A barren cotton field in Beed district in Maharashtra. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)

Parched Beed Is Caught In A Vicious Cycle Of Drought And Unemployment

A bountiful harvest has eluded Vilas Parjane, 35, for at least a decade. This year could be among the worst. The cotton he had planted this season has already wilted because of poor rain.

Parjane hoped for at least 100 quintals of output from his 20-acre farm in Khalapuri village of Shirur taluk of Beed district—about 380 kilometres east of Mumbai. Now he expects a loss of about Rs 5 lakh. “We got nothing from the rain gods. 100 percent failure.”

Agriculture is the main occupation in this part of central Maharashtra—called Marathwada—with over 80 percent of its population living in rural areas, according to the 2011 census. Acute water scarcity in the region prompted the state to declare Beed, along with 26 other taluks, as drought-hit in November last year. The district—like two-thirds of India’s farmlands that employ over half of the nation’s workforce—depends on monsoons with irrigation levels of barely 20 percent.

The barren cotton field belonging to Vilas Parjane of Khalapuri village in Beed district in Maharashtra. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)
The barren cotton field belonging to Vilas Parjane of Khalapuri village in Beed district in Maharashtra. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)

“Nature hasn’t been very kind to Beed,” said Astik Kumar Pandey, the district collector. The district received only a third of its average rainfall of 666 millimetres last year, he said. “Two major reservoirs and 16 medium projects supply water to the region, but all of them are now running on dead storage (which can’t be drawn out).”

Farmers in the region grow cotton, soybean, jowar and pomegranate—all kharif crops sown in the onset of the monsoon. But Beed—landlocked and in a rain shadow—is at a geographical disadvantage. It received deficient rainfall in the past 10 years, punctuated by three years of drought in 2013, 2016 and 2018. The summer of 2016 was so bad that ‘Jaldoot’—or freight trains with 50 water-filled wagons—had to be sent at least 100 times from Miraj and other parts of the state to the parched region so that people could have water to drink.

Water level has plummeted in this well at a village in Beed district of Maharashtra. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)
Water level has plummeted in this well at a village in Beed district of Maharashtra. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)

Failed crops have led to a spate of suicides as farmers often borrow at usurious rates at the start of the sowing season, resulting in harassment from moneylenders. The Maharashtra government said in the state assembly in 2017 that over 26,000 farmers committed suicide from 2001 to October 2017 due to indebtedness and unproductive land. Revenue Minister Chandrakant Patil said that nearly 580 farmers from Marathwada—115 from Beed alone—committed suicide from January till August 15, 2017.

The situation this year, according to the Cotton Association of India, is expected to send India’s cotton output this season down to a 10-year-low of 328 lakh bales. Maharashtra and Gujarat account for at least half of the nation’s output.

Farmhands Worst Off

Water shortage forced farmers to pause sowing for the rabi, or winter, crop. That means further distress even for relatively well-to-do farmers like Parjane—86 percent of Indian crop growers hold just about 2.7 acres of land, according to the tenth agricultural census. His well has dried up and he is paying Rs 3,000 a day for tanker water to save his pomegranate crop planted in the other 20 acres of his farm. “Around 20 labourers who used to work in our fields are now without jobs,” he said.

It’s such landless farmhands—often left with no earnings—who bear the brunt. They’re forced to migrate to other parts of the state, especially western Maharashtra, for work as sugarcane cutters, often in inhospitable conditions.

A rotting pomegranate in a field belonging to Vilas Parjane of Khalapuri village in Beed district in Maharashtra. (Source: BloombergQuint)
A rotting pomegranate in a field belonging to Vilas Parjane of Khalapuri village in Beed district in Maharashtra. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Nanda Vanzare, 44, is one of them. Her husband died in 2004, leaving behind two daughters and a son. She soon left her home at Khalapuri to work as a sugarcane cutter at a field in Sangli, south Maharashtra, for six months with her 20-year-old son. The work may have been back-breaking and the conditions difficult, but Vanzare needed the job.

The money she had earned in six months helped her repay the loans she had borrowed from different people for her younger daughter’s wedding. But that hasn’t changed her life. “Every day is a struggle and my son has no job.”

Nanda Vanzare cooks a meal of brinjal in her house in Khalapuri village.  (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)
Nanda Vanzare cooks a meal of brinjal in her house in Khalapuri village. (Photo: Ashwini Priolker/BloombergQuint)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ahead of the elections, announced cash handouts under PM-Kisan Yojana to supplement farm incomes. Small and marginal farmers holding cultivable land of less than 2 hectares will receive Rs 2,000 thrice a year.

There are other existing schemes to provide relief. A total of 7,84,000 farmers have received in their bank accounts grants amounting to Rs 428 crore under drought relief grant in Beed district, said Pandey. “And under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (a crop insurance scheme) Rs 277 crore has been given to 7,73,000 farmers in 2017-18.”

But these numbers translate into a few thousand rupees for every farmer—a pittance compared with their losses every season that often run into lakhs of rupees. “I get Rs 600 every month after my husband’s death under Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Pension Scheme,” Vanzare said. “But how can that sustain us? Sometimes we sleep hungry.”

Dire Need Of Jobs

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, was meant to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment every year to adult members of every rural household. But only one in four people registered under the scheme get work in Maharashtra, according to data available on the MNREGA website. In Beed, about one in nine workers gets employed. Of the 9.7 lakh people registered under the act in Beed, nearly 1.3 lakh got work in 2018-19.

“Employment is a dire necessity here,” said Kiran Parjane, sarpanch of Khalapuri. But there has been lack of work under the scheme for the last six months.

“MNREGA is a demand-based scheme. There is enough transparency and accountability,” said District Collector Pandey. “We have given clear instructions to the field machinery that if they find any demand from labourers they should start the work there.” Pandey said that nearly 17,000 wells were dug in Beed district and the focus is now on labour-intensive tasks like desilting water bodies.

Delayed payments, in some cases pending for three years, is another problem.

“In 2016, we had asked the government to give us work under MNREGA for people who had job cards,” said Vishal Deshmukh, a resident of Moha village in Parli taluka. “We built a road leading to a field for 15 days but haven’t received any payments yet.” Deshmukh said that raising complaints in ‘Aaple Sarkar’—the portal of the Maharashtra government—yielded only a promise of resolving the payments and nothing more.

While Moha’s Sarpanch Sudamrao Deshmukh agreed, Pandey denied that. He said a good grievance redressal mechanism exists and that the Block Development Office and taluk-level administration will enquire and decide on merit.

Troubles of Beed farmers may only get worse this year as private weather forecaster Skymet has predicted a below-average monsoon again. Vilas Parjane has lost all hope. “If it doesn’t rain this year, we’ll have to either leave the village or commit suicide.”

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