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Maharashtra left high & dry

Monday, 14 January 2013 - 8:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The second consecutive drought has left rural Maharashtra, particularly the Marathwada region, in a precarious situation. Farmers, picking their ruined crop and counting the huge losses, have pinned their hopes on a bevy of relief measures with national and state elections due in 2014.

Long after the summer ravaged his orchard, Annasaheb Bhakad of Dahigaon village is sitting in the home dispensary of Dr Gulam Mohammed Deshmukh, doctor, paternal figure, fellow farmer and now partner in despair to the few thousands who populate the six villages called Sukhapuri Circle, Ambad taluka in Maharashtra’s Jalna district. Bhakad lost 2,000 sweet lime trees this year to the district’s worst drought since 1972. His doctor lost the same number and, in addition, suffered “100% loss” on the 150 acres on which he sowed cotton.

Ambad, which yields the state’s largest sweet lime crop, is facing a 90% depletion in mosambi yield going to the market. His face ravaged by worry lines, Bhakad describes his once prized possessions -- 2,000 trees now shrivelled, some bearing small, brown fruit -- which he intends to hack down.

Bhakad and thousands of small farmers in the Marathwada region, reeling under a second consecutive drought year, are hoping there will be some special relief announced for their area when details of the Centre’s relief package emerge.

While the Centre on Thursday announced a Rs778-crore package under the National Disaster Relief Fund, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan also promised to tour Jalna, Beed and Osmanabad districts to assess the impact of the region’s agrarian crisis. The lion’s share in the Centre’s package is towards input subsidy for agriculture (Rs563 crore) and for horticulture (Rs91 crore).

Sucked dry
In Sukhapuri, as in other parts of Jalna, there isn’t much hope. Long before Chavan said he

Parched lands and throats
The state’s lowest rainfall during the monsoon of 2012 was recorded by the Atpadi, Jat and Kavthe Mahankal talukas in Sangli district of Western Maharashtra. These talukas saw rains on just 15, 16 and 18 days respectively during the entire season. These talukas received a total of just between 280mm and 313mm of rain throughout the season

Karjat and Nagar talukas of Ahmednagar saw 16 and 19 days of rain respectively

In Marathwada, Ghanasawangi taluka in Jalna district, very close to the sweet lime hub of Ambad taluka, saw just 23 days of rain. Ghanasawangi received 32% of its normal rainfall, a total of 229.7mm. Other badly hit talukas in Jalna are Bhokardan (298mm rain received) and Mantha (314.6mm rain received)

In Beed district of Marathwada, Shirur Kasar and Ashti talukas were the worst hit, with just 24 and 25 days of rainfall, or 248mm and 259mm rain, respectively

believes this drought to be Maharashtra’s worst in five decades, locals had predicted a quickened erosion of their agro-economy.

Sukhapuri’s land — the local jury is still not out on whether the village was named after its arid landscape or some promised happiness — was not always so unyielding. A local landowner remembers buying a “kilo of gold” on selling his 10 quintals of cotton. Dr Deshmukh, whose son is a senior local leader with the Nationalist Congress Party, says cotton fields, where crop once stood 5 feet tall, are now covered by a rash of 11-inch plants, stunted beyond any use. “Most critical is that ground water, a source of consolation during previous droughts, has now dried up because of overuse of borewells across the district,” he adds. He grew 350 quintals of cotton last year. “Not even one quintal this year.”

Around Diwali, there was some rainfall and farmers sowed their winter hope. “They sowed jowar, a rabi crop,” says LK Munjal, nayab tehsildar of Ambad. The jowar crop did not grow; some tried a second time, only to face further losses.

More than 60,000 hectares of land in Jalna district are occupied by fruit orchards. Of this, sweet lime is grown on an estimated 35,000 hectares. Locals say at least 80% of this crop is completely withered.

Elsewhere in Marathwada
Similar tales emerge from the neighbouring Beed district, where the talukas of Ashti, Patoda and Pathardi are facing acute water scarcity. In Ashti, less than 23% of farmland was sown. Of the 1,40,346.29 hectares with cropping potential in Ashti taluka, sowing for a kharif crop was done only on 31,884.91 hectares. In other words, three quarters of farmland remained untilled throughout the crop season.

Ashti, which saw just 24 days of rainfall all monsoon, still has 60-odd water tankers operational for 49 villages and 39 hamlets. Villagers say this is simply not enough. Ashti’s 134 villages that harvest a rabi crop and 43 that harvest a kharif crop have all posted less than 50 paise paisewari (yield per rupee of capital).

But the cold mathematics of the paisewari calculation will do nothing for the plight of some. Deepali Devkate, a sugarcane worker in Ashti’s Bhojewadi village, lost her husband in a construction site accident in Pune earlier this year. With drought making cultivation of their eight acres impossible, the Devkates took recourse to their usual drought year occupation as migrant labourers. “Some officials promised us some compensation, but no money ever came,” says Deepali, who has studied till Std X.

Bitter losses
Back in Jalna, Devidas Jige covers the 20km from his home in Math Pimpalgaon village to Jalna town on his motorcycle. An active leader with the All-India Trade Union Congress and the CPI, Jige works in the city but laments the loss of half of his sweet lime trees on the six-acre holding in the village. “I had to cut them so that the others could survive; there is only so much water available,” he rues.

It’s raining disaster
The state government initially declared drought in 122 talukas in 25 districts, subsequently revising that to 125 talukas in 16 districts
Following a request for assistance from the National Disaster Response Fund, a team from various Union ministries visited the state in November last year

The cost of keeping 150 trees alive has been a significant investment in digging a well, something most farmers can’t afford. His one-acre cotton field yielded 15 quintals last year. He’ll consider himself lucky if he gets 1.5 quintals this year, despite incurring a huge cost on fertiliser.

Math Pimpalgaon’s sarpanch Kailash Jige, an MA in Economics who quit a college lectureship to settle in the village, says the dream of the rural idyll is over for him. “I can’t imagine the coming months. Even drinking water is going to lead to fights,” he sighs. 

Relief measures
The monsoon session of the state legislature ended with the government in a self-congratulatory mood for having successfully announced a Rs2,625-crore package for water supply, irrigation schemes and water conservation programmes in drought-hit areas.

Already, the Economic Survey of 2011 had predicted a grave overall decline in agricultural output, long before the announcement of a drought year. The predictions included a 23% decline in output of foodgrain, a 32% decline in output of pulses and a 15% decline in output of cotton. This was despite an overall monsoon of 102.3% of normal rains in 2011, with the late onset of the monsoon in Vidarbha and Marathwada and its erratic nature leading to reduction in the area sown.

Now, six months later, officials concur that the crisis is more serious.

Maharashtra is experiencing a “sequential drought phenomenon” meaning back-to-back agricultural drought that has dealt a serious blow to the kharif crop of 2011, the rabi crop of 2011 and kharif crop of 2012. Worse, the rabi figures for 2012 that have trickled in after the state government’s request for assistance to the Centre was dispatched, don’t inspire much hope.

Unprecedented measures are already in place to tackle the water scarcity. With state and national elections due in 2014, a further bevy of relief measures will kick into place soon, hope villagers in Marathwada.

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