Sunday, May 17, 2015

A hail storm; a storm of worries

Sone-Sangvi, Kej, Beed (Maharashtra):

The breeze that began to flow around noon on April 6 had by the evening grown into a heavy storm. Then the hails, the size of mangoes, came pelting down, with rain that lasted until the following evening. When the weather finally calmed down, 55-year-old Chandrakant Ikhe began to count his losses.

“I had no heart to see my farm after this event,” recounts Ikhe, a progressive farmer still to reconcile to his unprecedented loss in those two days. Football size water-melons lay damaged on 16 acres, mauled by the rain of hail, he remembers, countless melons, unfit for consumption, still strewn all over.

“See this?” Ikhe says in frustration, lifting a big melon showing cracks and marks, “it’s all a waste.”

Ikhe’s mental anguish is quite stark: There are long pauses between his sentences; he stares desolately at his forlorn farm with rotting ‘sugar-babies’ (sugar-baby is the melon variety he grew) as far as you can see. His crop worth at least Rs 20-25 lakh went to dumps overnight. “You are seeing 350-400 ton (MT) of melons,” he says of the destroyed crop. In a fortnight, it’d have fetched him Rs 5-6000 per MT.

Some melons escaped the nature’s fury, he says, but they would fetch paltry price. Ikhe will manage to earn barely Rs 1.5 lakh, or less than ten per cent of his estimated returns. That, he adds, is not even his investment costs. It was for the first time he cultivated melons on a big stretch, he says.

From his returns he planned to renovate his house, marry off his only daughter this year, and invest in a new farm technology. “Now the priority is to fix loans,” he says. The plans, alas, are on the hold.

Farming is a risky profession, but Ikhe’s just learnt it’s also a gamble. “Had it rained a week later, I may not have suffered such a big.”

He’s is among a hundred melon growers who suffered big losses in recent hailstorm in this village of Kej Tehsil in Marathwada’s drought-prone Beed district, their loss accentuated by extreme weather events that are occurring at such regularity that farmers like him have no idea how to cope.

Several climate studies point to a sharp rise in extreme weather events in central India, and warn the farmers would be at the receiving end. On the one hand, Marathwada region, of which Beed is a part, is experiencing a continuation of meteorological drought leading to severe water stress; and on the other, sudden climate events like hailstorm in March-April is wrecking irreparable damages to crops.

Sone-Sangvi farmers are not atypical sustenance small or marginal farmers. Most of them grow high-end crops with cutting edge technologies. Their stakes are high, their risks higher.

A few km from Ikhe’s village near Kej town, Waseem Inamdar, 32, is broke too. He shows us around his farm – a picture of devastation. This week, the farm, in the midst of barren land, would have harvested bananas, pomegranates, Kesar mangoes and grapes that had come to harvest, clocking him profits of around Rs 50 lakh, by conservative estimates. Like Ikhe, he too can’t recover his input costs. He spent Rs 20 lakh this year – or almost 40 times the average annual investment that a dry-land cotton farmer of 2-ha land would usually spend on his cotton field in this region to earn Rs 10-20,000/acre. That was mostly on drip sets, digging a few bore-wells, and fertilisers and other inputs. Inamdar’s investment and losses like that of Sone-Sangvi farmers would make a small farmer in Marathwada mighty nervous.

“It was the third and final blow,” Inamdar says showing a banana tree that caved in with the bunch of green bananas that now look like rotting. The first bout of incessant rain came in March first week; then in March end, but the third one on April 6 and 7 came with such strong winds and hails that nothing was left to be salvaged. “Last year too I had suffered damages, but this year’s losses are irrecoverable.”

Inamdar runs a brick kiln and agriculture implements shop. From the profits he made in that business, he bought 53 acres of arid farmland near Kej and developed it into a horticulture farm by putting in big money, in five years. He first developed a banana orchard; then grapes; on a plot of five acres stand the mango plants of exportable Kesar variety, and there are pomegranates too over a six acre plot.

What happened to Ikhe or Inamdar is symbolic of wide-spread damages to crops just before the harvest. In Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, the incessant rains wrecked standing wheat and paddy; in states like Madhya Pradesh; Maharashtra; Telangana, it flattened coarse cereals, oilseeds, potatoes and fruits such as mangoes, bananas and melons. Neither farmers nor government has an idea how to prepare for such a risk. The crop insurance schemes help companies, not farmers, says Ashok Gite, a retired agriculture assistant in Beed’s Salegaon village, seven km from Ikhe’s village. “We need a good insurance policy.”

The climatic aberrations are also threatening economies of regions. Kej Taluka, which derives its name from Kejdi River, provides a green contrast to the large swathes of an arid and dreary Beed, among the driest districts in Maharashtra and part of what is called the rain-shadow zone. That’s because of a dam that came up at the confluence of Manjra and Kejdi rivers, where Sone-Sangvi village once breathed.

In the mid-80s villagers were removed to a new place. Many migrated to Mumbai, Pune or Aurangabad for work. Those like Ikhe, who stayed put, slowly transformed their new farm-lands. The once dry-land farmers switched to growing sugarcane following on the footsteps of their prosperous counterparts in western Maharashtra when sugar mills proliferated around the dam.

Empirical data shows, average annual rainfall in Beed district is less than 600 mm and the number of rainy days, much less than most other regions. In last five years the district has received less than 50 per cent of its annual average rains. Yet (and here’s the root of the problem), Beed grows millions of tonnes of water-guzzling sugarcane to feed about 20 roaring sugar-mills that formed the late Gopinath Munde and late Vilasrao Deshmukh’s political and business empires. The mills are now staring at closure as the acute water-scarcity has begun to finally hit sugarcane cultivation. Neighbouring Osmanabad and Latur districts are also facing drought this year deepening the water crisis to unprecedented levels.

“If I recollect my childhood, I only remember poverty,” remarks Babruvan Kanse, a progressive farmer in Sone-Sangvi who leads a collective of about a hundred horticulturists including Ikhe.

Kanse was first in his village to actually experiment with watermelon cultivation on his farm in 2004 and motivate others to switch to this short-duration fruit from the otherwise water-guzzling sugarcane.

Lack of water, stemming from years of poor monsoon, had already prompted the peasants to look for viable alternatives to sugarcane. Kanse grew water-melons on drip – it required less water and traders came to doorsteps to buy the produce. Melon is a short duration crop. You sow the seeds on the rows of soil beds (some use mulching paper sheets to hold moisture and reduce water use) in January and reap the harvest by mid-April. The yield per acre here stands at 25 MT. At an average Rs 5-6000 per MT (Rs 5-6 a kg), the per-acre returns could be an average Rs 1.25 lakh over just three-four months.

“You make a one-time capital investment on drip sets and a recurring production expenses on seeds and fertilisers and chemicals, and yet you can make good money from this crop,” Kanse explains.

So the shift was swift. Where this village had 150 hectares under sugarcane in the 2001-2002 season it now grows soybeans and pulses in kharif and water-melons in winter. They adopted new technologies – like automated and semi-automated drip sets; mulching papers to increase water efficiency; in-situ water conservation tanks; some have built expensive green poly-houses to grow high-end vegetables such as capsicum – by pledging huge investments from whatever profits they made every year.

“Weather is a new problem,” Kanse says. It barely rains during the monsoon, affecting kharif; then in February-April, sudden hailstorm events wreck the Rabi crop. Water brought him economic prosperity, Kanse says, his new problems are driven by the lack of it.

Ikhe’s 16-acre farm is in the belly of Manjra dam reservoir; sans water this time. This used to be his farm that got ceded for the dam. Some Sone-Sangvi villagers farm in the catchment when water recedes. Many have dug bore-wells in the belly and laid pipes from far away water-sources, desperate for water. If it rained, this area would be under water, Ikhe says. For many years now, it has not rained and the dam never got filled to its capacity even once this past decade. It’s a common refrain in this part.

Ikhe says he dug an open well and several bore-wells on his 16-acre farm in the catchment of the dam when the reservoir dried up. If you stretch his drip pipes end to end, he calculates, they would run 8 km long. Place a water melon every foot, he says, and you will end up counting hundreds. That’s how many have gone waste, he laments. On his five-acre near his new village, there’s nothing growing. Until last year, he grew vegetables, potatoes, sugarcane and even water-melons there – by way of drip-irrigation. He has, like many other farmers in this belt, a semi-automated drip-set. “You set the time and quantity of water to be used; different for different crops and you can single-handedly operate the entire 50-acre stretch with this machine,” Ikhe says.

“We can adopt any technology,” Ikhe says, staring at his melon farm, “how do we conquer weather?”

Read some of my stories on Marathwada crisis here, here, here, and here.

Some water crisis stories are here, here and here.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Land of 'ineligible' suicides

The year was 1997. The month December. Ramdas Amberwar, a lanky 48-year-old farmer in Telang Takli village in Vidarbha's cotton bowl of Yavatmal, consumed a bottle of pesticide and killed himself.

He left a note: the loans are becoming a burden; crop's failing consistently; I can't continue seeing my family in penury.

The last paragraph said: "I wish the government paid attention to our woes."

That week, like Amberwar, three more farmers killed themselves, drawing attention to the "Vidarbha suicides". Until then, the Maharashtra government had said farmer suicides were taking place in Andhra Pradesh, not in the western state.

The circumstances that led to Gajendra Singh Rajput's death at Jantar Mantar are yet to be established conclusively although his letter mentioned "my crop has been destroyed".

Between 1997 and 2013, at least 60,000 farmers are suspected to have committed suicide in Maharashtra. Across India, more than 300,000 farmers - one of the biggest waves of peasant suicides post-Independence - have taken their lives, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annual reports.

The rural peasantry has been moving to small towns or shanties in metros in distress: on average, 2,000 farmers are quitting farming every day, going by the two census reports from 1991.

As many as 15 million farmers (mainly cultivators) have quit agriculture since 1991 - which, in itself, is not undesirable. But where are they heading? Nowhere.

The census reports show that the number of landless workers has grown phenomenally across the country.

Nothing can be more sickening, however, than the jugglery with suicides data and the interpretation. Each year, every state reports suicides by different professionals. Some have done away with the "persons engaged in agriculture" category.

For instance, the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra says only three farmers took their lives in Maharashtra this year, according to Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh's disclosure in the Lok Sabha on Monday.

But reports collated from various newspapers suggest at least 1,000 farmers have killed themselves in three months alone.

So, why did the government report three? Because those are the ones linked to distress, as found by a committee of the district collector, the superintendent of police and the superintending agriculture officer.

Usually, in Maharashtra, a tehsildar goes to the bereaved family, asks about 30 questions (from land ownership to debt) and concludes if it's a "genuine or non-genuine" suicide.

In the past five years, more and more cases are being reported as "non-genuine" or "ineligible". That means, the suicide is genuine but its cause is not linked to agrarian distress. Which further means the case is not fit for the Rs 1 lakh compensation the state awards the family of an "eligible suicide victim".

Many families don't report suicides, fearing a social backlash. If a family has a daughter of marriageable age, chances are that the father's suicide won't be reported: the marriage could be affected.

Some state governments have found the best way to deal with the problem: just don't report farmer suicides. Many states, like Bengal and Chhattisgarh, have not been reporting the statistics to the NCRB in the past few years, saying there are no farmer suicides.

The crisis is one of rural recession in many parts, particularly in rain-fed agriculture regions like Vidarbha, Telangana or Bundelkhand and now Marathwada, leading to depression.

Sujay Patil, a psychiatrist in Akola city, told this reporter in 2006: "There's a wave of depression sweeping the countryside, and the reasons for suicides are rooted in sudden economic shocks."

Patil began to treat clinically depressed farmers free of cost, only to realise a year later that he simply could not deal with the flood of patients at his hospital.

Across India, rural depression is now assuming alarming proportions. Some psychologists equate it with a public health epidemic.

This year's rural distress is somewhat unique on two counts: there is no price and there is no crop. Prices of cash crops have fallen because of global trends and poor quality following unseasonal rain. Foodgrain prices have been ruling low and the government has not raised the minimum support price too much for fear of stoking inflation and hurting the rest of the population.

But, with peasant movements withering away and most leaders moving to urban or semi-urban playing fields, the rural populace has no one else but the government to turn to.

Hundreds of farmers left behind chilling suicide notes, many of them directing their anger and questions at the executive leadership of states. "How long will it take you to act on our problems?" wrote a farmer in December 2004 in a suicide note directed at the chief minister of Maharashtra.

"Sorry," another telling suicide note left behind by a young farmer in Yavatmal for his widow read. "Please get remarried; but not again to a farmer."

Poet-farmer Shrikrisna Kalamb wrote his elegy two days before hanging himself in a village in Vidarbha's Akola district in March 2008, leaving behind his five daughters and wife.

" Me aagala vegala, mahi nyarich jindagani, mahe maran bhi ahe jase avakali paani (I am unusual, just as my life has been; and like the incessant rain, my death too will be like a sudden event)."

Kalamb's poems - now set to be published as a compendium - reflect the life and times of a farmer.

In a poem in Marathi's Warhadi dialect, Kalamb wrote of a farmer caught in the vortex of woes: "If, at times, the nature spares him, the markets don't."

The story originally here.