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Home >Industry >Debt, distress deepen in Marathwada’s parched districts

Parbhani/New Delhi: The intensive care unit at Swati Criticare in Parbhani district of Maharashtra is a modest facility. This is where 35-year-old Nagesh Manikrao Pathe was admitted on the night of 26 August after he tried to hang himself with a rope from a tree on his farm the same evening.

Before tying the noose around his neck, Pathe says, he called up his younger sister. His brother and a neighbour then sped to the farm on a bike, pulled him down, untied the rope and took him to Swati Criticare at the district headquarters, some 40km away.

“Did you visit the field?" he asked when this writer met him two days later at the hospital. Moments later, he gestured to show that the tur (pigeon pea) and cotton stems on his field have grown barely to the size of his index finger because of drought this year; in normal times, they should be two-three feet in height.

This is the third straight year of drought in Parbhani, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, where the monsoon rainfall deficit is as high as 51%, making it the region worst hit by drought. It’s trailed by parts of Karnataka (43%), Telangana (25%), eastern Uttar Pradesh (36%), western Uttar Pradesh (34%), Punjab (34%), Bihar (20%), eastern Madhya Pradesh (21%) and parts of Gujarat (26%).

Vast swathes of India are experiencing a second consecutive year of deficient rainfall in the June-September monsoon season. The monsoon started on a bountiful note this year, encouraging farmers to sow rain-fed kharif crops, but the June showers proved to be deceptive.

The monsoon weakened in the subsequent two months, as predicted by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), which has forecast that monsoon rainfall will be 12% below the long-period average this year. Between 1 June and 1 September, average rainfall nationwide was measured at 637 mm, compared with the normal 721 mm, a deviation of 12%. Last year’s monsoon saw a deficit of 12% too.

Several rain-fed areas are suffering prolonged dry spells and high temperatures, said Ramesh Chand, director of the New Delhi-based National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research.

“Yet, the situation may not be worse than last year in terms of foodgrain production as over 60% of the crop area in the country got normal to excess rainfall so far," Chand said.

The rain deficit this year may not lead to a significant dip in production of rice—mostly grown as an irrigated crop—but can still dent the production of rain-fed crops like pulses, coarse grains, oilseeds and cotton.

Last year’s rainfall deficit, together with unseasonal rains just ahead of the winter harvest in 2015 that damaged standing crops, led to a 4.7% dip in foodgrain production in 2014-15; agricultural growth during the year is estimated at a dismal 0.2%, compared with 3.7% in 2013-14.

If the poor regional distribution of rainfall leads to a drop in foodgrain production from the already lower levels recorded in 2014-15, when production fell by 12 million tonnes, that will portend a real crisis, said Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and a Mint columnist.

Governments haven’t been serious about fixing structural problems besetting agriculture—lack of irrigation facilities, insufficient credit and absence of marketing support are, according to Himanshu, hurting farmers in a country where about 53% of the crop area has no artificial irrigation, making it a regular prey to drought.

“In such a situation, drought is just a trigger deepening the cycle of distress and debt, threatening a systemic collapse," he said.

The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government in July announced a 50,000 crore irrigation package to be spent in the next five years.

But that has brought no relief to farmers like Pathe who did everything to save their crops—replanted their fields and dug borewells with borrowed funds, to no avail. For Pathe, suicide was the last resort.

Pathe has accumulated debt of nearly 7 lakh that he borrowed from local moneylenders (at interest rates of around 5-10% per month). His children’s school fees haven’t been paid and he doesn’t have money to pay for even his family’s daily needs. Last year, his younger brother helped him repay a debt of 2.5 lakh.

“I am more worried that I survived and I have to return to the same land," Pathe, who owns 15 acres of land, said when asked if he regretted trying to end his life.

The signs of distress are all too evident in drought-hit Marathwada. Farmers clearing their fields to prepare for the next crop (sown in early winter) is a common sight. Another failed harvest later, the acute water shortage has meant not enough drinking water, and for cows and buffaloes, a scarcity of fodder.

Khali (empty) and khallas (dead) are the words most used by Manik Kadam, a farmer and activist with the peasant organisation Shetkari Sanghatana.

“They (the state government) tried cloud seeding (to bring rain) and wasted 27 crore. But there are no cattle camps in our area to provide fodder," Kadam pointed out.

Why the delay in declaring a drought and starting relief work? Despite the rain deficit and its painful impact on farmers, neither Maharashtra nor any other state has declared a drought yet.

There is a system in place for estimating damage to crops (known as the paisewari system) that will kick in only by mid-September before relief work begins formally, said Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of eight Marathwada districts.

“But even before a drought is declared we have started relief work. Cattle camps will soon be opened in three districts—Beed, Osmanabad and Latur—and tankers are supplying drinking water," said Dangat.

The unprecedented water shortage has been exacerbated by the fact that 11 major reservoirs in the region have only 7-8% of water left. In parched Latur district, the plan is to supply drinking water by enlisting the railways.

In a situation where drinking water is hard to come by, water for farming is perhaps too much to hope for. In several villages of Parbhani district, people are dependent on the generosity of a handful of borewell owners who are supplying water to households, denying their own crops.

Across Marathwada, many have taken recourse to suicide to escape distress. Nearly 600 farmers in Marathwada have committed suicide between January and August this year, said Dangat. Each bereaved family receives an ex gratia payment of 1 lakh, he claimed.

Balasaheb Narayan Khisti, 25, of Waghala village in Parbhani district, alternated between farming and working as a labourer in Pune. He came back in June to sow the kharif crop on his two acres of land, and after the rains disappeared, spent nearly R 1 lakh on two bore wells in July. Both failed and his crop withered. On 24 July, Khisti doused himself with kerosene inside the one room hut he shared with his younger brother and an ailing mother. He died. All his family received from the district administration is a brand new pesticide sprayer, some pesticide and fertilizer, according to his younger brother Gyaneswar Khisti, who displayed the gifts.

Khisti’s neighbour, 25-year-old Gajanan Ghumbre, shows a list he has prepared. “There are 98 bachelors in my village aged between 25 and 38 years," he said. They have had to stay unmarried because no one, not even a farmer, wants to give his daughter in marriage to another farmer," said Ghumbre.

“It’s too risky a profession. In a situation where we cannot even feed our cows, it isn’t surprising," he said.

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