April 05, 2020
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Gale Tandava Over A Swathe Of Wilted Hopes

For long, arid Marathwada has been a victim of the vagaries of nature. Post-Holi hailstorms this season accentuate the tragedy like never before.

Gale Tandava Over A Swathe Of Wilted Hopes
Gautam Thavre
Did not insure his wheat, which has now been destroyed
Photograph by Apoorva Salkade
Gale Tandava Over A Swathe Of Wilted Hopes

Vijayanta Chavan retur­ned from sugarcane-cutting earlier than usual this time because the season las­ted a mere two months. As the mother of an inf­ant, she has since been on the lookout for farm labourer’s job in villages near Parali under Beed district of Marathwada—arid, poor and prone to social as well as economic perils for ages. Two days after this Holi, hailstorms and unseasonal rains struck the lean woman’s Khari Tanda village, sowing misery in her cluster and house. She saved herself and her baby by slouching under a makeshift bed. It has been ten days and neither water nor electricity has been restored. Vijayanta is so short of funds that she hasn’t put up a temporary roof over her damaged hut.

The hailstorms that hit Latur, Parbh­ani, Beed and Osmanabad moved in one belt, bringing down everything along its path. Authorities estimate damage to 79,000 hectares of land. This, after signs of positivity: the region had received surplus rainfall after a four-year drought—it led farmers to bet big on the windfall of the 2016 monsoon. Today, amid uncertainties, landowners and labourers are edgy, nervous and desolate.

Vijayanta, like many around, was hoping to get work locally—but now crops in her area are all damaged. “No idea how I’ll fix things. We haven’t got any help despite visits by authorities and netas,” she sighs, showing the pots and pans that lie in open ground. The roof of the one-room primary school with 30 students has flown away and the fan sits atop a tree even as children fidget in the open. The residents, originally nomads, who settled here for manual jobs, say that collector Naval Kishore Ram and rural dev­elopment minister Pankaja Munde did  visit them, but no help has reached yet.

While the situation at Vijayanta’s Khari Tanda is visibly dire, it doesn’t get any better nearby. Farmers in the villa­ges around, buoyed by good rains, invested again in rabi crops, tried to tide over the demonetisation crisis in district cooperative banks, borrowed from private moneylenders and ignored crop insurance in many cases, hoping for a bonus yield. A double whammy has hit them. The kharif produce of toor dal lies with them or at collection centres due to surplus pigeon-pea production and resultant crash of prices.

“We were hopeful that this year we will be able to recover the losses of the past few years,” says Gautam Thavre, whose wheat crop has been damaged by the recent hailstorms. “Don’t ask about loans, we have been recycling one loan onto another for a long time now.” He did not take insurance, which now includes hailstorms as a natural calamity, beca­use of cash crunch during demonetisation and simple presumption that all was going to be well this year.

Ganpat Thombre would have made Rs 3 lakh this season, but the March hailstorm has shattered his hopes. “Not one fruit will ripen,” he says.

In Beed, crops lie damaged across estima­ted 20,000 hectares. It is lesser than that of an early-2014 hailstorm that swept huge tracts of Vidarbha and Marathwada. However, with depleted land holdings, the number of farmers and their families, dependent on this much land could be between 12,000 and 14,000 families. Moreover, many refuse to admit or elaborate on private loans taken at interest rates that could go as high as 50 per cent per annum in some cases. Though they show a dip in overall figures in the region, the suicide numbers were 27 from January till mid-March in central Maharashtra’s Beed, almost the same as last year. In Osma­nabad, too, the number is 31.

The eight-district Marath­wada region has been in the news for unending drought. Last year, it faced a severe crisis that resulted in mid-April ‘water trains’ visiting the region amid insufficient irri­gation, not to mention other social challenges leading to the start of Maratha morchas—those silent, six-month-long protest marches that ended on January 31. Even so, the basically fertile soil prompts the farmers to try growing sweet lime, pomegranate, waterme­lon and muskmelon among other fruits.

Rathod Family

In the same area on March 24 after a storm hit the region

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

One such farmer is Ganpat Thombre, who planted watermelon and musk­melon in his Dindrud village and spent over Rs 1 lakh on his 2.5-acre plot, hoping for a good return. He had also plan­ted jowar and was looking forward to a second harvest of cotton, though it is a kharif crop—only to be dejected. “The hails were so big and fell with such speed that not one fruit has survived in my farm or the adjoining one,” Thombre says. “I would have made Rs 3 lakh, but now not one fruit will ripen.”

Baliram Shendge and his three brothers have spent the past three days picking flowers from their pomegranate orchard. This would have been the first year of its yield. Nothing drives home the point more than the story of Sopan Khandekar, who has just returned from trying to sell one of his bulls. He already lost Rs 30,000 on his field that had wheat, jowar and chana. With a loan of Rs 50,000, Sopan was left with no choice but to sell one of the animals. “I was expecting to get at least Rs 35,000, but no one offered more than Rs 20,000. I had to bring it back. Guess, I will have to take it again.”

But after a good monsoon, weren’t the farmers in better condition with kharif yield? Yes and no. The farmers harvested a bumper crop of toor dal and soyabean, leading to a crash in their prices. The government set up collection centres to provide minimum support price of Rs 5,050 per quintal for toor, when the market was offering about Rs 4,000. Last year, when the production was less, the rates had peaked to Rs 10,000. How­ever, the collection has been suspended in many places because of shortage of jute bags and storehouses being full. Most payments were made till end-January, but those who deposited afterwards complain of not receiving the payments.

Hivra villagers Balasaheb and Ravindra Nirmal have dumped their toor at the collection centre. “We are worried our produce is yet to be collec­ted, and it has rained. It will be damaged,” says Balasaheb. “As it is, we are not getting the price in the market. Either way, we will suffer losses. Rabi crops that were ready for harvest are also gone. We were very hopeful because of decent rains. So much for a good monsoon.” He and Nirmal start exchanging notes about when and how the dal collection will resume.

Hanumant Pawar, a social activist from Osmanabad, seeks a probe into a “nexus” between the traders and those running the centres. “There should be a clearly-established chain that takes responsibility of the toor brought from villages. We can’t blame those who are simply waiting for the jute bags,” he says. “Why wasn’t this anticipated earlier in the year?”

While the discussions among farmers are about unexpected hailstorms, weather and climate experts say that the region is prone to such conditions. Defo­restation has only added to their vulnerability. “Ideal forest cover is 33 per cent, but we had only 0.5 per cent. Now in the past two years we have taken it to 1.5 per cent,” says Prashant Narnavre, the collector of Osmanabad. He has been trying to make farmers’ groups so as to help in crisis and avert suicides. “In the past three years, we have made 14,000-plus groups of farmers. Most of the schemes are being employed through the groups so as to reach maximum beneficiaries. We are trying to provide allied activities such as rearing of Osmanabadi goats and Kadaknath hens that command high value in the market. We have also enc­ouraged farmers to repl­ace sugarcane with other crops…”

In Beed, too, the government is trying to encourage farmers to use different techniques for higher yield. “It will be difficult to see a sudden slide in the number of suicides,” says collector Ram, who has formed committees comprising farmers and experts to identify best practices in farming and marketing. “We have been doing the irrigation-­related projects. The crisis of farmers is  deep-rooted. We must understand it.”

Government officials are battling with another challenge with regard to the crisis. While Uttar Pradesh has been promised a loan waiver, in Maharashtra the chief minister has made it clear that waiver is not possible. It is compounded by the fact that post-demonetisation the district banks have not been doing any business. The farmers are required to travel long distances to a taluka headquarters to approach nationalised banks. “Even if there are branches of commercial banks, they will not give crop loans. Travelling to the main branches of nationalised banks is not easy. We will end up with private loans in a month or two for the next kharif season,” says one farmer, who has deposited his toor output at a collection centre, but is far from receiving the payments.

One of the solutions to the vagaries of nature is crop INS­urance. There have been efforts to popularise it. Although Beed has previously reported 100 per cent coverage for crop INS­urance, the figures for this rabi season may be lower. Government officials point out that crop insurance for the rabi crop is less preferred than that for kharif. The collector says the coverage in 2015-16 was 100 per cent, while it has been over 80 per cent in 2016-17. “The final figures are not out,” he adds. “For rabi in 2015-16, insurance amount of Rs 893 crore has been approved in the region.”

The government is encouraging farmers to use different techniques for higher yield. But none claims it can bring down the suicide rate.

However, systemic problems are aple­nty. Officials from Aurangabad divisio­nal office say the number of farmers taking crop insurance went up from 61 lakh in 2015-16 to 69 lakh this fiscal for the kharif season. However, the takers dropped to 22 lakh for rabi season in 2015-16. The numbers for this season are not out yet. Lesser farmers take insurance for a rabi crop; they prefer to insure kharif because of potential rainfall vagaries. If they get good rains, chances are few that things go wrong with rabi crops. Except, of course, this year’s hailstorms.

Farmers also spoke of the time it takes to get the insurance money. None of the farmers to whom Outlook spoke had taken insurance for the crops that are now damaged. “I took for kharif last year, but didn’t take this year,” says Gautam Thavre. “We were told some amount has been sanctioned, but we are yet to receive it. I didn’t insure my wheat, which is now destroyed.” The farmer doesn’t have any particular reason for not taking insurance except that he was busy with the toor dal crisis and a wedding in the family. Some farmers mention they were short of money in November because of demonetisation and a cash freeze that happened at district cooperative banks.

Vijayanta Chavan

In front of her house in Tanda village of Beed

Photograph BY Apoorva Salkade

Government officials say the process for inspection, reporting and getting the insurance amount takes time—read several months. For example, the sancti­oned amount for last year’s crops is yet to be disbursed. Of the Rs 3,402 crore sanctioned for the 2015-16 kharif crops, Rs 125 crore is yet to be disbursed. This gap is shortened in cases of calamities such as hailstorms, wherein a farmer gets a quarter of the insured amount within a week or two—provided the inspection formalities are prompt and the damage is over 50 per cent.

All these numbers—encouraging or otherwise—start to blur in the 40-deg­ree Celsius heat on the yellowing-­browning fields where farmers and labourers rack their brains over which moneylender to approach for the next season. They are reluctant to give out details of usurers harassing them. Vishal Gaundar, whose 27-year-old brother Nagesh committed suicide five years ago bec­ause of unpaid loans, still gets calls from moneylenders. “They say my brother’s Rs-15,000 loan has now become Rs 2 lakh. There is nothing I can do,” he says. “I count on the support of other farmers.”

Activist Amar Habib cautions of dire consequences. Habib says even implem­entation of the M.S. Swaminathan com­mittee’s recommendations won’t help anymore because of the division of land holdings. “The government says loan-waiver is not possible, but they need to make a distinction between farmers who are entirely dependent on agriculture and those who have other jobs,” says Habib, who has started a protest group called Kisanputra Andolan, wherein sons of farmers support their families and the movement by doing other jobs. “Those farmers who have no other source of income are the ones in need and those who have government jobs do not need the waiver. The laws that are against the farmers need to go, just starting and imp­lementing schemes will not help.”

Increasingly, poor farmers encourage their children to pursue studies and get out of the village for urban jobs and a secure life. For those who are left behind like Vijayanta and Thombre and Thavre, the summer has just gotten longer, hotter and more punishing. And the prayers for yet another good monsoon just got a little more desperate.

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Marathwada

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