begin my household chores.”

Shalubai spends a third of the day filling water; the rest goes in household chores and taking care of her family

Five hours in the morning and three hours late-afternoon – Shalubai spends eight hours of her day fetching water for the family. This is not uncommon: a National Commission for Women report states that women in rural households often spend 6-9 hours a day on water duties. Eight hours of farm labour would earn Shalubai Rs. 200, the standard daily wage here. The three summer months, March to May, cost her around Rs. 18,000 every year.

Besides income and time, the losses due to this gruelling work, invariably done by women and girls in rural India, include the impact on health and on education for girls. While women do various farming-related tasks too, they remain the principal water collectors in the household.  Men and boys barely contribute to this arduous physical task. The National Sample Survey (NSSO; 69th round, 2012) notes that when drinking water had to be fetched from a distance, women did this work in 84.1 per cent of rural households, and men in 14.1 per cent.

Left: The scarcity of water and fodder affects the livestock in Shalibai’s household. Right: The  small tank in her courtyard that is running dry

Shalubai’s husband Rajaram too uses the water she has fetched to get ready and go to the farm. “This season at least I come back with water after eight hours,” Shalubai says. “Last year’s situation was so grim, I would walk for hours and come back empty-handed. I once walked 20 kilometres to get fodder for my livestock.”

Shalubai gets no respite between her two water-fetching sessions. “Two of my sons are in school,” she says. “I have to look after them, get them ready for school. Besides, I cook for the family, wash clothes and utensils, and manage the household.”

Around 150 kilometres from Udgir, in Takwiki village in Osmanabad district, Prayagbai Dolare has her own set of problems.

Nearly 70, Dolare is a Dalit who has faced discrimination for most of her life. “It has been better in the last few years,” she quips, on her way to fetch water through farmlands. “Several water sources used to be closed to me. I would often be the last in any queue.There is still one public well in the village where I am not allowed to go.”

In her family, Dolare is responsible for water as well as daily wages. “We do not have any kids,” she says, her saree wrapped around her head in an attempt to minimise the effect of the heat.The temperature is touching 45 degrees Celsius. “My husband is handicapped. He cannot walk, and can hardly work as a labourer.”

Three days a week, Dolare spends four to five hours storing enough water to last for seven days. “We manage with 30-35 pots a week,” she says. The water source, a private borewell, is about a kilometre from her home. “I cannot carry more than one pot at a time. At my age, it takes at least half-an-hour for every pot.”

The rest of the week, Dolare works as an agricultural labourer; because of her age, she earns only Rs.100  a day. “We are pulling along somehow, but what will we do once I am unable to work?” On the three days she spends fetching water, she forgoes her daily wages, cutting down her potential weekly income by half.

Takwiki, like most villages in the eight districts that constitute the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, has an acute water scarcity in summer, when the wells, ponds, lakes and dams usually run dry. This is also the period when panic-stricken farmers sink borewells everywhere, in the hope of  finding a private source of water. If a family is lucky enough to drill a borewell at the right spot, they become water-independent, and  can even start a lucrative trade.

Many in Marathwada milk the water crisis by selling water for Rs.2-4 for every12-15 litre pot. Dolare pays Rs.2 for a pot. “That is 70 rupees of water per week,” she says. A little less than a fourth of what she earns in seven days. If the scarcity deepens, she could end up paying much higher rates.

Around 250 kilometres north of Takwiki, however, roughly 3 million litres of water per day (mld) are available at just 4 paise per litre to the 16 beer factories and distilleries operating in Aurangabad. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) officials insist  the beer companies are charged Rs.42, but don’t add that this is for every 1,000 litres.

Dolare would have to pay more than three times as much for 1,000 litres of water, and walk for 35 hours to collect that water.

Left: Many villagers gather at to fill water at the handpump at Kahiram Somala village every morning. Right: A young woman fills her bucket with dirty water fearing that the handpump might give in anytime

In April 2016, following a disastrous drought, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court ordered a 50 per cent water cut for the breweries, which were collectively guzzling 5.207 mld of water. “When people had not seen water for days, it was inhuman that breweries were guzzling the precious resource,” the bench said.

Back in Kashiram Somla, Kewalbai empties two pots of water into a drum. The farmlands around her are empty for now, but a crowd has gathered around the handpump, as always. She takes Ramu by the hand, picks up the two empty pots, and they begin another trip down the hill.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Wells of despair

This story first appeared on PARI on 16 June 2017.

A clanging of pots announces the dawn in Takwiki, as people surge towards the nearest water source in this village in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district. Soon, the narrow alleys are lined with water-seekers and their water containers. The oldest is 60-plus, the youngest, five.

Prithviraj Shirsath, 14, and Aadesh Shirsath, 13, are in the queue. A teacher who lives right across their home opens his borewell to the villagers twice or thrice a week. The summer vacations are on, and the Shirsath cousins don’t have the excuse of school to avoid spending their morning fetching water. “When we do not get water from the teacher’s house nearby, we travel a kilometre,” says Prithviraj, ribbing his cousin about taking two hours to fill 10 pots while he fills 15 pots in an hour-and-a-half. “You never let me take the bicycle,” Aadesh shoots back, smiling.

Some distance away, 40-year-old Chhaya Suryanvanshi is less sanguine about walking through the fields in the blistering heat. Her nearest source of water, another borewell, is around a kilometre from her house. Filling water is her responsibility, while her husband works on their farmland. “I need 15 pots a day for my family of six,” she says, a pot parked on her head, supported with her right hand. Another is resting on her hip, beneath her left arm. “I can carry two pots at a time. It still requires 7-8 eight trips a day. Each trip takes just under 30 minutes. And this year has been better than the previous ones [because of better rainfall in 2016].”

This is life for the 4,000 residents of Takwiki through the summers. Due to the daily struggle for water, and the time and effort involved in procuring it in these drought-prone areas of Maharashtra, the villagers have become hugely preoccupired with borewells.

Owning a private source of water not only makes life easier, it also bestows power and status. The teacher walks through Takwiki with his head held high. He is lauded for his magnanimity in opening up his borewell to others in need.

The less magnanimous, however, milk the water scarcity and run a prosperous trade. “I pay 2 rupees for every 15 litres,” says Chhaya, among the many who buy water from villagers fortunate enough to have drilled a borewell at the right spot.

A line of orange pots outside the house of a local teacher who opens up his private borewell to the public a few times each week in Takwiki village

Many farmers in the agrarian region of Marathwada have gone bankrupt in their quest to strike water. Sinking a borewell is a tricky business. It costs more than Rs. 1 lakh, with completely uncertain outcomes. If the spot at which a farmer drills turns out to be dry, the money is wasted. The dejection of a failed borewell, however, fades before the hope of drilling a successful one.

Dattusingh Bayas, 60, has drilled eight borewells on his 8-acre farmland over the last three years, of which only one is usable at present. It gives him around 100 litres of water per day. “I could think of no other way to maintain my livestock and farmland,” he says, standing in his fields of tur and soybean. “Last year, I had to give away three of my eight bulls because I did not have enough water.”

In his search for water, Bayas has run up a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs from private moneylenders. “The interest rates are rising by the day,” says Bayas, whose two sons work as labourers and two daughters are married. “But I also work as a carpenter in the village. I make 500 rupees a day on an average. It has kept me going amidst the crisis.”

‘When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,’ says Dattusingh Bayas about how he has accumulated a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs sinking eight borewells 

Most of the borewells in Marathwada are drilled in the 3-4 months before June, when natural water bodies begin to run dry and it becomes difficult to maintain farmland and livestock. No river originates in Marathwada, and farmers have few options other than borewells. Adding to the scarcity are increasingly erratic weather patterns and government policies that promote water-intensive crops like sugarcane, Such is the extent of the water shortage now, that Marathwada’s farmers have started using borewell water for irrigation, though it is enough to only be used for drinking purposes.

The lax rules on groundwater extraction further push the proliferation of borewells. There are only two rules, and even these are routinely flouted: a farmer, the state administration tells reporters, cannot drill a borewell beyond 200 feet and within 500 metres of a public water source. However, farmers have often gone as deep as 1,000 feet. Four out of Bayas’ eight borewells go 400 feet deep. “When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,” he says. This tampers with the deep aquifer, which takes hundreds of years to refill. The process  is proving to be catastrophic for the region.

In spite of the 120 per cent rainfall last season, groundwater recharge in 55 out of 76 talukas in Marathwada has depleted, as compared to the average groundwater over the past five years, according to the state’s Groundwater Survey and Department Agency. Except Beed (2 of 11 talukas) and Latur (4 of 10 talukas), all six districts have thrown up alarming numbers: in 5 out of 8 in Osmanabad, all the 9 talukas of Aurangabad, and 16 of the 16 talukas in Nanded, groundwater has depleted.

People must travel long distances to collect water as the crisis deepens across the Marathwada region of Maharashtra

  

But there is still no limit to how many borewells a family can own. The administration in all the districts has no clue how many borewells exist. Sunil Yadav, the stand-in collector of Osmanabad [in April], says the gram panchayat is supposed to keep track of the depth of the borewells, but it does not. Ultimately though, the collector and the state are responsible for this monitoring.

The administration has no count of the number of agents working in the district either, suggesting that they are unregistered. Travelling through Osmanabad, you come across a borewell agent’s shop almost every three minutes. The agents help farmers sink a borewell.

Dayanand Dhage, one of the agents on the outskirts of Takwiki, says he helped  farmers sink over 30 borewells in the last week of April. “Farmers contact us, and it is our responsibility to arrange the apparatus and the truck-mounted borewell rig,” he says. “Farmers pay us in cash, and we settle accounts with the owners of the truck on a monthly basis.”

The rig owners are mostly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and operate in Maharashtra through these agents. The number of such trucks running through Marathwada remains unknown.

The entire economy is thus unregulated, and there is no question of service tax. When asked if the agents or owners require any prior permission or if they have to follow any norms to carry out this business, Sunil Yadav and an officer with the groundwater department have no clear answers.

By not making any law to regulate borewells, the state government aids the lobby that is operating in an open field. “Turning a blind eye to the issue, the government keeps the market for borewells booming,” says an official at the Osmanabad district board on condition of anonymity. “The absence of any policy benefits those milking the crisis.”

Desperate for water: children as young as five queue up with their pots in Takwiki village

Meanwhile, back in Takwiki, Bayas says he is working extra hours to save some money. He has a debt of Rs. 3 lakhs. Plus the cropping season is here, and he needs money to buy inputs. But that is not why he is saving up. “Another borewell?” I ask him. Turns out, it is not a wild guess.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Environment be damned, Modi to lay foundation for Shivaji statue in Mumbai sea

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 23 December 2016.

After renaming Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), the Maharashtra state government has moved on to another burning issue.

On Saturday, 24 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the much-delayed memorial of the Maratha king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.

 

 

The 192-metre statue, roughly 1.5 kilometres from the Raj Bhavan and 3.5 kilometres into the sea, is supposed to be the tallest in the world. However, apart from spending more than Rs 3,500 crore of the taxpayers’ money, it is likely to result in a lot of trouble for the city of Mumbai.

Destroying marine habitat

Environmentalists say it will severely affect the 110-km coastal area, along with rupturing the marine life and consequently destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.

Stalin Dayanand of the NGO Vanashakti said the pollution control board needs to monitor the soil used for the construction of the project. “If you are going to reclaim land, you have to use marine soil by law,” he said, adding if the authorities indeed use marine soil, the project would never be concluded because the cost would be drastically multiplied.

“The metro project is going to generate 5.4 million tons of mud, and there is no disposal plan for it. It will be used for the Shivaji memorial, making the sea turbid with foreign particles. Marine life will be ruptured and fishermen will be the hardest hit.”

Around 80,000 fishermen’s livelihoods depend on it, and they do not have an alternate source of income, said Damodar Tandel of the Akhil Maharashtra Machimar Kriti Samiti (AMMKS).

“The 42-acre bed planned in the sea is a prime fishing spot for us,” he said. “It is also a breeding spot for big fish. Prawns, lobsters and 40 types of crabs are found there. Out of the Rs 2,000 crore worth of fish Maharashtra exports per year, half comes from the two docks in South Mumbai. We are not opposed to the memorial, but we are terrified by its location.”

About 450 small boats and 1,500 large ones, which do daily business in the sea, will mount black flags when Modi arrives to lay the foundation stone, said Tandel.

“Three main wholesale fish markets – Sassoon dock, Bhaucha Dhakka, and Crawford will be shut,” he said.

“Fishermen across Maharashtra are supporting us. The 100-odd retail markets will also be on strike, and fisherwomen will form a human chain at Marine Drive and show black flags to Modi.”

Tandel claimed the police were threatening his workers with legal action, but the fishermen’s community is in no mood to capitulate. “We are exercising our constitutional right,” he said.

Did environment bodies aid statue?

Last month, Vinayak Mete, head of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, the group appointed by the state to implement the project, termed the allegations by fishermen ‘baseless’, and cited clearances by the Environment Ministry, along with favourable reports by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).

However, there is a case pending in the National Green Tribunal where lawyer Asim Sarode, who is representing the petitioners, has pointed out flaws in the state’s defence.

“The NIO suggested mitigation measures while saying there is no harm to the environment. Is it not contradictory?” he asked. “The organisation is losing credibility because it is using its knowledge for the purposes of government.”

In February 2015, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was prepared for the state’s public works department by the NIO and NEERI. The year-long study noted that the project would increase congestion on roads, air pollution and solid waste generation.

Sarode further challenged the process through which the government got exemption from conducting a public hearing. “The project did not involve rehabilitation and resettlement of the public, and since it was located away from human habitation, the public hearing was dispensed,” reads the affidavit of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Further, environment clearances say there should be no dredging at all. “But the government will require water for construction, as salt water cannot be used,” said Sarode. “The government contacted the maritime board, which said a tunnel duck is required inside the water. But any kind of tunnel cannot transpire without dredging.”

On 22 December, the government asked for more time to submit its reply to the NGT. The next date of hearing is 31 January.

Other problems

Apart from environmental hazards, the memorial is likely to intensify problems like the already congested traffic situation in South Mumbai.

“If you are creating a tourist destination with access from Marine Drive, you will have to create parking spaces,” said Stalin. “The entire Colaba and Marine Drive area would be choked. To conquer that, problem, I fear they will again reclaim the sea along Marine Drive to create parking spaces. They are out to ruin the marine environment.”

Simple matter of politics

Commentators believe that by holding the foundation stone ceremony right now, the BJP government is laying the foundation for the upcoming Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai polls.

Stalin said the Shivaji Memorial is a “meaningless expenditure to indulge in cheap vote bank politics”. “If you want to seriously pay respect to the great warrior, spend one-tenth of the amount and maintain the Raigad fort,” he said.

An online petition at change.orgwith close to 15,000 supporters says the money could be spent on “something better – education, infrastructure, food”, especially when the state is reeling from starvation deaths and an agrarian crisis, among other problems.

But speaking in the legislative Assembly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “Since we do not ask our father how much money he spends on food, how can we think about the cost when it comes to building a memorial for Shivaji Maharaj? He is our pride and it would only be right to build a grand memorial in his name.”

The CM has not relented. And since the PM has obliged to lay the foundation stone, he too seems to be okay with the quagmire fishermen find themselves in, as well as the environmental perils pointed out by experts.

However, it leaves Tandel with a poignant question. “Our PM keeps visiting developed countries. Does he not see how they invest in protecting their environment?”

 

Farmers threatening to quit the business completely. Is Vidarbha the tip of the iceberg?

This story first appeared on Catch News on 7 April 2016.

Once a prosperous village, today no more – that’s the difference all of 15-years makes in the village of Sukali in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district.

 

 

The farmers led a relatively comfortable life with the water flowing in the nearby lake being a major source of irrigation.

Today, the village finds itself drowned in debt. More than 100 young girls are waiting to get married. Farmers cannot even afford to fix their dented tin roofs. The lake has dried up and Irrigation facilities are in doldrums.

Vivek Dahifale, farmer from Kavatha Bajar, a nearby village to Sukali, said the authorities have neglected the maintenance of the lake, which is the reason behind its current unproductive state.

On Monday, 4 April, the village of Sukali gathered in front of the Tehsildar office and presented its decision to participate in the Perni Band Andolan, an end to sowing and planting, thus becoming the seventh village to partake in the protest.

Suicides and protests

In 2015, Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region witnessed 1,280 suicides. 2016 has not started on a promising note either. Yet, the state government has not declared drought in the region, so far. To draw attention of the state officials, villages in Vidarbha took the extreme step and decided to abandon farming. “If the state had declared drought, farmers would have at least received Rs 6,800 per hectare,” said Santosh Arsod, a leader of the farming community in Yavatmal district. “Since it did not happen, farmers had to sell off their pigeon peas at a throwaway cost.”

An end to farming?

The movement was kicked off in mid-February by Jamdara village in Manora taluka in Washim district. After a thorough discussion, the gram panchayat arrived at this conclusion and other villages in neighbouring Yavatmal district followed its footsteps. Around 120 villages in Arni taluka, comprising of 3 lakh people, are contemplating an end to farming. With the apathy of the government, observers note, the movement can only grow more infectious.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi held a chai pe charcha in Yavatmal, in which he promised to enforce the recommendations made by the Swaminathan Commission. However, the failure to meet the promise so far, has left the farmers dejected.

“The government has enough agriculture produce stacked up,” said Arsod, who used to be a journalist with Lokmat in Yavatmal, and two years back took up farming to intricately understand the crisis. “The moment people and authorities start feeling the pinch of the paucity of agriculture produce, they will increase the market cost.”

Production dwindling

Vidarbha is a region where namely cotton, soya bean and lentils are predominantly cultivated but the production has dwindled to less than a quarter of what it used to be due to successive droughts, said Dahifale. “Persisting with farming in any case gives a lot of psychological stress,” he said. “It is better to die without that stress instead of dying with it.”

Former Maharashtra Attorney General, Shreehari Aney, who recently triggered a controversy by asking for a separate Marathwada, expressed solidarity with farmers from Vidarbha. “Currently Vidarbha is Maharashtra’s lowest priority. Eighty per cent of its population, farmers and tribals, are not getting attention and justice. The need for budget expenditure for farmers can only be met when the small state of Vidarbha is created,” he told Mumbai Mirror.

Around 120 villages in Arni taluka, comprising of 3 lakh people, are contemplating an end to farming

Activist Amar Habib called the Perni Band Andolan a ‘Satyagraha’. “It is a desperate cry for help,” he said. “When all means fail, this seems to be the last throw of the dice. But one needs a sensitive government for the protest to succeed.”

Arsod said behind every acre, farmers incur around 10,000 rupees, but they have not been able to recover even half of that for the last three years. “The only way to stop suicides is to stop farming. Farmers have had to sideline critical medical expenses,” he said. “It is high time we look at other alternatives to earn our bread. It is no longer economically viable. We are explaining this technically to farmers about how the cost fluctuates as per the international market and how the government’s promises are hollow.”

He further explained how the crop loan has been ineffective in providing solace to farmers. “The money is required in June when the sowing starts,” he said. “But the money is released in August and we do not get the money when it is needed the most.”

Alternatives to farming

The search for alternatives has already begun in Vidarbha. Vilas Tathod, founder of Yuva Rashtra Sanghatana, and a sales manager for an MNC, is helping farmers explore new skills and set up small businesses as a substitute for farming. In Akola, he is working with a cluster of 15 villages, as a catalyst in order to develop marketing skills in both men and women.

“Branding and sales of products like incense sticks, wafers, peanut chutney, spices, pani puri, washing powder, and so on is conducted as a major activity,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues are helping farmers’ kids to prepare for educational exams at his coaching centre so they do not carry the baton of farming forward. “For the business to expand, initial capital is the biggest hurdle. We help farmers with it.”

Gajanan Amdabadkar, senior activist, said the option to explore alternatives could not hurt. “If it works, it would only save lives. When the farmer is not willing to sow, it clearly means the economy around farming has collapsed,” he said. “Poverty is not the reason why farmers commit suicide. Losses and depression that follows after the expectations are devoured is the main cause. A crop yield for a farmer is as dear as a newborn.”

Arsod said the response to Tathod’s initiative is encouraging. “Our plan is to get one member away from farming, then a family and then the whole village,” he said. “The progress is so far satisfactory.”

However, farmers are considered the backbone of India, where more than half its population depends on its activities. Arsod said it is an “unnecessary glorification” of farmers. “How can a farmer, who cannot even tend to his own family these days, be called the backbone of the country?” he asked. On being asked if, as predicted by most, the expansion of this protest would make farming extinct in India in the long run, Chandrakant Wankhede, senior journalist from Vidarbha, said, “How would farming survive if farmers do not?”

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Ground report: Drought-stricken Marathwada limps from bad to worse

This story first appeared on Catch News on 25 March 2016.

Jagannath Kokate nervously sits across his three robust bovines in the scorching heat around noon. Clad in a white dhoti and kurta, he is engaged in a tense conversation with his farmer friend at the cattle camp set up in the village of Wathoda in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district.

Dr. Harshavardhan Raut of the Raj Pratishthan NGO, who founded this cattle camp, has hinted about its closure if the Maharashtra state government does not reimburse the amount spent on the camp.

 

 

In the hushed village of Wathoda, the cattle camp spreads across a rugged four-acre land with more than 1,000 animals being fed and looked after since 12 January, this year. Animals rest under temporary sheds installed with bamboos and covered with a green cotton cloth. Fodder and water occupy the periphery of the animals. Their owners have virtually shifted from their respective villages to the camp to supervise the livestock. They go back home only to dine and sleep.

No money, no camp?

The cattle camp has been a great source of comfort and a significant burden off the chest of beleaguered farmers from villages within a 15-kilometer radius. “Water and fodder expenses amount to around 5,000 rupees a month behind one animal,” says 80-year old Kokate as his pink turban shines with the reflection of the sun beating down mercilessly. “The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn. Had it not been for the camp, we would have been even more miserable.”

“The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn,” syas 80-year-old farmer

However, this relief could be short-lived, for the state government has not lived up to its promise. The organizers have incurred in excess of 20 lakh rupees so far but the assured reimbursement has still not found its way.

“It is getting increasingly difficult to sustain,” says Raut. “The farmers are hugely depended on it but I will not be able to drag on post April.”

The government has fixed 70 rupees behind every grownup animal and 35 for a baby bovine, but the actual expenses cross 100 rupees, says Raut. “70 bucks merely cover for water and fodder,” he adds. “Who will account for the labor and transport costs?”

The paucity of fodder has compelled them to procure it 50 kilometers from the camp-site, increasing the transport cost. The water suppliers have doubled the tanker costs due to water scarcity. And the situation can only intensify with April and May ominously lurking around. “We would have to go as far as 150 kilometers for fodder,” predicts Raut, adding they require 10 tons of it every day.

Moreover, 2.5 lakh rupees spent on installing the cattle camp is not covered in government reimbursement, adds Satish Patil, manager of the camp.

After a lot of clamor, the administration informed camp owners that 60 lakh rupees have been released, which would be divided between seven camps located in the vicinity; meaning around 8 lakh would be the share of this particular camp at Wathoda. “It does not even cover our monthly expense,” says Patil.

Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of eight districts of Marathwada, admitted the bills were pending but assured the camps that they “would get the full payment by the end of this week”.

If and when the money is released, a section of the amount, around 20% as per Raut, would be reduced for cow dung, for the camp owners would be able to make money out of the dung produced at the camp. “Cow dung is rich organic manure, which is a revenue generator,” says Dangat. “Therefore, the government deducts a reasonable amount.” Patil, though, says it would be impossible to recover the trimmed amount.

The cattle camps across Marathwada have earned fair amount of credit to the state government but they are basically functioning because of well-intentioned moneyed people, believes Latur-based Author and Environmental Journalist Atul Deulgaonkar.

While traveling through Beed and Osmanabad, along with parched riverbeds, one also comes across cattle camps at fairly regular intervals. Farmers from Latur, though, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three in the whole district, which consists of more than 6 lakh animals.

Farmers from Latur, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three cattle camps in the whole district

“The response of local NGOs has been better in Beed and Osmanabad compared to Latur,” says Dangat. “But the collector has been asked to address the issue and we will make sure there are enough camps set up in Latur.”

Setting up a cattle camp

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis. It includes a mandatory deposit of 10 lakh rupees and an assurance letter of 30 lakh rupees among other things. As a result, many of the camps have called it quits.

“The experience with relaxed norms was terrible,” clarifies Dangat. “The guidelines are to ensure financially sound NGOs, who would be able to tend to the animals, are given a go ahead and there is no corruption.”

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis

The agrarian crisis in Marathwada has steadily deteriorated with every passing year. The water situation has emerged as a prime headache. Dams have dried up. The administration seems to be floundering. The suicide toll has already crossed 200 in 2016.

The scarcity of water and the failure to raise capital from last season’s Kharif crops has meant many of the farmers have not been able to sow for the Rabi season. Kokate, 80, who has been a farmer all his life, says he remembers only two such precedents: Way back during the infamous drought of 1972 and then directly in 2014.

The others who managed to raise funds for the Rabi season met with tantalizing fate. Shirish Girwalkar from Latur’s Bhatangali village was one of them.

“The experience with relaxed norms for cattle camps was terrible,” clarifies Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad

Loans, mortgages; the plight of farmers

In November last year, Girwalkar started preparing for the Rabi season by sowing Jowar and Gram in his 6-acre farmland. From November to February, he spent 20,000 rupees per acre, including all the requirements like seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and labor. He approached a registered moneylender and borrowed some amount, hoping to repay the loan in April since the crop was expected by March end. The script seemed to be working for Girwalkar until unseasonal rains in March first week devoured his investment and efforts of the past four months.

“70% of the crop wasted, significant amount of the fodder rendered inedible,” he says as his wife picks up two huge utensils and heads out to fill water. “If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses.”

“If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses,” says Latur’s Girwalkar

Girwalkar has admirably not thrown in the towel and has now pinned his hopes on a decent monsoon season. However, his debts are likely to pile up. The pre-sowing process, which would start in April, has already begun. His farmland has abruptly come back to square one with brown soil once again plowed in the hope it would one day glitter with potential crop yield, like it did merely 20 days ago until the untimely rains washed it off.

With an unpaid loan palpably hanging around his neck, Girwalkar believes he may have to mortgage his land or house. “It is a risk I will have to take,” he says. “What other option do I have?”

Fourth year of unseasonal rains

For the consecutive fourth year, unseasonal rains have ruptured an almost procured crop, and shattered the hopes of many. It is a clear consequence of climate change, which has not been taken seriously by our administration, says Deulgaonkar, who was an invitee at the recently held high-profile climate change conference in Paris.

“It is high time we take proactive steps and use advance technology to adapt to climate change,” he says, adding that even Bangladesh, which has developed a sort of rice that would endure excessive flooding, seemed better prepared to tackle climate change. “Swaminathan Commission has many such suggestions but it is languishing with the centre for almost a decade.”

In the last few months, journalists and politicians have visited Marathwada to gauge the gravity of the crisis, which has given a ray of hope to farmers, only to wither away. “Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says Girwalkar. “But it hardly makes any tangible difference to our daily agony.”

The budget of the state government had rural Maharashtra as its focal point. The tax on sugarcane purchase has been waived off. Weather centers in every district have been promised, which seems to be the first step in eventually countering natural disasters.

“Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says farmer Girwalkar

Government alloted money a joke

The government has allotted 3,360 crores, a significant amount, to the farmers who have suffered from natural disasters. But the moot question is how much a household would receive behind every hectare. After last monsoons failed the Kharif crop, the amount allotted by the government translated into 6,800 rupees per hectare.

Girwalkar says even a mediocre soil throws up 20 quintals of food crop in one hectare, eventually amounting to the yield worth rupees 60,000 if we go by a conservative rate of 3000 per quintal. “Therefore, 6.800 rupees is a joke,” he says.

The overall agrarian crisis has caused remarkable reduction of the farm activity in Marathwada, as a result of which we have seen a huge influx of farmers and agriculture laborers to cities like Mumbai and Pune. From Latur alone, more than 50,000 people have migrated. Observers note that they would hardly come across a spectacle where farmers sit under a tree in the afternoon and spend hours chatting with each other, something that has now become usual.

Multiple groups working for the poor

The unemployment and lack of avenues, experts say, has endangered the social fabric of the region. In Latur, there are more than 250 registered groups, which claim to work for the rights of the poor. In reality, they engage in extortion, chanting unnecessary slogans and bullying. Locals say the members of all such groups travel in SUVs.

One of the most respected builders in Latur, Vaijnath Kore, says several groups have barged into his office at odd hours for money. “It is increasing by the day,” he says. “Identity crisis drives people towards mob mentality.”

Randhir Surwase, 31, of Lashkar-e-Bhima, founded in 2011, says they self-finance their activities. The group has many cases registered against it but Surwase says all the social activists have been charged with those sections in the past.

The groups may have been registered 15 years back but their numbers have mushroomed in the last 2-3 years. Many of its members hail from farm families. The groups keep engaging in constant one upmanship, intensifying the civil strife.

The recent attack in Latur where a Muslim policeman was paraded with a saffron flag was just one of many instances. A week ago, one of the groups attacked an inter-caste couple hanging out in Latur.

“All of them seem to be following the footsteps of Shivsena,” says Deulgaonkar. “The riots in Mumbai did not recur after 1992-93 because many got work after the economic liberalization. The increasing unemployment in Marathwada does not augur well for us.”

Nonetheless, the drought has had a trickle down impact and the buying capacity of farmers, which makes up almost all of Marathwada, has been substantially encumbered. Farmers have started sidelining critical medical expenses, kids’ education and marriages.

Number of patients on the rise

Doctor Ajit Jagtap of the Apex Hospital in Latur city says except for the emergency ward, the OPD patients have decreased by 40% in the last two months. “Even when I offer to treat them at 60% of the cost, they are reluctant,” he says. “After realizing the importance of the procedure, they mortgage their jewelry or borrow money.”

Nilkanth Kale from Samsapur village in Latur had been putting off a medical checkup for more than a year before he was finally admitted to the hospital last week. “He kept enduring the pain thinking of the bill amount after a check up,” says his brother Suresh. “Last week, his situation scared us all and I admitted him to the hospital.”

He is scheduled to have a hernia surgery this week. The cost of the operation would amount to around 10,000 rupees after concession.

Both Suresh and Nilkanth work as agriculture laborers. The recent recession in work has compelled them to borrow money from an unregistered moneylender at an interest rate of 4% per month. “I get 250 rupees per day and a good week is a three-day working week these days,” says Suresh. “We have also borrowed 3,000 rupees from our relatives.”

Students plight

Not even a kilometer’s distance from the Apex Hospital, lies a local Agriculture Produce Market, where, even during the droughts of previous years, around 25,000 kilograms of Gram would be deposited per day. After steady decline since the conclusion of the last few monsoon rains, it has dwindled to 3,000 today. Other crops have met similar fate. Around 2,500 coolies sit idle in the yard or spend the day watching the television.

The market committee also runs a hostel where around 200 students across Latur district live at a subsidized rate, for many of the educational institutes are located in Latur city.

The students here, however, are a little fidgety these days. The paucity of water has forced the collector to issue a summons to all educational institutes to be done with the impending exams quickly and pack the students off to their respective villages, in order to reduce the water load of the city.

Many of the students, though, would be preparing for their GMATs and other such exams that transpire after the college exams. Going back to their village would not allow them to concentrate on their studies, they say.

Sheikh Sattar from Bhoyra says since the family has not been able to make much due to the drought, parents expect kids to earn instead of “wasting time on studies”. “All of us are doing odd-jobs and funding our living in the city,” he says. “But we cannot earn enough to save for the family.”

And these are still the ones who have managed to get into a senior college or a post-graduation program. Many have shelved their education after studying till the 12th standard in their village school.

Mohini’s story

One such girl, Mohini Bhise from Latur’s remote village of Bhise Wagholi, secured 70% in her 12th standard board exams. She wanted to become a nurse but her parents could not afford to send her to a medical program. A year went by, and she turned 18, an age where parents start looking for a groom to suit their daughter.

Bright, beautiful and talented. Even so, families turned Mohini down, for her father, Pandurang, could not afford a dowry of 4 lakh rupees. Pandurang’s 1-acre farmland had not thrown up a crop good enough to raise an amount as high as that. He also works as a pygmy agent, earning a salary of 1,100 rupees. His wife, Kantabai, lost her job two years back when the company she worked for had closed down.

Eventually, Pandurang mooted the idea of selling the land off. He along with Kantabai, pondered upon it. Mohini overheard the conversation.

On 20 January, when Kantabai stepped out to visit the neighbour, Mohini hanged herself in the house with a dupatta.

Before committing suicide, Kantabai says, Mohini tended to her during her illness and was a pillar of support during the wretched drought.

“She did say she felt a bit uneasy but we never thought she would take the extreme step,” says an inconsolable Kantabai, as she sits in her mildly lit house against the wall with a beautiful painting by Mohini. “Poverty cost me my daughter.”

Mohini’s elder sister, Ashwini, is married. Aniket, 14, and Nikita, 11, are her younger siblings. Aniket wants to be a policeman and Nikita a teacher. Their faces clearly indicate they have grown up too soon.

The police recovered a suicide note in which Mohini questioned the dowry system and implored her father not to sell off the land. “Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” she asked.

“Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” said Mohini in her suicide note talking about dowry

“Please do not waste money on the customary function conducted to ensure the departed soul rests in peace. I am already at peace, knowing I have saved you the money you would have otherwise spent on my wedding.”

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High Court steps in as Deonar’s burning garbage chokes Mumbai

This story first appeared on Catch News on 2 March 2016

In latest developments, The Bombay High Court has asked Mumbai’s civic body to not allow new constructions. This until it can come up with an efficient way to manage waste and prevent fires from occurring. On Monday, 29 February, the HC restrained the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) from granting permission for new commercial/residential buildings.

 

 

This, until it makes compliance of Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. Developers will now have to put several new projects of theirs on hold. The rules say that the BMC should use the right and appropriate technology to treat the waste and reduce landfills burden.

 

 

Fatima’s plight

While performing her usual household work in the Gulf three years ago, Fatima Sheikh received a call informing of her son’s illness. Mansoor, then 20, had contracted Tuberculosis (TB). She left her job in the Gulf and moved back with him in Mumbai. In the first week of February 2016, she oversaw Mansoor’s last rites.

 

A narrow pathway through the densely populated Lotus colony in Govandi leads one to the main road from Fatima’s shanty. Small one-room houses clutter both sides of the pathway as kids optimize the slender gap in between households to play various games. Upon reaching the main road, the imposing Deonar dumping ground with heaps of garbage stares back ominously from a few meters.

 

 

The doctors had advised Fatima to shift houses but her financial condition did not allow her to do so. “Everywhere they asked for a deposit of 1 Lakh rupees,” she says.

 

 

The menacing fire of 27 January that engulfed the whole city in smoke may have proved to be the last nail in Mansoor’s coffin. Daily fires and pollution over the years that have largely gone unreported “The air killed him,” says the tearful Fatima. “He was my only child.”

 

 

Around 100 plots with 200 shanties each dot the periphery of the Deonar dumping ground. More than a lakh live in close proximity to the landfill and breathe the noxious air. Apart from slums, plush apartments within its two-kilometer radius have come up in the recent past.

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund.

 

 

Residents around the dumping ground, consisting of Rafiq Nagar, Shivaji Nagar, Baba Nagar and Matti Ward among others, say the health has always been a problem here, but it took a fire as acute as the one on 27 January for the rest of the city and media to notice. These areas fall under Mumbai’s M-Ward, which is arguably the most neglected ward of the city.

 

 

Along with Mansoor, a 13-year old girl too succumbed to TB in the first week of February. In a losing cause of curing her son, Fatima has tested positive for TB and her two-year old neighbor is diagnosed positive as well.

 

 

“Every resident is coughing in the vicinity,” says Mohammad Siraj, a local independent corporator, who was on a hunger strike for four days, demanding closure of the dumping site. “TB, Asthma, irritation in the eyes and throat is common.”

 

 

There are 74 schools in the area, which frequently shut down when the fire generates considerable amount of smoke, says Intezar Alam, who runs a local NGO. “It encumbers their education,” he says.

 

 

Mumbai’s waste and Deonar dumping ground

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund. The one in Mulund is barely 25 hectares and brimming with waste, thereby putting the entire burden on Deonar and Kanjurmarg.

 

The Deonar landfill, spread across 326 acres, will be 90 years old in 2017, an age hardly heard of for a dumping ground. The stench emanating from the ground works as a marker for directions and ensures one does not get lost in the attempt of visiting it. As one moves closer, the stench gets stronger. In parts of the landfill, the garbage heaps stand as tall as 15 meters, or around six to eight storied buildings by a conservative estimate.

 

 

Foreigners could well mistake it for a small mountain range in fading light. Kids are seen playing cricket in the dump yard, diving around, embedding themselves in the stack of garbage. Buffaloes meander through the landfill searching for waste food.

More than a lakh live in close proximity to the Deonar landfill and breathe the noxious air. Each and everyone is in danger

 

 

The 27 January fire has seen quite a few visits by journalists to the Deonar landfill, prompting the police to tighten security and restrict journalists from taking pictures. A security guard, stopping our bike, asks for my mobile phone. He scans my pictures and warns against clicking a snap.

 

 

BMC the culprit?

This land was allotted to the BMC in 1927 to dump garbage for five years. Close to 90 years down the line, the landfill is alive and thriving.

Stalin Dayanand of Vanashakti, a city-based conservation NGO, says the BMC is not doing anything it is supposed to do with the dumping grounds. “The processing and segregation of garbage does not happen,” he says, adding all parts of the landfill must be accessible by road at all times. “The drain should be collected, treated and then reused. Right now, it is mixing with the creek. They are supposed to maintain a green zone around the dumping ground as well.”

The contractors, who are paid by the BMC for scientific processing and segregation of garbage, are making a fortune for merely dumping it. The lack of segregation and uncovered waste in landfills results in biological decomposition, which creates the flammable combination of heat and methane, thereby the frequency of fires. “Methane is the biggest culprit,” says Dr. Sharad Kale of BARC. “With my methane harvesting system, I can make the Deonar landfill methane-free within 3-5 years, provided fresh dumping is stopped.”

 

 

In its own admission, the BMC accepted the landfills had to be closed years ago and start waste segregation and processing plant like using waste to build concrete road after the Bombay High Court rap. According to The Indian Express report, The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board had sent eight notices to the BMC for its unscientific manner of handling the garbage.

 

 

Milind Ranade, a labor activist, says the “M” in SWM (Solid Waste Management) is conspicuously missing. “Management refers to thinking ahead of your time,” he says. “Here the BMC is falling behind with every passing day.”

 

 

BMC and the local citizens

The BMC is not the only one responsible for the mess Mumbai is in. The residents have been equally careless, says Rishi Aggarwal, environmentalist. “As a society, we absolutely have no learning curve,” he says. “The waste needs to be reduced, reused and recycled. But, in spite of being aware of the importance of segregating solid waste, hardly anyone does it. The constructive way forward is the decentralisation of waste management.”

 

 

The scenario had been better in Mumbai when the municipal corporation entered into a tie up with the citizens in 1997. The scheme was called Advance Locality Management (ALM), which aimed at the involvement of citizens in waste disposal as well as other civic issues. There were 1,000 registered ALMs by the year 2000, most of which are now dysfunctional.

Dr Karle: “‘waste’ does not belong in the nature’s dictionary, it is part of human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society.”

 

 

Rajkumar Sharma of Diamond Garden ALM in Chembur says ALM was a great concept but its prospects depend on the BMC commissioner. “We did wonders in the initial days but subsequently we did not get the support and encouragement from the authorities,” he says. “Civic contractors destroyed our composting bins while covering storm-water drains more than a decade ago. We approached the authorities but the bins have not been repaired yet. On the one hand, you speak of Swachh Bharat and on the other, you discourage people’s initiatives.”

 

 

Kale says if every household, society, and big hotels segregate their waste, and then BMC does its job, we would merely have 20% of what we have stacked up at the landfills. “Moreover, the transport cost and stench would be reduced, methane would drastically come down and even global warming can be controlled,” he says.

 

 

Silver lining

Nonetheless, a group has managed to see the silver line even amidst this doom and gloom. As the muck stockpiled, the garbage mafia proliferated. Every truck of garbage carries recyclable and sellable material like plastic, paper, glass, metal and, many a time, gold and silver. On an average, every truck is worth 6,000 rupees. “Even if we assume the 500 BMC trucks unload at Deonar twice a day, material worth rupees 60 lakhs a day arrives at the landfill,” says Siraj, the corporator.

 

 

According to a rag-picker, there are five main gangs, headed by Ateeq Khan, Bhondhu, Manik Raju, Saleem and Javed Qureshi, along with smaller ones, who have divided the landfill amongst themselves. Each of the five, leading a lavish lifestyle, has at least 100 ragpickers and muscle men to monitor their business. Needless to say, there is always a tussle between them for a bigger share. “The tension between the gangs gets ugly at times,” says Siraj. “They burn each other’s material and there have been cases of murder as well.”

#Deonar: The 27 January fire has seen quite a few visits by journalists. Police have tightened security and restricted journalists

 

 

A rag-picker, requesting anonymity, says once the rag-picker works for a particular gang, he is bound by it. “A transgression could conclude my life,” he says.

 

 

According to the rag-picker, the reason why murders go unnoticed is that the garbage mafia has good contacts in the police. and knowing their power, eye witnesses turn hostile. In 2009, Khan was accused in the murder of Qadeer Ahmad, who seemed to be stabbed to death. However, he, along with the remaining four accused, walked free due to lack of evidence.

 

 

The BMC, after having the approval from the state government, has located a 39-hectare land in Karawale village in Ambernath district, where the local body plans to open a dumping ground that will share the burden of Deonar and Kanjurmarg. There are around 50 families belonging to Katkari tribe, which will be displaced if the dumping ground goes ahead as planned.

 

 

Worried villagers

The area zeroed down for the dumping ground is overlooked by Haji Malang, a mountain peak, which is a religious spot for Hindus and Muslims alike. Therefore, it is a tourist attraction as well. Kids spend their evenings and vacations in the open field playing outdoor games. Cattle leisurely roam around the area occupying a part of the could-be landfill.

 

 

Villagers fear once the dumping ground starts functioning, their pristine village with greenery, paddy fields and fertile land would resemble Deonar and they too, would lead a life plagued with diseases. “We will not let this happen to our kids,” says Suman Waghe. “We will die but we won’t move.”

deonar embed

The BMC has ensured this dumping ground would be handled better but the history does not allow optimism to creep in. “Why should we suffer for the waste generated by the city anyway?” asks Balaram Waghe, a resident. “This is where we belong and we cannot imagine our life beyond this village.”

 

 

Stalin believes it is grossly unfair for the city to dump its waste in the outskirts and impose the burden on villages by shrugging off the responsibility. “Why should only city kids have TB?” he asks sarcastically. “And in any case, they are tribals and poor. Who cares for them?”

 

 

Central suburbs to become gas chambers?

The BMC has also mooted a dumping ground in Mulund near Airoli Bridge, and if these two newly proposed dumping grounds come into being, all the five landfills would happen to be on the central line of Mumbai. Effectively, the central suburbs would become a gas chamber, say activists, and ask if the BMC is so confident of maintaining an odourless and disease-free landfill, why not install one in South Bombay?

 

 

“Dumping is a crime against nature,” says Dr Kale. “The word ‘waste’ does not belong in the nature’s dictionary, it is part of the human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society.”

 

 

In Deonar, though, the struggle continues. The dumping has stopped for the time being. The authorities have assured Siraj and co. that their demands will be met. The dump will not be unloaded without processing, the security will be enhanced and CCTV cameras will be installed. Fatima, in the meantime, sets an early morning alarm, as Mansoor’s picture on the wall overlooks the house. She has to stand in queue at the hospital to collect her medicines for TB.

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A farmer’s wake-up call to India: try to understand why we die

This story first appeared on Catch News on 16 December 2015.

In economic terms, half of India’s workforce practices agriculture, accounting for 13.7% of the country’s gross domestic product. It directly affects 800 million people.

 

 

But let’s leave the economics aside and concentrate on the human side of things. Two farmers commit suicide every hour in India. Earlier this month, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra alone, there were 27 suicides in one week.

And yet, while people may sympathise with the farmers who end up taking this drastic step, how many of us actually understand the problems that lead to it? How many of us have actually tried to go behind the tragedies and see what a farmer’s life in Marathwada is like?

Rajabhau Deshmukh, a farmer from Beed district, gives Catch an insight into the tragedy of Marathwada’s farmers. And in doing so, he sounds a wake-up call to the country. The following is his account:

Kalidas’s story

Nearly a year has passed since Kalidas, the 23-year-old son of a farmer named Baban, committed suicide in my neighboring village of Tambarajuri in Maharashtra’s Beed district. The family had taken a loan from a bank, and was struggling to pay it off.

Last year’s drought had devoured their investment. Kalidas worked as a labourer as well, but all in vain. There was no hope left, and he eventually succumbed to the pressure.

The distraught family asked the authorities for the mandatory government compensation of Rs 1 lakh. Baban and his younger son met with the authorities, who kept avoiding them. The two spent almost a year trying to convince them. Finally, they examined the case, but the death was termed ‘ineligible’ for compensation.

We can’t even afford a throat infection, let alone a long-term illness like cancer or diabetes

The reason? Kalidas did not own the farmland; his father Baban did. Technically, Kalidas was not a farmer.

Think about it – a boy in his twenties almost never ‘owns’ the piece of land, even though he is the one in charge of the decisions. The ‘owner’ is always an elderly member of the family. But that’s a glaring loophole in the system that cost the family in this case.

The entire episode took a tragic toll on Baban’s younger son too. The treatment meted out to him and his father after Kalidas’s demise got to him. He became mentally unstable, and is currently in Pune’s Yerwada hospital.

We can’t even fall sick

This is just the story of just one household. I can assure you, there are innumerable Babans residing in Marathwada right now. The current situation here is dreadful. There is hardly any water left for our livestock and us.

The lucky ones have their wells filled to around 10-15 feet. The drought is so acute that the cattle are surviving on silt due to the paucity of water.

We have been reaping merely 20-30% of our average crop in the last few years. There have been years, like the current one, where the whole crop has dried up. Even as bank loans, moneylenders’ debts, relatives’ credits and the interest keep gnawing at us, we have to somehow run our homes.

Plus, there are medical expenses, marriages, educational fees and so on. To be honest, it seems we are not even allowed to fall sick. We cannot even afford a throat infection, let alone a long-term illness like cancer or diabetes.

The first drought transpired in 2004. Since then, it’s all been been downhill. Moreover, the weather department has predicted a dry spell until August next year. It means the Kharif crops, with which we start our season, are not likely to be promising.

In the meantime, lakes and rivers in Marathwada have dried up. A decade ago, they would be gushing with water, enough to sustain through the summer as well. During the last decade, though, the reservoirs have hardly topped 20-30% of the capacity; 40% in rare cases.

It sufficed during the monsoons, but we could not sustain in the summers when the rivers dried up. Consequently, the traditional horticulture that depended on reserved water has steadily become extinct.

Farming economically unviable

The question we confront every day is very fundamental. How do we manage to stay alive? Erratic weather and government policies have come together to dig our grave.

How can the government simply ignore the profession that is still pursued by half the Indian workforce? The biggest concern in front of us right now is there is no ray of hope. We do not get fair return on our investment and hard work. Rising production costs and an unforgiving market price has made farming economically unviable.

The middleman adds to our miseries. He knows we have no other option but to sell our yield to him. The union in the market is dominated by traders and middlemen. They have the might, and the circumstances are ripe for them to exploit us. We cannot even refuse to sell our product, because the expenses and loans keep hovering over our heads. We end up falling in the trap, and the circle of losses goes on.

What alternatives do we have? Most of the farmers are uneducated. Many end up working as migrant labourers for half the year at sugarcane factories, or travel out to cities and work on daily wage basis.

Eager to import, penalty for export

When we analyse the reasons behind the abysmal market cost for our crop, the buck stops with the government’s policies. To give an example, November-end is the time when we sow the gram crop. On 25 November last year, the Indian government procured gram from Russia at Rs 53 per kilo.

The process of procurement went on till April, by when we were ready with our yield. But it had to be sold at a throwaway price because the government had already bought it from Russia. “Who told you to cultivate it? Who asked you to depend on farming?” is the message the government seems to be giving us. The chilling part is that imports are only increasing by the day.

The same thing has happened with pigeon peas, which produce ‘tur’ or ‘arhar’ dal. Instead of buying it from Indian farmers, the government imported it from Australia and Indonesia at Rs 73 per kilo. We would cultivate pigeon peas 12 months a year if we got that much. But because of India’s eagerness to import, not many farmers in India are keen on cultivating it. The result is in front of us: the consumer had to buy it at Rs 200 per kilo.

The Market Support Price offered by the government is piddling, and there are many hitches – like storage limits, government holidays, unending paperwork, wretched bureaucracy and so on. Therefore, the government support scheme hardly makes a tangible impact on the ground. And when the government fails to procure the material from us, the traders know we are helpless. They latch on to the opportunity.

India imported tur dal at Rs 73/kg. We would cultivate it all year round if we got that much

There are so-called experts who opine that farming has become difficult to sustain. It is no longer as viable as it used to be. But in my opinion, farming has been made unviable by government policies and an indifferent civil society.

The government has imposed a tax of $700 per ton on the export of onions. It means if one of our farmers wants to sell one ton of onions to a trader from Japan, he would first have to pay $700 to the government. Obviously, the farmer would want to cover that cost.

But then, why would a trader from Japan purchase onions from us at an increased rate? And once the exports are stalled, the local trader jumps in and makes merry at our cost. It leaves us wondering how to set up capital for the next season.

Left to fight our own battles

It is not just the present government that deserves to be blamed. The fact is that no government has done anything to protect us during the times of globalisation. We had to compete with foreign entrants enjoying great subsidies in their respective countries. The Indian farmer was never going to win that battle after economic liberalisation. We were exposed to international market trends, rupee devaluation etc.

Developed countries also opened up their economies, but did not leave farmers to fight their own battles.

The Swaminathan Commission report has still not been enforced. It is sitting with the government since 2007. The BJP government promised to implement it; it was in their pre-election agenda. The vulnerable farmer quickly fell for it. Narendra Modi’s speeches and rallies in Marathwada struck a chord, and everyone voted BJP in 2014.

But the new government is proving to be as dishonest as the earlier one.

‘Experts’ come to inspect

Last month, a committee of a few expert members came to Marathwada from Delhi, to inspect the drought. We escorted them to a farm of pigeon peas. The man who was supposed to be an expert could not even identify the raw pigeon pea.

“Where are the pulses?” he asked me with bewilderment. He did not even know the difference between the raw material and the pulses that we see in the market. I was hoping to explain how the crop had dried up, but after his question, I decided against it. Later on, he could not recognise a raw pomegranate. He wondered why the thing was green and not red.

Around 10-12 members of this “expert panel” had landed in Marathwada, and they traveled in groups of two to various districts. I assume the others were also as ignorant as the one I encountered in Beed, because I heard instances of infuriated farmers heckling them.

The visiting ‘expert’ couldn’t tell the difference between the crop and the pulses in the market

In Beed’s Georai taluka, farmers did not allow this ‘expert’ to get out of his car. They lay down around the car, leaving him deadlocked. The drama went on for four hours, until the police force came in.

On the one hand, farmers’ opinions are virtually disregarded. In this context, when someone visits us and asks about our plight, it is like gushing water in the desert for us.

Similarly, when these ‘experts’ landed here, we could not wait to explain our miseries in the hope of some turnaround. But when you send a man who does not know the difference between the finished product and the raw material to comprehend our problems, are you not playing a cruel joke on us?

After news of unrest among farmers regarding this expert committee spread across, the commissioner facilitated a meeting a day later. At the commissioner’s office, we put forth our arguments in front of the committee members, who in return started explaining to us how to tend to our livestock and how to nurture milk products and so on.

Initially, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. The committee members, who apparently have nothing to do with farming, were telling us techniques for looking after our own livestock, something that we have been doing for generations.

Schoolboy errors in schemes

Make no mistake, there are some well-meaning government schemes as well. But they either lack proper enforcement, or have schoolboy errors in them.

Crop insurance is a good example – it’s nothing but a gamble.

There is a circle of 40 villages, of which seven are randomly selected. In those seven villages, the assessment area to decide crop loss is just above 1,000 square metres for each crop. However, if the yield at the demarcated area measures up to the average crop yield over the past five years, and the crop in the remaining 33 villages dries up, we are not eligible for crop insurance.

On the contrary, if the marked area throws up a bad crop, we are entitled to insurance money irrespective of the quality of the crop in the other villages.

How can one determine the crop insurance of 40 villages based on a few thousand square metres?

Is this not a gamble? How can one determine the crop insurance of 40 villages based on the assessment of a thousand square metres? It is too minuscule a sample size. Even an acre of farmland sometimes has three different types of soil. It is so idiotic.

Every year, the government releases two Government Resolutions – one for the Kharif crop and one for Rabi. The June 2015 GR says that under the insurance scheme, the compensation does not account for crop loss caused due to drought, scarcity or flooding.

Are we, the farmers, responsible for natural disasters?

Moreover, we still persist with the medieval method of judging crop loss. A man from the administration visits the farmland and estimates the loss and compensation based on a mere glance. How can it possibly be accurate?

Another government scheme, which would go a long way if implemented well, enables the small farmer to borrow interest-free loans from the bank. The interest is paid by the government on behalf of the farmer.

But in reality, the bank never issues a loan under this scheme. The manager mandates the farmer to pay the interest and assures the interest would be returned once the government deposits it. Needless to say, it never happens. Now whether the government does not release the interest money or the bank devours the interest of both farmers and government is anybody’s guess.

Unregistered moneylenders

However, the discrepancy paves the way for one of the most despicable rackets to flourish – unregistered moneylenders.

Unregistered moneylenders exploit farmers to the hilt. A financially-sound person in Mumbai pays around 12% interest per annum on a loan. We farmers pay 15-20% per month, which amounts to 200-240% per annum.

You pay 12% interest per annum on a loan. We pay 15-20% a month, or 200-240% per year

It is understandable for a reader to wonder why the farmer approaches such a moneylender. It is a fact that we need loans to set up capital at the start of the season, or for a marriage and so on. But the banks treat us with contempt. The manager hounds us with questions. To end the rampaging exploitation by unregistered moneylenders, banks ought to be more accommodative.

The government must ensure the schemes it has formulated through its banks are enforced. The government should also waive off farm loans after a natural calamity. If the loans are waived off, we can walk into a bank with a clean slate. As long as the banks treat us with contempt, the moneylenders would continue to be in the game.

Doctored suicide data

The statistical data of suicides in Marathwada is always a little underestimated. By the time a newspaper publishes “27 suicides in a week”, 15 more farmers have hung themselves.

In my own Patoda taluka, the official number of farmers who have committed suicide is 153 since 2005. In reality, the number is around 250. Of those 153, 86 have been termed eligible for compensation. And only 33 of them have received 30% of the entitled amount. The authorities doctor the data to portray a less devastating image than what it is.

Of 153 official suicides in my taluka, only 33 families have received 30% of the entitled amount

The ominous development in recent years is the youngsters in their twenties and thirties have started taking the extreme step. When a man is in his mid-twenties, his wife is often pregnant. The suicide affects the wife and, consequently, the foetus. There are medical studies proving the psychological stress caused by the suicide affects the foetus, and the child is born with deficiencies.

These corollary issues are hardly addressed by the government or the media. Who visits the distraught farmer? Who consoles the ruptured household?

Some farmers have found a new technique of committing suicide – by electrocuting themselves. They wrap an unprotected wire around their hand and turn on the switch. I am told the method is more reliable than consuming pesticide or hanging oneself by a rope.

Suggested remedy

Community farming is one of the remedies suggested to turn the tables. It is a good idea if enforced well.

We have seen how the relatively-easier government diktats are poorly enforced. Things become all the more challenging when you are dealing with a community that is predominantly uneducated.

Read- No permission for suicide: has Fadnavis got a new deal for farmers?

It is true the size of the farmland is decreasing by the day because of nuclear families, and it is not economically viable as the input cost increases with smaller farmlands. But community farming needs to be promoted with incentives. It would require the administration to educate farmers; it would require a sincere effort.

The suicide tally in Marathwada has officially crossed 1,000 in 2015. The initial epidemic of suicides transpired after a 45-day dry streak burnt the whole crop at the start of the season. It waned a little in between, but the scarcity of water and fodder pinched us more intensely after the monsoon, and the suicides increased again. Some of the areas in Marathwada do not have a drop of water in a 50-kilometre radius. How are we supposed to escort our livestock back and forth that far?

When we complained to the collector, he said his mandate is to ensure human beings get water, not animals. He further said the government has not arranged for him to provide water for animals.

What is a farmer without his livestock? It is quite clear we are not on the priority list of the authorities. While it might be too much to expect them to eradicate our concerns, is it so difficult to not pile up our miseries?

The beef ban

The beef ban merely adds insult to injury. Even a productive bull does not get a second glance at various markets. Slaughterhouses sit idle and farmers are reluctant to buy cattle, as they know it would be difficult to get rid of them later on. Earlier, a cow or a bull would be sold at around Rs 50,000.

Plus, the livestock needs more attention than a newborn. The maintenance cost of one animal is around Rs 8,000 per month, including fodder and water. The government, instead of addressing our problems, is deepening the pit. The authorities should comprehend the consequences before passing a law.

Some areas in Marathwada do not have a drop of water in a 50-kilometre radius

Do you wonder, then, why the farmer eventually loses his mind and takes an extreme step? I am quite sure you, the reader, would not understand the feeling of not being able provide for an ailing mother or not having the money for the education of a young son.

While we assess suicides, it is important to consider the accumulation of troubles over the years, caused by the erratic weather, the exploitative sharks, an indifferent civil society and the apathetic government.

It starts with drinking and ends with a rope. And out of those who are still alive, many have given up. They are alive only because they are not dead.

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Had a dip at the Kumbh? That water could have helped 305 villages

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 18 September 2015.

There’s a city that receives water every 15 days and that may soon become once a month. It has water to sustain itself for a mere month-and-a-half. The two dams on which the district survives have dried up. For the first time, water theft has been reported and it’s now common to see padlocked water tankers.

Travel 130 kilometers northwest and you come across parched riverbeds. Miles of cotton and soya bean fields lie desolate with crops barely as high as one’s ankle. The administration has had to set up cattle camps as people have little water to drink, let alone look after their livestock.

Drive north a little more than 100 kilometers and you will see people climbing down scorched wells, digging at their base until a muddy puddle forms. They scoop the water for hours, separating the mire and stones, to fill their pots.

But 100 kilometres away from this district, you will find millions getting drenched in massive reservoirs, and river ghats, supposedly washing off their sins.

The unfairness of things

Imagine being a resident of Latur, waiting 15 days to get water, or being a farmer in Beed, who has been forced to renounce his livestock, or that man in Jalna, who is digging the bottom of the well in the hope of espying some drinking water. And then imagine watching sants and sadhus enjoying a dip at the Kumbh Mela in Nashik.

Monsoons usually bring 780 millimetres of rainfall to Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. This year that has come down to 259 mm. The met department’s figures indicate an ominous 51% deficit and district officials say more than 70% Kharif crops have failed.

The 11 major reservoirs of the region have less than 10% water left and more than 600 farmers here have committed suicide this year. Official records show 80% of the state is staring at a drought.

At a time like this the Maharashtra government released two TMC (thousand million cubic) water from the Gangapur dam for the Kumbh’s second Shahi Snan (Royal Dip) on 13 September. One TMC was released on 29 August for the first Snan and one TMC more is expected to be released on 18 September.

What was the government thinking?

At least there is no ambiguity about the priorities of this government.

The Snan is a ritual valued by a large section. The Kumbh takes place once in three years in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, by rotation. Nashik has waited for this occasion for 12 years. The government has budgeted over Rs 2,000 crore for the event.

At the same time, it has not waived off farm loans. Given the intensity of the drought in Marathwada, it was not too much to expect.

The Gangapur dam, from which water was generously bestowed to the Kumbh, is upstream of the Jayakwadi dam, on which most of the irrigation projects and 305 villages in Marathwada depend. Had the water been released through that dam, it would have helped significantly.

The Mumbai High Court, has asked the government to “reconsider” its decision (though it has come after two of the three Snans are over). “The government has a policy, which categorizes its priorities as far as supply of water is concerned. As per the policy, supply of water for drinking purposes comes first and supply of water for such Shahi Snans comes in the last category,” the court said.

The judgment comes on the back of a public interest litigation filed by HM Desarda, an economics professor from Pune. The petition said the released water would be a “sheer waste, given the drought situation in the state and the grave danger it posed to human survival.”

According to the National Water Policy, preference should be given to drinking needs, followed by agriculture and then commercial purposes. The petitioner argued the government’s decision violated the policy.

“The petitioner pointed out to apex court orders, which states that access to drinking water is a fundamental right and it is State’s duty to provide drinking water under Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution,” the Bench pointed out.

Astonishingly, the government pleader said such a move would lead to a “law-and-order situation” as lakhs of devotees throng Nashik. Irrespective of whether it was just a precautionary warning or a threat, this indicates the sensitivities of the society. Seems we worry more about religious sentiments than farmers’ lives.

One million people took the first Royal Dip and four million the second. Did the dire situation in Marathwada not even occur to the sadhus while practicing their religious ritual?

Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board, says even if the water is released, it should not be given away free of cost. “The water is valuable,” he says. “When you give it away free of cost, people consuming it do not realize its value.”

If Sahi Snan continues, it would do irreparable damage to Godavari – Marathwada’s life line

The water audit of 2010 shows that 30% of the total water usage falls under the “other” category. While the remaining 70% is used for drinking, commercial and agricultural purposes, the “other” category is not defined.

Studies show that there is hardly anything royal about the Godavari river, in which millions take the Royal Dip: Industrial discharge and domestic waste has severely polluted the river, making it grossly unfit to bathe in.

Experts believe if the Shahi Snan continues this way, it would irreparably damage the Godavari, also known as the lifeline of Marathwada since it fills up the critical Jayakwadi dam.

Rajesh Pandit and Nishikant Pagare, environmental activists from Nashik, had filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court in 2012 urging the government to clean the river up.

But nobody seems bothered. On the other contrary, it was reported on 13 September that a high-level delegation, including the Chief Minister’s wife, would soon fly to China to import ‘holy’ water from Kailas Manas Sarovar to pour it in the Godavari to appease the Sadhus.

The abuse of Godavari or the endemic suicides of farmers should surmount religious sentiments. But they don’t.

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Drought, death & destroyed crops: just how much more can Marathwada take

This story first appeared on Catch News on 11 September 2015.

After a spate of dry spells, Nivrutti Sathe took a calculated risk in April as he geared up for another cropping season. He decided to transfer silted soil from a dried-up riverbed to his three-acre-farmland in a remote village of Hasegaon in Latur district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region.

 

The process was expensive, but Nivrutti was sure of a good return on his investment as the silt would enhance his yield. He borrowed Rs 2 lakh from a local moneylender, zeroed in on a riverbed around 10 kilometers from his tin-roofed house and carted soil from there to his farm for nearly two months.

By the end of May the farm, extending up to the Sathe’s backyard, was covered with river silt. In early June, Marathwada was blessed by pre-monsoon showers – a rarity, considering the weather patterns in the last decade.

The rainfall encouraged Nivrutti to sow his fields with vigour. “The sowing was promising,” says Prakash Sathe, Nivrutti’s father. “It was just a matter of reasonable rainfall in the next two months.”

But the rain gods turned deceptive: The pre-monsoon downpour was followed by a 45-day dry spell. The region, which normally receives around 780 millimeters of rainfall during monsoons, has got only 259 mm this season. Figures from the Indian Meterological Department indicate an ominous 51% deficit.

Nivrutti could not reap what he sowed: by mid-July, his soyabean crop dried up, bringing to nought his efforts and the investment. He had to pay back the loan without the crop on which he was banking, and also take look after his family. Nivrutti’s daughter had turned six and his son was just four.

In the last week of July, Nivrutti gave up. One morning he left home to answer the call of nature. An hour later his mother Bharatbai went to the backyard to dispose waste and found her son hanging from a tree.

“I ran and hugged him,” she says, a lump forming in her throat, as Nivrutti’s son fiddles around on her lap. “The previous night, we told him to calm down. He was distressed, but nobody imagined he would take such a drastic step.”

Prakash defends his son: “The idea to bring in the silted soil was correct. The weather failed him.”

A bitter crop

This is the third drought in Marathwada in recent years – each more acute than the previous. Officials estimate that at least 70% of this year’s Kharif crop has failed.

More than 600 farmers have committed suicide so far this year, according to Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of the eight Marathwada districts.

Travelling through the region, one comes across one parched riverbed after another and miles of desolate cotton and soyabean farms, crops barely reaching one’s ankle. Normally, the stems would grow waist-high, at times even chest-high.

The story is the same with sugarcane, another major crop in Marathwada for which farmers started preparing since as far back as last October. While the water requirement of soyabean is moderate, sugarcane is a water guzzler.

“From October to March, we drew out water from borewells and wells,” says Baderam Bade, who owns a five-acre holding in Devdahifal, Beed. “After that we used drip irrigation until June.” By then the monsoon was supposed to take over.

But the 45-day dry spell damaged the sugarcane crop. “It did rain a little in July. But by then the crop had dried,” says Bade, who had invested around Rs 75,000. “With what I have at the moment, I cannot make a penny.”

“The quantity of sugarcane deemed fit to be bought has halved,” says Vilas Sonawane, managing director of Majalgaon Sugarcane Factory in Beed.

The truncated sugarcane is now being used as fodder for livestock, says Bade standing in his farm amid a crop that looks like a toad under the harrow. Normally, a field ready for harvest can conceal a human being.

“I should have made around Rs 3 lakh. This drought has affected my income for two years,” he regrets.

Bade has a loan of almost a lakh and has to shell out another Rs 80,000 a year for his son’s education in Nagpur. In such distress, even non-issues lead to serious altercations within family and between neighbors, says he.

“We, as the bread winners of the household, feel ashamed to look at our family members and livestock.”

Ripple effect

The slump in sugarcane production has derailed the economy revolving around it. Factories, which generally book labourers in July, have not yet approached the contractors.

“Factories say they cannot afford it,” says a contractor who arranges for labourers for various sugar mills in Beed. “Many said they might even remain shut this season.”

Sugarcane mills were due to start production in a month-and-a-half, but they are not in a position to do so.

“Factories which needed six months for the crushing process will take just two months this time,” says Sonawane. “The income of labourers – generally about a lakh in that period – would be reduced to a third of that.”

Moreover, international demand for sugar has decreased with the ascent of Brazil in the market, reducing selling prices to Rs 22 a kilo from Rs 34.

That has forced sugarcane factories into severe debt. “We lost Rs 600 per ton,” says Sonawane. “At 6 lakh tons a year that we produce that comes to Rs 36 crore. Out of that Rs 7 crores has to be paid to farmers.”

Every such factory, and there are 50 in Marathwada, has incurred losses – some even more than the Majalgaon mill – and owe significant amounts to farmers.

Parched throats

The crisis has extended to drinking water as well, with 11 major reservoirs of Marathwada containing less than 10% of the water they can hold. Manjra and Terna, two important dams on which Latur survives, have dried up.

The city now receives water once in 15 days, which may reduce to once a month. The villages in the area are even worse off.

According to the district collector, the existing stock of water would last merely a month-and-a-half. There is a plan to use the railways to fetch water from Ujjani, officials say.

This has led to the proliferation of a number of unauthorised water suppliers, claims Pramod Mundada, the owner of Sunrich Aqua, the largest bottled water plant in the area and among the few authorised units.

“They do not adhere to rules nor conduct any test,” he says. “Helpless villagers end up buying adulterated water.” Padlocked water tanks have become a common sight after a few instances of water theft were reported in Latur.

Impending disaster

Marathwada may be headed towards desertification, believe experts. “Considering the standards of water management and governance, it appears that an environmental disaster is in the making,” says Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board.

The region has 438 cubic meters of surface water per capita. Ideally it should be 1,700 cubic metres, according to hydrologists.

According to Purandare, this drought is man-made and there would be no water left for farming if urbanisation continues. “Urbanisation leads to the use of concrete, which kills tiny water bodies and affect the ground water recharge,” he says.

The signs are glaring – 61 of Marathwada’s 76 talukas have reported a critical drop in ground water levels. The trend alarmingly coincides with a spree of digging of wells and borewells in farms.

With a water tale that is depleting at an alarming rate, Marathwada is moving towards desertification

“Panic-stricken farmers dig deep,” says Sanjeev Unhale, senior journalist from Aurangabad. “But they do not realise that deep aquifer takes a thousand years to fill and should not be disturbed. Digging 20-25 meters is understandable, but farmers go on up to 1,000 feet (300 metres).”

The paucity of water has added a new dimension to production costs for farmers. “Water and fodder were never a major factor. But now we have to save up,” says Prakash Sathe.

Sathe, who has three cows and makes a bit of money selling milk products, says the two additional dimensions have made his livestock a great burden. “I make Rs 300 a day from milk products. But the maintenance cost has now gone up to Rs 10,000 a month,” he says.

Dangat says relief is underway, especially in the three worst-hit areas of Beed, Latur and Osmanabad. “Water tankers are being sent to parched areas and the number of cattle camps are being increased. This will take a lot of load off farmers,” he adds.

Missing governance

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis toured Marathwada last week to address farmers. Freshly painted zebra crossings look ludicrous, ending abruptly in the middle of divider-less roads: Apparently only that side of the road was painted on which the CM’s motorcade rolled.

In Osmanabad, information kiosks were installed for farmers before the visit, but taken off immediately after he left.

Pankaja Munde, the minister for rural development and water conservation, dropped by in the village of Gangamasra in Beed, where farmers had sought permission for collective suicide. She implored them not to indulge in any such act. When a farmer asked her about the enforcement of the Swaminathan Commission, she said, “At the moment, we must address the issues at hand.”

Atul Deulgaonkar, joint secretary of the Latur-based Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, says the lack of proactive measures magnify the drought. “Farmers are often at the receiving end of administrative lethargy.”

The state’s refusal to waive off farm loans during an intense drought has attracted a lot of flak. “When the farmer has a loan with the bank, he has no option but to approach unregistered moneylenders who impose inhuman interest rates,” says Deulgaonkar. “If bank loans are waived off, farmers can walk into the bank with a clean slate.”

The process of obtaining bank loans needs to be simplified, he says. “If the racket of unregistered moneylenders is to be cracked, the banks need to be more accommodative.”

Trickle down

The impact of the drought has percolated to the bottom of the pyramid and is palpable at Latur’s reputed grain market. Shopkeepers and vendors sit their idle, reading books or watching television.

Lalit Shah, head of the local Agriculture Produce Market Committee, believes the situation is worse than what it was during the infamous drought of 1972. “I have on 500 bags each of moong and black gram,” he says. “It should have be in excess of 5,000 bags each.”

If the situation persists, Marathwada could witness mass migration as people would deluge big cities in search of work, fears Shah. People’s buying capacity has been curtailed, which has affected the sales of business of garment, footwear and groceries. Some have even cut down spending on health and education.

Doctor Ajit Jagtap, a pediatrician, shares a disquieting experience. “A farmer came to my hospital eight days ago,” he says. “His year-old kid had bilateral hernia. It would have cost around Rs 15,000 so I offered to treat the kid at minimal cost and told him to pay in installments. He nodded and promised to be back in some time, but I never saw him again.”

Doctor Gajanan Gondhali, a physician, says 80% of the patients in his intensive care unit have mortgaged their land for a health emergency, that too at outrageous rates.

“One patient told me he has mortgaged the papers of his 2-acre farmland for Rs 2 lakh,” he says. “Another farmer from Beed had to get his father discharged prematurely.”

At a clinic, a farmer from Nanded said he had borrowed Rs 10,000 at an interest of 4% per month for his three-month-old son’s treatment.

In many areas, farmers have reportedly withdrawn their kids from schools.

What now

Deulgaonkar believes the micro-level administrative drawbacks in acquiring bank loans or the failure to seize local moneylenders should not overshadow macro-level policies, which demoralize farmers.

“With our imports increasing by the day, farmers do not get fair returns for their food crops,” he says. “We have done nothing to protect our farmers during globalization.

He points out the dichotomy of giving sops to corporates but raising a stink at farm subsidies and the non-enforcement of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation. “What kind of a message are we sending out?” asks Deulgaonkar.

As an immediate measure, he says community farming should be promoted. “It decreases production costs as farmers would deal in bulk orders. Moreover, the middleman would not have bragging rights if he is dealing with a vast group, instead of an individual.”

In the meantime, farmers across Marathwada have made a last gamble. When it rained in mid-August, many opted for a second round of sowing, including Nivrutti’s father Prakash. “What else can we do?” he asks. “That is our only hope of raising some money for the Rabi season.”

Marathwada’s sky has seen dark clouds occasionally in the last 15 days, but only to wither away. At best, there has been a light drizzle. Prakash, though, needs much more.

“The clouds accumulate, there is thunder, lightening even,” he says. “It is all very tantalising.” No wonder then, more than half his day is past gazing at the sky. The silted soil still spreads out in his farmland.

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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: What about the manual scavengers?

This story first appeared on DNA Online on 29 July 2015.

When Janardan Patil gets home after cleaning up choked gutters in Mumbai, more filth awaits him. There’s not much respite after he returns from his job of manual scavenging.

Patil’s house in Panchsheel Nagar in the affluent South Bombay area provides a stark contrast. Past the British-styled architecture and five-star hotels that greet the eye, a diversion in Colaba leads to the harsh ground reality. Comprising of 155 staff quarters for the BMC-appointed sanitation workers, Panchsheel Nagar resembles a dumping ground with cement strewn all over and leaking pipes spilling out contaminated water.

The pungent odour grows stronger as one approaches the residential quarters. Immediately behind the building, a stream of filthy water pretending to join the drainage system runs parallel to the apartments. The stream, a few inches below the ground level, is escorted along with plastic bags, food waste and bottles on both sides. Patil’s backdoor, also attached to the kitchen, opens up to it. The cooking transpires with the repulsive stench hovering in the air. “The drainage gutter is not at all adequate considering the capacity of the building,” says Patil. “Time and again, the gushing water stinking of sewage overflows into the house.”

The residents of Panchsheel Nagar dread the monsoons. As the downpour sets in, the stream of filthy water overflows and swamps the ground floor. No matter how firmly the backdoor is locked, water manages to break into the one-room apartments. Food grains and utensils fail to escape its contact. “We cannot expect much hygiene while we are at work,” says Jayashree Lakhan, 58, a sweeper. “But do we not deserve a break from the muck where we live?”

The main door of the apartment is attached to the passage, which leads to three toilets shared by approximately 80 people living on the floor. The toilets have not been renovated for the last two decades, say residents, and its consequences are unbearable. Normally, a person carries a bucket full of water in the toilet, but here, a stick is equally important as the toilet is often choked. “Constant prodding and stabbing in the outlet helps drain out the waste while attending nature’s call,” says Jayashree, who got the job of a sweeper after her husband passed away in 1993. Many a time, even the stabbing proves futile and the human excreta overflows through the toilet. “Imagine starting your day like this,” she says.

Ramesh Haralkar, a noted activist, believes the nature of the job has “made us forget that sanitation workers too are human beings.” As we make our way to the terrace of Panchsheel Nagar, the repugnant stench accompanies us throughout. The terrace, though, allows us to talk without holding our breaths. “The community that keeps the city’s drainage going is meted out such facilities,” says Haralkar, as the majestic Taj hotel, hardly a kilometre away, overlooks the colony.

There are about 35 such settlements in India’s booming financial capital. None in sound shape. “These colonies are like factories producing sanitation workers,” says Haralkar, who was himself one for almost two decades in the 70s and 80s. “The fear of losing the government house forces the next generation to carry the baton forward.”

However, Haralkar remains an exception. “The humiliation I faced during my working days made me determined to keep my three sons away from the profession,” he says, recollecting that the superiors never missed a chance to insult him. He has endured occasional physical attacks as well for demanding “humane treatment”. “I told my wife I do not mind sleeping on the road after we lose the government quarters but my sons would not do this job. I wanted the society to be respectful towards my kids.”

In order to circumvent his sons from his profession, Haralkar ensured they never drifted away from education. “It was the only way to break the shackles. I told them this house does not belong to us,” he remembers. “The moment they completed their education, I asked them to move out and find their own places.” His sons studied hard. One is now an MSW, second is a photographer and the third one is a journalist. When Haralkar was convinced his sons were fairly settled, he resigned from his job and shifted back to his native village in coastal Konkan. “They were exposed to a wider outlook. My heart fills with pride when I look at them today,” says Haralkar. “Other than fighting for their rights, I spread the importance of education among sanitation workers. The mindset of not prioritising education needs to be done away with. Workers believe education is a waste of time if eventually what one has to do is clean up the gutter.”

While Haralkar’s sons successfully changed their course, children of most sanitation workers have not been able to pursue education due to lack of exposure. Sewage cleanup may have become mechanised in some areas, but government figures suggest that 770,000 people in India either work as sewage cleaners or are supported by them. The BMC has more than 4000 manual scavengers at its disposal to clean up in excess of 50,000 manholes in the city.

In gutters about five feet deep, workers stand in chest-high sewage and use long wooden sticks to clear blocks. Manholes, on the other hand, are as deep as 40 feet where the worker has to descend into the pitch-dark sewer and physically siphon out the waste. Some manholes are big enough to house a rampaging truck.

Ramesh Chavan, 55, who has been a sewer cleaner for all his life, explains the abhorrent experience of entering a manhole. “Human excrement, filth are expected, but we have touched dead dogs, rats, sanitary napkins and many more repulsive things with our bare hands,” he says, as he gears up for another dive into a world beyond the imagination of a layman. He wraps a dirty handkerchief around his right palm, removes his t-shirt and waits for his colleagues to loosen up the lid. “It is impossible to descend without a few shots of cheap liquor. No worker can enter the manhole in normal senses.”

Labor activist Milind Ranade says the job still exists because of widespread apathy towards the lower-castes, which remain severely marginalised despite efforts to end caste-based discrimination. More than 95% of sewer workers are Dalits, according to the government’s figures. “Had an upper-caste [person] been entering the sewage system, we would have seen an uproar. But if a lower-caste worker dies, who cares?” says Ranade.

A law was passed in 2013 that made it illegal to employ such workers and directed rehabilitation with skill training and alternative jobs. Sounds fair. Except the enforcement has had little to do with the diktat. The law itself tacitly admits the difficulty in banning a job that employs lakhs of citizens who would lack alternative work. It specifies tests that should be conducted before workers enter manholes. “They earn around Rs 15,000 per month,” says Ranade. “With no education, no skills, they could permanently lose their livelihoods.”

One of its manhole tests, though, is simple: A candle is placed inside, and if oxygen levels are too low, the flame goes off. If there are toxic gases, the candle explodes. Assuming the situation is safe, workers must be fitted with harnesses before descending into manholes. However, Chavan says he has never seen the tests being carried out. “There is not even a first-aid kit available at the site,” he says. “Broken bottles lurking in the way often escape the eye in the absence of a torch, causing scars all over the body. The filthy water pierces into those cuts aggravating the injuries. I end up with an injection of Tetanus every six months.”

Implementation of labour laws is generally poor in India, says Mihir Desai, former director of the India Center for Human Rights and Law, a nonprofit organisation. Passing laws allows the Indian government to argue that it is in line with international standards, but authorities are less interested in ensuring that standards are enforced, he said.

A manual scavenger is exposed to toxic gases like methane, nitrogen and ammonia. Chavan says if he requests for masks, cap or gloves, the contractor ridicules and blackmails him. “They do not care if we live or die,” he says, in a defeated tone. “Their kids do not have to work in sewage water.”

Under the name of Narendra Modi’s widely appreciated initiative of Swachh Bharat, we saw many celebrities being clicked with a broom in their hands. Irrespective of whether the road actually needed cleaning, the photo-ops were grabbed with both hands. However, little appears to have happened for the workers who submerge themselves into a pit of shit and genuinely keep the Bharat Swachh.

When Tim Robbins crawled through the drainage system in the popular Hollywood film Shawshank Redemption, freedom embraced him on the other side. For our workers though, anything less than death is more than welcome.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, an educational and research organisation, found that an average of 20 sewer workers die each month in Mumbai from accidents, suffocation or exposure to toxic gases. There are cases where workers have been carried away by the gushing water. Moreover, 80% of the workers die before they turn 60 because of work-related health problems, the study found.

Chavan too, is enduring health issues. “I get breathless repeatedly,” he says. “I have shared my experiences with many officials, social workers and journalists right from the time I got this job. Now, I am nearing my retirement. Other than the authorities, nothing has changed.” On asked whether the expenses for an on-duty injury are covered, Chavan laughs. “Are you serious?” he asks. “BMC does not even care for a death. Getting hospital bills covered is a long shot.”

Chavan frequently learns about casualties on duty from his colleagues and news reports. The authorities term it a “sudden death”, shrug off responsibility and move on. Everybody knows the actual cause of the demise. But it is hardly discussed. Does it not send shivers down the spine of other workers? “Not really. We are used to it now,” he says and descends into the 30-feet deep manhole.

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