In his denims and driving an SUV, his children in a CBSE school in a Tier 3 town, the English-speaking 36-year-old Nathrao Karad does not fit into any of the popular cliches associated with Maharashtra’s drought-hit farmers. In his rented home in Parli in perennially arid Marathwada’s Beed district is a wooden showcase bearing his family’s pride, multiple awards for group farming, modern farming, for promoting technology in farming and, the one he cares about most, the Krishi Bhushan award from Maharashtra state government in 2010.
So it’s a startling contrast when, soon after tales of what he learnt about farming techniques in Europe, he says darkly, “From this month on, I am going in minus.”
That’s his euphemism for a life on credit, savings exhausted after successive years of crop failure. This year’s drought will leave behind tales of unprecedented financial distress in Marathwada, he says, coming cruelly on the back of last year’s hailstorm that destroyed standing crops and the previous year’s acute drought and water scarcity.
According to government data, the final paisewari (a survey system to measure yield per rupee) for the 2014 kharif crop showed all 8,139 kharif villages in Marathwada as having a yield below 50 paise to the rupee, the margin to be declared drought-hit. The corresponding number for the 2012 kharif season was 3,299 drought-hit villages. Alongside, there is another indicator of a coming impoverishment of even once successful agriculturists such as Karad — a forced turn away from their land.
As on February 2, of the 20,77,429 hectares in Marathwada with a rabi crop, sowing has taken place on only 61.25 per cent or 12,72,396 hectares. Parbhani district, where Karad’s farm land is located, has seen only 38.47 per cent rabi sowing. Hingoli and Aurangabad districts fare only marginally better at 58.67 and 49.31 per cent respectively.
A total of 2,839 villages in Marathwada sow rabi crop, and families in these villages who subsist on agriculture are the wariest.
Already, for the 396 rabi villages whose revised paisewari was declared in January, all 396 were found drought-hit. That means a failed kharif and a failed rabi crop, right after two consecutive bad years.
“There is an increasing sense that farming is never going to be successful,” says Nagnath Munde (26), one of the members of Karad’s “group”. Despite investing resources in “every modern method possible here”, from drip irrigation to sprinklers to bio-gas plants to save on energy costs, to nifty negotiations on input costs by farming as a group, the 20-odd members have suffered critical losses this year. While one member cannot afford Rs 10,000 that will cost to clear the withered sugarcane standing on his field and could be sold for only a couple of thousand of rupees as fodder, others have stunted cotton shrubs that will never make it to the market.
“If there is absolutely no water, and no solution to the problem in the foreseeable future, how do we make our work sustainable?” asks Karad, claiming that a second job or business is now an absolute must for Marathwada’s farmers if they must make ends meet.
“Obviously, farmers who cannot get any more credit cannot undertake any more sowing,” he adds, offering a somewhat simplistic analysis of the rabi sowing data.
Everywhere in Beed and Parbhani, officials and villagers alike agree that the dip in rabi sowing is a sign that tens of thousands of farmers no longer find it viable to plough with borrowed money into unyielding fields, that a rapid collapse of the village order is on the anvil in Marathwada at least, which could fuel fresh round of distress migration.
The prognosis is not cheery for Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s stated commitment to making Maharashtra drought-free in the next five years.
Aurangabad and Latur, the two agriculture department divisions that make up Marathwada, will see area under foodgrain (rabi) at 67 per cent and 71 per cent of average; area under cereal (rabi) at 61 per cent and 55 per cent of average, oilseeds at 6 per cent and 15 per cent of average, respectively.
Only sowing of pulses remains promising, at 100 per cent and 110 per cent of average, respectively, continuing Maharashtra’s recent trend of rising area under pulse crops.
Not only is rabi sowing below Marathwada’s average, it’s also seeing a decline since last year. The area under rabi sowing this year in the Latur and Aurangabad agriculture divisions is 12,73,000 ha, down from 19,40,200 ha last year. This bucks the trend for the whole of Maharashtra where rabi crop area rose by 15 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to the state’s Economic Survey, alongside an estimated 2 per cent rise in kharif crop area the same year.
Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner Umakant Dangat, whose previous posting was incidentally as Commissioner for Agriculture, says his own twist to the state government’s Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan to drought proof Maharashtra will focus on sustainable agriculture. Among the solutions he is suggesting are ‘more crop per drop’ through micro-irrigation, decentralised water storage, water budgeting and soil water conservation. “We also need crop planning, an integrated approach to farming, convergence of many initiatives including for example a vegetable cultivation initiative closer to urban clusters, a value chain creation through farmers’ groups and processing initiatives,” Dangat says.
But farmers like Karad are not impressed. He had tried watermelon in 2013, investing Rs 80,000 per acre and reaping handsome profits with output at Rs 2 lakh an acre. “We have tried everything they are suggesting, mulching paper, drip systems, you name it. But where’s the water?