Problem of little and plenty

Bhavya Dore | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Bottom of the pot: Unpredictable weather and crop yields have long dogged farmers in Beed, one of Maharashtra’s dry interior regions. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Bottom of the pot: Unpredictable weather and crop yields have long dogged farmers in Beed, one of Maharashtra’s dry interior regions. Photo: Vivek Bendre   -  The Hindu

Reserve of hope: There is now enough water in the vicinity of the Bindusara dam near Beed town. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Reserve of hope: There is now enough water in the vicinity of the Bindusara dam near Beed town. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Narsingh Hirve’s eight-acre crop was badly damaged due to flooding this kharif season. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Narsingh Hirve’s eight-acre crop was badly damaged due to flooding this kharif season. Photo: Bhavya Dore

After four devastating years of drought and farmer suicides, Beed’s elation at this year’s heavy rainfall soon turned into despair over damaged crops and financial losses

The smell of spoilt bajra is unpleasant. The taste is not much better. And yet, for two weeks, as the hauls of bajra filled up his property, that’s all that Usman Khan and his wife ate.

When rains lashed Khan’s village in late September, arid fields turned into lush plantations. But, soon, the non-stop rain proved to be too much of a good thing — the bajra crop in his 2.5-acre field in Beed district’s Karjani village was severely damaged.

“For years it hadn’t rained,” said Khan, as he sipped tea by the roadside, “But when it kept raining this time, we grew worried.”

They managed to sell the crop for half the usual price. But until then, they’d had to wash the blackened millet and hold their noses while eating the bajra roti for every meal.

Beed district is one of Maharashtra’s dry interior regions, where uncertain crop yields and weather patterns have led to many farmer suicides. Early last year, Marathwada — which comprises Beed and seven other water-scarce districts — saw more farmer suicides than Vidarbha, long considered the worst-hit region. “Nothing was growing, for three years people suffered,” said Khan. His brother was among those who had taken their own life, wracked by a mounting debt. Khan himself has to repay a bank loan of ₹50,000.

Drought has become virtually synonymous with Beed and its neighbouring dry districts, so no one was expecting this season’s flooding. When dams that hadn’t seen decent water levels in years overflowed, there was rejoicing at first. But the rains ended up extracting a severe price in an already distressed region.

Not far from here, in Dhanora village, Masu Mengde lost his entire crop of cotton and bajra, valued at more than ₹40,000. He, too, was reduced to eating rotten bajra, he said.

The six other farmers sitting with him nodded as he spoke, cringing as they remembered the taste of a failed harvest. Their crop had suffered a similar fate. “We are all from different villages,” said Bhimrao Shilke, 65, “but the story is one and the same.”

This is a long season of suffering, not just from poor-quality bajra but also poorer returns. “Even the bulls wouldn’t eat it,” said Ankush Dudhal, 43, a farmer from Shirur Kasar taluka. “Who will harvest such fields?” Dudhal torched his four-acre field when the yield failed. “We got rid of it then and there.”

The Indian Meteorological Department had predicted a good monsoon rain for Beed this year, and officials were expecting at least 666 mm, which is the annual district average.

The season began well, with the rains in June promising a bountiful crop. “After so many failed seasons, we had been hopeful,” said Dudhal.

Mid-season, the fields were verdant, the farmers readying for the harvest. By the end of July the district had reached 50 per cent of its rainfall. “It was on its way, and we had been waiting,” he said. “And then we kept waiting for it to stop.” He looks crestfallen that he hasn’t able to save a single penny this year.

Still, the situation is better today compared to what it was for roughly half a decade now. Of the 7.98 lakh hectares in Beed, a little over four lakh hectares have reported a loss, according to the district collectorate. In the two preceding years, it had reported 70-80 per cent losses for the main crops, said the district collector Naval Kishor Ram.

While soya bean was the worst-affected, the impact on cotton and other crops had been less severe. Soya bean, cotton and bajra are mainly cropped in the kharif season; sown around June at the start of the monsoon and reaped by October.

In Shivaji Khande’s three-acre field, the soya bean yield fell from the usual 20 quintals to just one. For cotton it was down from eight quintals to two. His expenses this farming season: ₹25,000; his earnings: ₹2,200. A bank loan of ₹60,000 taken three years ago is still outstanding. “I haven’t been able to pay back anything,” Khande said.

The average rainfall in Beed in September is 170 mm, but this year it crossed 300 mm. The district has sought a compensation of ₹250.7 crore under a scheme for losses from flooding, drought or other natural calamities.

The villages near rivers or lakes were naturally the worst-affected. Not far from Majalgaon town, the site of the district’s most important dam, Narsingh Hirve, 40, and his wife Ashalata, 36, are pottering around their eight-acre field in the hot sun, plucking out weeds from the rows of jowar and wheat.

This taluka alone received 1,025 mm rainfall this year, far above the annual average of 740 mm and well beyond the 2015 level of 395 mm, according to the tehsildar’s record.

“It reached right up to here,” said Ashalata, gesturing towards her calves. “And it flooded our homes.” They had no choice but to bear it with stoicism. “What else can you do?” asked Narsingh. This year they spent ₹1 lakh on their farm, but got back only ₹80,000. “It decreases every year,” he said. He pointed to his home in the distance. “Cotton is simply piling up because no one has currency notes to buy it.”

Unready cash

Adding to the drought and flooding woes is the cash crunch brought on by demonetisation. Cotton farmers queued up outside banks to deposit cheques received for sale of cotton. From ₹5,000 per quintal last year, the selling price has dropped to ₹4,000 per quintal. “Every year there is some problem,” said Nakul Aute, 30, from Georai village.

Bharat Jogdand has spent ₹30 to travel 5 km from his village to deposit a cheque. But there are no notes available for withdrawals.

“There is water, but no money,” said Jogdand, 65. “Has the time come to die of hunger? How can we pay labourers?” he asked.

The availability of water, however, is no small cheer in a district emerging from consecutive drought years. Now there is a steady supply of drinking water. “Groundwater has increased sufficiently,” said NG Jhampalwad, the tehsildar of Majalgaon taluka.

But that alone won’t suffice. The electricity needed to pump it into the fields isn’t always available. Given the vagaries of load-shedding, power often comes on at night. “If we have one, we don’t have the other,” said Dudhal. When the power supply halts midway, he must wait for it to resume. Or, if it’s too late in the night, go back to sleep and return to the field later. Acknowledging the crisis in power supply, Ram said he was hopeful the situation will ease by March 2017.

Although 2013 saw decent rains, it was sandwiched between the droughts of 2012, 2014 and 2015. Overall, say farmers, yields have fallen. Many continue to depend on other ways to supplement their income: mostly through wage labour in construction. “Otherwise there’s not enough to feed a family of 10,” said Asaram Thorat, 70, sitting amidst mounds of building material.

Water mark

About 70 km from Beed town, at the Majalgaon dam — the largest of the State’s 11 dams — Mahesh Kamble, the subdivisional magistrate, surveys the plenitude of water towards his right. This is a rewarding vantage point and an unusual luxury. Atop the dam, he points towards the gates on the underside, explaining how these were opened for the first time in six years this season.

Water was at “dead storage” — the level below which it cannot be drained naturally — at 45 million cubic metres (MCM) early during the monsoon. By September 26, it had reached full capacity of 16 thousand million cubic metres (TMC). “This is the region’s main dam,” said Kamble, whose jurisdiction includes Majalgaon and two other talukas. “All development depends on this dam.”

In the coming seasons, this will matter more than anything else. Despite a washed-out kharif season and losses for farmers, there is enough water for the next three years, said Kamble. “In the times to come,” said Kamble, with a smile, “achhe din aayenge (happy days are ahead).”

Rabi sowing began before demonetisation was announced, which means the season likely won’t be affected by the cash crunch. The fields have been sowed with jowar, chana and wheat. And a helping of cautious optimism. “The coming season will be good,” said Khan. “For now, we can only hope.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on December 30, 2016
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