For years, it was Vidarbha, but now it appears that Marathwada has emerged as the epicentre of agrarian distress in the country. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been over 1,400 farmer suicides — more than three every day — in just this single region comprising eight districts of Maharashtra. There are, no doubt, natural factors behind this extreme agony. The Marathwada region has experienced three monsoon failures — in 2012, 2014 and 2015 — in the last four years. Last year’s was the worst, with an overall rainfall deficit of over 44 per cent during June-December relative to the average for this period.
Moreover, there are still three months to go before the onset of the next monsoon. With water levels in the region’s major reservoirs currently not even at 7 per cent of their full capacity — some like Jayakwadi, Majalgaon and Manjra have already gone totally dry — the worst is still to come.
But it isn’t natural causes alone. Falling crop realisations have been compounding problems for farmers. Indeed, this is probably the first time — in the country and not just Marathwada — when we have had consumer food price inflation not particularly soaring even with two consecutive years of drought. This newspaper has reported how farmers in Marathwada are getting only Rs 15-17 per litre for the milk they are selling to dairies today, compared to Rs 25-27 a year ago. Kapas (raw seed-cotton) is similarly trading now at Rs 4,000-4,200 per quintal, as against the Rs 5,000-5,200 levels at this time in 2013. The fact that the effects of the drought are not being felt in the cities perhaps explains why Maharashtra’s politicians are finding it more urgent to discuss the quantum of punishment for those refusing to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
Marathwada’s woes owe no less to a skewed development strategy that has over-emphasised investments in large irrigation projects which, in turn, have been used for the promotion of water- intensive crops like sugarcane, even in areas receiving very little annual rainfall. Since 2000, several thousand crores have been sunk into projects, including in the hitherto neglected Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, and yet these have hardly led to any increase in Maharashtra’s net irrigated area. What is needed is an alternative strategy that focuses on groundwater recharge and improved water-use efficiency, through construction of check dams, digging of farm ponds and investment in drip/ sprinkler irrigation.
These strategies must be combined with reducing the massive gap between the irrigation potential created by major/ medium projects and the actual utilisation, by ensuring periodic desilting and rationalising water charges to recover operational and maintenance costs. But in the immediate present, taking up MGNREGA works on a war-footing should be the top priority in Marathwada.