“Truckloads of cattle have left this village,” says Maruti Yadavrao Panghate in Devdhari village of Yavatmal. “Many more will go. There is no fodder or water for them.” Panghate, who owns five acres, feels he has lost “80 per cent of my soybean, 70 per cent of cotton and 50 per cent of all the jowar I’ve sown. Late rains even at this point will retrieve something, though not much. However, it could help with fodder and some water. Without that, the rest of the cattle will go, too. Already bullocks worth Rs.10,000 are selling at Rs. 4,000. It’s the same in other villages.”

The distress sale of cattle is one of the most sensitive indicators of crisis in the countryside. And when prices fall the way they have here, it suggests the onset of unusual levels of hardship. Vidharbha may not be yet as severely hit by the drought as parts of Marathwada or neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. But its situation is fragile. Its farmers have been battered by years of an agrarian crisis that had little to do with drought. Coming atop that crisis, monsoon failure hits a people far more vulnerable than they were in other decades.

There is still a six to eight day loop, as Panghate says, in which late rains can save something. “It’s been 20 days since the last showers,” says Yavatmal’s worried but energetic Collector Sanjay Deshmukh. “As things are now, we stand to lose about a fifth of the crop. If they stay this way and there are no further rains, we could lose up to 50 per cent of the crop.” (Others fear higher losses.) Deshmukh is hopeful that late rains could keep that down to just a fifth. And he has opened fodder depots, released dam water strictly for drinking water purposes and activated new NREGs works. It’s a race against time.

The cattle sales continue, though. “If the drought gets worse, people won’t keep any cattle at all,” warns Hafizuddin Kabiruddin, one of the 15-odd agents or dalals at the cattle market in Panderkauda. “I have not seen this kind of situation and I’ve been 25 years in the trade. And mind you most of the sales are taking place directly at the village rather than at our cattle market. The trucks just pick them from the villages and move across the Andhra border to Adilabad.” There, they go to the abattoirs.

Hafizuddin explains why prices have fallen most on premium breeds. “The top breeds consume far more fodder than the others. Hence Jerseys worth Rs. 15,000 are going for around Rs. 8,000. High priced bullock jodis (pairs) which would have fetched Rs. 50,000 or more last year won’t get you Rs. 30,000 now. You will also find that far more buffaloes are sold off than cows as they consume much more fodder than the latter. All varieties have fallen, but the nondescript ones had a low price anyway. So maybe those drop by Rs.2,000 or so.” That’s a lot of money for a poor family losing its milch animal.

At the end of two hours of explaining the trade and its present situation to us, Hafizuddin reveals that he too has been hit. “I’ve had to sell nine head of cattle in the past month.” Quite a few of those from premium breeds. He has lost around Rs.35,000 on those. He did not want to sell them, but “where is the fodder?”

“Water, too, is a huge problem,” says Amol Srirami whose family owns a well-known lassi shop in Panderkauda town. He and his brother Prashant have sold three of their five buffaloes in just the past eight days. “We lost a packet on that,” he says ruefully. “The lassi season is really for three months from about March to May. But you’ve got to feed and care for the animals all 12 months. Less fodder translates into less milk, so there’s no earning there either. I think each house in our Tadumri village has sold one or two head of cattle.” And so the Prashant Ras Vihar and Lassi Centre stays closed “for the season.”

Water, as Srirami says, is a huge problem for livestock as well. But typically, as one district official points out, “governments in a time of crisis tend to focus only on drinking water for human beings.” In a country with close to 600 million farm animals, that’s a problem. “Farm animals are not taken into account at the time of planning.”

“You can see that the cattle and goats are having to drink any water they can, a lot of it quite toxic, from contaminated sources,” says Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti leader Kishor Tiwari. His organisation has been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of farmers in this region. “If the rains do not show in the next week,” he says, “we are in serious trouble on every front. Crop, water and fodder.” Water, confirm those selling off their cattle, is as much a problem as fodder. Oddly enough, lower level officials in some talukas deny there is a fodder crisis. They say all applications for fodder “have been disposed off.” This contrasted sharply with claims amongst villagers that they were unable to get any. “Perhaps people have long ago given up seeking things from the administration,” jokes Tiwari. But Collector Deshmukh is taking no chances on this front and opening fodder centres anyway.

There is also the problem that over years, as in much of the country, the district’s agriculture extension machinery is crippled. At some levels non-existent. “One-third of extension officers posts are lying vacant,” says an official. “Then there are so many vacancies in clerical posts as well. So many of those meant to do extension work are pressed into clerical duties. That means even fewer people in the field.”

In a region already beset with problems, the soybean crop being hit by pest, the jowar (that could provide fodder) in danger and water getting scarcer, the next eight days will be crucial.