FRAMED by the dusty skeletons of nearly 400 sweet lime trees standing on his farmland outside Rohilagad village, Vilas Takle, 40, admits he stopped watering them late last year. With nearly 30 acres, Takle is a large cotton farmer in Maharashtra’s Jalna district, and owns 550 sweet lime trees and 1,150 pomegranate trees. After a very poor monsoon, as water scarcity hit large swathes of Marathwada as early as December 2018, Takle and thousands of others had no choice but to abandon a section of their orchards.
“There’s a local fable about a monkey and her child crossing a river. She carries her child on her head up to a point. Eventually, she uses the baby monkey as a stepping stone — she reasons that if she’s alive, she could have another baby some day,” says Prahlad Patil, helping Takle explain his cruel choices this year. In 2004, Takle purchased water tankers that came a distance of 20 km to water his trees. But this year’s cotton crop in Rohilagad failed too, at barely 30 per cent of average yield. Takle says, “Around here, if you don’t have money, you cannot have water. That’s the new reality.”
Rohilagad is located in Jalna district’s Ambad taluka, one of India’s sweet lime hubs, where scores of hectares are now occupied by these ghost trees, waiting to be hacked down for firewood. Hundreds of cultivators have taken usurious loans to purchase water that will keep some trees alive for another season.
Every day in these parts, they discuss a slow impoverishment that is setting in among the big farmers: Babasaheb Khandelbharad, Rohilagad’s first pomegranate cultivator who owns 2,500 trees, has taken a Rs 2.5 lakh loan. At 15 tankers daily, his expenses on watering his trees are Rs 9,000 a day. “And there’s no guarantee of results — water could run out by month-end, or money could, and I’ll have neither pomegranates next year nor anything else left,” he says.
Large parts of the country are currently facing drought-like conditions. Researchers at IIT Gandhinagar working on a drought early warning system peg it at over 41 per cent of the country. At the heart of this distress are the voters of Marathwada, eight districts of central Maharashtra experiencing their fourth drought since 2012-13, their despair compounded by periods of good crop that fetched rock bottom prices.
This year’s drought is not total, and there are expanses of green dotting the barren landscape in all districts, a sugarcane or jowar crop only slightly wilted around water bodies that are still flush. But in other parts, the result of another failed monsoon on the back of years of poor or no income are calamitous. Not surprisingly, across the harsh expanse of a summer in Marathwada and its eight Lok Sabha constituencies, temperatures rise quickly when the conversation veers to polls, the Rs 34,000-crore farm loan waiver announced by the state government that left out thousands of applicants, the continuing disappointment with crop insurance and, above all, the ever wider and deeper search for water.
Outside Rohilagad, Vishnu Ganpat Patil is idling away the afternoon on his two-acre farm. “The khaasdaar (parliamentarian) came here by chopper two years ago, just days before the zila parishad elections. After that we’ve never seen him,” says Ganpat Patil.
He’s talking about the BJP Maharashtra president and sitting Jalna MP, Raosaheb Danve, who is seeking a fifth term. Ganpat Patil’s total yield this year was 3 quintals of cotton, down from an average of 15 quintals per acre. He owns a total of 5.5 acres with his wife, so he missed the eligibility bracket for the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Yojana, under which small and marginal farmers are paid Rs 6,000 per annum in three instalments.
Others in Rohilagad received the Rs 2,000 first instalment of the scheme, he says with a dark laugh, his tobacco-stained teeth flashing yellow against a weather-burnt face. Despite his anger, Patil is still a BJP voter. “Not just me, but many in our area don’t have the heart to vote for these BJP candidates — some would lose even a municipal election. But we’re going to end up voting for them, because we need Modi at the Centre.”
Rohilagad’s Baliram Vaidya is ‘sarpanch-pati’, the woman sarpanch’s husband and functioning in her stead. He belongs to the BJP. “The party has done work, we have paver blocks outside our temple, a drinking water scheme, road works are underway,” he says.
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Everyone in this village agrees that the BJP will do well, though their vote is only for the Prime Minister and, in Takle’s words, “his work to protect Hindus and defeat Pakistan”.
On the outskirts of Chakur in Latur, Anjana Suryavanshi, 26, and her parents visiting from Ahmadpur are filling water at a street-side hand pump. “A tanker comes once a week or so, is it possible to survive on that?” asks Anjana angrily, taking a break from heaving the handle of the pump. It takes an hour to fill a pot as water trickles out slowly, so the women sometimes try their luck past midnight, braving stray dogs and drunk men. Ask Anjana and her daily-wager mother Kashibai Mudgude to make one wish from the government, and they say they want a water supply tap at their doorstep.
In 2019, barely 30 km out of Latur, the water collection chore is still one that dictates their day. Nobody in this group is sure of whom to vote for, but the women are stoutly behind their Prime Minister.
According to information from the divisional commissioner’s office in Aurangabad, as of March 26, as many as 1,978 tankers were doing the rounds of 1,455 villages and 501 hamlets, the number rising every couple of days, anticipated to touch 3,000 tankers by the time May rolls around.
As dams in Marathwada, including Majalgaon, Manjara, Sina Kolegaon and Siddheshwar, run dry, bore wells that cost upward of Rs 20,000, dug to depths of 400-500 feet, run dry too. Mudgude and Suryavanshi’s daily wages have dipped in the past three years, when work is available, but it is the water scarcity that terrifies them.
The scarcity, and farm distress, are at the centre of the Congress-NCP’s campaign in Marathwada. At a public meeting, Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan, who is seeking re-election from the Nanded Lok Sabha seat — one of only two the Congress won in Maharashtra in 2014 — spoke of a farmer in a neighbouring district who reportedly built his own funeral pyre, lit it and climbed on.
In Parbhani, former zila parishad president Rajesh Vitekar of the NCP visited nearly 400 villages over six months to discuss farmers’ resentment on the current regime’s agrarian policies. In Beed, even novice campaigner Akshay Mundada, son of late Maharashtra minister Vimaltai Mundada, is exhorting voters to vote in the “son of a farmer”, Bajrang Sonawane of the NCP, who’s pitted against Pritam Munde, the late Gopinath Munde’s daughter. Pritam won a by-election after her father’s death in 2014 with an all-India record margin, bettering Modi’s Vadodara margin too. In Jalna, Hingoli, Aurangabad and Osmanabad, Congress-NCP candidates are invoking former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s superior understanding of farm policy.
It is no secret that the Shiv Sena-BJP is doing precisely the opposite. Of the 151 talukas declared drought hit this year, 41 are in Marathwada. But Rohilagad’s bitter harvest, Marathwada’s 80,000 hectares of damaged orchards, the bone dry bore wells, the loan waiver that left out thousands — none of this finds a mention in the ruling combine’s election campaign here.
“This is a national election,” Sena MLA Rahul Patil tells The Sunday Express during a break from campaigning for Parbhani’s two-term Sena MP Sanjay Jadhav. “The issues that people are voting for are national security, Pulwama, India’s response to it, Modiji’s air strikes.” Patil was in the news last in 2016 when he claimed in the Maharashtra Assembly that 100 youth from Marathwada were missing and believed to have joined the ISIS.
Two hundred kilometres away in Aurangabad, Patil’s thoughts on this season’s electoral issues are echoed by BJP district chief Kishanchand Tanwani. “He deshachi nivadnuk aahe (This is a national election),” he says. “Local issues would not be relevant here. The issues are the strengthening of the nation, the policy on India-Pakistan and overall progress of the country.”
Incredibly, despite extensive anger against the state government for its inability to resuscitate Marathwada’s rural economy, the Sena-BJP campaigners’ line finds resonance in all eight Lok Sabha constituencies here.
In Moregaon, in Parbhani’s Selu taluka, Sandeep Khandagle, 36, has just returned from a 12-km ride on his bullock-cart to bring back large cans of water for the animals and for his stunted cotton crop. Two years ago, inspired by the state government’s ‘more crop per drop’ mission, he spent Rs 2 lakh on a drip irrigation system. His average yield used to be 21 quintals per acre. His 12 acres will fetch him 36 quintals in total this year.
In neighbouring Borkini, villagers complain that farm electricity lines were disconnected over outstanding bills. Amid drought relief works, the state usually announces non-disconnection of power lines to farms. “There isn’t even a drinking water line in the village, no scheme for water, insurance payouts from previous years didn’t come, water tankers haven’t started in our village yet. Most of all, I wish they would start a fodder camp, at least the animals can be taken care of then,” he says.
Khandagle and his friends don’t want to talk about who they will vote for, but their WhatsApp groups are abuzz with talk of Modi’s muscular foreign policy. “There’s anyway the Assembly election coming up later in 2019 to display our anger on not getting a full loan waiver,” says a farmer from Borkini.
Brewing in the water scarcity are hundreds of local disputes. Latur’s Jalkot taluka, where average ground water levels have gone down by an alarming 3.2 metres, is usually a picturesque region, surrounded by the Balaghat mountains. Today, the little Jalkot town is covered with dust as particles of the bone dry earth fly around in the heat.
In the 350 homes of Umardara village, almost everybody has a bore well, but only seven are now functional. Last week, a villager dug a 400-foot-deep well, eventually finding only an inch of water. The village has a single source of water for all its needs, including drinking, washing, and for the animals — the Nandanshivani lake on the border with Nanded, which has all but dried up. Even amid a dispute between Umardara and the villagers on the Nanded side of the lake, sarpanch Omprakash Gutte says supply by government water tankers is yet to start.
Khandagle’s plea for a fodder camp is repeated in village after village, taluka after taluka. While the state administration kicked off this drought’s fodder camps in Beed and Osmanabad where livestock numbers are large and water sources are drying up, there is resentment in the remaining six districts. “Not even one in other districts. How’s that logical?” says Khandagle of the fodder camps, easily the most visible state-sponsored drought mitigation measure.
Beed is home to the powerful Gopinath Munde family. With over 12 lakh cattle, the district has Marathwada’s largest livestock population. As of March 28, a government nod was received for 837 fodder camps in the district, of which 496 are operational and home to 2,84,976 animals already, with two months of summer still to come.
Beed’s fodder camps are little congregations of defeated farmers corralling their animals under green shade-nets, everybody intoning that at least there’s food and water for the animals, the only source of livelihood in the absence of a rabi crop or any work.
“I have to get my household chores completed early, then get back here at 6 am to milk the cows,” says Sunita Gaikwad, 30, at a fodder camp in Nandurghat, Kaij taluka. She spends all day at the camp, trying to keep her three kids in the shade of a sari stretched taut overhead. The morning meal, packed in a steel box, sometimes spoils in the heat. But she doesn’t have the choice of returning home — a landless couple, her husband sells brooms for a living in a market 15 km away. At
Rs 20-22 a litre, she makes about Rs 120 a day selling milk, a tiny profit as fodder is free.
Young men loiter all day at the camps, with no work in the villages nor a crop to tend on the fields. Many never made a job card for work under the MGNREGA, and most others say there’s rarely any work available under the showcase scheme.
Twenty-year-old Samadhan Jadhav spends his day lazing in the camp, having dropped out of school after Class 10 to work on the family’s 7 acres in Dongrewadi, Osmanabad. All three of his animals are bulls, so there’s no money to be made at the camp. “What else is there to do? I spend the day with the animals,” he shrugs. Jadhav borrows people’s smartphones to stay abreast of local gossip and election news.
The camps themselves are a major political activity in Beed’s election season, run by charitable organisations that mostly owe allegiance to one or other leader or party. At a camp in Kaij run by the BJP’s Rana Doiphode, there are charging points for mobile phones, a clearing for bhajans and kirtans, and free food for the farmers on occasion.
The fodder shortage is severe, say camp operators, as the usual fodder crops, including jowar, maize and napier grasses, were not even sown. Fodder shortage having hit as early as the winter of 2018, operators and farmers cannot understand why the state administration did not plan better. The only fodder available is cane, turning dry as it is transported in open trucks from Amravati. “It’s neither good for animals nor do they like eating this dried cane,” says Sadiq Shaikh of Ukadeshwar Sevabhavi Sanstha that’s running one of three camps in Nandurghat, adding that the government has not intervened despite problems in procuring cane from some districts such as Ahmednagar.
Meanwhile, it has been 10 days since Manikrao Dhondge died in Aawalgaon, in Parbhani’s Sonpeth taluka. His family and friends have gathered on the banks of the Godavari for a ceremony to mark the end of the mourning period, one that entails a dip in the river.
At the Gangakhed bridge across the Godavari, however, the river itself appears dead, a few patches of water and the cracked earth of the riverbed baking hot in the relentless 43 degree mid-morning. The Dhondges shimmy down a slope and walk across the riverbed to a point where a woman is using a sari to catch fish in the sludgy water. Two mourners arrive on a motorbike, its wheels turning up the subsoil, also scalding hot.
Balaji Jayatpal, a farmer from Aawalgaon, says, “Whatever little could have been stored has flown downstream through a broken barrage gate.” Complaints about the broken gate yielded no administrative response. As a barber gets to work tonsuring the menfolk, Jayatpal says they’re lucky there’s water at all. By mid-May, this water will be gone too, Marathwada’s election season wound down. Only the drought will stay back.