Sinking wells, sunk in debt

This story first appeared on PARI on 26 April 2017.

Karbhari Ramrao Jadhav’s application to sink a well was approved three years ago. For that, he was to have received a subsidy of Rs. 2.99 lakh from the district administration. Instead, he says, “I have never seen that money and have run up a debt of Rs. 1.5 lakhs trying to dig it myself.”

Jadhav, 48, lives in Ganori village in Aurangabad’s Phulambri taluka. He grows cotton and bajra on four acres, for which he gets water from a stream flowing from the nearby hills. But drought is common in the Marathwada region, and his own well, Jadhav thought, would make it easier to maintain his farmland and livestock.

So he submitted an application in early 2013. It required a bunch of mandatory documents related to his land. To get these, Jadhav had to visit various offices – of the talati (village accountant), the gram panchayat (village council) and the panchayat samiti (an intermediary body between the gram panchayat and the zilla parishad or district board). All along the way he was asked for bribes to procure the documents and get the work order from the zilla parishad. “A powerless farmer cannot afford to take on the administration,” he says.

The state government provides a subsidy of Rs. 2.99 lakhs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to farmers if their application to dig their own well is approved. From that amount, the farmers are expected to pay labourers and procure materials like pipes. These expenses can be claimed in instalments from the panchayat samiti.

But to get started – even to get his own land papers – Jadhav needed money. He approached a local moneylender, who gave him Rs. 40,000 at an interest rate of 5 per cent per month – a gigantic 60 per cent per annum. During times of drought in the past, Jadhav had taken loans from banks, but this was his first from a private source. “I paid 30,000 in bribes and kept 10,000 for the initial construction of the well,” he says. “I expected to repay the moneylender soon enough. The people I met had promised to get the job done.”

In February 2015, he got the administrative approval, and the work order that allows work to commence came soon after. It strengthened his belief in being able to repay the loan when he received the MNREGA funds. So he hired labourers and vigorously began digging a well not far from his farmland.

But Jadhav did not receive the money from the panchayat samiti  in spite of the work order. He kept going to the samiti office at Phulambri, 15 kilometres from his house, on foot or in a shared rickshaw. No one there took note of his complaints. “Running around for the money has dented me not just financially,” Jadhav says, “it has also cost me in terms of work hours.”

The well, meanwhile, had gone 20 feet deep. A few more weeks of work and Jadhav expected to see water gushing out. But the official funds were still not released. The recurring delays ended Jadhav’s promising project. “The labourers backed out, and I do not blame them,” he says. “I could not pay their dues. Why would they continue?”

The half-complete well surrounded by rubble in front of Jadhav’s hut reminds him every day of his losses – of the loans, spiralling interest rates, labour costs and hours of effort – all for a well that has been reduced to a pit.

In Ganori though, this story is not uncommon. The village, with miles of farmland under a scorching sun in early April, is located 35 kilometres from Aurangabad city. It is wedged between hills that are permeated by water sources. The streams flowing through the hills have prompted many to apply for digging wells. Years later, like Jadhav, 17 other farmers are still waiting.

Musa Noor Shah, who owns four acres, had to sell 10 of his chickens and six goats to another farmer for around Rs. 50,000 to raise money for bribes. “I paid 20,000 rupees [to various people], after which I got the work order,” he says. “I began sinking the well, but they asked for more money, saying my documents were incomplete.”

Musa, uneducated and around 45, did not even have a bank account before he thought of digging a well. “They asked me to open one so the money for the well would be directly transferred,” he says. “I am paying the price for believing in state schemes. I have more debts and fewer animals now. It has disturbed my financial plans. My daughter’s wedding has been held up for a year.”

Tired of the injustice, Sunil Rothe, son of a farmer in Ganori who applied to dig a well, barged into the gram sevak’s office in the village in March. He was told that bribes had been paid by thousands of farmers, not just those in Ganori. Sunil recorded the conversation on his smartphone and put it on WhatsApp. After the local news media picked it up, in the second week of April the divisional commissioner Purushottam Bhapkar ordered an enquiry, and the administration has promised to resume work. Meanwhile, out of fear of reprisals, the farmers are denying that they paid any bribes to anyone.

But the enquiry may result in only a transfer or a suspension – and won’t make much of a difference on the ground. The farmers of Ganori made it to the local media only because of Rothe’s recording and because their projects did not move even after they had paid money. Had the funds for their wells been released, it would have been business as usual for the cycle of corruption in which they are caught. Many of the schemes aimed at helping farmers are instead virtually ruining them.

This is reflected in the low number of wells completed even after being approved on paper in the agrarian region of Marathwada. Since the inception of MNREGA in Maharashtra in 2008, according to data from the divisional commissioner’s office, 89,460 wells have been approved in the region, and only 46,539 completed. In Aurangabad district, 6,616 wells were granted permission but only 2,493 completed, and 562 have not even commenced work.

To rectify this dismal conversion rate, the state government and district administration set a target to complete 2,500 wells in Aurangabad district in the 2016-17 financial year. By March 31 this year, only 338 were completed. Similarly, 39,600 private ponds were approved in Marathwada, but only 5,825 have been completed.

Back in Ganori, Jadhav mortgaged half-an-acre of his land in April 2016 to a  moneylender for Rs. 40,000 to pay labour costs that had run up to Rs. 60,000. He managed to clear the dues, but has not been able to earn the land back. He sold two of his four cows for Rs. 30,000 last year to raise money for the farming season; for this year, he needs more money.

“Before I dreamt of having a well of my own, I did not have a private loan on my head,” Jadhav says. “This well has ruptured my financial cycle. The interest rates are mushrooming, and I have to raise capital now for pre-monsoon preparations for the kharif season. I wonder who will give me credit now…”

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.”

Read more

 

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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