A heart-rending revelation of the severe drought situation that occurs in a few parts of Maharashtra, forcing a spate of farmer suicides.
Here is a true story that gives grim details of my own father, a small-time farmer from Parbhani district, who is presently involved in a life-and-death battle as he and a whole lot of other farmers struggle to deal with the catastrophic effects of the severe drought that has adversely affected the Marathwada region
Unusually, I received a missed call from my father. That was his first ever phone call or missed call, term it what you will, ever since he bought a mobilephone. For generations, in what has followed as an unwavering practice, father and son avoid speaking directly to each other. Our lines of communication are mainly through my mother or uncle. Though more than a trifle absurd, this is a practice which has been followed for many years.
I called him immediately. My father is a small-time farmer from a village in Parbhani district in Marathwada which is notorious for recurring droughts and farmer suicides. “I am selling a bull and a cow,” he said. Though I did not agree with his thought, I said, “As you deem right!” The call was terminated in a matter of 90 seconds or so.
After that brief conversation, I promptly called my neighbour and asked him to connect me to my mother. However, my mother did not come to attend the call. The neighbour then informed me that she heard my mother and father have a bitter quarrel the previous night.
My cousin also told me that my father had sold our bull and a cow to a butcher and had already taken issar (advance money) though my mother is totally against this idea, which was the prime reason for the bitter spat. No one had food for two days. If humans were forced to go hungry, one can easily gauge the fate of the cattle.
My father is broke, broken down, call it what you will, lurching from one financial mishap to the other, even as Mother Nature has time and again, buried his dreams in what was a rather unfortunate hailstorm. In March this year, a hailstorm washed away all his crops, just a few week before the harvest. What’s worse, this scenario has been repeating itself for the last three years. Every year, he is going from bad to worse, or should it really be WORST.
As he could not bear to see his bullock and cow dying without food and water, he decided to sell them off to a butcher. He thinks, in this case these animals will have at least a decent death rather than suffering of hunger for days on end.
My mother though had a different perspective. She calculated that we possess a small quantity of kadaba (dry straw of jowar preserved from last year) and little kadol (green grass) which will effectively a month and a half. Meanwhile, sarkar (government) will make some provision for the fodder. She heard whilst listening to the news that Bihar government had provided fodder for animal during the tenure of Lalu Prasad Yadav, and was hoping that the state government does likewise.
Father who is more realistic said that during crisis, government schemes do not work, at least in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra. In case the government provides fodder, it will be too late as by that time the animals would have died. So a realistic option is to sell them off to the butcher.
For three consecutive years, Marathwada is reeling under severe drought and hail storms. In 2012, monsoon was below average in the state. Several families had migrated to Pune-Nashik and Mumbai in search of bread and employment. Meanwhile, Mumbai had faced 10 per cent water cut during May and June.
In 2013, there was a bountiful monsoon which gave farmers fresh hope that they will get good rabi crops. Things went very smooth and farmers were very happy when disaster in the form of a hailstorm struck. In the second week of March, when the wheat and jowar crops were ripe for harvest, the hail storm arrived. The entire crop was washed away just a few weeks before the potential harvest. Hope disappeared and left tens of thousands of farmers devastated.
Both soldiers and farmers have a short-term memory. They forget the sorrow, immediately bounce back to work and toil. Again there was hope of a good monsoon in 2014. Unfortunately this monsoon turned to be the worst monsoon in the last half century, at least for Marathwada.
In 2014, monsoon was below average. The Indian Meteorological Department quoted around 41 to 45 per cent rainfall of average annual rainfall, whereas the state government quoted 52 per cent annual rainfall in Marathwada region. Mumbai did not realise it because of the newly commissioned Middle Vaitarna lake to hold water and augment the water supply in the city. If not for Middle Vaitarna, Mumbai would have realised the severity of the drought.
A case study of my father’s sowing woes, as it were.
In the second part of fiscal year 2013-14 – the rabi season, my father sowed jowar, wheat and harbara. For one acre of jowar, he spent Rs 484 for a 4 kg bag of seeds. Travelling cost to the State Seeds Corporation center at district place was Rs 70. He skipped lunch that day to avoid extra expenses.
Sowing by tractor (labour is not available in villages as many villagers have migrated to cities) cost him Rs 950, fertilizer Rs 1,400, rasani (levelling of ground) Rs 450, nindan (rooting out weed by labour) Rs 1,600, harvesting Rs 1,800 (Rs 1,400 for labour and Rs 400 for harvester machine).
All was well. He was expecting good harvest. Suddenly came the hail storm. Crops were buried under a six-inch layer of ice. At the end of the day he had just 300 kg of jowar, where otherwise he was expecting 900 to 1,100 kg.
Quality was very poor since the crop was buried under ice, and the colour metamorphosed from white to black. So there were no takers for jowar.
He had to sell the jowar at a low market price to initially meet the cost of labour and harvesting machine. Finally, after a lot of negotiations, he sold it off for Rs 8 per kg. (Seed was obtained at Rs 121 per kg). The 300 kg of jowar when counted in the market weighed only 290 kg. There was a direct loss of 10 kg due to faulty measurements.
In this entire business, he spent Rs 6,754 and revenue was only Rs 2,240. Husband, wife and two bulls worked together for six-seven months from morning to evening without any salary, TA, DA or allowance, at the end of which they did not get a single penny as profit. Instead, they incurred a loss of Rs 4,514 for every acre of crop. Considering three acres of jowar, a total loss of Rs 13,542 was incurred.
This is not a first-time loss, it is a recurring loss and the burden of debt has been increasing which lead to many drastic steps taken by farmers in this area.
After staging many morchas, which also involved beating and manhandling of revenue officials, this sensitive issue caught the attention of the state government. Then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan declared some compensation for farmers, with the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections just two and six months away respectively.
Officially my father got Rs 4,000 per acre compensation against jawar. Actually, he got only Rs 3,500 in hand. Even the ‘Zero Talathi’ (unofficial assistant of Talathi) chased my father till his residence. Finally my father was forced to pay Rs 20 to him.
The worse is yet to come. The Parbhani district collector is a young man from Uttar Pradesh, in his mid 30s who was ‘transferred’ from Bhandara district ‘over some issues’ to Parbhani district. In his infinite wisdom, the collector declared that the hail storm had not affected wheat and harbhara (gram) crop.
On the basis of limited and selected survey, this gentleman took a blanket decision not to give compensation against the damage to wheat and harbhara crop.
How can anyone explain to this young collector that plants of wheat and harbhara are very delicate (10 times more delicate as compared to jowar) and prone to take a severe beating even in a small storm? Since the district boss took a decision high-highhandedly, farmers could do nothing except vent their frustration on junior revenue officials by beating and manhandling them.
When the Central government sent a delegation to see the situation in Vidharbha and Marathwada, then Chief Secretary J S Saharia instructed that survey of “affected farmers should not be just an eyewash” during his briefing to all district collectors. He called for a more realistic survey.
Even Saharia shared his experience that Talathi and Tahsildar (junior revenue officials) don’t go out of their offices or merely take a motor ride around farms close to roads and make their survey from air conditioned rooms. However, no one paid heed to Saharia’s words of wisdom.
Last summer, particularly April and May proved to be very tough for me and my friends (first generation migrated to Mumbai). Every Sunday, we would alternately go home fearing that our parents had taken some drastic steps. We used to counsel them. “Next year we will have good monsoon and good harvest,” we would say.
Unfortunately, next monsoon turned to be worse. The Indian Meteorological department had warned of below normal rainfall. Total rainfall was recorded 42 per cent below average in Marathwada. Even worse than the 2012 monsoon. I asked my father not to sow anything citing IMD forecast. After a lot of convincing, he agreed.
Not sowing means, taking a year-long without-pay-break that too when you have a debt to pay and some home loan. It is very tough. If you want answers to why farmers commit suicide, try to be in his shoes, or more specifically simply take a one-year without-pay-break!
Some farmers ventured and sowed soya and cotton in late June and July. Except a few farmers on the river banks, most of them did not see sprout coming out of the seed, which was an additional unbearable loss. Several farms were untouched.
Now, here comes the worst. Earlier, our young collector reportedly declared ‘Aanewari’ as 53 paisa. Aanewari is a process in which District Collector estimates agricultural production in a particular district on the basis of which he levies taxes on water, electricity, land etc on farmers.
A statistical lie follows. In our village, Talathi declared Aanewari as 53 paisa. On district level Aanewari was declared as 53 paisa. I thought it could have been a coincidence. Then, we read, overall rainfall in Aurangabad division was recorded at 53 per cent by state meteorological department.
You are right if you concluded that Aanewari was totted up once again in an air conditioned room, on the basis of simple and logical conclusion of rainfall at the district level.
Even after the hail storm, it was declared at 53 per cent. After the news, villagers forcefully took the Talathi to farms around the villages where the farms were virgin and untouched. At the end of the day, the Talathi agreed to reduce the Aanewari to 43 paisa which he himself thought is too much, but the fear of his seniors meant that he simply could not reduce the figure, and that it had to be realistic.
Any layman can understand that agricultural production is always proportionate to the rain fall. The more rainfall, more harvest. No rain fall, no harvest. However, our revenue officials did not go by this logic. Shiv Sena leaders have forced the government to take a fresh survey and now we learn that Aarewari may decrease.
We are still waiting for Aanewari. Just like Lagaan, if the Anewari remains 53 paisa, then my father has to pay proportionate taxes for land, water and electricity which he has not consumed. The rest of the world is talking about Social Security, but spare a thought for the farmers who don’t have any sort of income, yet are taxed for unconsumed commodities.
With all these recurring problems, I still am not too sure, that my father will not commit suicide in the near future. I have asked my cousin to hack down the old neem tree in the farm and remove the old ceiling fan which I had brought on my first salary for my aging grandfather.
My father is just one of the tens of thousands farmers in Marathwada and other parts of rural Maharashtra!
This article was published in Afternoon DC, Mumbai based English newspaper in two parts on December 30 and 31, 2014. ( http://afternoondc.in/city-news/strife-and-death-ii/article_128116 )