“The cotton saplings are stunted, while our fields are infested with lifeless sugarcane stalks. We have no option but suicide”

The absence of rain has unleashed a torrent of gallows humour in a remote village in the drought-prone district of Jalna. In Shahapur, the quip of this parched season is: “We are beaten twice, by Gods above and by Gods on ground [read the Maharashtra government and politicians].”

The destruction of the kharif crop that makes up three-quarters of Jalna’s agricultural land is absolute by the beginning of August. Farmers in Ambad tehsil (of which Shahapur is a part) hope to get by the lone surviving Bajra crop as they find themselves caught in a lethal web of despair.

“Our cash crops have been burnt by the sun... the cotton saplings are stunted, while our fields are infested with lifeless sugarcane stalks. We have no option but to contemplate suicide,” moans Murlidhar Kshirsagar (57), who owns five acres and has been doggedly trying to repay a loan of Rs. 75,000 for the last four years.

The ongoing drought, worse than the one in 1972, has triggered a steep cycle of debts, with most farmers steadily hurtling towards disaster. “This is the last year we can hold out, for the Rabi crop will scarcely see us through,” says Rajendra Kale, whose five acres of the perennial sweet lemon crop have perished.

“With rains picking up in late July last year, we could at least recoup 30 per cent of our costs. But this year, the wreck has been total,” says Navrao Mane, a farmer with 20 acres of land, recalling better times in 2009.

Distant memory

For Navrao, as with other farmers such as Arunabai Bhokre, the yields of 2009 are now a distant memory.

“It’s a soul-crushing enterprise to keep up the fields and the family alive,” she says, while lamenting the damage of her 25 acres of cotton.

Things are not helped with water storage levels in the rain-shadow Marathwada region dipping to a perilous 9 per cent.

The drought has ensured that the Galhati dam, a medium irrigation project which harnesses waters of the Galhati River, remains dry. “In 1961-62, our family sacrificed three acres of our land for the Galhati dam. I’d rather have those lost acres back now,” says Ashok Mane, who is saddled with a whopping Rs. 5 lakh debt burden.

‘No credit to freshers’

Compounding the farmers’ woes is the fact that the Jalna District Co-operative Bank (DCB) has stopped disbursing credit to new account-holders, following the RBI’s directive on finding that the DCB had a low net worth.

“The bank says that the money is yet to flow from the top,” tells Shakuntala Muhudkar, who has been awaiting credit since May. More than a 100 farmers from Shahapur are in line to open their accounts at the DCB.

Livestock too is in a precarious state, but there is not a single fodder depot in the district.

“There are enough fodder reserves to keep things going till September-end. We would take a review if adverse conditions persist till mid-October,” said Tukaram Mundhe, District Collector (Jalna), speaking to The Hindu.

Despite the acute scarcity of fodder, villagers are wary of the quality of fodder and supplements in such camps. “We would have to trudge 12-15 km with our livestock to purchase stale fodder and live in appalling conditions in these camps for days,” says Gyandev Shinde.

Compounding the crisis is the rampant hoarding and black-marketing of seeds throughout the district.

In 2009, Rajesh Tope of the Nationalist Congress Party and Jalna’s Guardian Minister was elected on the promise of improving the irrigation capacity of the region as the district has an irrigation potential of less than 8 per cent, even below the State average.

Farmers recount how in February this year, before the Zilla Parishad elections, Mr. Tope again held out the promise of an ‘Express Canal’ to end Shahapur’s woes.

“We understand this cycle. A drought like this seems to benefit everyone in power. It is only the farmer who dies at the end of this story,” observes Annamohan Khapre.

“Our Gram Sevak has not visited us in a month, citing illness as an excuse. We have stopped looking to the Gram Panchayat for any constructive engagement with the district administration,” remarks Laxman Mane.

“With the crops failing, life is a gamble as bigger farmers and landowners are cutting employment,” remarks Anjaram Keshivsathe, who is forced to trudge to Jalna city for work.

“The contractor ensures that schemes like the MGNREGS remain on paper. In reality, most of the work is done by JCB machines and other non-manual modes,” says Mr. Keshivsathe.

Farmers here bitterly realise that the Met prediction for more rain now is too little, too late.