By Sudeep Mehta
22 Feb 2013
A Vidarbha (Maharashtra, India) -like situation is looming over the Marathwada region in Maharashtra, India where two poor monsoons have taken a toll on the lives of the people. More than 12,000 villages in the region are already struggling with water scarcity and now a famine looks imminent given the extent of crop damage in the last year. The dry spell in the eight districts of the backward Marathwada region could lead to a drought-like situation if it does not rain in the next few days. Maharashtra is facing its worst drought since 1972 and Marathwada is the worst hit. In Aurangabad district, the deficit rainfall in Jalna, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Beed, Latur and Osmanabad was worrisome. Due to unsatisfactory rainfall during the past five weeks, sowing operations are at a standstill in many places in the region and farmers are eagerly awaiting the elusive rains for taking up sowing. Jalna is one of the worst affected districts in the state as even drinking water is not available for the residents. Residents of Jalna get drinking water for 15 minutes once in a fortnight.
Jalna, you hear stories of farmers selling off their cattle to raise desperately needed cash, marriages called-off or another sweet lime or pomegranate plantation destroyed. There are several villages that subsist on one tanker of water a day- that's around 10,000 litres for close to 500 families, which works out to 20 litres for a family. To put things in perspective, the average per person water consumption in Mumbai (India) is 200 litres.
The main source of water in Marathwada was ground water, which has all but disappeared. Till 1985, it was possible to strike water at 100-125 feet; now you don't even touch moist soil at 1000 feet.
About 16,000 hectares of Sorghum and 22,000 hectares of cotton were destroyed in Shirur district alone. Jalna district, which is known for being the biggest producer of sweet lime, has been the worst-hit in the drought. Sweet lime, grown in about 55,000 hectares in Jalna, has been wiped out completely.
Growing sweet lime is not easy. The tree starts producing fruits only after being well looked after for five years. After the fifth year, the tree produces fruits for the next 25 years. For Jalna farmers, the dead sweet lime trees are a waste of years of hard work. Other crops that have taken a hit include sugarcane and wheat.
"If you put two successive cotton crops and fail then you are in trouble because you have nothing to eat, whereas those who had sowed Sorghum and Millet crops in 2011 and 2012 can at least have something to eat even if half their crop has failed. The same mistake was made by farmers in Vidarbha who paid with their lives," said Raj More, a farmer from Jalna.
While on my return journey from Jalna to Aurangabad, I found Ulhas Shinde, a farmer in Vakulni village, ploughing. I stopped by to ask him why he was doing so when there is no water. Shinde said, "We work round the year despite of the rains. I should plough my field from now. If it rains, I survive, if it doesn't, I die." Municipality there had tankers on roll to transport drinking water to villages. But it does not prove sufficient. "Politicians have only fake concerns and false promises", added Shinde.
To date the worst famine Maharashtra had suffered was in 1972. However, the current drought in the state is set to ensure that people remember 2012 and 2013 for years to come. Almost every family in Marathwada region is spending a substantial part of its salary on buying water. Presently, 900 water tankers were providing drinking water to the affected villages and hamlets in the region, the sources added.
Miles and miles of yellow-brown farmlands on both sides of the road greet us as we drive east to Jalna from Aurangabad. Even in Jafrabad (50kms from Jalna) we found many rivers dried up. Bores are dug up on the dried river bed to draw underground water which too has dried up. Untouched by water for months, we see row after row of dead sweet lime plantations. The last monsoon left a deficit of over 80 percent. Farmers have abandoned cotton plantations. In fact, farmers in fields are hard to spot. The younger ones have migrated to small towns and cities for work; older farmers now work at Government's Employment Guarantee Scheme projects. The next four months will test Marathwada. If it is drought now, what will happen when temperatures soar to 45 degrees Celsius in April-May and June? Desperate farmers are cutting losses by selling cattle at throwaway prices. Since there is no work in the farms, the bulls have become unproductive assets. "What can be a more painful picture then a farmer selling his cattle" says More, a farmer in Jalna. At Ladgaon, near Jalna, we found a fresh construction site. On investigating, we found that it was earlier a farm which was sold off as the land had dried out. Even, the Parli power plant, near Beed has shut down completely last week because it ran out of water after the government decided to stop any release to the plant from Jaikwadi and Mazalgaon dams, its primary source of water. Good time to learn how to shave with just a mug of water.