In India’s Richest State, Drought & Farm Crisis Arrive Early
Maharashtra reports an increasing number of farmer suicides due to drought years, growing debts and poverty.
Water tankers had to be brought in by February this year to Dahiwandi, a village in Beed, a drought-prone district in the southeastern region of India’s richest state economy. Summer was three months away, but the village situated in Shirur taluka (sub-division) was already running out of water to drink, irrigate farms and feed cattle.
At the water tankers, there were snaking queues of people with pots and drums, and the lines had been growing longer every day. “Dahiwandi has never seen a water crisis this early in the year,” said Sheela Aghav, the 32-year-old village sarpanch (head).
Three years ago, the Maharashtra’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had built five wells in the village in collaboration with the gram panchayat but they, too, ran dry.
“We have had such scarce rainfall over the last three years that conserving water has become nearly impossible.”Yuvraj Uttam Kadale, a 25-year-old farmer.
Shirur is among the worst-hit of Beed’s 11 talukas. In 2018, it received the least rain in the district--38.2% of the district’s annual average of 666.36 mm. A little over 80% of Beed’s population lives in villages, as per the 2011 Census, and agriculture is its main source of livelihood, mainly dependent on rainfall.
The Marathwada region where Beed is situated is a marker of India’s rural distress: 77% of farmers have no more than five acres of land, the region has experienced three years of drought over the last decade, its rural per capita income is Rs 90,460, or Rs 12,547 less than the national average, India Spend reported in July 2017.
Beed has been reporting an increasing number of farmer suicides brought on by consecutive drought years, growing debts and poverty: It recorded 125 farmer suicides in 2018, the highest in Marathwada. This agricultural distress has become a political issue in the state which, on April 29, faces its fourth and final phase of voting in the ongoing 2019 general elections.
This story examines the situation in Beed, where successive years of scanty rainfall have depleted almost all the wells, taps and reservoirs. Reporting from five talukas, we found villagers entirely dependent on water tankers brought from distant places. With farming no longer viable, villagers have been forced to migrate and find work in the sugar factories and sugarcane fields elsewhere in the state. Anticipating water shortage, many big farmers have not sown any rabi (spring) crops this year.
Over 50% Area Under Cultivation Hit by Water Shortage
The government of Maharashtra declared Beed one of the 26 severely drought-hit districts on October 31, 2018, based on ground truthing (a field survey) and various indicators, such as rainfall deficit, reservoir storage, groundwater index, and soil moisture. The average rainfall of Beed in 2018 was 334.70 mm, making water conservation difficult.
The survey report of the 2018 kharif (monsoon crops) season (dated June 28, 2018) showed that drought affected more than 50% of the area under cultivation in all the 11 talukas of Beed. The percent available soil moisture (PASM) values of Beed district have also consistently declined this post-monsoon season--from 20.974 on October 1, 2018 to 0.042 on February 28, 2019. (This index value ranges from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating extreme dry conditions and 100 wet conditions.)
“One of the biggest problems I noticed in the areas is that due to low rainfall, the soil is not getting enough moisture,” said Abhishek Banerjee, a geographic information system researcher and consultant with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
“The deteriorating soil quality, combined with low precipitation, insufficient groundwater recharge, lack of water conservation knowledge, and poor management of available clean surface water have all contributed to the current agricultural and meteorological drought in Maharashtra.”
Without intervention, the problem might result in a hydrological drought (a marked depletion of surface water and groundwater) in the near future, he added.
Migrating to Work in Sugar Factories, Sugarcane Fields
With hardly any agricultural labour opportunities in Dahiwandi, many villagers have begun migrating to work in the sugar factories of Sangli, around 269 km away, or Baramati, 94 km away. They also seek out seasonal jobs as sugarcane cutters in other corners of the state, mostly Solapur, Kolhapur and Ahmednagar.
Shindubai Upekar (40) of Uttamnagar, a village near Dahiwandi, and her husband, Uttam, work in the sugar factories of Baramati and Sangli where they together earn Rs 12,000 a month. The minimum daily wage for men is Rs 300 and women Rs 250.
The family lives in shanties around factory areas when they migrate along with their three children--two daughters and a son. There is no one to care for the children in Dahiwandi so the couple have no option but to take them along.
“We want our children to study and become respected officers in some company or in the government,” said Shindubai. “But every year we must migrate to the sugar factories, so we cannot send them to school. We do not know how they can study to fulfill this dream.”
Shindubai is not educated while her husband has studied upto the fifth standard. When they return home to Dahiwandi they look for construction jobs, working on roads and buildings.
Rekha Babasaheb Gade (26) also takes her two children along when she goes in search of jobs at sugarcane factories. She earns Rs 244 a day to break a ton of sugarcane but there are times when she gets this work only four days a week.
“We are paid in pairs, two sugarcane workers together are paid Rs 12,000-15,000 a month,” said Gade. “Sugar factories are closed between February and April when we come back home.” But life back in Dahiwandi is as tough, if not tougher, than in the sugarcane fields.
‘Wells Dry, Pumps Yield Filthy Water, Tankers Are Our Only Source’
Shindubai walks 5 km everyday from her home and waits in line to collect drinking water from taps. The taps are connected to a community well, among the few with some water, constructed by the Dahiwandi gram panchayat.
There are big drums parked outside every home in Beed and drinking water is sold all over the district through reverse osmosis (RO) plants. A 15-litre jar costs Rs 20, said Harish Daware, deputy general manager, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune-based organisation working on participatory watershed development. “This price will go up as the summer progresses,” he said.
Beed district has five blocks where the water shortage is the worst. Here, 570 tankers supply water to 621 villages, as per official documents provided by the district collector’s office.
The well in Pimpalgaon Dhas village of Patoda taluka has completely dried up. Two government tankers arrive here each day--one from Ukhanda Talaab, around 16 km away, and another from Domri Talaab, 25-30 km away, carrying 13,000 litres per trip. “The population of my village is now almost 2,200, maybe even more,” said Rajpure Baburao, sarpanch of Patoda taluka. “We need the tanker to make one more trip.”
The water from the borewells is dirty, complained Drupada Nana Bahadurgarh (85) of Pimpalgaon Dhas, so everyone depends on water tankers. She used to work in the sugarcane factories till a few years ago and now lives alone in the village. “My sons have completed their higher secondary schooling but could not stay in the village because of lack of opportunities here,” she said. “But they visit me once in a while and send me money regularly.”
Dahiwandi residents too complained that the tankers are not enough to cope with the demands of the village. Sarpanch Sheela Aghav has been demanding more tankers from the district collector. The 2011 census estimated that Dahiwandi village has 325 households with a population of 1,598. In 2019, there are at least 2,500 people in the village, Aghav claimed.
“We have to pump for around an hour to get one handa (a metal vessel) water,” Aghav said. “Two months ago, after we demanded the tanker from the district collector’s office, the first tanker arrived in the village. We are getting 31,000 litres through government tankers but the tankers are being sent based on the 2011 census population. This does not meet our needs.”
There were complaints that tankers were delivering water that is not fit to drink: “We don’t even feel like using it to bathe,” said Mandar Aghav (41).
“Some use it to wash utensils and clothes, but it cannot be used for drinking. So most people I know wake up early in the morning and set out to get water from borewells. Those who don’t own borewells have to ask their neighbours for water. My borewell is at 300 ft deep, and it might last till the end of April but May is going to be a nightmare.”Mandar Aghav (41)
In Nitrud, 17 km from Majalgaon Dam, two tankers make two trips daily to supply drinking water to the village where as per the 2011 census, 6,208 people stay in 1,256 households. The population of the village is almost 9,800 now, said Dutta Dake, farmer and teacher at Maharashtra Vidyalaya at Moha village in Parali taluka.
“Majalgaon taluka has two parts: the villages close to the Godavari have drinking water,” he said. “At least 1-2 % of the farmers in that region have water for their cattle. But 70% of Majalgaon has no drinking water. We have to depend on tankers.”
All major and minor dams of Beed, such as the Majalgaon dam, are all empty, at zero percent, said Mayank Gandhi, chief co-ordinator of Global Parli, an NGO working on rural empowerment in Parli taluka.
Foodgrain is being delivered to these villages as subsidies, but water shortage has hit the people of Beed in ways that this strategy cannot address.
“Till the next rains, expected in July, the urgent requirement is for drinking water to be supplied to the birds, animals and human beings in these 1,403 villages,”Mayank Gandhi
Dutta Kakade, former sarpanch of Ashti, said that his village has been using water from the Kinhi Lake, which will last only for the next 10 days, after which they will need to get tankers from the Sina Kolegaon dam, around 85 km away. However, the Sina Kolegaon Dam is at 0% of its live storage capacity of 76 mcum (million cubic metres), according to Maharashtra Water Resources Department.
The number of villages that tankers will supply water will go up to 1,006 between April and June 2019; Rs 45.82 crore have been sanctioned for this purpose, according to the district collector’s office.
No Rabi Crops This Year
Dahiwandi’s fields have dried up over the last one year. “This year, the yield will be very low because summer started very early,” said Aghav. “You’ll barely see any produce from this region this year.”
Farmers did not plant any rabi (spring) crop in Beed due to water shortage. “The farmers who planted rabi crops have suffered because their crops have all dried up,” said Rajpure Baburao, sarpanch of Patoda taluka.
Yuvraj Uttam Kadale, a 25-year-old farmer, owns about 3 acres of land, where he cultivates cotton, onion, and tur dal (pigeon pea). “I have invested Rs 50,000 a year on both rabi and kharif crops,” he said. “But the entire crop dried up. I received a meagre payout of Rs 3,000-4,000 under the Prime Minister's crop insurance scheme.”
The scheme named Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 and aimed to provide insurance cover to farmers at a premium of 2% for the kharif crop and 1.5% for the rabi crop. In 2018, the PM declared Beed the best district in the country in the implementation of this scheme.
Vishwanath Laxman Kshirsath (49) of Tagar village, Patoda taluka, had spent Rs 40,000 on raising bajra (pearl millet) and cotton on his 5-acre farm. He ran up a debt of Rs 35,000 with the Maharashtra Grameen Bank in Dongarkini. “Even if the crop fails, we must pay labourers,” he said. “Our crops have completely dried up this year, which means that we are going to incur huge losses.”
Around 75% of the crops in Beed have been destroyed due to water shortage, said Pooja More, a social activist of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna, a farmers’ union based in Kolhapur. “Farmers are not benefitting from drought relief compensation schemes, crop insurance schemes, or loan waivers and they are compelled to migrate for work,” she said.
Official reports dated March 18, 2019 listed 117 villages as severely drought-affected in Parli taluka, and Rs 32.39 crore was to be disbursed to 55,077 farmers to compensate for the loss to kharif crop in 2018. Of this, 95.56% has been disbursed to the bank accounts of all the farmers on the list.
But no compensation has been received by the Moha farmers to date, said Vishal Deshmukh, a farmer.
“I have no idea when the compensation will be given, and now with the elections around the corner, I doubt it will happen before they end. But the yield will be next to nothing this year so we will feel the need for compensation.”Vishal Deshmukh
Farmers who have sown water-intensive crops have suffered big losses. “In Moha, the rabi crop has not been sown at all,” Deshmukh said. “Our land is lying fallow. Only 1% of the farmers in Beed have sown the rabi crop--those who have water and live close to the dam. In my village, people grow cotton, jowar (sorghum), bajra, and pulses. Only 0.5% of the farmers in our village are growing sugarcane and they use a lot of water. We would have had drinking water and water for other crops had they not grown sugarcane.”
Cattle Being Sent to Camps
Mandar Aghav has 12 acres of farmland on which he cultivates cotton, jowar, bajra, and chikoos. He has been purchasing water from a private supplier for his crops: four tankers of 5,000 litres last for 8 days. Each tanker of 5,000 litres costs Rs 700. “This year, the cost of farming has gone up considerably,” he said. “We had to buy fodder for our cattle. Since the cattle camp started eight days ago, my cattle are living at the camp.”
One cattle camp has been set up in Shirur to house 1,000 cattle. The one asset that has saved many farmers from distress and forced migration is the cattle, said Chetana Gala Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, an NGO working for the empowerment of rural women in Mhaswad, Satara in western Maharashtra. But each cow or buffalo needs at least 40 litres of water a day and Jersey cows 60 litres.
Ashti taluka has 3,501 small animals and 43,015 large animals, according to the animal census conducted by the district collector’s office. The number of accepted proposals for cattle camps is 277, and 87 cattle camps had started in Ashti on March 18, 2019.
“People who have animals have bought large storage tanks in my village,” said Ambadas Amgashe, a field agent for WOTR, who lives in Dhanora village of Ashti taluka.
All Reservoirs Are Dry, Water Tables Down
Of the 5,264 completed large dams, 2,069 are in Maharashtra, which is the highest number of completed large dams, according to the National Register of Large Dams (updated in 2016). And 285 more are under construction.
At Moha village of Parali taluka in Beed, 40 km from Majalgaon dam, the water table has gone down and the village’s two borewells have dried up. “We were compelled to drill two more borewells as low as 650 ft,” said farmer Vishal Deshmukh. “We are aware that this is not good for the water table, but we simply had no other option.”
The groundwater problems in Marathwada arise from the uncontrolled digging of borewells, said Banerjee. “While we cannot blame the farmers for digging wells to access groundwater, borewells within short distances of each other all directed towards the same aquifer lead to groundwater depletion,” he added.
The provisions of the Maharashtra Groundwater Act, 2009, if implemented effectively, could have controlled the drought crisis, said Eshwer Kale, senior researcher with WOTR. The Act forbids digging wells beyond 60 m (200 ft) and mandates that crop patterns be decided taking into account the water availability in the region.
Marathwada Needs to Rework Crop Planning
The annual average rainfall in Marathwada is 650-700 mm, pointed out Ashwini Kulkarni, scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. The current agrarian crisis is a result of the incorrect crop pattern decisions, especially the cultivation of water-intensive sugarcane, taken without any consideration for the state’s climate data collected over the last 100 years, she said.
Kulkarni, who has researched Marathwada’s drought patterns for her 2016 paper ‘Monsoon variability, the 2015 Marathwada drought and rainfed agriculture’, contends that the low rainfall in the region is a predictable climate variability. “Sugarcane, which has a year-long lifecycle and needs water throughout its growth period as well as when it is cleared after harvesting, has no place in a drought-prone region like Marathwada,” she said.
Despite the cycle of droughts, in 2018-19, the area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra went up by 25%. “There is no place for sugarcane farming in Marathwada and yet it continues on such a large scale and there’s no attempt to review that or control that,” said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an informal network working on issues related to water in India.
Sugarcane factories draw the most number of migrant labourers in summer but this migration impacts the community’s participation in watershed management. “Around 50% of the population migrates to work in the sugarcane industry,” said Harish Daware, deputy general manager, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune-based organisation working on participatory watershed development. “When you are planning community water conservation and management activities, you find that 50% of the population is absent.”
Maharashtra deals with this repeated water crisis even though it has the highest number of big dams in India, he pointed out.
The Maharashtra government launched the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan in 2016 with the aim of making Maharashtra drought-free by 2019. This scheme involves deepening and widening of rivers, digging farm ponds, work on nullahs, and construction of cement and earthen stop dams. “Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, however, is not an environmentally-friendly scheme, because it affects groundwater recharge,” said Thakkar.
State government schemes to alleviate the ongoing agrarian crisis are not working on the ground and a shift in focus is needed, said HM Desarda, member of Maharashtra State Drought Mitigation and Famine Eradication Board, a civil society NGO.
“Changing the crop pattern is essential,” he said. “Even with 300 mm rainfall, or 3 million litres of water, one life-saving crop and basic necessities can be covered if water conservation is planned in a scientific reach-to-valley manner. But the current schemes do not involve the community.”
(Vinaya Kurtkoti and Gunwanti Paraste are Pune-based writers.)
(Published in an arrangement with IndiaSpend.)
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