Weeks before hanging himself from a tree on his farm on June 1 this year, Kalyan Khomne, 55, read out a newspaper report to his son Shahdev. “It was about a farmer’s suicide in our taluka,” says 26-year-old Shahdev.
His village, Nandurghat, and the nearby hamlets in Beed district’s Kaij taluka, have seen six farmer suicides in recent months. It tells the story of a state staring at its third drought in four years, the epicentre being the eight districts in the Marathwada region, which has so far reported the country’s highest rainfall deficit in the current monsoon season (June-September), at 52 per cent.
Khomne died without witnessing this year’s kharif sowings, but left behind loans of over Rs 3 lakh. Shahdev spent most of the state’s relief cheque on sowing soyabean and cotton on their two acres, an investment that proved futile: The cotton and soyabean crops across Marathwada are severely stunted due to lack of rains. There has also been damage to soyabean in some parts from pest attacks on account of high humidity.
But it is pulses that will bear the biggest blow. In Parbhani, Osmanabad, Beed and Latur districts, the moong (green gram) and urad (black gram) crops were the first to dry up. Agriculture officers say that sowing and germination was on schedule, but a 45-day dry spell from end-June till the first week of August put paid to vegetative growth. Moong, a 60 to 65-day crop, and urad have both suffered a near-complete washout.
In all, at least 70 per cent of all farmland in Marathwada would register a failed kharif crop this year, reckon state government officials. While the region usually receives an average 780 millimetres of rainfall through the monsoon season, cumulative precipitation until now has been 258.9 mm.
“Sowing was excellent, thanks to the promising rains in June,” says Murlidhar Godke, 65, who farms five acres near Georai in Beed. Data from the state’s agriculture department bears this out. Except for Osmanabad (60 per cent) and Parbhani (83 per cent), the Marathwada region has seen around 95 per cent normal sowing— over 41 lakh hectares, including 5,00,000 hectares each under cotton and soyabean.
Godke himself has diversified into less water-intensive horticulture crops since 2003 and, in more recent years, sericulture. “But even mulberry shrubs need water, though less than cotton. Right now, we’re struggling with the costs of getting even that bare minimum water through tankers,” notes Godke, who, along with 400-odd others farmers in Beed, is set to form the district’s first-ever sericulture cooperative.
Those plans are in tatters now, as their crops wither and cash dries up on the back of consecutive droughts, apart from unseasonal rains and hailstorms. Yet, land-owners here have no choice but to scrape the bottom of the barrel for sustaining agricultural operations. Farmers in Aurangabad or Jalna owning land along the highways may be waiting to sell, hoping for a good price as government agencies, private investors and land sharks come calling in the name of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.
But for the vast majority of Marathwada’s farmers, there is no alternative to cultivating their land for the next three decades or more. Any mention of the government or its plans for Marathwada leaves Godke seething: “All it cares about is keeping the prices of onions and pulses low. Everybody is against the farmer getting a decent price”.
Godke cites his own rising input costs: If papayas fetched Rs 5-6 a kilo in 2003, he gets maybe Rs 7-8 a kilo today. “But labour costs were Rs 15 per person per day in 2003, now it is Rs 150. Fertiliser was Rs 800 a quintal then, now Rs 2,500. And water was always free, now we pay for tankers,” he notes, adding “but when onion prices rise, the government rushes to import, ensuring we don’t get a good price when the new crop comes to the market in October”.
Factoring water as a major input cost is part of Marathwada’s farm-math today. About 20 km outside Ambejogai in Beed, Maruti Shendge and his son Sachin shifted from cotton and soyabean to vegetable cultivation on their land in Adasgaon. A Rs 4 lakh bank loan for a shade-net and drip irrigation system followed, but as the water in their well dried up, an unexpected cost made its way into their calculations— Rs 1,400 for every tanker of water. For their six acres under tomatoes and capsicum, the water requirement in the initial months is about 3,000 litres daily, rising to 25,000 litres at the peak growth stage. “In a normal year, we spend Rs 25,000-30,000 on various costs including water, while earnings are Rs 40,000. This year, earnings will dip to Rs 15,000,” informs Sachin.
Barring Parbhani and Aurangabad, which are served by a thin network of canals, irrigation coverage in much of Marathwada is below 20 per cent. In Beed, only 16 per cent of cropped land is irrigated, while 18 per cent in Jalna, 13 per cent in Nanded and 16 per cent in Osmanabad. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the
Rs 4,845-crore Krishna-Marathwada irrigation project this June. But given the state’s track record on project implementation, any improvement in the region’s irrigation percentages may take years.
Even crop advisories from state agencies and agricultural varsities to tackle extreme weather events appear to have only limited impact. At Ambejogai’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra, senior scientist and soil technology specialist CM Tripathi claims about 25,000 farmers in Beed to be registered with the centre for receiving SMS and voice-message advisories, apart from 400 on WhatsApp. “Yet, in spite of our advisories, there are farmers sowing cotton or soyabean at this stage, encouraged by the mild showers in August,” he says.
Does the current situation owe itself to farmers moving away from subsistence crops such as jowar (sorghum) to soyabean and cotton? B Venkateswarlu, vice-chancellor of the Marathwada Agricultural University at Parbhani, believes it is unfair to blame farmers for the changed cropping patterns, as they only respond to market signals and there is also falling demand for jowar. Besides, while jowar can withstand dry spells, 40-45 days of no rains would wither any crop, including sorghum. “This isn’t a normal year or even a sub-normal year. It is a bad year,” he points out.
His university is advising farmers to go in for an early rabi season, and sowing of safflower on fallow lands. Venkateswarlu also expects acreage under rabi jowar to increase — assuming there are rains in September.
Overall, this has been a catastrophic year for Marathwada, sparing not even crops having some irrigation cover.
By modest estimates, about 30 per cent of the region’s horticulture crop would be lost from this year’s drought. The damage is not less to the 2,30,000 hectares under sugarcane, a significant part of which is irrigated — this time using costly water from tankers. The Maharashtra government is now contemplating disallowing mills in Marathwada to even start crushing operations from next month— since that itself requires water.
In 2014-15, the state spent Rs 4,336 crore on financial assistance for Marathwada’s farmers. That bill could balloon further this year.
More incalculable is the human loss and damage to farmer morale. If 2014 recorded 574 farmer suicides in the region, the tally for 2015 has already touched 628.
As Shahdev says of his father, “They don’t tell their families anything. They just go.” Leaving behind, of course, another year of drought, another destroyed crop, more failed investments and ever larger loans.