Maharashtra: Parched, thirsty and Dying

Published: Wed, 05/11/2016 - 08:25 Updated: Fri, 05/13/2016 - 09:38

The drought now covers 28,662 of Maharashtra’s 43,000 villages. That’s a whopping 66 per cent of the rural population. And yet the state government seems utterly clueless and insensitive

Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai 

The focus of the governor’s address on the 56th anniversary of the formation of Maharashtra was spot on. “The government is taking proactive efforts to tackle the severe drought in Marathwada and Vidarbha,” said CH Vidyasagar Rao, speaking at an official programme to mark the occasion in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. “All efforts are being made to provide every kind of help to farmers who are reeling under the fourth consecutive year of scanty rainfall and drought.”

The drought in Maharashtra had already made national headlines: first, when Bombay High Court came down heavily on the state government for wasting a huge quantity of water on the IPL while farmers are reeling due to severe scarcity and even people in Mumbai are not able to access clean drinking water; and then when the state’s Rural Development Minister, Pankaja Munde, chose to click a selfie while on a tour of the parched areas. Droves of journalists from various mainstream media outlets also descended on Latur to report on the crisis and the rise in farmer suicides, thus bringing it into sharper focus.

Therefore, although the affected regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha were more than a 12-hour journey away, it was unsurprising to see the governor accord utmost importance to drought mitigation measures in his official address. It was also not surprising that he did not mention the several ways in which this same government is in fact deepening the crisis, against the better advice of some of its own members and appointees.

The drought now covers 28,662 of Maharashtra’s 43,000 villages. That’s a whopping 66 per cent of the rural population. The last time the Maharashtra government had declared a drought was in October 2015. Then, 14,708 villages had been categorised as drought-affected. Unlike last year, however, Marathwada, comprising eight districts, has been the hardest-hit this year.

The agricultural crisis has been deepening in this region over the past several years. Like in neighbouring Vidarbha, the shift to cash crops made farmers dependent on the market for every input. While their input costs have risen exponentially, falling productivity, deteriorating soil quality and lack of water have hit earnings. The resultant indebtedness has caused largescale distress migration.

The crisis in Marathwada has also triggered rising farmer suicides over the past couple of years. In 2015, the ‘official’ tally of farmer suicides in the region stood at 1,130, not far behind the ‘farmer suicide capital of India’ – Vidarbha – where the figure stood at 1,541.

The situation had reached such alarming proportions that much before this year’s drought, the government had constituted a high-level task force headed by farm activist Kishor Tiwari. In its report, submitted to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in February this year, the Farmers Distress Management Task Force adopted a critical stance on some government policies. Tiwari had said, “It is clear that the government officials, especially at the local levels, have failed to create confidence among farmers regarding several government schemes intended to benefit them. The high rate of suicides only highlights the fact that there was a pressing need to double efforts to reach out to the farmers in every nook and corner of the Marathwada region.”

Three months since the report was submitted, and bang in the middle of the fourth consecutive drought in the region, the government machinery, locally or in Mumbai, remains clueless. In many ways, and, of course, due to water-intensive sugar cooperatives controlled by powerful sugar barons and politicians, the repetitive tragedy is man-made.

The fodder camps are a good starting point to explore this. Everybody recognises the central role they play in a drought, providing farmers and cattle with much needed shelter, food and water at government expense. The government calculates the shortfall in fodder and procures it from other states to keep the camps running in a drought year.

The hitch: government officials working on the ground have absolutely no idea about the availability of fodder in the market because, surprisingly, they don’t have a mechanism to measure it. They rely instead on acerage data from the agriculture department. But the data does not specify how much of the sown jowar and bajra has survived the punishing weather.

With a government groping in the dark, given to sudden unexplained announcements regarding the shutting down of fodder camps, the terrible dance of death holds sway in the villages and fields.

This is precisely what happened in February this year. The district collectors of Osmanabad, Beed and Latur, along with their entourage of officials, were so enthused by unseasonal rains and the resultant sowing activity that they submitted a report to the government saying enough fodder was available. Based on this, just as the drought was baring its fangs in February, the government issued an order asking for cattle camps in the three districts to be shut down!

A major hue and cry across political circles later, the BJP-led government rolled back this decision “in response to immense public demand”. The government machinery, data gathering practices, and a total diconnect between policies and requirement on the ground remain unchanged. Indeed, insiders point out not only a total lack of efficiency and experience, but complete bankruptcy and insensitivity in terms of daily governance. The Pankaja Munde selfie was merely a sign of the times.

This disconnect is apparent in the steps the governor mentioned in his May Day address: “Over 3,350 villages and 5,402 wadas (neighbourhoods) are being supplied with water via tankers, and the government has already spent `459 crore on the exercise. A further `171 crore has been spent on fodder camps in the affected areas, and the state has received central grants worth `3,049 crore to tackle the crisis.”

People with money are buying all the water from tankers; industries and breweries are getting water, and so are large agro-businesses. The logic is simple: if you have the buying power, there’s no drought

Stressing the government’s commitment to farmers, he said, “We have earmarked 2016-17 as Shetkari Swabhimaan Varsha (Farmers’ Pride Year) and all arms of the government are working towards providing them with assistance... Farmers in all 14 districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha are being provided wheat and rice at ` 2 per kg and `3 per kg, respectively.” The government is also working on insuring 1.34 lakh farmers in the state at a cost of `20,000 crore, he said.

Economics is also what Fadnavis is stressing when it comes to fighting the drought. At several public fora and in speeches, he has spoken about the need to extend less extractive terms of credit to farmers. Speaking at a public forum a couple of days before the governor’s address, he said, “We have asked the RBI to sensitise banks to provide loans, and open more branches in the rural areas. Our government has already restructured farm loans and waived interest for the year.”

Statements such as these have been commonplace as an embattled government has tried to fight off the impression that it is not doing enough. A lot of this game of image management has played out on social media, with ministers and leaders posting a flurry of pictures and statements every time a water wagon departs for Latur!

Despite this high-voltage public relations exercise, activists and academics working in the drought-hit areas suggest that the government is simply not doing enough. On the ground, banks remain unwillling to extend loans to un-creditworthy farmers, and access to water depends on proximity to those with entrenched political and social clout. In effect, sharply disadvantaged groups like Dalits, adivasis, single women, children and the old are being pushed to the wall, in relentless despair.

What is more worrying is the drastic cut in the state’s social sector spending this year, as also the government’s refusal to relook at budgetary allocations given the severity of the drought. Experts and members of at least four research teams that toured the area say this will take a heavy toll on vulnerable communities as the crisis increases in this difficult summer.

In a drought year, social sector services assume immense importance. “In vast parts of the state, agriculture has failed, so people need additional work to survive,” says Dr Abhijit More of Jan Arogya Abhiyan, a national body of medical practitioners and activists working on public health. “In addition, there is mass migration due to the drought, which exposes people and communities to health hazards and diseases.”

Dr More says there are five core public services that are crucial to tackling a drought: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), water supply and sanitation, and public health. His list is similar to the one the government-appointed task force headed by Tiwari had made for distress management in its report. It had said the distress management relief plan must cover food security, health services improvement, education, job creation and, of course, reliable farm credit.

Not only has the government chosen to not heed the task force’s recommendation, it has walked in the opposite direction by squeezing funds of several programmes and departments that keep these essential services going. In its Budget for 2016-17, the Maharashtra government cut allocation to several social security programmes. An analysis of the budget by Jaganyacha Hakkacha Andolan (Movement for the Right to Live), of which Dr More is also a part, points out: “Expenditure estimates for social services for Budgetary year 2016‐17 are lower than the social sector expenditure estimates for budget 2015‐16, as a proportion of the total budget as well as taken as proportion of Gross State
Domestic Product.”

Jaganyacha Hakkacha Andolan’s analysis shows allocation for the health sector (public health and medical education) has been cut by 13 per cent. Also, allocation for Women and Child Development (WCD) for 2016‐17 has been slashed by 62 per cent compared to the previous year. “The main component of the reduction is due to a massive cut in the budget for ICDS,” the report points out.

“In the context of the unfolding drought, these cuts will have devastating consequences,” says Dr More. “It’s almost like an invitation to malnutrition.”

Members of at least four teams of researchers who visited the drought-affected areas over the past two months observed that none of the programmes around food security, health services, education, job creation and water supply are working, as they must in this terrible and tragic summer.   

 

Indeed, there’s widespread fudging of muster rolls under MGNREGS, as a team from one of the country’s leading social science institutes found. “Apart from the two-three months’ delay in wages, we also found numerous instances when people’s names had been added to the list of workers without them ever having worked on the said project. There’s massive swindling of money,” says the lead researcher of the team, requesting anonymity since the report is still not in the public domain.

Renu Kakkad, member of a joint team from Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Observer Research Foundation and Community Development Trust that toured the affected regions over the last month, says that single women and their children are among the most vulnerable. “Whether they are divorced, separated, widowed or simply disowned, most of these women have at least 2-3 children living with them. When they, mostly uneducated, don’t find work as farm hands, they have no option but to send the children to earn. This compromises the children’s education,” she says.

She mentions a case from Dhok Nandur village in Aurangabad district. “This lady and her (three) kids were abandoned by the husband several years ago. The family used to get by with whatever the mother earned working as a farm labourer. But, this year, farmers have been telling her that they will only pay her when they get money,” says Kakkad, adding that the family of four survives on `100 for eight days. “There must be at least 20 such cases in every village,” she says. She knows the ground situation because she has visited all the affected districts as part of the team.

She also mentions that, barring the district headquarters and main towns, health facilities in the interior areas are entirely absent. “There are no doctors, no clinics or other facilities,” agrees Dr More. A drought means numerous cases of heatstroke, water-borne diseases, ailments due to lack of water and  hygiene. Often, it is the absence of medical care at the ground level that results in deaths, rather than the severity of the immediate situation. Yet, in government propaganda on drought mitigation, health does not even find mention.

Neither does PDS. Fadnavis had earlier declared there would be universal PDS in Marathwada and Vidarbha, but the governor on May 1 said that subsidised grain was being provided to farmers in the two regions. Although this casts the government in good light, it pushes lakhs of landless peasants and farmhands into a desperate situation with almost no remedy or hope in sight.

The government’s promises regarding farm credit are also exposed as hollow. For one, it is limited to those who have land, leaving the most vulnerable and marginalised sections at the mercy of private moneylenders. Sources in Marathwada also point out that hundreds of indebted people are still being denied loans by banks because they’re not deemed creditworthy. Instead, a range of microfinance companies have opened shop and are lapping up these hapless ‘clients’.

Sampat Kale from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Tuljapur campus in Marathwada says this drought is not about scarcity. Instead, it is about pushing the privatisation of resources a few notches higher.

“Look at what is happening around us. People who have the money are buying all the water they need from tankers; industries and breweries are getting water, and so are large agro-businesses. The logic is simple: if you have the buying power, there’s no drought,” says the faculty member at the rural campus.

The government’s famed delivery of water via the railways and tankers is not faring too well on the ground, with upper caste people and those with political clout becoming the main beneficiaries, with exclusive access to water, and other relief supplies. Kakkad describes how there was a furore in a village after the water tank was placed in a Dalit neighbourhood. “The upper castes in the village were livid. ‘You think we will go near them just to get some water?’ they said.”

Reports from the districts point at how small-time political activists, cutting across party lines, are making a killing, becoming water contractors. Meanwhile, the government goes about business as usual, pumping ‘nationalism’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ at every chance.

In this strange summer, the chief minister showcases the Jalyukt Shivar Programme like a trophy. The project aims to tap water sources at the local level via watersheds. This year, the BJP-led government has undertaken several projects to create watersheds and farm ponds across districts. Most of these are, however, empty. Technically, no water has been made available this year, neither have these projects eased the pressure on unemployment or migration.

Yet, the works under this programme assume pride of place in the government’s drought control efforts. They are promoted relentlessly in the media and a fan following glorifies this mythical miracle. Indeed, word is out that Telangana (with spiralling farmer suicides and severe drought) and Rajasthan with its dry, desert-like conditions and scarcity of water across rural areas, have decided to replicate Jalyukt Shivar in their states! Even as 350 million Indians reel under the drought in sub-human conditions, when it comes to populism and hollow promises, no one can beat the government of the day.

Follow Hardnews on Facebook and Twitter 

The drought now covers 28,662 of Maharashtra’s 43,000 villages. That’s a whopping 66 per cent of the rural population. And yet the state government seems utterly clueless and insensitive
Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai 

Read more stories by Maharashtra: Parched, thirsty and Dying

This story is from print issue of HardNews