Surviving India’s drought: ‘People have stopped expecting a decent life’

In Maharashtra – the epicentre of the drought gripping the country – farmers abandon dying crops and people struggle to find enough water to survive
<p>Ploughing in the hope of rain raises clouds of dust in sun-baked Marathwada (Photos: Joydeep Gupta)</p>

Ploughing in the hope of rain raises clouds of dust in sun-baked Marathwada (Photos: Joydeep Gupta)

On June 5, it drizzled for about ten minutes over most of Marathwada in India’s western state of Maharashtra. That made headlines in the local media, because it was the first time since August 17, 2018, that anyone had seen a drop of rain in this region, the epicentre of the drought that is now afflicting almost half of India.

Two days earlier, Sakharam Landge was ploughing his farm near Umarkheda village in Jalna district. It was 42 degrees Celsius in the shade, a hot wind was blowing away the topsoil his tractor churned up, and he was not sure he would be able to sow any crop this summer. “But what else can I do,” he said. “My grandfather, my father, all the elders in the village said we must plough our farms in the first half of June, so that we can sow our Kharif (summer) crop as soon as the rains arrive on June 15.”

A farmer in his early forties, Landge is perfectly aware that the monsoon rains have not been arriving on June 15 in recent years. Of the 18 summer monsoons this millennium in Marathwada – a region where the overwhelming majority of farmers have no irrigation facilities – ten have caused droughts and one a flood. As the monsoon winds bring rainfall from the Arabian Sea to India’s west coast, Marathwada is also in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats – a mountain chain along the coast – and has always been a low rainfall area.

However, it is also home to the famously productive ‘black cotton soil’ of the Deccan Plateau. In a good rainfall year, cotton and soybean – the two staple crops of the region in recent decades – bring enough money to see an average farming family through for the next couple of years as well. But apart from 2016, no one has any recent memory of a good rainfall year in this region with a population of about 18.7 million people, most of whom are farmers.

Impending crisis

Residents say this year’s drought is the worst since 1972, a contention supported by rainfall data. Not only was the 2018 monsoon scanty, it has not rained at all during winter, when farmers do expect a few showers for their Rabi (winter) crops.

The Maharashtra government has calculated that the state’s winter foodgrain output has fallen by 63% compared to the previous winter, output of cereals has fallen by 68%, pulses by 51%, oilseeds 70%, wheat 61%, maize 75% and sesame 92%.

That is not a surprise, says Vijay Anna Borade, head of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Agricultural Science Centre) at Jalna and one of India’s most respected experts in dryland farming. “There has been hardly any sowing, so how do you expect any output?”

Since this has become the new normal, does Borade see any future for dryland farming in Marathwada and Vidharbha in Maharashtra, or in Telangana or northern Karnataka – the vast region in the centre of India where agrarian distress is at its worst?

“I cannot make a prediction,” the scientist responds, “because it depends not only on the amount of rainfall during a monsoon season, but also on the distribution of that rainfall…It does not help the farmer if all that rainfall comes down in a few heavy bursts rather than being evenly spaced out over four months. In fact, such heavy spells of rain harm the plants a lot.”

Climate change

The global collective of climate scientists, the IPCC, has been saying this is exactly one of the main impacts of climate change – fewer rainy days, but heavier rainfall on those days. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) is well aware of the need to predict rainfall distribution more accurately and over smaller areas – it does have a service called Agrimet that provides a five-day rainfall forecast and cropping advisories. But the scientists are also aware that they need more weather stations for higher accuracy, and money is always a problem.

Borade is confident that if the monsoon rainfall in Marathwada is even 80-90% of the long-period average, dryland crops are hardy enough to flourish, as long as the rainfall is evenly spread. Right now, he is doing what every dryland farmer in India is doing, looking at the monsoon forecasts and praying for rain. The 2019 summer monsoon has reached the Indian mainland; but the winds have then stalled, partly due to the formation of a cyclone in the Arabian Sea. IMD has forecast that this year’s monsoon rainfall will be around 96% of the long-period average over India as a whole.

The dry well in Pangri BK village
The dry well in Pangri BK village into which water is poured by a tanker every alternate day – leading to a dangerous skirmish at the lip of the well

The search for water

Like Sakharam Langde, hundreds of thousands of farmers in Marathwada and Vidharbha are ploughing their fields in the hope of a good monsoon. That takes up a couple of hours a day. The rest of the time is spent looking for enough water so that the family and the domestic animals can survive.

The main drinking water well in Umarkheda has gone dry, as in every village in the region. Every alternate day, the district administration sends a tractor towing a 50,000-litre water tanker. That water is poured into the well, and residents scramble to pull it out. Every household has two or three 20-litre vessels attached with ropes, and residents – mostly women and girls – jostle at the lip of the well pulling out the water. The faster you are, the stronger in pushing your neighbours away, the more water you have.

“Within 20 minutes, that well goes totally dry again,” says resident Yashwant Langde.

“I cannot do this,” says Jyoti Bai, a frail woman in her early seventies. “I have to depend on my two granddaughters. They are only eight and ten years old. There is so much pushing and shoving that I’m always afraid they will fall into the well. I’ve heard of such accidents in other villages.” The Maharashtra government has banned this practice of pouring water into wells. But the ban is flouted by its own employees, who say there is no other place where they can pour the water.”

“We get so little water that we can have a bath only about once a week,” says Jyoti Bai, “although you can see how hot it is. It is leading to skin diseases. Look at my granddaughters.” The stick-thin girls are all matted hair and scaly skin.

 Jyoti Bai of Umarkheda village
Jyoti Bai of Umarkheda village (centre, in mauve sari)

“What is to be done,” asks their mother. “There has been no production in the farm. There is no money at home. So their father has gone to Pune to work as a labourer. There is no man in the house. And we don’t get enough water from the well for our two cows. So every day these girls walk over two kilometres around noon to a water point near the road, where they queue up for over an hour. Sometimes they get two vessels of water, sometimes they don’t. When they get it, they have to carry that on their heads in the afternoon heat. When they don’t get it, the cows go thirsty.”

Residents estimate that around 20% of working-age men in each village have migrated. The farmers who have stayed back, like Gajanan Langde, use their bullock carts to fetch water. “Every day, I go two-three kilometres from the village in every direction, to see which water point has any water. Sometimes, the whole day is gone by the time I fill up the vessels in the cart and come home.”

Urban malaise

The story is the same in every village, and no better in the towns. Basavraj Kore, who used to teach Marathi at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad, is proud of the kitchen garden in his Jalna home. Most of the plants survive, due to watering twice a day. “We have had to dig a very deep well and pump up the water. I know it is bad for the water table, but there’s no option. You can’t depend on the municipality – they supply water once in three weeks.”

People in all the towns of Marathwada are in the same predicament. Those living in slums are worse off. In Aurangabad – the big city of the region – 50-60 slum children chased a water tanker sprinkling a freshly laid road with buckets to catch the water as it fell, according to local media reports. Hardly a drop reached the road.

Sanjay Malani, journalist at the Marathi newspaper Prajapatra, thinks people have become inured to drought. “The droughts have gone on for so long that they have stopped expecting anything better. They have stopped expecting a decent life. They try to survive on whatever money they made from the last crop they managed to grow. When that runs out, the men migrate to the cities to work as labourers – this is a poor area and migration has always been high. Most of the high-rise buildings of Mumbai (the state capital and India’s financial capital) have been built by labourers from Marathwada. The women and children left behind spend all their time looking for water.”

Despite the late morning heat, villagers gather to collect water from a well on the road between Jalna and Beed

W(h)ither farm insurance

With a 24-acre farm, Bhushan Rathore of Umarkheda is a big farmer by local standards. In the 2018 summer cropping season, he only got back just over half of the INR 170,000 (USD 2,448) he spent on inputs for his cotton and soybean crops, as his crops were affected by the drought. So he claimed insurance last October. He is still waiting.

So are thousands of other Marathwada farmers, as they sit around their village squares and debate whether they should pay this year’s farm insurance premium, due in July for most of them. Opinion is evenly divided – half say it will be a waste of money they don’t have, because less than 5% of the claims have been paid. The other half says not paying the premium will scupper their only chance of getting any compensation anytime.

Farm insurance premiums are paid personally by each farmer, but crop loss claims are handled collectively for a block or a district. Insurance companies go by government estimates of rainfall and crop loss, and the rainfall is considered for the entire monsoon period, without any consideration of its distribution over time. Unsurprisingly, crop loss estimates of farmers and insurers are far apart.

Yuvraj Bayal of Pangri BK village in Jalna district says he paid a premium of INR 2,500 [USD 36] plus a fee of INR 200 [USD 3] last year, and has got a compensation of INR 3,350 [USD 48]. He sees it as a bitter joke. Dhondi Sonaji Bayal of the same village paid a premium of INR 3,000, and got a claim of INR 3,000. All this is leading to a trust deficit that places the entire scheme in jeopardy.

Fodder stations

In some ways, cattle are faring better than humans in this drought. In Marathwada, the state government has set up fodder stations everywhere. The sugarcane that has been grown in low-lying areas over the last year does not have enough sugar content for the mills to buy them. So they are being sold for fodder, and you can see wagonloads being transported on all the roads all the time.

At the large fodder stations off Nagar Road on the outskirts of district headquarters town Beed, Gholab Mawli and his family have effectively set up camp since the beginning of March, together with their 12 buffaloes. The class 11 student says their 30-litre water tank is filled by the district authorities every day, and they get enough fodder for their buffaloes. It’s all free of cost, and the family of dairy farmers is happy their buffaloes are still producing enough milk for them to sell in town every day.

The cattle are under makeshift shelters built by each family, and each shelter is being guarded by at least one member of the family. In some cases, as with Gholab Mawli, the entire family has virtually moved into the shelter, commuting most days from their home two kilometres away.

Gholab Mawli’s elder brother has two large jerrycans on each side of his motorcycle, and is setting out in search of water for themselves. “The buffaloes are getting water, but we are not. I have to find water somewhere.”

Gholab Mawli’s relatives and cattle at the fodder station on the outskirts of Beed

This is the first in a two part series. Tomorrow: Vineyards of hope amid drought