‘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

Not quite a cash cow

This story first appeared on PARI on 1 June 2017.

Appasaheb Kothule, 45, wants to sell two of his bulls. He can’t do that. Qaleem Qureshi, 28, wishes he could buy bulls. But he, too, cannot.

Kothule has been travelling to various bazaars for over a month. He has attended all the weekly markets held around Devgaon, his village, roughly 40 kilometres from Aurangabad city, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Today, he has arrived in Adul, where villagers fill the marketplace every Tuesday. “My son is getting married and I need some money,” he says, a white handkerchief wrapped around his forehead. “Nobody is willing to pay more than 10,000 rupees for the pair. I should get at least Rs.15,000 for them.”

Meanwhile, Qaleem Qureshi sits idle at his beef shop in Aurangabad’s Sillakhana area, wondering how to resurrect his dwindling trade. “I used to do business of 20,000 rupees a day [with earnings ranging from Rs.70-80,000 a month],” he says. “Over the past two years, it has declined to a fourth of that.”

‘I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls to various bazaars,’ says Appasaheb Kothule of Devgaon; other farmers too are spending sums they cannot afford

The beef ban in the state is a little over two years old. By the time Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 2014, the agrarian crisis had deepened under the previous Congress and Nationalist Congress Party regimes.  A lethal combination of rising input costs, fluctuating rates for crops, water mismanagement and other factors had set in motion widespread distress and tens of thousands of farm suicides in the state. Fadnavis managed to intensify the crisis by extending the prohibition of cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks in March 2015.

The bovine is central to the rural economy and the ban has had a direct impact on businesses that depend on cattle. It has equally impacted farmers who, for decades, used the animals as insurance – they traded their livestock to raise instant capital for marriages, medicines, or an upcoming cropping season.

Kothule, who has five acres of farmland where he cultivates cotton and wheat, says his financial calculations have been hit by the ban. “These two bulls are only four years old,” he says, pointing to his tethered animals. “Any farmer would have swiftly bought them for 25,000 rupees a few years ago. Bulls can be used on farmlands until they are 10.”

But now farmers are reluctant to buy cattle even though the prices have plummeted, knowing it will be difficult to get rid of them later. “I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls from my home to various bazaars,” says Kothule. “Adul is four kilometres away, so I walked with my bovines today. Other weekly bazaars are in a 25-kilometres radius, so I have to hire a bullock cart. I already have a debt burden. I need to sell these bulls.”

As we talk, Kothule keeps a desperate eye out for buyers. He has reached the market at 9 a.m., it is now 1 p.m., and extremely hot. “I have not even had water since I reached,” he says. “I cannot leave the bulls alone even for five minutes for fear of missing out on a customer.”

Around him in the bustling maidan, with temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, various farmers are trying everything possible to crack a deal. Janardan Geete, 65, from Wakulni, 15 kilometres from Adul, is getting the horns of his robust bullocks sharpened to make them look more attractive. Bhandas Jadhav, with his sharpening instrument, will charge Rs. 200 per animal. “I had bought them for 65,000 rupees,” Geete says. “I will be happy to settle for 40,000.”

Kothule says the growing water shortage in Marathwada and rising fodder costs have made it more difficult to maintain livestock. Added to this is a lack of cow shelters. When Fadnavis imposed the beef ban, he promised to start shelters where farmers could donate their cattle instead of being forced to bear the costs of maintaining animals that could no longer work on their farms. But the shelter have not materialised, dealing the farmers a double blow – they cannot raise money by selling their livestock and are stuck with the animals even after they become unproductive.

“How can we maintain our old livestock when we cannot even properly provide for our children?” asks Kothule. “We spend 1,000 rupees per week on each animal’s water and fodder.”

Many others across the rural economic spectrum have been hit by this one amendment in the law – the beef ban. Dalit leather workers, transporters, meat traders, those who make medicines from bones, have all been hit hard.

Around 300,000 bulls were slaughtered each year in Maharashtra prior to the ban. Now, the slaughterhouses are idle and entire communities in economic distress. At Sillakhana, which hosts close to 10,000 Qureshis – a community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle traders – the impact is palpable. Qaleem has had to sack a few of his staff. “I too have a family to feed,” he says. “What else could I do?”

Anees Qureshi, 41, a loader in Sillakhana, says, “I used to make at least 500 rupees a day. Now I do odd jobs. The income is not guaranteed. There are days when I have no work.”

Business before the beef ban was already hit by the growing agrarian crisis – people from the villages have been migrating in greater numbers looking for work. This has meant a substantial drop in the local consumption of beef, says Qaleem. But his shop, owned by the family since Qaleem’s great grandfather’s time, is all he has. “Our community is not very well-educated [and cannot easily shift to other work],” he says. “We sell buffalo meat now. But people do not like it as much and the competition with other meat products is stiff.”

Beef has formed a major part of the diet of the Qureshis, as well as various other communities, including the Dalits – it is a relatively cheap source of protein. “Replacing beef with chicken or mutton means spending thrice the amount,” says Qaleem.

Dyandeo Gore (right) hopes to sell the last of his seven bulls before returning home to Daygavan village

At the bazaar in Adul, Geete, who was sharpening the horns of his cattle, is one of few to go home smiling after a farmer agrees to buy his animals. Dyandeo Gore looks at him with envy.

Gore has walked seven kilometres to Adul with his bull: the last of seven, which he sold over the years. His debt of around Rs.6 lakhs has magnified in five years. By selling his last bull, he hopes to raise money ahead of the cropping season. “Nature does not support us. The government does not support us,” he says. “Wealthy businessmen do not commit suicide. Debt-ridden farmers like me do. It is a daily misery. I do not know of a single farmer who wants his son to be a farmer.”

At the age of 60, Gore is wandering in the heat from market to market on foot with his bovine, because he cannot afford any transportation. “If I fail to sell him today, I will go to another bazaar on Thursday,” he says. “How far is that?” I ask him. “Thirty kilometres,” he says.

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

‘Nobody trusts the farmer with money’

This story first appeared on PARI on 5 May 2017.

Ramesh Jagtap has had a rough day. He quarrelled with his wife, Gangubai, in the morning. After the fight, she consumed pesticide. He took her in a shared rickshaw to the district’s civil hospital in Osmanabad city, 30 kilometres from Satefal village. “My heartbeats were pounding like never before through the journey,” he says. “Fortunately, we reached in time for the doctors to treat her.”

He rushed back to Satefal in the afternoon. The local branch of the district’s cooperative bank was disbursing payments to settle claims made by farmers under the government’s crop insurance scheme. “I got back and stood in line for over an hour,” Jagtap says. “But the bank had only released a part of the sum.” And that was  given to farmers who had taken a token ahead of him.

Jagtap, 50, who cultivates soybean, jowar and wheat on his five acres, could well lose count of the problems he might wake up to tomorrow. He already has a bank loan of Rs. 1.20 lakhs, and owes Rs. 50,000 to a private moneylender. “I had borrowed money during previous years of drought and for my daughter’s marriage,” he says. “Moneylenders abuse us every day as we delay their payment. The fight with my wife started over this. She could not take the pressure and humiliation and poisoned herself in the heat of the moment. I need to repay my loans. I need money to prepare my land ahead of the monsoon season.”

The desperation for funds forced Jagtap to rush back to Satefal, leaving Gangubai in the hospital. He is eligible to receive Rs. 45,000 from the government as crop insurance for the rabi season of 2014-15. On March 4, the government deposited Rs. 159 crores, which belong to 2,68,000 farmers like Jagtap, in the Osmanabad District Central Cooperative Bank (ODCC). But two months later, only Rs. 42 crores have been distributed.

The bank is yet to give Chandrakant Ugale, a farmer from Satefal, his crop insurance payment of Rs. 18,000

On April 5, the government deposited Rs. 380 crores as crop insurance for the 2016-17 kharif season. This, too, the famers have not received.

Sanjay Patil-Dudhgaonkar, a farm leader in Osmanabad, who went on a three-day hunger strike on April 19 after the bank kept delaying payments, alleges the ODCC has invested the money and is eating up the interest. “This is the time when farmers start looking for credit,” he says. “It is a critical period and cash in hand goes a long way. Why should a farmer wait months for his own money?”  His strike ended when the bank promised to pay up in 15 days – a promise that’s not been kept.

Chandrakant Ugale, 52, from Satefal, says the incessant running around for money makes it difficult to focus on preparing the farmland for the kharif season. “It is not easy to get seeds and fertilisers on credit anymore. Everybody knows our financial condition. Nobody trusts the farmer with money.”  The bank is yet to give Ugale his crop insurance payment of Rs. 18,000.

V.B. Chandak, chief officer (administration and accounts), at ODCC, says the Reserve Bank of India has not released enough notes and the bank is struggling to pay up. “We are still distributing as quickly as we can,” he says. “We will try to clear the funds within 15 days.”

Even as Chandak tries to defend his bank, 10-15 people barge into his cabin, furious. They throw documents at him, accuse him of rupturing their financial plans and demand cash. They all want to withdraw their fixed deposits, which have matured, some for years. Among them is Sunita Jadhav, around 45 and a widow, who wants to withdraw her deposit of Rs. 30.000, which matured a year ago. “My daughter is getting married on May 7,” she says. “I am not going back without my money.”

Sunita Jadhav of Jalkut village: ‘My daughter is getting married on May 7. I am not going back without my money’

Jadhav lives in Jalkut village, 50 kilometres from Osmanabad city. She has spent nearly a day’s wage – Rs. 200 – on commuting to the bank. And she has visited the ODCC several times for over six months. She takes out a wedding card from her purse and says, “I have worked hard to save up this amount.” Jadhav works as a labourer at a brick kiln. Her brother, who lives with her, recently lost his job as a waiter in an eatery in Jalkut. “A day spent in begging for my own hard-earned money means losing out on my daily wage as well,” she says. “The local branch asks me to visit the headquarters. Here they tell me to go to the local branch.”

Chandak listens to all of them and politely says the bank has no funds. He is right. The ODCC is in a mess, to put it mildly. The bank is unable to repay close to Rs. 400 crores of fixed deposits, but is doing little to recover its non-agricultural loans of over Rs. 500 crores. Of this, just two sugarcane factories in the district – Terna and Tuljabhavani – owe the bank Rs. 382 crores.

Moreover, the loans that the ODCC has given to farmers – this credit is routed through  467 Vividh Karyakari Seva Societies – point at large-scale corruption. The Societies owe the ODCC Rs. 200 crores more than the amount to be recovered from farmers.  Where this money has gone is  anybody’s guess.

While doing little to address these issues, the ODCC had threatened 20,000 farmers who owe the bank Rs. 180 crores with public humiliation and sent them notices in mid-November. The threat was retracted only after reports in the news media. “The non-agriculture debts belong to influential [politically-connected] people,” says a bank official. “When we visit them for a reminder, we start by saying we were in the vicinity and then mention the loan as a passing reference.”

While not recovering debts from defaulters, the ODCC ‘adjusted’ crop insurance payments farmers were to receive against crop loan repayments the farmers were yet to make.  ‘Adjust’ here means an amount from the insurance payout due to them was deducted as part repayment towards the crop loans they had taken. “The collector said on March 22 that we can ‘adjust’ up to 50 per cent of the amount,” says Chandak. That is, as much as half the insurance payout due to a farmer could be deducted in this fashion.  “On March 31, the decision was rolled back. We will return the money of those we have adjusted if we get clear-cut orders from the government.”

Dudhgaonkar says it is no surprise that the government diverted Rs. 5 crores of  insurance payments in this way between March 22 and March 31, while recovering not even Rs. 50 lakhs of non-agricultural loans in the previous six months.

The ODCC has been aggravating the stress of farmers in other ways too. A few years ago, the bank started restructuring the debts of farmers by clubbing their term loans and crop loans together. The interest rate on a crop loan (for agricultural activities like buying seeds and fertilisers) is 7 per cent; of this, 4 per cent is paid by the state. A term loan (used for capital investment) could charge double the interest rate. Through restructuring, the bank merges the two loans and converts them into a new term loan, which magnifies the farmers’ dues.

Baburao Navle, a 67-year-old farmer from Shelgaon village, says his principal loan amount was just under Rs. 4 lakhs. After restructuring, it has spiralled to Rs. 17 lakhs over the years. The bank emphasises the farmers’ consent to the conversion, but the farmers claim they have been deceived. “We were told to sign a document to avoid raids and confiscations at our homes,” says Navle, who cultivates wheat, jowar and bajra on his four acres. Twenty five farmers from his village collectively owe more than Rs. 2 crores to the ODCC – the original amount was around Rs. 40 lakhs. “Is it not the bank’s responsibility to inform us fully before asking for our signatures?”

Almost all the district cooperative banks of Marathwada – where many farmers have  accounts – are on thin ice. The banks, unable to confront powerful defaulters and in financial distress themselves, can barely be the economic backbone of farmers – who are then driven to private moneylenders.

Back in Satefal, while Jagtap is talking to me about his problems, several people passing by on their motorbikes join in. Everyone is returning from the bank. A few relieved, many dejected. The branch has distributed crop insurance only to 71 farmers from Satefal that day. Jagtap has decided to go back to the hospital. “My wife will ask if I received the insurance,” he says. “What will I tell her…?”

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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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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