Droughts, floods leave Maharashtra farmers in the lurch

While recurring droughts, depleting groundwater levels and mounting debts have made farmers’ lives in Marathwada and Vidarbha notoriously difficult, the floods in Western Maharashtra and parts of Konkan this year have compounded matters for the state’s farmers.  

A drought of choices

Drought-affected Marathwada and Vidarbha region, comprising 19 districts, is a hotbed of farmers’ suicides. From January to June this year, around 1,300 farmers ended their lives. In the previous year, 2,761 suicides were reported, according to the state’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department. 

The first reported incident of farmers’suicide took place in Yavatmal in 1986 when Sahebrao Kapre, his wife and four children died after consuming rat poison. Yavatmal is still considered the epicentre of the farm crisis in the Vidarbha region. 

“The crisis has deepened over the years,” said veteran activist Amar Habib. He said farmers often take loans from private moneylenders and land in a debt trap. “There is nothing we can do,  there is no option, crops have failed for two to three years... we have four-acre land, my father had a loan of nearly 3.5 lakh.. he was tensed,” said Gajanan, a 21-year-old, whose father Dhananjay Nawate (52) committed suicide on March 28 this year. The Nawates hail from a village near the Pandharkawada town in Yavatmal.

Kishor Tiwari, chairman of the state-run Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, a task force set up to look into agrarian crisis, said despite efforts by successive governments, suicides had not come down. “Governments have changed but the key issue remains... water, soil, credit and so on,” he said.

The soil quality has come down because of recurring droughts which deplete the water table. 

While the 11 districts of Vidarbha depend mostly on cotton, in the eight districts of Marathwada, sugarcane is a big water guzzler. Why should farmers in a drought-prone area cultivate a crop with a high water intake? Sugarcane is a ‘political crop’ in Maharashtra with most of the big political families of Western Maharashtra and Marathwada owning sugar factories. Several among the sugar factory owners also own distilleries and educational institutions. 

Economist and agriculture expert H M Desarda said the Marathwada region on an average gets 700 mm rainfall, whereas this monsoon, the rainfall was between 450 mm and 550 mm. “You cannot call this bad if you collate it with the data of the last 10 or 15 years,” he said.

He cautioned against sole dependency on sugarcane and spoke of the need for farmers to shift to other crops. However, this is a shift that is clearly not on the table yet.

What have the govts done?

Between 2014 and 2019, the state committed Rs 50,000 crore to the agriculture sector. It also started a Rs 34,000-crore loan waiver scheme — the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Shetkari Samman Yojana. 

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, after coming to power in 2014, also launched the ambitious JalYukt Shivar Abhiyan (JYSA), a flagship project to make 25,000 villages — a majority of the affected villages — drought-free by the end of 2019. Though the government says the programme has been successful, activists have raised multiple issues including that of corruption in the implementation of the scheme.  

According to Desarda, the government has stated that 50% geographical area of Maharashtra was affected by drought in 2018, but JYSA works were carried out in 22,590 villages, an irrigation potential of over 34 lakh hectares was created by spending over Rs 8,453 crore. If irrigation potential was created, why the villages were facing drought, he asked. He has filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court on the issue.

As regards the megafloods in Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara, the sugarcane crops have suffered extensive damage and so have grapes. Milk procurement too has come down as cattle have died in the floods. Farmers who have lost crops spread over more than one hectare will be eligible for loan waiver, but it’s not clear if this will be sufficient to bring their lives back on track.

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