New Year Postcard-3: Water crisis will define 2016https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/new-year-postcard-3-water-crisis-will-define-2016/

New Year Postcard-3: Water crisis will define 2016

Government cannot bring rain to the farmer. But there are some things it can do

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The village markets are almost all closed across Marathwada. Now, we buy a kg of dal instead of five. We’re cancelling family weddings, postponing expenses. (Source: Illustration by CR Sasikumar)

Dear Prime Minister,

I haven’t had the honour of meeting you but I think there is plenty about me that you will know simply from my name.

I am 65 years old, from Majalgaon in Maharashtra’s Beed district. This is the home district of the late Gopinath Mundeji and the late Pramod Mahajanji. I belong to the Vanjari samaj — like you, I am an OBC. We are a community of several lakh people who live mostly in Marathwada, one of India’s most arid regions. We’re also one of the BJP’s most loyal supporters.

I own 15 acres in Pathrud taluka. I have been a farmer for 15 years, growing sugarcane and cotton. I am not an illiterate farmer with generations of crop losses behind me. I am a graduate who worked for the state transport department before retiring five years ago.

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In the last few years, there has been a complete failure of the monsoon, and unseasonal rains. There are no irrigation canals near my land. The only source of water I have is my well, which ran dry this summer. I sank money into a borewell but even after digging nearly 400 feet, we found no water. For two years now, I have had almost nothing to sell from the fields. This year’s kharif was fully lost. The rabi-jowar looks promising right now, but let my hopes not run ahead of the seasons.

Last year, we had barely any cotton to market. Worse, we had to face a crash in prices: Sugarcane fetched Rs 2,500 a quintal a few years ago; last year, it was Rs 1,500 a quintal. Thus, our income from cotton and sugarcane has fallen drastically while input costs have risen. I now pay Rs 125 a day in labour charges — it used to be Rs 50 a few years ago. The same is true for the cost of seeds, pesticide, manure — everything.

Pradhan mantriji, in the last year, I have incurred a loss of Rs 1.5 lakh on my 15 acres, in addition to the Rs 70,000 I spent on the borewell. I am still better placed than many middle-class families in Marathwada’s villages because I have two sons; one is a dentist and the other is in politics so we are able to absorb these losses, unlike many other poor families.

I was a young man when the severe drought of 1972 hit us. Villagers had nothing to eat then. That nobody is starving to death today is a peculiarity of this year’s drought as well as a small success for the state government. The Annapurna scheme, which supplies foodgrain and essentials for Re 1 or Rs 2 a kilogram, is a huge success. Anybody who finds work earns Rs 100 a day at least so nobody is going hungry, I assure you.

And yet, last year’s drought has been much worse than the one of 1972. Why do I say that?

The village markets are almost all closed across Marathwada. Now, we buy a kg of dal instead of five. We’re cancelling family weddings, postponing expenses. We are all rapidly growing poorer, more dependent on government aid. We are selling our animals and they do not fetch a respectable price any longer. The worse and more immediate crisis is water: Every day is defined by whether or not there is enough water for ourselves and the animals to drink, whether the water tanker has arrived in our village and whether there is some water to store for tomorrow, in case the tanker does not come.

The Jalyukt Shivar programme for water conservation structures initiated by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Rural Development Minister Pankaja Munde are excellent. This is a long-term drought-proof measure that will show results in 2016. Why not enlarge the programme to include every single village?

Modiji, people have begun to talk. They say that your government has taken decisions for everyone — a GST is proposed for traders, toll tax is being slowly done away with for the urban middle class, the big industrialists are being wooed with all manner of sops. What about the poor farmer?

People say Modiji has only opened bank accounts for us. “Achhe din” will come for us only if the government is able to put Rs 5,000-10,000 in each of those bank accounts. We are ardent BJP supporters but honestly, our sentiments have changed in the last year and a half. The sense that the poor are not benefiting is sharp.

The water crisis will define 2016 for us, at least until June, and if the rains fail again, the entire year will be affected. You cannot bring us rains, but there are some things governments can do.

Take a look at our district cooperative banks. In Beed, the cooperative bank is almost defunct. Banks neither have resources to give new loans nor is it easy to access funds when, for example, there is a crop insurance payment. Please resolve the crisis in the cooperative banking system.

Second, farm packages for crop losses must be more transparent and in keeping with real losses. A genuine package is at the top of every farmer’s wish list in Marathwada.

Third, at the district and taluka levels, the government machinery needs to be more responsive. Whether it’s a saat-baaraah extract I need or other permissions, we’re dealing with the same disinterested government employees — the change in government has not percolated to this level.

When the chief minister visited Beed earlier this year, and inaugurated a fodder camp for animals that I helped set up, I made a short speech and told Fadnavisji that the “karz-maafi” demand and the one for a waiver of electricity bills are reasonable. I hope you will address these next year.

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Modiji, Marathwada’s summer makes us a very hardy lot. We will eke out our lives with the bare minimum help from the government. But unless the government exercises some control over agricultural commodity prices and guarantees us a fair minimum price, there is no hope for us.

I wish you a peaceful and successful 2016.

From Marathwada

***Tomorrow: A Bangalore entrepreneur