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

Never a ‘dal’ moment

This story first appeared on PARI on 12 May 2017.

Vitthal Chavan has spent the last two months waiting for a call. On February 28, he went to the NAFED centre in Osmanabad’s Kalamb taluka to register his nine quintals of tur – so that the government would then purchase it from him. But the official only wrote his name and number in a notebook and told him, “You will get a call.”

“I have called them every alternate day, visited the centre 4-5 times since February 28,” he says, sitting across the official’s table at the centre on a steaming morning in early May. Vitthal has a nine-acre farm in Pangaon, and has once again travelled 25 kilometres to reach Kalamb only to ask if his tur (pigeon pea, a lentil) will be procured.  Several other farmers with similar problems look on. “They kept saying the storage is full or enough gunny bags were not available. Now the deadline is gone and I do not have any evidence of my registration.”

Because of a bumper crop of tur last year, around mid-December 2016 the Maharashtra government set up National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) centres in various districts and talukas to ensure that  the traders who purchase produce from farmers do not rob them by negotiating throwaway prices for the abundant dal.

Farmers wait outside the NAFED centre in Kalamb: hoping the government keeps its promise of buying every bit of tur

But the NAFED centres were grossly unprepared. The official at the Kalamb centre does not deny this. He is engaged in a discussion with S.C. Chavan, secretary of the Agriculture Produce Market Committee in Kalamb. “We are preparing a report and sending it to the government,” says Chavan. “There are several farmers who had brought their tur before the deadline, but we could not accept it because of certain problems. The government will respond and we will act accordingly.”

The deadline of the NAFED centres was extended thrice – to March 15, March 31 and April 22, after cabinet minister (cooperatives, textiles and marketing) Subhash Deshmukh promised the state would buy every bit of tur. This was a relief for farmers who had stacked the dal in their homes and were struggling to get it registered.

But after April 22, the Maharashtra government refused to buy tur from farmers, and said the deadline will not be further extended. Only the officially-registered tur that the farmers had dropped off at centres before April 22 would be accepted by the government.

Vitthal Chavan’s stock was not in among this lot, though he – like many other farmers – had brought his tur to the centre ahead of the deadline. But with only an informal notation by the official, Vitthal has no evidence in hand that he came to the centre in time. “How do I trust them?” he anxiously asks. “What if they just tear out the page where my name is written? It has been months since I harvested the crop. The stock is worth 45,000 rupees but it is lying at my house. If they do not buy it, I will have to sell it at a throwaway price [of even as low a Rs. 1,000 a quintal].  The tur can deteriorate once the monsoon begins.”

Last year, after several years, farmers in Marathwada moved away from the water guzzling sugarcane and instead sowed tur, a traditional food crop. They shifted because drought was much more acute in 2016 than in previous years. And they got a bumper crop – 20 lakh metric tonnes (across the state), says Subhash Deshmukh, compared to 4.4 lakh metric tonnes in 2015.

The shift away from sugarcane to a sustainable food crop could have, over time, helped conserve water. However, the government’s handling of the crop is likely to make tur unattractive in the market for at least a year.

The wholesale market price for tur in Maharashtra was around Rs. 10,000 quintal in 2014-15, which dropped in anticipation of a good crop. To the government’s credit, had it not initiated the NAFED centres and fixed the minimum support price [MSP, decided by the state to support farmers] at Rs. 5,050, the market cost would have plummeted below Rs. 3,000 per quintal following the bumper crop.

But oddly, even when the impending quantity of production had become clear, the Indian government imported 57 lakh tonnes of tur from other countries at Rs. 10,114 rupees per quintal – as it does every year in varying quantities.

The state, however, said in a GR (government resolution) that it has purchased more than the NAFED mandated 25% of the produce of Maharashtra farmers. By April, four lakh metric tonnes of tur has been already purchased, says Deshmukh, and another 1 lakh metric tonnes has been registered for procurement. “We have followed the due procedure to ensure the farmers get their dues,” he says.

But the official production figure of 20 lakh metric tonnes is conservative. Tur is often sowed as an interior crop – within two strands of sugarcane or other crops. It does not require much water, is harvested in about four months and is regarded as a bit of a bonus. Which is why many farmers only mention the main crop on their land documents. For the number of hectares under tur, the government  only calculates the production of farmers who have stated tur on their papers. Reports indicate at least three times of what is registered this year is still languishing with farmers.

Meghnath Shelke, 58, a farmer from Dhanora village in Osmanabad, failed to get his six quintals of tur registered in spite of visiting the NAFED centre several times. “Once they sent me back because they did not have a weighing machine, then they said if I leave my stock here, it could be stolen and the centre would not be responsible for it,” he says, and points to six gunny bags of tur piled up in a tiny room of his house. “For almost a month, the centre was shut. It never remained consistently open.”

Besides tur, Shelke cultivates soybean and cotton on his eight acres. Every time he was sent back, he had to come home 10 kilometres from the NAFED centre carrying the six quintals. “I have spent hundreds of rupees merely on the commute [by tempo],” he says. “The government had promised to buy every bit of tur. If the state does not live up to its promise, it will be a severe setback for us as we have to invest in preparations for the kharif season.”

Vitthal Chavan, a farmer from Pangaon: still waiting for a call from the NAFED centre 

Vitthal, in the meantime, has given up and decided to head back to Pangaon in the afternoon. “If the cropping season fails, we die. If it is a resounding success, we still die,” he says. Already in debt and with a cropping season looming ahead, the timing of the tur crisis has been especially hard on the farmers of Maharashtra.

And after spending almost half a day at the NAFED centre, Vitthal still does not know if his tur will be accepted. As he leaves, he asks again when he should follow up.  “You will get a call,” they tell him.

Postscript: At the time of publication, the government of Maharashtra has extended the deadline to May 31. That does not reverse the harassment the farmers have already gone through, nor does it assure a resolution to their problem in any lasting way.

The NAFED centre in Kalamb, Vitthal Chavan says, is now shut and his tur isn’t being procured. When  Chavan again phoned the official, he didn’t get any specific answer.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

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…”

Just when Marathwada thought it had recovered from droughts, came demonetisation

This story first appeared on Catch News on 16 November 2016.

Over the last few years, Marathwada and drought have become synonymous with each other. The paucity of rainfall has only intensified the agrarian crisis over half a decade. In 2016, however, even though the rain gods blessed Marathwada, the farmers here are still enduring a drought, though of a unique kind. The drought of notes and currencies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise 500 and 1000-rupee notes on 8 November has crippled the farmers of Marathwada, where every transaction is cash-based.

 

 

Farmer Padmakar Londhe described the scene at the Agriculture Produce Market located in Latur city, which is 50 kilometers from his hometown of Nilanga in Latur district.

“It was chaotic,” he said, when he visited the market to sell his soybean on Thursday last week. “Farmers had come all the way from their remote villages to sell their produce and buyers did not have the money to pay them back.”

Londhe had to dump his 20 quintals of soybean at the market and head back home without receiving his dues.

Can’t prepare for next season

“I was told to come again next week,” Londhe said, adding that the unnecessary expense of a trip merely to collect his dues would definitely pinch. “I did not have money to go back to the village, or to have a cup of tea. I borrowed some before heading back. The situation is still disastrous. I am waiting for the money, without which I cannot prepare for the Rabi season.”

Due to the relatively adequate rainfall, farmers had been satisfied with their Kharif crops this season. The idea was to raise enough capital for the impending Rabi season by selling the Kharif produce.

This is a critical period for the farmers, for season-specific nature of their profession does not allow a flexible window for delay in preparations.

Senior journalist and agriculture expert Atul Deulgaonkar, who is based in Latur, said 25% of the farmers are yet to sow for the Rabi season.

“Others who have done so, need money for further cultivation,” he said. “A delay or a break could wash out the whole season. The demonetizsation has created an economic impasse.”

Farmers, after selling their crop in the city, generally shop for the fertilizers, seeds, a week’s ration, medicines, etc and head back to their village. But the cash crunch appears to have paralysed the entire informal sector.

Shivaji Sonawane, who is a farmer and runs a fertilizer and seed shop in Latur, said there are around 80 such retail shops in the city, which had been making around a lakh rupees per day before 8 November.

“For the past few days, the business has dwindled to hardly 5,000 rupees,” he said. “Farmers turn up with their old notes. But we have to send them away with a heavy heart.”

In a rally in Goa, Modi made an emotional appeal to the citizenry to cooperate for 50 days. However, it might spell doom for the agrarian region by then, for the lack of preparations will nullify the entire Rabi crop.

Sonawane said his six-acre grape-field is lying idle because he cannot find laborers for work.

“The grape season may be March but the preparations begin around this time,” he said. “We export grapes as well. It is a lucrative source of income, which now appears to have been jeopardised. The whole farmland has come to a standstill.”

50 more days will just make it worse

The repercussions of demonetisation are glaring. The rate of soybean has dropped by Rs 150 this week, meaning a farmer would make Rs 150 less than what he would have made a week ago behind every quintal.

The entire exchange of commodities has been encumbered, with the informal sector coming under the weather. Their business has dwindled to a half with many customers buying goods on credit. Vendors dealing in green vegetables are selling them off at one fifth of the cost, for they get rotten quickly.

Head of the Latur Agriculture Produce Market, Lalit Shah, said the activity at the market has drastically decreased post 8 November. “From receiving 75,000 bags of soybean per day, we have come to less than 20,000,” he said.

“Farmers are aware of the problems traders are facing. They are sitting on their crop. We implore the ones who come to cooperate. If it continues like this, my market will shut down.”

Farmer Ganesh Madje, who has a 20-acre land on the outskirts of Latur city, said he has around 80 quintals of produce at home, which he cannot sell off and raise capital for the Rabi season.

Banks in Latur are far and few, and it is unaffordable for farmers to leave their work to spend a day standing in queue for Rs 4,000. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of farmers have their accounts with the district banks, which, locals have been told, are not authorised to replace the old notes.

The nationalised banks are authorised, but only a handful of farmers have their accounts with those banks. And even the nationalised banks are sparingly doling out exchanges, for they too have been caught off guard.

“The past few years, we did not have the money,” said Madje. “Our situation this time around is more troublesome. We have the money, but we cannot use it.”

 

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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Warning notes from Marathwada: how water wars can consume India

This story first appeared on Catch News on 13 July 2015

The intense water crisis in parts of Maharashtra is not someone else’s problem. It is a warning note for India. The apocalyptic idea of water wars is barely one turn away.

As the monsoon beats down on the country, it seems hard to heed warnings about water crises, droughts, desertification and emergency water trains being despatched to despairing citizens.

 

But water management in many parts of India is so poor, the monsoon is only an illusion: it is not effectively recharging groundwater.

Vidharbha has become a short code for despair in India. This story from Marathwada is a reminder why this is not an isolated story.

One man’s story: parable for the country

Farmer Ejaz Khan’s borewell dried up eight months ago. In mid-June, when pre-monsoon rain showered his Nagzari village in Jalna district, he hastened out of his tin-roofed house to bail out the collected water from his 400-foot-deep borewell before it was soaked up. He managed just a bucketful.

It wasn’t much for his family of five, but it brought hope: the monsoon was on its way to fill up his well. It would be in use for the next four months, if only for half an hour a day, and Khan would be able to irrigate his 3-acre farmland, the sole means of subsistence.

“This is the way it has been for the last few years,” says Khan, “useful for half an hour a day during the monsoon and absolutely useless for the remaining eight months.”

Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. “I did not know how else to overcome the paucity of water,” he explains.

The investment hasn’t yielded much.

Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. He still does not have access to water

Even the little water the borewells have isn’t fit for consumption, Khan says, as he flings a pail into the well that he shares with fellow villagers. He lifts out a bucketful of brownish water with an odd worm squirming in it.

“This is what we have been consuming,” he says, emptying the bucket into a 250-litre drum. It takes him nearly two hours to fill one drum up. He has two.

“This is my family’s quota for the next week,” says Khan, who has a wife and three sons. “Whether we are bathing, cleaning or cooking, we have have one eye on the backyard where the drums are.”

To tide over the crisis, the state has deployed over over 1,400 tankers to supply drinking water to the region, which comprises the four districts of Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed and Parabhani.

This is only a short-term bandaid though, and it solves only the problem of drinking water. Not irrigation.

Even the monsoons only bring a brief respite, not a solution. The land will go back to being parched.

Disaster in the making

So much so, in fact, that experts warn the region could be headed towards desertification. “Marathwada’s water management and governance is so poor, it appears an environmental disaster is in the making,” says Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board.

The per capita availability of surface water in Marathwada is 438 cubic metres, as against 1,700 cubic metres deemed ideal by hydrologists, and, with the population increasing, it’s only going down.

Most of Marathwada’s rivers originate in the drought-prone region itself, so the riverbeds are dried up almost all the time. Its only lifeline, thus, is the Godavari, which fills up the Jayakwadi dam, on which are dependent most of region’s 305 villages, industries and irrigation projects.

But even this lifeline has been choked with dams coming up in Jayakwadi’s catchment area in Nasik and Nagar.

As a result, almost all the water in Jayakwadi in the past few years has been consumed by industries and for drinking, leaving virtually nothing for irrigation. Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery, each guzzling one lakh litres of water every day.

Given its poor water management and governance, experts say Marathwada could be headed towards desertification

Aurangabad, the beer capital of India, devours six crore litres of water daily to keep the beer flowing. The district had long ago caught the eye of the global brewer Fosters, which realised the region’s silted water was conducive for making beer and erected a factory; others soon followed.

Ill-conceived rescue plan

In the past few years, the state has come up with several projects to mitigate Marathwada’s crisis, but they are either languishing or, like Jayakwadi, being choking by upstream dams.

Governments across the board are loath to mandate comprehensive assessment impacts for development projects. The situation in Marathwada is a textbook example of what happens when this is not done.

The Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project was envisioned to divert excess water from Kolhapur to Ujjani and Marathwada. But it has been derailed, to the harm of Osmanabad and Beed.

The Pentakali project, similarly, has diminished the Upper Painganga Project, severely affecting Nanded and Parbhani.

Apart from worsening the water crisis, these ill-conceived plans have triggered regional feuds as well.

In February this year, 11 villages from Jalna’s Mantha taluka went on a hunger strike to protest Vidarbha’s appropriation of water from the Purna river. And Marathwada has long been at loggerheads with western Maharashtra over Godavari.

Marathwada has struggled to win these battles because its politicians “do not have the same clout” as those from Western Maharashtra, says Purandare. “Politics in Maharashtra flows through the canals.”

Purandare insists the drought is “man-made”, brought on by urbanisation and a mushrooming of sugarcane factories, which require substantial amount of water.

“Urbanisation ensures the use of concrete,” he explains. “It kills tiny water bodies, adversely affecting the ground water recharge.”

If this continues, Purandare warns, there will be “no water left for farming”.

Nowhere to go, but down

The signs are already visible, and glaringly. Of Marathwada’s 76 talukas, 61 have seen a critical drop in ground water levels, the trend coinciding with a spree of digging wells and borewells in the farmland.

“In a state of unawareness and panic, farmers go on digging deep,” says Sanjeev Unhale, a senior journalist from Aurangabad. “But they do not realise that the deep aquifer takes a thousand years to be refilled. It can’t be disturbed. To dig up to 20-25 meters is understandable, but farmers are going a thousand feet down.”

Yet, in non-monsoon months, even the deepest wells come up dry, forcing Marathwada’s residents to forage elsewhere. It’s a torturous quest.

Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery: each guzzles one lakh litres of water every day

“We dig up the parched riverbed or the bottom of a well until a muddy puddle of water comes to the fore,” says Pralhad Magar, 65, from Jalna’s Kharpudi village. “We scoop it up into our pots and then physically strain the mire and stones out.”

It obviously takes hours to collect enough water this way, so everone in the family, men, women, young and old, pitch in. “I can’t carry on doing it for hours. My body doesn’t allow me now,” says Magar.

It’s only when monsoon arrives that they get some relief. Afterwards, it’s back to square one, until the next monsoon and the next.

It’s a cruel cycle Marathwada’s farmers are stuck in. To free them, the state needs to come up with a long-term solution.

Purandare has one. There was a dispute in the past between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over water from Babhali Bandhara, he explains, “and it was resolved after the Supreme Court intervened and said Maharashtra can’t use more than 2.74 TMC of water from the Bandhara.”

“It’s necessary to arrive at a similar solution for the release of water for Jayakwadi from dams upstream,” says Purandare, adding the upper Godavari basin should be “spared of any new construction”.

Until that happens, thousands of Marathwada’s farmers are at nature’s mercy. “The only time we spend less time storing water is during the monsoons,” says Khan, and abruptly ends the conversation.

He has noticed dark clouds gathering over Nagzari. He hysterically collects his empty pots and utensils and arranges them outside his dimly-lit room to catch the flow from the roof.

Soon, it’s pouring down. And as his pots start filing up, a grin appears on Khan’s face. When the solution is missing, dangerously, the respite seems enough.

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