Latur’s thirst for change

One that stands: Malan Sambhaji Raut’s organic farm — bursting with fruit and vegetables — stands out in the midst of miles of sad, brown fields

The extended drought in parts of Maharashtra has resulted in loss of agricultural livelihoods and a severe water crisis. Some farmers in the worst-affected areas around Latur district have moved to sustainable community initiatives to survive

The village priests have been chanting all day, all week. The rain god, so far, has been impervious to the prayers that resonate from the temple at Nagarsodha. Latur taluka is still dry.

A pleasant breeze blows, but the villagers are not happy. The breeze means the rain clouds are travelling further west. It has not rained in Latur in southeast Maharashtra since December 2017. There is no water to irrigate the bare fields, and the men are home.

Yet, just half a kilometre from the temple, Malan Sambhaji Raut (29) is all smiles. She stands — resplendent in her red sari — in the middle of her field, a two-and-a-half acre lush green plot. The peanut plants blend in with the violet sesame flowers, followed by rows of green chilli plants and bordered with okra. Small, rotund eggplants peep out between the foliage. The two-year-old fruit orchard is behind her; orange, papaya and banana trees bearing fruit stand in neat rows, while custard apples grow here and there.

Raut’s organic farm — bursting with fruit and vegetables — stands out in the midst of the sad, brown fields spreading for kilometres on end.

All of Marathwada has been suffering from a prolonged drought, even as its neighbouring areas in the Western Ghats and the coast continue to receive heavy rainfall. The districts of Aurangabad, Latur, Beed, Osmanabad and Nanded in Marathwada are thirsting for water. Farmers in Latur, a district known for one of the biggest grain markets in India, have been waiting for rain for the last two months to sow the kharif crop.

There is bad news all around. Sugar cane factories have stopped operations, as the reserve supplies of the crop have also run out. The Manjra Dam, which dried up in 2016 for the first time since it was built in 1981, is dry again. Rains had provided some relief in 2017, but the prolonged drought this year has choked the water supply in Latur city. The city gets water supply once every 10 or 12 days; some households have not received water for three weeks at a stretch. Affected villages have been buying water from private tankers, or getting a thin supply from private borewells.

Cracked open: The district has received only 17 per cent of rainfall this year, making it the worst scenario in the last 50 years. The nearby Manjra Dam is dry   -  The Hindu

 

“The district has received only 17 per cent of rainfall this year, the worst scenario in the last 50 years. Last year, we had received 60 per cent rain overall,” says district collector G Shreekanth.

What then accounts for Raut’s success story? Behind those verdant crops is the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a Pune-based NGO that works on community-based sustainable development with women entrepreneurs. It has been active in Latur from 1993, after a deadly earthquake killed 10,000 people in this region. Vikas Kamble, its project manager, said the motto of the organisation is to see opportunity in every disaster — after the quake, for instance, people were looking for ways to build back their livelihoods.

In other parts of the district, the story is dismal. Farmers have been taking their own lives in Maharashtra mainly due to financial desperation, he points out. But that, Kamble holds, comes out of short-sighted farming practices — the use of chemical fertilisers that destroy the soil, focusing on cash crops and credit to buy seeds, pesticides and fertilisers that pushes them into a debt cycle.

“We work with women farmers to encourage organic farming, that can also be zero budget. We also encourage them to take up farming-affiliated businesses such as goat rearing and poultry farming so that they may have multiple sources of income,” he says. “By making seeds and fertilisers from organic sources and making use of farm waste they end up enriching the soil and saving money at the same time.”

Self-reliance: Women have found financial freedom and empowerment by organising themselves into groups and switching to organic methods

 

In 2017, in a first for Indian organisations, the SSP won the prestigious Equator Prize awarded by the United Nations (UN) for exceptional work in indigenous communities. “It empowers 72,000 women in the drought-prone state of Maharashtra to act as agricultural decision-makers, improving their health, food security, and economic well-being,” the UN states.

The SSP recently introduced a one-acre farming model for women farmers. They are asked to plan ahead and plant what they would require in a year. This, in turn, ensures food security in adverse situations.

“Women are the most stressed during drought conditions, when they might curtail their nutrition intake, for instance,” says Lalita Yadav, programme manager for SSP. She points out that many farmers wanted to sell their animals at a loss because they could not afford to feed them. The SSP has introduced the women to hydroponic farming — farming in recycled water, without soil — and cultivation of azolla — ferns that can be fed to cattle.

“Those who have cattle and do dairy farming have taken to these methods since the fat content in milk increases with such nutrient-rich feed. Women who have access to water are given loans to switch to sustainable irrigation such as drip irrigation and sprinklers. Women partners have been trained to produce their own organic fertiliser, such as vermicompost. We have designed different innovative financial loans, and given them to 500 women in Latur, and more in other districts such as Osmanabad, to help women deal with the drought,” she says.

Women are organised in groups of 10, and the SSP helps them take loans from banks to set up supplementary businesses. Each woman contributes ₹10,000 to the group, and the money is then put to use for collective gain. The group that each woman is a part of stands guarantor and monitors the utilisation of the funds. Yadav says that the women are so dedicated that no one has so far defaulted on a loan.

Two of these groups, called Durga and Om bachat gath (saving group), have bought tractors which they rent out to farmers. They plan to train landless farm widows to till the land using the tractors.

Kamble points out that even a small farmer invests at least ₹25,000-30,000 in their farms. “If it doesn’t rain, they borrow money at a very high monthly interest rate of 10 per cent. Internal lending through groups brings this dependency down. The groups collectively have ₹2-3 lakh, and the surplus is lent to people outside the group. It is easier to get loans from banks as well, because there is an assurance that the group won’t default.”

A tiny oasis

But the women’s farms are only just one drop in the dry stretch that is now Latur. Even the city, the administrative capital of both the district and taluka, looks bare and worn. Once the constituency of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, Latur looks deserted. Though still known for its engineering and medical colleges, there is no activity that you associate with an educational hub.

Shreekanth lists all that the administration has done to fight the drought. “We have done water conservation works — naalas (drains) have been widened, ponds desilted, continuous trench work is being carried out wherever there is a proper gradient for groundwater seepage. But all this is of no use if we don’t receive rain. There is no flow in small or big channels; dams are dry and there is a further degradation in groundwater.”

Latur received its first water train — an express carrying water — in 2016. “If the situation remains the same, we may have to bring one again. As of today, we have commissioned 108 tankers and requisitioned for private wells and borewells,” he says.

Clearly, the measures are not enough. Residents of Jauwadi village sit in silence during the village council meeting. After the old village was destroyed in the earthquake, the villagers were relocated. The new village is rockier, as a result of which water runs off even when it rains.

“We have had no water here since Diwali. The open well that supplied water to the entire village has run dry. Even those with private borewells have no water,” says Saleema Sayyed, one of the residents.

Dilip Dhawan, field coordinator for SSP, points out that during some of the worst droughts that the region faced more than 35 years ago, people had to survive on corn flour mixed with jaggery and water. “There was nothing to eat. However, there was water. Now, people have access to food grains thanks to the public distribution system, but no water.”

The farmer’s rush for cash crops such as oilseeds, bananas and sugar cane have contributed to the financial ruin because of uncertain returns and high water consumption. “There is no water even when you dig 800 ft deep nowadays. Wells that are 50-70 ft deep have gone permanently dry. The irrigation department has been working together with the farmers and a special committee has been constituted for water conservation, but so far, it has not yielded results,” Dhawan says.

In vain: The farmer’s rush for cash crops such as oilseeds, bananas and sugar cane has contributed to the financial ruin because of uncertain returns

 

Life here is becoming more and more difficult. Landless labourers and farmers have migrated to cities such as Mumbai and Pune. Farmers find it hard to pay their children’s school fees. There are increasing cases of thefts in the region. And their cattle are in a pitiable condition.

“My neighbour’s goat was so hungry that it cut its neck on the rope it was tied to, trying to escape to get some food,” says villager Ushawarth Bhagwat Chowdhury.

Villager Chhayakamla Suresh talks about families foregoing baths, or not washing clothes. “What can you do when there is no water? The amount of water you need for a bath is what you need to go to the toilet. If you bathe, then you would have to wash clothes.”

News of villagers spending sleepless nights in search of drinking water is not new in Latur. Anjali Masurkar from Nagarsodha says, “People queue up through the night to get water. Some even sleep wherever they’re in the queue waiting for water supply. If they get late, or the line is closed, they have to walk several kilometres to get their two ghadas of water and that has to last the entire day.” Adds Kamble, “Old folks would reprimand us earlier by saying, don’t spend money as if it were water. For us, now, water is more precious than money.”

But there are little oases in the midst of all the gloom. Halgara, a village in Latur district, is tanker-free, thanks to an initiative by a US-based engineer who belongs to the village. Datta Patil spent the last three years working on building watershed management infrastructures such as desilting 20 km of canals, building three new gabion check dams, repairing 10 old cement check dams, covering 1,500 hectares of land with compartment bunds and planting 10,000 trees.

Making a difference: US-based engineer Datta Patil spent the last three years working on building watershed management infrastructures in Halgara

 

The work was done at a fraction of the initial estimated cost by the government. Several corporate companies helped fund the project, with Yahoo Inc alone contributing ₹22 lakh from its corporate social responsibility fund; today the work has reached over 23 villages, according to Patil. His efforts have saved 200 crore litres of water in the village. “The village received good rain in 2016 and 2017 — and newly created structures helped save water. A few farmers saw a three time increase in the yield. Newly dug borewells found water at 150-200 ft. Since 2018, farmers have not been able to use water from these structures because of lack of rain. Currently, the water situation is not great, but not as bad as 2014-15,” he says.

Halgara was also helped by the Paani Foundation, set up by actor Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao. The foundation has been working on water conservation awareness in Maharashtra since 2016 and holds an annual Water Cup challenge, where villages are given training in water conservation. The best project is awarded prize money based on parameters such as the amount of water saved and the number of participants who did shramdaan (physical labour) or worked on the project. This year, some 5,000 villages and 76 talukas participated in the challenge. The Water Cup challenge had, in 2018, built up infrastructure that can hold up to 22,269 crore litres of water. This work was completed in 45 days after it began in April, the Foundation states on YouTube.

Way ahead

Some experts, however, believe water harvesting is not the only way forward in these drought-hit times. What is needed are methods that promote farming with less water, and projects that supplement incomes and afforestation.

Women such as Raut of Nagarsodha have managed to do that. Three years ago, her family stared at doom, with dry fields and little income. That was when, with some help from the SSP, she went to Anandapuram in Andhra Pradesh to train in organic farming. She mulched her field — a method for preventing erosion and evaporation in the soil. In 2016, she successfully grew chillies. “Even though they didn’t get water for three months, my chillies came out green,” she says.

For her crops, Sital Pawar of Ghatgaon used seed treatment, a method that needs little water. When her gram panchayat refused to resolve the critical fodder shortage in Ghatgaon, she used a loan from her self-help group and averted the crisis. Anuradha Khowde, from Kasargheda, says 120 women farmers in her village are using the one-acre model of organic farming for food security.

The Rauts have their own seed banks (method of preparing and storing seeds), updated every year. Besides the farm, she rears two varieties of indigenous chicken, and has a goat and a flock of quails to supplement the family income. She prepares vermicompost with field waste, using it as an organic fertiliser as well as selling it for ₹400 a kilo. The sale of vegetables from her field gives her another ₹1,000-1,500 per day from November to March. She also works as a trainer with the SSP, sharing her knowledge with other women in the villages.

The family is eating better, and is healthier. Earlier, on an average, they would visit a doctor three or four times a month; now they go once a year. The Rauts are also building a pucca house.

The village women point out that the best part about the drought is that it has given them not just other sources of income, but a sense of purpose and respect.

“When I left my house for the first time (for training), my father-in-law told me not to come back,” Raut recalls. “Now he wants me to go out into the world for the benefit of the household. No one asks us to stay quiet anymore. No one questions us if we go to the gram sabha; we are the ones who ask questions now.”

Published on August 02, 2019

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