From the States

Despair & death

Print edition : March 04, 2016

At Bhadauna village in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh in the Bundelkhand region, women show the fodder that they consume to survive the drought. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Uncultivated fields in Hamirpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

Ajay, Teeja and Banarasi. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Worried farmers on their parched land at Gaawar village in Hisar district in Haryana. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

A resident of Gaawar showing the gram sprout that withered owing to lack of moisture in the soil. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Land lying fallow in Rajgarh, Churu district, Rajasthan, owing to the scarcity of water. Until last year, the land had yielded gram. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Pushpanjali, the wife of Thikadar Sahu of Tungibandhli village in Bargarh district of Odisha. Thikadar killed himself because of debt and crop failure. The district administration which conducted an inquiry into the death reported that he took the extreme step because he was an alocholic. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Lakshman lake in Chintapatla. Photo: KUNAL SHANKAR

Raghavendra Hullepa examines his failed cotton crop at Hanchinal village in Yadgir district. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED





BUNDELKHAND



Depleting water sources

By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Surinder Kumar, 31, was the first member of the Kushwaha community, a caste group comprising small and marginal farmers, to leave Nulibasa village of Sarila block in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district in search of work. In the summer of last year, Kumar decided not to till his four acres (1.6 hectares). The failure of the previous wheat crop had left him and his family with an outstanding loan of Rs.40,000, which compounded at the rate of 10 per cent every month. “Another crop failure would have ruined my family, so I asked my brother-in-law [who is an ice-cream vendor in Hubli-Dharwad, Karnataka] to find some work for me. He put me in touch with a merchant, who got me a pani puri shack,” Kumar said. He moved to Hubli with his wife and two children, and the family of four now runs the shop, earning a little over Rs.8,000 a month. Kumar has been able to gradually repay his loan.

The farmers of Nulibasa have not seen an assured income and a stable life in the last two drought years, and this tempted many members of the Kushwaha community to seek work in urban areas. “I was the first to leave. Now all the Khushwaha families of Nulibasa have moved to Hubli. Almost every ice-cream vendor or pani puri seller in Hubli-Dharwad is a Kushwaha from Bundelkhand. We have formed our own community there,” Kumar said.

But what will happen to their cultivable land if they all move out? “The land is useless without water. It has become a liability,” Kumar said. More than 250 families have migrated to urban areas. The village, which originally had around 300 families, looks desolate. Only a handful of elderly people have stayed back.

Migration from this village started some five years ago when Dalits, who were either landless or had only a few acres of fallow land, started moving out for work. “A few labour agents came to the villages to find people to work in brick kilns spread across northern India. They paid around Rs.200 a day and were ready to take children and women, too,” said Ambika Prasad, a 65-year-old resident of Nulibasa. In the past two years, however, the farming communities, which faced two consecutive drought seasons, left for the cities. “Backward caste groups such as Khushwahas, Pals and Lodhs migrated for the first time last kharif season [summer-monsoon crop], and upper-caste members such as Brahmins and Thakurs started migrating in the rabi season [winter-spring crop],” said Satish Chandra, an activist working with Parmarth, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on water problems in the region.

As a result of two consecutive drought seasons, three crop failures, and large-scale migration, the majority of the agricultural land remains unsown in Bundelkhand, the region in central India comprising parts of south-west Uttar Pradesh and northern Madhya Pradesh. Large swathes of agricultural land appear barren at a time when the wheat crop should have been at least two months old. NGO activists said almost 90 per cent of the farmers had not cropped their fields in Bundelkhand.

Big farmers, too, are bearing the brunt of water shortage and are changing the pattern of farming. Farmers who have chosen to risk their money in agriculture have not cropped their total land. “I have around 15 acres [six hectares]. Usually, we grow wheat in this season, but I have sown wheat only in two acres [0.8 hectare] as it requires six times the water. We don’t have that much water. In another two acres, I am growing mustard for the first time as it consumes less water; but the produce is low. The rest of the land is lying fallow,” said Kamta Prasad Dwivedi, a Brahmin farmer, who invested around Rs.3 lakh in a private tube well for irrigating his land. He said he had to borrow money from the local moneylender at 10 per cent interest. As the possibility of a good crop remains unpredictable in the absence of water channels, Dwivedi hopes the worst will be over soon.

However, as tube wells, too, are drying up, his wheat crop is showing signs of withering. Dwivedi’s unflinching hope amidst the widespread pessimism is perhaps the only sign of perseverance in the region. But sadly, only farmers who are comparatively privileged in terms of land and wealth have this faith. Known for its low groundwater level, Bundelkhand has always faced water scarcity. Consecutive drought seasons have aggravated the distress among communities, making the region the fountainhead of distress migration.

The first victim of prolonged drought in Bundelkhand is cattle. They are let loose in the region to fend for themselves. This is called Anna Pratha. The cattle would leave the homes in the morning and come back on their own by the evening. As most of the people have migrated, cows, buffaloes, bulls and oxen are dying without shelter, food and water. Village residents are forced to abandon their cattle because of financial constraints. “How can we feed our cattle when we do not have food to eat?” asked Lalita, a resident of Bhadauna in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh. In view of the drought, sand and stone mining has intensified in the area, leading to further erosion of ponds. Depleting water and forest resources have killed animals. This correspondent noticed a number of decaying carcasses around dry ponds in Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. While the death of livestock is taking a toll on the local economy, it has benefited a few contractors who use animal skin and bones for industrial purposes. This correspondent noticed many people searching for animal bones in the ponds of Tikamgarh and transporting them in vehicles.

The drought has affected women and children to a great extent. In Bundelkhand, the social norm is that women fetch drinking water. As wells and tube wells have long dried up, women walk more than two kilometres to collect drinking water. In Tikamgarh district, there is only one tube well in a 5 km radius for 10 villages. Women from these villages wait in the queue for more than three hours to fill one big jar of water. The residents told this correspondent that water shortage led to severe fights every day. “Only after Brahmins and Thakurs collect their share of water, other caste groups are allowed to go near the tube well. Sometimes, we return without water. Our children are forced to drink muddy water from the dry well,” said Maniram Ahirwar, a Dalit resident of Bangaya village in Tikamgarh.

The current state of affairs has aggravated the traditional caste exploitation in the village. Affluent farmers, usually from the upper castes and dominant-caste groups, have used their political clout to diversify their businesses. They have become government contractors. For instance, Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Thakurs in Madhya Pradesh have cornered most of the government’s construction work. The contractors force Dalits and members of Other Backward Classes to work on their sites for a daily wage of less than Rs.100. “Sometimes, the wages are lower than this. In return for our work, they permit us to collect water from their private tube wells and allow us to use their fields to answer the call of nature,” Ahirwar said.

However, in many villages in Bundelkhand, where landholdings are medium- or small-sized, members of the dominant-caste group have also been forced to migrate. In Chandrapur village of Lalitpur district, where Brahmins are the dominant caste, most of the small and marginal farmers have sold their land and are working in cities as shopkeepers or security guards. “At least 50 farmers from the village have sold their land in the past two months. Earlier, we used to mortgage our land but now we are forced to sell it to clear our debts,” Brijesh Sharma, a Brahmin resident of Chandrapur, said.

Dalits, on the other hand, who are the victims of an exploitative economy, have migrated with their families to work in brick kilns and construction sites in Bundelkhand and live in shanties. Their children also work in the kilns. The villagers prefer brick kilns to construction sites as the owners of the kilns give them credit. “The villagers get Rs.200 for 1,000 bricks they make. Usually, one person takes two days to make 1,000 bricks if he works for more than 12 hours a day. If two people of a family work together, they earn Rs.400 in two days. This is meagre even by village standards and is hardly enough to feed the family. Most of the workers get caught in a credit cycle. Usually, they live near the kilns for more than 10 months in a year. These small families usually leave behind their family elders in the village, promising to send money, but are not able to do so. Is this not bonded labour?” asks Sunita of Jalalpur village in Hamirpur district.

With this pattern of migration becoming a regular feature in a drought year, the village residents are looking forward to becoming labour agents to earn an income. The nexus of agents has become intricate and quite complicated over the years. It runs from the village level to the block level, right up to the district level. The relation between the employer and the labourer is lost. No one is accountable in case of a mishap. “If village residents become labour agents, a situation will arise in which people from the same community will start fighting over commissions. This may affect the status quo in the village,” Manvendra Singh of Parmarth said.

The Bundelkhand region, a large portion of which is hilly terrain, has always depended on surface waterbodies. “The abundance of ponds and rivulets in the area was enough for subsistence farming. Along with agriculture, people were dependent on their cattle. It was a self-sufficient economy. However, the aspirations of farmers grew after the success of the Green Revolution. With almost no planned irrigation in the area, farmers started tapping the limited groundwater resources in the past two decades by constructing tube wells. This led to further decline in the groundwater levels. The two consecutive droughts dried up the surface water sources too, leading to widespread poverty,” said Sanjay Singh, the national convener of the Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan, a pan-India water literacy programme managed by various NGOs. He has been trying to mobilise women, whom he calls “jal sahelis” (friends of water), to recharge surface waterbodies by harnessing the meagre rainwater.

While non-state community mobilisation programmes are becoming popular at the time of drought, the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments have remained largely apathetic. “The Madhya Pradesh government has a good drought relief policy but it remains largely on paper. The Madhya Pradesh portion of Bundelkhand is dominated by tribal communities and Dalits who migrate. They do not come to vote. As a result, the government cajoles the dominant-caste groups and ignores the marginalised,” Sanjay Singh said. Madhya Pradesh is the only State which announced that drought relief would be directly transferred to the Jan Dhan bank accounts. But, the majority of the villagers claimed that the funds had not reached their accounts. Those who received some compensation said it did not match the losses they had incurred. They blamed this on the gross underestimation of crop losses. Crop losses are measured by the patwari, the village-level revenue official. However, in most of the villages, the patwari demanded a commission to quote the true loss. The State government has made no effort to promote the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in areas affected by drought. “There is no new work. In January, we worked for 15 days but we have not been paid so far,” Premchand Suar, an Adivasi from Kaudiya village in Tikamgarh district, said. Delay in payments for work done under the MGNREGS is a persistent problem in the drought-affected areas of the State. The government launched the Nal Jal Yojana, a drought relief measure which guarantees water pipelines in villages. But it requires a 5 per cent contribution from the village community. “We do not have money to buy food. How can we contribute for the scheme?” asked Suar. The government has opened road construction contracts, most of which were given to village-level strongmen, usually from the Thakur community.

The Uttar Pradesh government, too, took its own time to declare drought relief measures in Bundelkhand. In January, it announced a set of measures to be taken with immediate effect so that no one died of starvation. As a result, the MGNREGS is working well on the ground in terms of both work and payments. The government has also issued notices to the public distribution outlets to make available food and fodder. “We have distributed a lot of foodgrains and animal fodder in the past month. As of now, we have cleared all payments relating to the kuchha work under the MGNREGS, but some outstanding amount remains relating to pukka [solid] work. But since most of the kuchha work is done by unskilled and extremely poor people, it has given some relief to them. We also linked the construction of cattle sheds to the MGNREGS. We have also repaired a number of government tube wells but the groundwater depletion is so high that the tube wells stopped functioning soon after they were repaired,” Anil Kumar Srivastava, Block Development Officer (BDO) of Sarila in Hamirpur district, told Frontline. Many villagers told this correspondent that the State government appeared to be interested in knowing about their problems and verified some of the claims the BDO had made. However, the government has shown no inclination to address the crisis with long-term measures.

Two consecutive droughts have triggered a new set of problems in Bundelkhand. While barren agricultural fields reflected a region in the grip of poverty, news reports of people eating bread made of grass showed the pangs of hunger. The drought conditions are changing the socio-economic relations of the region. People are forced to adopt emergency measures to survive in these traumatic conditions as governments are insensitive to the acute problem.





UTTAR PRADESH



Progression of poverty

By Divya Trivedi

On the eastern fringe of Uttar Pradesh, some 34 km from Varanasi, is Ahraura in Mirzapur district. An unpaved road from Ahraura leads to Sonpur village. It is not summer yet, but on both sides of this 5 km-long road lie vast stretches of dry fields. Located in the Chunar block of Mirzapur, one of the 50 districts declared drought-hit by the Akhilesh Yadav government, Sonpur illustrates a quietly unfolding tragedy in the rural sector. Media persons never visit this village. Village residents cannot remember when somebody from the government last visited them. The village is evidently poor and its economy is fragile. Structures to provide health, education and employment are absent; and there is no irrigation facility in this rain-fed area. The abysmally low level of government funding has ensured that the socio-economic conditions remain pathetic.

Every time there is a drought, Mirzapur would find itself on the list of affected areas. But the situation this year is unprecedented, says Siddhanath, district chief of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). “The unseasonal storms during the rabi season last year destroyed 60 per cent of the wheat harvest,” he told Frontline.

The damage is so extensive that even big farmers like Ram Lakhan Pandey, who owns 20 bighas (3.2 hectares), are also complaining of hard times. “We are forced to adjust our lifestyle and food habits,” he said. Ram Chander Singh from nearby Rampur Dhakhen village owns 16 acres (8.4 hectares) and he, too, is feeling the heat. Pyarelal Sonkar, president of Sonpur Kshetriya Sahkari Samiti, who owns three acres, said people in the village were experiencing the worst drought ever. Electricity supply is haphazard, and is available for not more than six-seven hours a day. Farmers who cannot afford to install pumpsets take them on rent on an hourly rate of Rs.100. The village also faces a drinking water problem, says Gulab Prajapati, a BKU member. Groundwater has depleted and wells are drying up. The situation will turn grim in the summer. Farmers estimate that of the 40,000 hectares that have been cultivated this year, only 40 per cent may get yield.

Sixty per cent of the village residents (about 100 families) belong to the Scheduled Caste category and live in a basti (colony) across the road. Most of them do not own any cattle and are landless labourers. They subsist by breaking stones on the Vindhyachal, a discontinuous chain of plateau, ridges and hillocks, overlooking the village. The terrain of Mirzapur is hard and rocky and has low soil fertility but it is the source of village residents’ main occupation: stone crushing and soil carrying. There are no factories, no government jobs and no other means of employment. The MGNREGS is a failure here as it has not been able to guarantee 100 days of work. At the most, people get 10 to 15 days of work, and the rest of the days they depend on the mountain to provide them a livelihood. Ajay Kumar and Geeta used to own the ridges and paid a tax of Rs.60. But now the mountain has been leased out to private investors or contractors. They dislike mechanisation as it attacks their only means of sustenance. Even the disabled work in the mountains. Banarasi’s knees are weak owing to an affliction in childhood but he has to choose between resting his knees and starving to death. Teeja has a broken arm. Ajay says he blacks out occasionally. “How can one even think of taking rest in this drought?” he asked.

Farmland was distributed to the S.C.s during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Most of the land owned by the S.C.s at Sonpur was allotted then. But the land was barren, measurable in bissas, a local word for parcels of an acre such as a quarter or even a tenth. Until Mayawati became Chief Minister, and extracted the land from bureaucratic grip, the villagers did not get possession of pattas (title deeds).

There are a few Muslim families in the basti. Haqeemuddin, 70, heads a family of 12. He and his two sons live off the mountain. They own 12 bissas, or a quarter acre, where they used to grow paddy and wheat for own consumption. But this year, they have not been able to grow anything on the land. “Now we have to buy from the market the grains we used to produce,” he said. The family possesses a yellow ration card and is entitled to eight kilograms of wheat and 12 kg of rice a month but they receive it only occasionally. Several families in the basti complained that Ajay Kumar, the person in charge of the fair price shop, refuses to give them the rations. Ajay Kumar refuted the charges.

Lalji, 55, owns 1.5 bighas of land but depends on the mountain for livelihood.

Distress migration

With very few livelihood options, distress migration has taken root here. Some 70 men have left for Mumbai, Chennai, Haridwar, Delhi, and the States of Gujarat and Haryana in search of work. Some of them may be gone for six months to a year. Most of the men in the village have some health issues. Many of them have died of silicosis or tuberculosis, diseases related to their occupation. There is one public health centre in the village, but it does not function properly. The people go to private hospitals in Ahraura, Ramnagar or Varanasi for their medical needs. Women of the village are an angry lot. Hunger stares the people in the face and they eat just one meal a day, mostly comprising potatoes and green chillies. On a lucky day, they may eat some vegetable.

There are several widows in the village. Chandravati’s husband, who was a migrant labourer attached to a contractor, died of an illness whose name she does not know. The village has a school which has up to class 8; for inter-college, the students have to travel a distance of 6 km and for degree college, they have to go to Ahraura. The youth who have completed graduation do not want to get into farming as it is no longer sustainable. Satyendra Kumar Tyagi wants to become a police officer. Satish Kumar is working at the only cutter plant in the area. “We have to work at all hours, sometimes in the night too,” he said, but he has no choice. If the plant shuts down or he loses his job, he plans to go to the cities and look for work.

“If this situation lasts one more year, Sonpur will become another Bundelkhand,” the villagers say.

A little removed from the two bastis is a cluster of six Musahar families. They work on the farms of the “upper caste” people and get their daily ration from them. But with drought, there is no work to do on the fields and the farmers have stopped giving them ration. They, too, are working in the mountains. Binod Kumar Srivastava, secretary of Sonpur Kshetriya Sahkari Samiti, said of the 26 villages under the ambit of the society, 15 are completely drought-ridden and 10 are on the edge. Of the 1,200 farmers in this zone, 1,100 are small and marginal farmers. Of the Rs.4.20 crore it has given as loan, the samiti has recovered only Rs.65 lakh, of which Rs.24 lakh is from insurance. In the corresponding period in 2015, the recovery was at Rs.57 lakh without the insurance. “We hope the government will waive these loans but there is no word yet,” he said.

Ten cases of suicides have been reported in Mirzapur’s Lalganj and Marihan tehsils. But the authorities maintain that the deaths are due to health reasons so that they do not have to pay compensation, the villagers say.

The BKU, which has 10,000 members, 80 per cent of whom are small and marginal farmers, held a convention in Allahabad on February 1 and gave a 15-day notice to the State government demanding debt waivers, compensation for failed crop and crop insurance. Last year’s compensation of Rs.13,500 a hectare for failed crop has reached only 15-20 per cent of the people.





HARYANA





Bleak and desolate

By T.K. Rajalakshmi

Haryana is among the States known for high crop yields. But its villages have been reeling under drought and crop failure for the past three years. And an unprecedented hailstorm in the last kharif season drove farmers to the edge. For the first time in the history of the State, there have been reports of suicides by farmers, a fact that is documented by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) as well. However, suicides by farmers are under-reported because of the social stigma attached to them. The government to date has remained in a state of denial and the main opposition parties, the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal, are deafeningly silent.

The yield of wheat, the main rabi crop that is harvested in March-April, is expected to be very low as the stunted crop on the swathes of fields reveal. The harvest looks equally bleak for other rabi crops such as cotton, sugarcane, mustard, guar, and green gram.

While poor rains have affected agriculture in the entire State, Hisar and Bhiwani districts are among the worst affected as they are at the tail end of the irrigation canals. Only 33 per cent of land in the State is irrigated by canals and tube wells. The rest is “baarani” or rain-dependent land. “No reporter has visited us so far. Neither has the government. No survey has been done either. We are at the tail end of the canal. There is water one kilometre from here, in parts of Bhiwani. If the government wants, it can ensure that the canal water reaches us. But no one is interested,” said one of the farmers in Gaawar village in Hisar.

Gaawar is a picture of abject desolation. The farmers here have all but given up hope. The yield of chana (gram), the only crop grown in these arid parts of the State, would be zero, the residents said. An entirely rainfed crop, chana does not require much water. But vast areas of land lay unproductive as the sprouts had withered because of lack of moisture in the soil. Most farmers borrowed money to buy seeds and hired tractors for ploughing. Now they do not know how they will pay back their debts. There is no farmer in the village who does not have a debt with a bank or a private moneylender or a tractor owner. Of the 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of total cultivated area in Gaawar, sowing was done only in 250 acres. The village is home to 700 families and has a population of 6,000, and all of them are on the brink of starvation and despair. “There is nothing to do. We sit idle and wait for the government to do something,” said a farmer.

And with very little to feed themselves, the farmers are finding it difficult to buy fodder for their cattle as well. Moreover, fodder prices too have gone up. “One cow consumes as much as 30 kg of fodder a day. It is Rs.10 a kg. So it is a big question for us whether to feed our cattle or ourselves,” said a farmer in Gaawar.

No work, no pay

Under distress the farmers are willing to take up other work, but there has been none under the MGNREGS in Gaawar village in the past three years. In 2015, of the 15 lakh job cards issued in the State, only five lakh were given employment and that too for an average of six and a half days. “We are ready to work. Even the big landlords are ready to dig earth. What is the option?” said one of farmers, hinting that if the situation continued, they would be forced to migrate in search of work. There is a private fertilizer factory in the village, but it employs only a handful of farmers from Gaawar. The rest, they said, were “outsiders”.

They had little faith in the insurance schemes of the government, including the latest one announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “As for the low premiums that the government is claiming for the insurance schemes, when we do not have money to feed ourselves, how can we pay the premium?” said Krishan Kumar, a farmer. Besides, they want the unit of assessment for insurance or compensation to be the yield on the land and not the village or the block. “Even within villages, there were irrigated and non-irrigated areas. The unit should be land under cultivation,” said Sube Singh, a leader of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).

Apparently, an official survey and assessment of the agricultural land under cultivation (called girdawari in parts of the Hindi-speaking belt) was conducted for the kharif crops, but no compensation has been given to date. The government conducted a special girdawari in September last year in the districts of Hisar, Jind, Bhiwani, Sirsa and Fatehabad. The reports citing cotton crop losses because of the white fly pest and damage to other kharif crops because of drought in some parts and unseasonal rain and hailstorm in other areas were submitted to the government, but rather than pay compensation on the basis of the assessment, the government instituted an inquiry into those very reports.

“As it is, the girdawari is never done in the presence of the farmers. Even where it was done, the reports are questioned by the government to delay compensation,” said a farmer. The farmers are planning a prolonged agitation in front of the Hisar Collectorate from February 11 onwards. AIKS leaders Baru Ram and Sube Singh said they had collected representations from the farmers and submitted them to the district authorities long ago, but nothing happened.

The low price their produce fetches is another problem for the farmers. They were not getting the right price for the crop, either from the government or in the open market. For instance, the cost of producing one quintal of wheat is Rs.1,800. But the government bought it for Rs.1,450 a quintal and the trader gave the farmer just Rs.1,200.

In the irrigated parts of Hisar, where basmati (fragrant rice) is grown, certain brands that were bought from farmers at Rs.1,200 a quintal were sold at five times that price. “We are getting Rs.1 a kg for carrots, cauliflower, etc. How can we survive at these rates? While cotton was bought from us at Rs.3,500-3,600 a quintal, we were buying fodder for animals at Rs.3,000 a quintal,” said Sube Singh.

The district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Pradeep, said that all the districts coming under the Hisar division were affected by drought. It was after a 22-day hunger strike in August-September last year that the government announced the special girdawari in September. “The final report was not shared with the farmers. The patwari did the survey and sent it to the District Commissioners’ Office. The Additional Chief Secretary also surveyed the areas but to date no compensation has been announced,” he said.

Ramchandra, 80, of Chaudhrywaas said drought conditions had prevailed in the village for the last 10 to 15 years. The village was a rare beneficiary of canal water, which was released to the farmers once a month. He was able to cultivate at least four acres from among the land he held. The groundwater, if any, was brackish and unfit for drinking or cultivation. “Before 1995, we used to get canal water regularly. We lost all our kharif crop, guar [cluster bean used for making gum], bajra [pearl millet] and moong [green gram],” he said. Brothers Ram Mehar and Ramesh said that farmers in some villages had been given compensation, especially those from where Ministers of the ruling party hailed.

Bhiwani’s tale

In Siwani tehsil of Bhiwani district, it is a similar story of agricultural disaster that unfolds. The low yield of guar has affected production at the gum factories here. Naresh, the corporator of Siwani block, owns a gum factory. He said business was very bad. “If the farmer is happy, the trader is happy too,” he said. The number of gum-manufacturing factories has dwindled over the years. Nearly a thousand persons were employed in agro-based factories in Siwani.

Woodcutting and selling of wood for fuel have now replaced agricultural work. The sale of saws has gone up. “The situation here is not different from Bundelkhand,” a member of the Kisan Sabha told Frontline. More than half the kharif crop was destroyed and there was negligible sowing of the main rabi crop. “The situation is unimaginable. For more than a year, there has been no agricultural yield of the main crops here,” said Dayanand, a Kisan Sabha leader from Bhiwani.

Adding to all this, farmers have to deal with the menace of stray cattle. Farmers are at their wits’ end as they are unable to dispose of even unproductive cattle because of stringent laws governing their sale and transport. Though a politically emotive issue for the ruling BJP, for the farmers, stray livestock are nothing but a liability in many ways. Indeed, no one seems to be buying the empty rhetoric of the ruling BJP both at the Centre and in the State that it is pro-farmer.





RAJASTHAN





Cold comfort

By T.K. Rakalakshmi

Temperatures in parts of Churu district of Rajasthan drop below zero in winter and destroy standing rabi crops. Yet, for farmers to make insurance claims for their crops, the benchmark is minus 2.7 degrees, according to a government notification. This was not the norm earlier.

In half a dozen districts in the State, including Churu, weather-based losses are deployed to assess insurance claims. Crop damage for any other reason does not entitle a farmer to his claim. As a result, hardly any farmer is able to make a claim against crop damage.

But it is not just extreme cold that spells trouble for the farmer. In September last year, when the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation in the Agriculture Ministry allocated Rs.410 crore to minimise the impact of drought in selected States, Rajasthan was the largest beneficiary. The money was primarily given to mitigate the effects of drought through macro interventions.

Nearly 70 per cent of the agricultural area in the State is dependent on rainfall for cultivation and the rest is irrigated. While drought affected the non-irrigated areas, in the irrigated cotton-growing areas of Ganganagar district, for instance, the white fly pest destroyed much of the crop.

Chandrapal Lambor and Naandu Devi, marginal farmers from Lambor village in Rajgarh block in Churu, are distraught. Not only did they have no success with the rabi crop, the kharif crops that they had sown also failed because of the poor monsoon. On top of that, they were cheated of the Rs.1.35 lakh they had borrowed from a bank and given to someone for safekeeping. “Now we have to repay the loan. We have no other option but to get the police to get our money back,” said Chandrapal. For more than a month, they have been protesting outside the Rajgarh police station, demanding action against the person who made off with their money. A first information report (FIR) was registered six months ago, but the police have shown no interest in helping the couple.

Naresh Saorogi, a furniture shop owner, said that “business” was at an all-time low as no marriages were taking place. “It is the drought. There is no crop. There is no money and therefore no marriages. Bina fasal ke shaadi nahin hoti [marriages cannot happen in the absence of a harvest],” he said.

Kisan Sabha leaders Bhagat Singh Punia and Ram Singh told Frontline that agriculture in the whole of Rajgarh and much of Churu was dependent on rainfall. About 5 to 7 per cent of the area was under tube well irrigation. While some farmers had received compensation for the failure of the rabi crop, they were yet to receive anything for the failure of the kharif crop that was harvested in October. “Gram is the main crop here. But with no rains, there hasn’t been any sowing. And wherever crops were planted, they are weak and withering and therefore wouldn’t yield much,” said Punia.

Hoshiar Singh of Bairasar Bara village owns seven and a half hectares of land. The sowing of gram cost him Rs.40,000. But the yield was nil. “What is the point of crop insurance? They never settle our claims. If the weather machine says that the temperature has dipped below minus 2.7 degrees, there is hope of getting something. But the machines and the report are manipulated so as to deny us our claims,” he said. He said drought conditions had prevailed for the last three years. “Earlier it was 80 per cent damage; now it is 100 per cent,” he said.

Surender, another farmer, told Frontline that he got some work under the MGNREGS but was paid only Rs.60 as wages. “I got work for 100 days but at half the rate,” he said.

Except for some 150 farmers, everyone in the village has enlisted for MGNREGS work out of sheer desperation. “People of all castes and communities, and women seek work. There is no other way out,” said a farmer of Bairasar Bara.

Seventy-year-old Vijay Devi sought work under the MGNREGS despite her husband being an army pensioner. “We have to buy water from water tanker suppliers. It costs me Rs.600 for 5,000 litres of drinking water. This area is rain-dependent. The underground water is unfit for drinking. We construct underground tanks to store rainwater for drinking but this time the tanks are dry,” she said. “I was paid Rs.20 for digging earth in MGNREGS work. One doesn’t even get vegetables at Rs.20 these days,” she said.

A suicide and its aftermath

In April 2015, the much-televised suicide of farmer Gajendra Chauhan of Rajasthan at a political rally in Delhi drew some attention to the crisis farmers were facing. There are several others like him who are pushed to the brink. “The biggest blow a farmer receives is the low prices for his produce. The seeds for the bajra crop cost Rs.150 a kg and after it is harvested, the grain sells at Rs.12-13 a kg,” said Ram Singh. The compensation rate for damaged gram crop was reduced from Rs.11,000 to Rs.3,400 a hectare when the BJP government took over in the State. After a huge protest by the Kisan Sabha, it was restored.

Adding to the farmers’ woes is the menace of stray animals, the deer and the neelgai that regularly ravage standing crops, and cattle that have outgrown their utility and are proving to be a liability for the farmers. The ban on the sale and transport of cattle has made things worse. Rajasthan is the only State to have a department for the preservation of cows and a Minister in charge of it. In October 2015, the government moved amendments to the Rajasthan Bovine Animals, Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export Act, 1995, tightening its punitive provisions. The move affected the livelihoods of many people, especially Dalits who dealt in flaying and trade of cattle skin and nomadic herders who made a living buying and selling livestock.

Rajasthan has the largest cattle population in the country. The declaration of the camel as a State animal also complicated matters. The sale of camels used to fetch anything between Rs.15,000 and Rs.20,000. Farmers now find it difficult to sell the animal for fear of being hauled up by the authorities.

“We respect the cow, but it is difficult for farmers to provide for them when they themselves are on the brink of starvation. Kaala dhan khatey mein nahin aaya, par kaalia [bull] kheton mein ghus aaya hai [black money has not reached the accounts of the people but the bull has entered the fields],” said Ram Singh in Rajgarh, recalling the promise that the BJP had made at the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections about getting back black money stashed abroad. Stray bulls, he said, attacked people during day and cattle entered their fields at night.

Amra Ram, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, said the government needed to step up works under the MGNREGS. Some 11 lakh farmers had been identified by the government as entitled to compensation for crop damage in the rabi season (2014-15), but they got nothing, he said. No drought relief work had been initiated in the State, he said, adding that according to the latest Census, landlessness among farmers was as high as 50 per cent.





ODISHA



Lip service

By Prafulla Das

Burdened by debt and crop failure because of drought, some 200 farmers have killed themselves in Odisha since September. Thikadar Sahu of Tungibandhli village in Bargarh district is one of them.

His widow, Pushpanjali, finds it difficult to make ends meet. Tears stream down her face as she speaks about how the district administration, which probed her husband’s death, concluded that Thikadar was an alcoholic. She denies that he was one.

Thikadar had taken loans amounting to Rs.1.5 lakh. Paddy and other crops on six acres of land belonging to him and his elder brother, a physically challenged man, were damaged because of scanty rainfall. He consumed pesticide in his paddy fields and died in hospital on November 2.

The only assistance that has reached Pushpanjali is the Rs.10,000 released from the Red Cross fund and the Rs.2,000 that came under the Harishchandra Yojana for conducting the last rites of her husband. She and her two daughters now stay with her parents in their house.

Significantly, in all farmer suicide cases that the government got investigated through District Collectors, the reports have concluded that they had nothing to do with crop loss or debt burden.

But the facts on the ground appear to be different. Erratic and deficient rainfall during the south-west monsoon affected the kharif crop badly. The dry spell continued from July to November, which is critical for kharif farming. The rainfall deficit was 25.1 per cent in August, 77.9 per cent in October and 80.7 per cent in November. According to the final memorandum on drought submitted by the State government to the Centre, 15,35,902 hectares of crop area in 29,176 villages in 28 out of 30 districts suffered 33 per cent damage or above.

With the operational cost of paddy cultivation leapfrogging over the years, rural indebtedness has been worsening in almost all parts of Odisha. Its impact is visible as farmers take loans from private moneylenders, microfinance companies and women’s self-help groups at usurious rates of interest for agricultural activities. The poor presence of banks in rural areas forces them to look at other sources for loans.

The banks pay no heed to the State government’s demand to open branches in rural areas. A five-year action plan was drawn up under which different banks were to open brick-and-mortar branches in 4,597 uncovered gram panchayats with infrastructure support from the government. As against the target of 1,118 branches for 2014-15, only 119 branches were opened that year. Although deposits increased by 15.67 per cent in 2014-15, advances recorded a negative growth of 0.77 per cent over the previous year in the State. As agri-businesses avail themselves of credit more than the actual farmers, banks are situated far away from the villages and people have to cover some 20 km to access their savings bank accounts.

Despite the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government’s tall claims, irrigation remains a neglected area. Out of the 314 blocks, 115 are yet to achieve irrigation potential.

Many minor irrigation projects that have been completed in Bargarh and other districts are waiting for canals to be dug to take water to the fields. Rampant corruption and lack of power supply have also delayed the digging of hundreds of bore wells where farmers use groundwater for agriculture.

The decline of irrigation in agriculture can be gauged by the power consumption in the State, which increased from 8,144 million units in 2005-06 to 14,213 million units in 2013-14. However, in the corresponding years the share of irrigation and agriculture sector in total power consumption declined from 1.68 per cent to 1.31 per cent.

Agriculture has also become non-remunerative because of the rising cost of farm input and the wage component. Low minimum support price (MSP), faulty procurement policy, and marketisation of health and education have worsened the situation. In most places, farmers are forced to sell their produce below the MSP.

The condition of sharecroppers, whose number has been growing with the land-owning class shifting to other occupations, has been worsening year after year. They cannot get loans from any bank since they do not own land. In Odisha, sharecroppers are not legally recognised as farmers.

Drought has also led to large-scale migration. Hundreds of small and marginal farmers have left their homes and migrated to other States to earn their livelihood, to return before the next monsoon.

Though Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has been claiming to be giving priority to farmers by creating a separate budget for agriculture, he has not visited the house of any farmer who committed suicide. He has been prompt to order an inquiry or set up a judicial probe panel in order to avoid public condemnation in any controversy but he has not done so in the case of farmer suicides. And in denial over farmer suicides, Naveen Patnaik has been announcing packages for farmers through publicity campaigns and farmers’ rallies.

Since Bargarh has reported the most number of suicides in the State, leaders of political parties are making a beeline for it. After Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited in September the house of a farmer who had committed suicide, Naveen Patnaik addressed a farmers’ rally in November. The BJP also organised a farmers’ convention, which was addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The political parties are now busy organising padayatras in different regions of the State. If only they walked the talk.





TELANGANA



Undeclared drought

By Kunal Shankar

Lakshman lake in Chintapatla, about an hour’s drive south of Hyderabad, remains as parched as it was on January 13, 2015—when this correspondent last visited the village. About half a foot of earth has been removed by earth movers from the lakebed unevenly. Saali lake, about 20 km away at Medipally, looks no different. Both the villages are located in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy district. The earth-removing work is part of the ongoing Mission Kakatiya, the first Telangana government’s ambitious five-year irrigation and groundwater recharge project, which now seems like a futile exercise as the entire State is reeling under one of the worst droughts it has witnessed.

The mission aims to restore the elaborate interconnected tank irrigation system, which largely depends on rainfall and a few tributaries of the Krishna and the Godavari—the two main rivers flowing through the State. The project seems to have hit a roadblock with the monsoon playing truant. R. Vidyasagar Rao, the adviser on irrigation to the Telangana government, told this correspondent last year: “We are looking at connecting the tank system to the nearest rivulet. Not immediately, but we are considering this.” This appears to be largely on paper.

What Mission Kakatiya did achieve was to create a flurry of activity in the rural hinterlands of Telangana’s semi-arid, rocky terrain. The thousands of crores of rupees that were pumped into the scheme did not create jobs for the local people but gave them a sense of being noticed by the government, which was sorely lacking earlier. This, coupled with the deferred loan waiver scheme rolled out by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)-led government, formed part of the initial high that Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao was riding on. The situation now has brought him down to earth.

Venkataiah Piratti, in his forties, has two college-going sons and a daughter. He was upbeat last year, hoping that the lake restoration and loan waiver schemes would bring good tidings. But things have not looked up. The loans have only been waived partially. The paddy crop he cultivated in two acres of land has failed, and he now makes ends meet by tapping toddy. His wife, Yadamma, works in the recently enhanced rural employment guarantee projects. Yacharam, where Chintapatla is located, was not one of Ranga Reddy’s 37 mandals where the scheme was not being implemented a year ago, when the TRS government concurred with the BJP-led government at the Centre on the conclusion that the job creation project had “failed”. Only 70 of the 448 mandals have been selected for implementation of the project.

A reverse osmosis plant installed in late 2014, under the corporate social responsibility initiative of the public sector NTPC is in disrepair, and Chintapatla’s 5,000-odd people have returned to consuming high-fluoride content bore well water mixed with the ‘A’ grade Krishna water meant to quench Hyderabad’s thirst. They receive the Krishna water once in three days and have to ensure that it is pumped up to the overhead tank in the three hours that they have domestic power supply. Another three hours of power supply at night is all the electricity they get. The State government has made it a point to talk about uninterrupted power supply for irrigation purposes, but there is no water left to pump into the fields. Telangana has the second highest incidence of fluorosis in India, affecting nearly two million people.

Telangana sits in a drought-prone region. Several districts have been generally declared drought-hit by most of the governments that ruled undivided Andhra Pradesh. But Telangana’s first government did not declare a drought last year, despite the severe drought-like conditions prevailing across the State. Critics say that this is to deflect attention from the virtual collapse of the State’s rural economy.

A region is declared drought-hit in order to increase assistance to the affected regions and seek Central support to regenerate non-agricultural economic activities. The State’s Principal Revenue Secretary, B.R. Meena, said 231 of Telangana’s 464 mandals have been declared drought-hit this year (2015-16). But Sarampally Malla Reddy of the AIKS claims that “the District Collectors’ report to the State government identified 418 affected mandals. Why is the government trying to hide what is there for all to see?” Another high-ranking government official, who did want to be named, said: “All mandals, except a few in the Godavari river catchment area, are drought-hit.” Sources in the government say that a Central team, which conducted field surveys in December last year, has reported that the drought is of “high severity” but the assistance given by New Delhi, Rs.791 crore, is not commensurate with the intensity of the problem. The State had sought Rs.2,500 crore.

Wrangling over these numbers take attention away from the unfolding human tragedy of mass migration, bone deformities caused by the consumption of high fluoride-laden water and open bore well related death, not to mention record-breaking number of farmers’ suicides, which the government continues to deny.

Srinivasan and his wife, Dhanalakshmi, are in their early 30s and are part of a small landowning farming family in rural Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh unable to repay the loans they took to cultivate paddy and cotton. They moved to Hyderabad’s upscale Jubilee Hills area along with their son and a daughter about a year ago. The crops failed due to lack of rains in 2014, and they could not bear being hounded by the private moneylender. Dhanalakshmi has a hectic life now shuttling between homes in the mornings to work as a domestic help, and Srinivasan works as a security guard at the apartment complex where they live. Together they make about Rs.12,000 a month, and they make it a point to send home some money every month. There are many such stories in the region. Malla Reddy says the AIKS’ surveys suggest a particularly bad situation this year, with “13 lakh villagers who have migrated in the past four months alone”. There are no official figures, however, to counter or buttress this claim.

An overwhelming 70 per cent of Telangana’s irrigation needs are met by underground water sources, according to the Central Ground Water Board. The United Nations water resource indicators say eight of Telangana’s 10 districts are water-scarce. Sambaiah of the State’s Ground Water Department told Frontline last year that Telangana’s average groundwater utilisation was 58 per cent as of 2012. “Because of overexploitation, groundwater levels have been depleting year on year. In areas such as Medak this exceeds 100 per cent, and it is beyond replenishable levels.” He says this has only become worse this year.

Problems in the implementation of Mission Kakatiya have accentuated tensions between wealthy tractor-owning farmers and those who have small holdings. For instance, excavated sand is left uncleared leaving it to the villages to handle. There are reports of exorbitant rates being charged to transport the sand. The scheme is also criticised as one meant to “rehabilitate TRS partymen”. Cattle owners complain that they have no fodder and water and demand an increase in input subsidies. Ranula Jungaiah, a member of Sheep and Goat Owners Union of Telangana, said: “Over 50,000 families depend on sheep and goat rearing in Ibrahimpatnam mandal [in Ranga Reddy district] alone.” The State is one of the highest consumers of buffalo and goat meat in the country and is one of its main exporters as well. Madhusudhan Reddy’s family owns four acres of land, of which three are used for growing fodder for the 15 cows and three buffaloes they own, and another acre for a poultry farm with 10,000 chicken. He said: “To procure one litre of milk, we have to spend Rs.20. Each cow gives milk only for six months and produces about 10 litres a day. They spend Rs.300 a day to maintain each cow. We are taking loans to pay for a loss of Rs.100 everyday. We need a controlled milk market and enhancement of procurement prices.” The government claims that fodder is being made available now at cheap rates across the State.

At 60, Madhusudhan Reddy has left the business to his sons. Sitting by Pedda Cheruvu, or Big Lake, where he grew up, he remembers an incident when a helicopter drowned there, and “it could not be found”. Indeed Pedda Cheruvu is as stunning and as parched as Lakshman lake. The government says its renovation is being taken up on a priority basis with the sanctioning of Rs.29 crore, the highest for any lake restoration project so far, claims Sridhar Rao Deshpande at the Irrigation Department.





MAHARASHTRA





Raining schemes

By Lyla Bavadam

The winter morning has a sharp edge to it. Anwar Shaikh clutches his well-worn blanket around him as he herds his goats towards a lake. The animals are skinny, and Shaikh explains that chara (feed) has not been as plentiful as usual. His goats spread out to graze and he commented: “It’s unusual, you know, for a goat to be skinny. They normally eat everything. Other animals are more particular, but a goat will devour whatever it finds and it’s so flexible too, reaching up high to grab leaves. But these days even the goats have a problem finding adequate food.”

Mist hangs above the small waterbody that gives this hamlet in Ahmednagar district its name of Kapurwadi. Charged by an underground spring, the lake is usually full in winter and populated with migratory birds. Winter mornings are generally full of bird sounds and of pumps drawing water for the fields. This year it is just the birds. The pumps are silent because there has been no rabi (winter) sowing. The memory of a withering kharif (summer-monsoon) crop through a dry, burning July and August scared off farmers who say they preferred to conserve existing water supplies for their homes and animals rather than plant the winter crop.

This part of western Maharashtra that borders Marathwada is chronically water deficient, but even by local standards the rainfall in 2015 was poor. June saw 103.5 per cent of the normal, July fell to 32.3 per cent, August and September rose to 55 and 75 per cent respectively, but October dropped to less than 50 per cent. The overall reading for these five months stands at slightly below 60 per cent of the normal long-term average. While this may sound acceptable for the average person, it was bad news for farmers since it signalled an agricultural drought.

The United States-based National Drought Mitigation Centre said: “Agricultural drought links various characteristics of meteorological (or hydrological) drought to agricultural impacts, focussing on precipitation shortages…. A good definition of agricultural drought should be able to account for the variable susceptibility of crops during different stages of crop development, from emergence to maturity. Deficient topsoil moisture at planting may hinder germination, leading to low plant populations per hectare and a reduction of final yield.” Shaikh’s way of saying it is more concise: “Last year we had good rain… it’s just that it came at the wrong time for the crop.”

For a farmer, the quantum of rain is as crucial as the period in which it rains. Since June bode well in 2015, most of the kharif sowing was done, but the reduced rainfall from July to August practically destroyed the crop. The recovery of the monsoon in September persuaded some farmers to plant the rabi crop, but October’s dry spell put paid to their hopes of recovering from the kharif losses. Those who did sow rabi say that the crop was scanty and of poor quality and had to be sold as animal feed.

By October, Maharashtra had declared 14,708 villages drought- and scarcity-affected after using the traditional paisewari system. This is essentially an eye estimate of the value of the crop. Government officials do it in every village just before the harvest of the kharif crop. If the crop estimate is less than 50 per cent of the average of the past decade, then the area is considered drought-affected.

Though the recurrence of scarcity and drought is part of a natural process, there are unsettling changes that farmers have noticed. Rohidas Khapre has lived all of his 70 plus years in Shirur. He has seen it change from a village to a town. Out in his fields a few kilometres from the town, he draws attention to a stream bed which is a tributary of the Ghod river. “It was always too small to be extensively used, but the animals drank from it and it regenerated the underground water and our wells. Now this stream rarely flows. The soil is dry. The wells have little water. There is less rain. And our bore wells go deeper and deeper. Where will water come from finally?” he asks. Clearly, farmers are only too aware of the spectre of climate change even if they do not have a name for it.

Rain-shadow area

Maharashtra has the second highest agricultural output in the country and the largest volume of water for irrigation, but a big part of the State is in a rain-shadow area and its irrigation distribution network is poor, with a tendency to favour big landlords and water-guzzling crops. The State government’s answer to agricultural water woes is the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (Programme for Irrigated Farmland), started last year. It focusses on cleaning up old tanks, broadening streams, desilting canals, making small bunds, and so on. It is not a new idea, just a new name.

At its start, the programme selected the worst-affected areas, including Ahmednagar district. The district has the second largest number of Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan works. The primary criticism against the programme is that since it focusses on existing waterbodies it ends up benefiting farmers with large landholdings, who usually have their land alongside waterbodies.

A field-level worker in Ahmednagar district spoke passionately and anonymously, saying: “Water management has to be an integrated approach. You have to think like a raindrop does. When it falls it percolates into the soil and follows the contours of the land to join water reserves below. Water follows a course over ground and underground. It doesn’t understand our borders of districts and taluks. Party politics should not come in the way of water management. The classical watershed system has to be mapped and followed and only then are you maximising water use. And at the same time we need to create holding bodies of water and plant more trees. It is a complex universe and we are damaging it and thinking that stopgap measures like Jal Shivar, Mahatma Phule Jal Bhumi and the Intensive Irrigation Development Programme [all precursors of the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan] will suffice. They will not!”

Sadashiv Ghore, 85, from Shirur said: “Older models of water management were very effective. My grandfather used to insist that the whole village get together and clean out tanks, nullahs, streams and wells every year. As children we would be lowered into wells when the water was low to see how much mud had gathered. No one does that any more. There is no more community spirit in farming.”

Maharashtra’s Jalyukt Shivar programme aims to make the State drought free by 2019. Many say that it is overambitious since it will have to irrigate close to 20,000 villages in 22 chronically drought-affected districts. Some months ago, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that 40,000 small watershed projects had been completed under the programme, adding almost 25,000 million cubic feet to the State’s water storage capacity. For the more than 10 million small farmers who have holdings of five acres or less, this is just another statistic that does little to alleviate the recurring agricultural drought that blights their lives.





KARNATAKA



Water woes

By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

THE residents of Hanchinal, a tiny village with a population of approximately 3,500, located in Shahpur taluk in Yadgir district of Karnataka, have a horrific memory of the drought that hit the region in 2015. “The cotton crop that I had sown was lost completely,” said Raghavendra Hullepa, a 23-year-old farmer belonging to the backward Uppara caste. He owns eight acres (3.2 hectares) of dry land. “I also grow chillies and jowar [sorghum] but the rains failed. What is the point of owning agricultural land if there is no water available for irrigation? I might as well migrate to Bengaluru and become a construction labourer,” he said.

Hullepa’s story is not unique in the region. Srinivas Kulkarni, a-23-year-old Brahmin, left the village a few years ago to pursue his studies in Tumakuru in southern Karnataka as he was not keen on continuing the family occupation of farming. (Yadgir does not have good facilities for higher education.) He wishes to return once he has a stable income as a salaried professional. Kulkarni, who was on a visit to the village, told Frontline about a range of problems affecting agriculture. The lack of a regular source of water topped that list.

The Krishna and Bheema rivers flow through the district, but since Hanchinal is situated about 25 km from both rivers, the village has no natural irrigation facilities. Only five farmers have bore wells in the village. The regular three-phase power supply needed to pump water is unstable. This means that the monsoon rains are key to the agricultural fortunes of the village. Chickpea, corn and moong dal are some of the other crops grown in the village in rotation with the chief cash crop, cotton.

The story of the rural community in the neighbouring Raichur district is the same. Some 40 km from Hanchinal in Muranpur village, Hanumantharaya Nayaka, 60, a relatively prosperous farmer who owns 25 acres (10 hectares) of dry land, said the drought in 2015 was the worst that he had seen in a long time. He said: “Drought is a common phenomenon in the region but the one that visited us in 2015 was devastating. The last time the region experienced a similar condition was in the 1970s.” Nayaka belongs to a dominant caste among the Scheduled Tribes in the region.

Yadgir, along with Koppal, Raichur, Bidar, Bagalkote and Gulbarga districts in the north-eastern region of the State along the Telangana border, is part of a backward region. The district routinely figures among the bottom three on all human development indices in the State. When the Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav began his nation-wide Samvedna Yatra on October 2, 2015, to understand the extent of the agricultural crisis that had gripped almost half the country, he chose Yadgir as his starting point precisely for these reasons.

Karnataka was one of the first States to declare itself drought-hit (27 of its 30 districts were affected by drought) and seek relief from the Centre in September last year. According to official estimates, Karnataka suffered a damage of Rs.14,471 crore as kharif crops grown on 3.2 million hectares could not be harvested. The government sought a relief of Rs.3,050 crore but the Centre approved only Rs.1,540 crore.

Subhash Aikur, the Yadgir district president of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (Karnataka State Farmers’ Organisation), said this meant farmers would be paid a paltry Rs.4,500 for every hectare of land that is declared drought-hit. Hullepa said he got only Rs.3,500 for a hectare.

A small farmer like Hullepa spends approximately Rs.25,000 as input cost to cultivate an acre of cotton. This includes costs of components such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport and labour. Agents at the local Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) allow the farmer to buy inputs from them on credit at an interest rate of 3 per cent, to be returned as soon as the crop is harvested. When crops fail, as they did in last year’s kharif season, the farmers are still expected to repay the loan. “If we don’t repay our loans to the agents at the APMC, we are threatened,” said Hullepa. In the case of Nayaka, the problem was worse as he had grown the genetically modified Bt Cotton, and there was no yield. Farmers complained of a nexus between the APMC agents, bureaucrats of the Agriculture Department and local politicians, who were exploiting farmers even during droughts. This accusation could not be verified, but farmers explained that prices were manipulated to take advantage of the desperation of farmers to sell their harvested crop.

The crisis in agriculture is leading to distress migration. Almost 50 per cent of the residents of Hanchinal have migrated to Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad and Mumbai in the past 10 years to work as construction labourers, gardeners, or waiters. “As their land is left fallow, no one even wants to take it on lease or rent,” said Hullepa.

What Hanchinal urgently requires is regular water supply to stave off the drought-like conditions and an assurance that a scientific price will be fixed for their produce so that there is some income stability. Drought relief should take into account the actual input costs incurred and loans need to be restructured accordingly. These demands of the farmers were echoed in a letter Yogendra Yadav wrote to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah after his tour of the Yadgir villages.

The retreating monsoon, which allows farmers to sow the rabi crop, has also not been satisfactory this season. Karnataka became the first State to declare that the rabi crop had failed in 70 per cent of its sown area. Nayaka said: “We heard about the floods in Chennai. If we had got even 5 per cent of that rain, we could have saved our rabi crops.”

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