It’s raining DIRTY Money here…

Published: Wed, 09/02/2009 - 10:30 Updated: Fri, 07/03/2015 - 09:14

Even while people in Marathwada and Vidarbha crave for rains and relief, politicians not only hate rains, they are declaring normal rainfall zones as drought-hit. Clearly, financial bounties of drought relief are too high
Aritra Bhattacharya Aurangabad (Maharashtra)

On the afternoon of August 17, the road leading to the Shiva temple in Murdeshwar was choc-a-bloc with traffic - trucks packed with people crawled up the hill, those who alighted from other trucks walked alongside the giant vehicles. It was the day Abdul Sattar, Congress candidate for the forthcoming assembly election in Maharashtra from the region, was to perform rudrabhishek (a form of ritual worship of the Shiva linga to the accompaniment of Vedic mantras).

Those who thronged the temple were mostly farmers, some of whom had travelled over 60 km in trucks; the fuel for the journey being sponsored by some unknown do-gooder. If the farmers were risking losing a day's work on their fields, so be it. They did not have much to save anyway; most of the soyabean, maize, moong and urad crop in their fields had dried, in the absence of any rainfall, and any prospect of irrigation.

The region where the temple lay and from where the farmers came from had been classified as drought-affected by the Maharashtra government, like several other districts across the state. For the man on the street, this was a chance for free travel and a meal (prasad), which is a lot in times of drought. For politicians of Congress-NCP who had organised the ceremony and the public meeting thereafter, it was a show of strength, a time for promises. The farmers didn't have much expectation from their leaders nor were they complaining about the lack of relief activities. They have grown used to the neglect, the cold shoulder from the political class over the years. They, however, were hoping for some rain.

And rain it did, beginning that evening, ending a month-long dry spell in Marathwada (comprising eight districts - Jalna, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Latur, Osmanabad and Beed) and Vidarbha (comprising 11 districts - Amravati, Akola, Bhandara, Buldana, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia, Nagpur, Wardha, Washim, Yavatmal) and rest of the state over the next couple of days.

The rain gods haven't looked away since, prompting questions about whether the drought situation is as bad as the state government is making it out to be. In large parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha, it is. But, in some other areas declared as drought-hit, it isn't. What's prompting the announcements in this crucial election year is the bounty of drought relief funds.

Amar Habib, an activist with the Shetkari Sangathana, explains. "Baarish se politicians ko nuksaan hi hua (The rains have caused losses for our politicians)," he says.

With election to the state assembly scheduled in a couple of months, the connection between drought and politics is that much more crucial. For the honchos and dalals of the outgoing government, it is one last chance to make money. The trick is to get their districts or tehsils declared as drought-affected and pocket as much of the resources earmarked for drought-relief as possible.

The Maharashtra government has so far declared 159 tehsils as drought-affected. It says that another 100 or so tehsils are facing drought-like situation. That makes 259 tehsils out of a total of 353, or roughly two-thirds of the state, drought-hit.

Yet, take a closer look at the list of drought-affected tehsils and you will realise that it is a mix of rain-starved, arid regions where crops have failed miserably. And rain-fed areas that have received near-normal rainfall.

Consider the case of Baramati, which was added to the 'hit list' on August 18. Baramati, the fiefdom of Sharad Pawar and his prosperous family, is one of the few regions in the state to have received close-to-normal rainfall this season. Pawar's daughter and heir, Supriya Sule, represents the constituency in Parliament, and his nephew, Ajit, is the Baramati MLA and state irrigation minister in the Maharashtra government.

Also in the drought-hit list is Indapur, which is represented by state agro-marketing minister, Harshavardhan Patil. Indapur, too, has received near-normal rains this season.

Tasgaon, part of the Sangli district in western Maharashtra, represented by state NCP chief, RR Patil, is also on the list, as is the Yeola taluka in Nashik district. Nashik received rainfall in excess of 20 per cent above the average till August 19, before the latest spell of rains started there, as per the data of the Agricultural Meteorology Division, IMD, Pune. However, thanks to it being represented by Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, Yeola will receive part of the drought-relief bounty as well.

Even though the arrival of rains might have inconvenienced the netas playing politics over which tehsil to declare drought-hit, it arrived in time, in some ways, to save the lives and livelihoods of people across the state. Habib, Shetkari Sangathana activist, says the rains have helped in three ways: drinking water, fodder for cattle, and, if the rains continue into September, the moisture in the soil will be adequate for sowing during the next rabi season.

The rains have failed to save a majority of the soyabean, moong, urad and jowar crop. This is, especially, true of the Marathwada region, which has been more affected by the drought than the neighbouring Vidarbha region.

Says Dr R Rama Kumar, economist and assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, "Jowar, urad and moong crops had flowered a long time back. Before the rains could come, the flowers dried." The crops were not saved by the rains.

Neither the state government, nor the central government has woken up to crop losses. No compensation package has been announced as yet. Only the minimum support price for wheat and paddy, hardly grown in Marathwada and Vidarbha in this season, has been announced.

Consider this: Patangrao Kadam, Minister for Co-operation, Relief, Rehabilitation, at a press briefing during the second week of August, downplayed the drought. "Maybe one-third, or two-third or the state is drought-affected," he said. That's a large margin of error for a state minister. On being pressed for details, he changed the classification from being drought-affected to drought-like to scarcity-hit, not knowing which one to settle for.

Also, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has not yet convened a single high-level meeting focussed on drought management. And, Sharad Pawar, with his interests divided between cash rich cricket and the agriculture ministry, is strikingly missing in action.

Pawar will perhaps understand this analogy from an agriculture officer. The officer, while talking about the effect of drought on rural livelihoods as the downpour started on August 17, said that rains might take care of immediate needs, but it was unlikely to prevent the crisis from manifesting itself later, perhaps around December. "It's like India losing Sehwag early in a limited overs match; others might hold ground for some time, but the chances of a collapse are high," he said. Meaning that the rains and food grains that the rural folk had stocked over the last year might see them through for now, but the crisis will hit sooner rather than later.

This concern is shared by a host of other activists and economists. Among them is Kishor Tiwari, President of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), which works with farmers. He says that despite rains for over a week now, the water level in Vidarbha has not risen. "The parched earth has absorbed all the water. While this might replenish the groundwater level, things are not changing for the better," he says.

The rains, he adds, have only added to the government's hope for an improvement in the situation. "The government is only accounting for water needed by human beings and predicting that the situation will be under control." This same water will have to sustain cattle and wildlife too, something that the government does not account for. Therefore, water scarcity might reappear a couple of months down the line, when the monsoon is over. And then, the real crisis might begin.

Habib shares his fear. He recalls a recent meeting in Karanja (Laad) in Washim district, where widows of farmers who had committed suicide had gathered to discuss issues related to compensation. "I haven't been to such a sabha in my lifetime," he says, recalling the spell of fear imminent in the air that day. He fears that the coming months may lead to more such 'tear-stained' meetings.

Incidentally, in the month of August alone, the farmer suicide toll in Vidarbha and Marathwada has reached 36 and 26 respectively, according to data from the VJAS. These figures could increase in the coming months, warn experts.

Says Rama Kumar, "During droughts such as this, small and marginal farmers generally sell their livestock and/or land, borrow money, and even migrate to urban areas. These sales constitute a permanent depletion of their assets, which means that the ability of the family to support itself over the long term reduces drastically."

So how does one prevent this depletion, and the fall into a deeper crisis? Tiwari of VJAS has a ready answer. If even one per cent of the amount that netas 'harvest' from drought relief funds is invested in rain-water harvesting, it could solve the problem. "Agar boond boond paani roka jaaye, to hi kuch baat ban payegi," he says. If every drop of rain from now till the end of the monsoon is harvested, only then will the farmer be able to grow something and sustain it.

But even the investment might not work, reckons Rama Kumar. "Look at the number of posts of agriculture extension officers lying vacant," he says. Those who are there are unwilling to travel to the countryside since their travel arrears for the last four years have not been paid. Over the years, the institution for agricultural extension has been undermined, left to rot, and there is very little the government is doing to revive them, he adds.

Some water harvesting is happening, as we saw in the Sillod tehsil of Aurangabad district. The Rajiv Gandhi Krishi Vikas Yojana, running under the aegis of the Centre, entitles farmers to a subsidy of Rs 82,000 for a farm pond spread over 10,000 square feet. The amount is lower for smaller ponds. Availing this subsidy, Pundalik Patil Deote, a farmer who owns 40 acres, has built a farm pond. He has installed drip irrigation apparatus, availing a 50 per cent subsidy from the government. The cotton on his field, as a result, is healthy, while in the adjacent field, the cotton plant is one-third the length of Deote's plants, though they were planted at roughly the same time.

There are two problems with such schemes. The farmer first spends from his own pocket to construct the farm pond or install the drips, after which the government reimburses the subsidy amount. And where will a small or marginal farmer, owning 2-3 acres at the most, get land for digging a farm pond?

The schemes are suitable for big farmers, but small and marginal farmers, most vulnerable in times of crisis, will not benefit. We did not notice a single farm pond on a small landholding. The local agriculture department was not promoting cooperatives either so that small farmers could avail of the subsidy somehow.

There are other factors setting the small and marginal farmer back. Take the NREGS, for instance. Even though Maharashtra government has increased minimum wages from Rs 66 to Rs 72 and from Rs 100 to Rs 120 respectively, few are likely to get paid at those rates - given the rampant embezzlement. Also, the central government has ruled out increasing the number of work days each person is entitled to from the current 100 days, something that Rama Kumar reckons is necessary, given the drought. There is also the need to universalise the public distribution system (PDS), he says, since the Centre recently asked states to reduce the number of BPL cards. This is especially important in a drought year, so that grains reach the needy.

In the end, drought or no drought, the regions worst-hit every year are an outcome of lop-sided development, says Shailesh Kumar Barokar, assistant professor at TISS. Barokar hails from Akola district in Vidarbha. "Blaming the monsoon for the crisis is a poor excuse," he says. He cites the lack of strong leadership from Vidarbha as another reason for the region's distress. Also, even though political heavyweights like Ashok Chavan, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Shivraj Patil hail from Marathwada, there is no political will or unity among the leaders to fight the crisis.

Even while people in Marathwada and Vidarbha crave for rains and relief, politicians not only hate rains, they are declaring normal rainfall zones as drought-hit. Clearly, financial bounties of drought relief are too high Aritra Bhattacharya Aurangabad (Maharashtra)

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This story is from print issue of HardNews