Aurangabad: Dattu Narayan Shewale looked at the hailstones that submerged his crop of onion. Wordlessly he returned home and told his wife that their crop had been destroyed. He made a list of all the people he owed money to, largely for the things he had bought for his daughter’s wedding just a fortnight away. He gave her detailed instructions of the clothes she had to buy as a gift for the bridegroom. Then he went to bed.

The next morning, 27 February, he left home without saying goodbye. When he didn’t return, his wife tried his mobile phone but there was no reply. Just outside Borsar village in Aurangabad district, Prakash Jadhav, Dattu’s uncle, saw his scooter parked near an open well. He went closer and saw a single shoe. Then he peeked into the well and saw Dattu’s body.

In her two-room house dominated by a spanking new red-striped cupboard with Dattu Narayan’s name scrawled on the mirror, Lata Shewale sits in a state of shock, flanked by her four children. Her eldest daughter Rohini’s marriage has been postponed but, she says, it will take place, now on 15 April. Nothing in the house that has been bought for the wedding—not the utensils, not the clothes, not the rations, not even the cupboard—has been paid for. The family’s claim for compensation for suicide has been rejected by the administration. But Shewale says she will borrow the estimated 2 lakh for the wedding from her relatives and see that her daughter is married off, just as her husband had desired.

A tragedy revisits

Marathwada is once again at the epicentre of a disaster. After two years of drought, the region had a good monsoon but a freak hailstorm—said to be the worst in Maharashtra’s history—from the end of February to the first week of March has devastated crops. “The losses have been very high in the state but Marathwada is the worst affected," says Jitendra Papalkar, deputy commissioner (revenue), Aurangabad.

Over 17.22 lakh farmers spread over eight lakh hectares have suffered losses in the eight districts that make up Marathwada, according to the collector’s office. The administration has asked for 994 crore to be distributed as compensation to farmers who lost more than half their standing crop. But with election dates set, would the distribution of financial relief be a violation of the model code of conduct? The Election Commission, say administration sources, took its time to decide. Finally, 220 crore arrived for disbursement. Electricity bills for two quarters have also been waived for affected farmers.

For 73 small and marginal farmers who have, like Dattu Narayan, committed suicide throughout the region in the last month it is too late. Fresh reports pour in by the day. In just one day, on 8 April, three suicides were reported: two from Aurangabad district and one from Nanded district. Among the worst affected so far is the district of Beed—where sitting member of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Gopinath Munde is re-contesting—from where 16 suicides have been reported since the hailstorm. Another 11 have been reported from Nanded where former chief minister Ashok Chavan is contesting on a Congress ticket.

The elections seem a far way off in the region, where six of eight constituencies go to the polls on 17 April. “Farmer issues are simply not an issue here where people are struggling with livelihood challenges in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt," says Sudhir Gavhane, head of the journalism department at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad.

“I knew he was very worried because he had taken nearly 2.5 lakh as loans from family members," says his wife, Ushabai Sapkal. “Ever since the hailstorm, he kept worrying about how he would repay the money. He could talk of nothing else."

Only the eldest of Sapkal’s three sons works—in Mumbai as a flower seller. The other two are still studying, but don’t know for how much longer. Sapkal’s middle son, Gopal, says he had to miss his second year B.Com exams because of his father’s death. His college education costs 10,000 a year—a fortune his mother cannot afford. Of the 1 lakh compensation that she has received, 70,000 is tied up in a five-year fixed deposit. “She needs money to pay off his loans. How will this compensation help her?" asks Ganpat.

Ushabai’s relatives are urging her to sell off her husband’s land. She can work as a daily wage labourer, they say. In any case, farming is fraught with risk.

While Aurangabad bursts with new industrial wealth, it is surrounded by acres of parched land on which farmers struggle to grow crops of cotton, jowar, wheat, maize and, more recently, horticultural crops like sweet lime.

Close to 40% of the region is prone to droughts; 85% is non-irrigated, points out a 2006 report on farmer suicides in Marathwada by R.P. Kurulkar, former chairman of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board in Aurangabad. Irrigation was to have been provided by the Jayakwadi Dam, but in the past 15 years the construction of a number of upstream dams has robbed Marathwada of its rightful share of water. Rising seed prices, a shift to more expensive BT seeds that require more pesticide and fertilizer, and the financial collapse of cooperative banks, coupled with small and medium sized land holdings and unremunerative crop prices, have made farming financially unviable.

Sahebrao Pawar, a farmer in Aurangabad’s outskirts, says he has kept his two-acre land fallow. “I didn’t plant a thing," he says. “I work as a labourer in the fields and can earn anything between 100 and 250 a day. It’s not a lot. But at least I can be certain of my income."

Vulnerability factor

Nowhere in Maharashtra is the fragility of existence more keenly felt than in this region that was once a part of the Nizam’s Hyderabad state. Its districts, including Beed, are among the poorest in the country. The 2010 Economic Survey of Maharashtra lists the average annual per capita income of Marathwada at 34,538, as against the state average of 54,867. The region’s districts, including Latur, Nanded, Jalna and Hingoli, are amongst the most backward in the country.

Farming is a question of jugaad, says Tukaram Ganpat Halde, whose 75-year-old father killed himself in Chenegaon in Badnapur taluka on 23 March. “There was nothing left to even feed the animals," he says.

Nationalized banks give loans only to those farmers who can offer collateral, says Nivrutti Ganesh Shewale of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmer’s union. “The poorest farmers, those who need these loans the most, get nothing from the banks." They borrow from relatives but when times are hard, the relatives put pressure to retrieve their loans.

With no access to capital, small and marginal farmers are increasingly resorting to a practice of ‘bonded farming’—they rent land at a going rate of upwards of 35,000 an acre and in return for water, spend on seeds, fertilizer and pesticide. Sales from the crop are then divided equally between tenant and land-owner. But when the crop fails, it is the tenant who bears the entire loss.

Farmer suicides across this harsh swathe are now commonplace. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 1.5 lakh farmers killed themselves between 1999 and 2005. Of these, nearly 90,000 were in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh (including what is now Chhattisgarh). Indebtedness was the reason for 93% of suicides in Maharashtra, finds a July 2008 report by Narendra Jadhav, vice-chancellor of Pune University. The crisis was grave enough for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to announce a special package of 3,750 crore for the Vidarbha, another region of Maharashtra.

Nobody knows what impact, if any, the hailstorm will have on the elections. But nobody is taking any chances. High-profile campaign visitors to the region have included state chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and BJP president Rajnath Singh. On 30 March, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi addressed a massive rally in Nanded where the local BJP candidate D.B. Patil has ended a brief flirtation with the Nationalist Congress Party to return to the party.

Right now, with relief just beginning to trickle in, there is panic among the farming community throughout Marathwada, says Baburao Golde, Jalna district chairperson of the Shetkari Sanghatana. “Nobody knows how much relief they will get and the banks have already started sending notices for recovery of their crop loans. Every day there is news of somebody killing himself."

In Marathwada, you could say, death is just another way of life.

Mint’s Shamal Ingle contributed to this story.

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