“My collections have fallen by over 50 per cent as compared to last year,” says a despondent Prashant Balki in Devdhari where we run into him patrolling the village on his motorbike. Young Balki is a collection agent for the Wani Urban Bank in Yavatmal district. His job is to collect small sums each day from villagers in Ralegaon taluka who join the daily savings scheme of the bank. (Some banks call these tiny deposits “pygmy” saving schemes.) People have been badly hit by the drought and crisis,” he says. “They find even small amounts hard to give.”

“Naturally,” says Gulshan Ghai, a small storekeeper who’s walking by. “The price rise has been hurting people badly for quite some time. Now they’re staring at crop failure.” Ghai is also a farmer owning seven acres.

In Jarur village of Ghattanji taluka, Moreshwar Waitale is discovering that when he shifted from cotton to soybean four seasons ago, he traded one volatility for another. “Three seasons, soybean did okay and I escaped the kind of losses I suffered on cotton. So this year I brought all my 15 acres under soybean. Now it’s failing totally.” Cotton, while costlier to cultivate, is also hardier in the kind of weather Vidharbha finds itself facing. “Soybean is likely to go under much faster,” say farmers here. It is also riddled with pest in some parts of the district. The consensus is that late rains will help with fodder but not too much with crop yields.

Monsoon failure hits Vidharbha, certainly Yavatmal, at a critical time. Some things had changed in this district. A vigorous agitation — which saw hundreds of farmers incessantly beating drums outside banks — and a more receptive administration — saw Yavatmal actually cross its crop loan targets for the first in years. “Against the target of Rs. 520 crores,” says District collector Sanjay Deshmukh, “we touched Rs. 560 crores.” This was impressive and Yavatmal was the only district to do so in Vidharbha. The irony, he says, is that a drought could see the recipients of those loans turn defaulters next year. This is a genuine fear. Indebtedness, always high in this region, is again on the rise. Vidharbha’s problems did not arise from a drought, but will worsen with it. The next week will be the longest. A tense wait for the rains.

That the pressure is already on is evident in the fall in Balki’s daily savings collections and the distress sale of cattle in the villages. “People are not even taking their cattle to sell them in the main markets,” says Kishor Tiwari. “Trucks headed for the abattoir are picking them up right at the villages.” His organisation, the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti spearheaded the stir against the banks. “Mainly, those sold at the market under normal conditions would be for draught and milch purposes. Those sold in this situation are often headed for the slaughter house.”

The Collector believes 80 per cent of this season’s crop can “still be saved if there are good rains within the week.” He also believes that a lot can be done to secure a better rabi season. Like many here, he supports the idea of digging a pond on every farm. That too, could help enlarge “the area under rabi from around 10 per cent to perhaps 30 per cent of the total 9 lakh hectares under cultivation in kharif.” The union rural development ministry’s latest announcement now allows, in theory at least, such ponds to be created on private farms through the NREGs. Meanwhile the district has to contend with a sinking water table and several talukas where rainfall has been sparse to nil for three weeks.

In the midst of the chaos, impending and real, we run into one of Yavatmal’s truly curious characters. He’s called “Lachchu Patel” but his real name is Lakshman Rao Bollenwar. He is of Telugu origin but his people have been here for generations. Lachchu’s family are not vegetarians. He has a poor opinion of the VHP and particularly of its gaushalas or cow shelters. “These people are not farmers,” he scoffs “and they know little about looking after cattle.” He on the other hand, is a skilled big farmer who does know cattle. “Cows are central to farming life,” he says and he does not mean that in religious terms. “I love cows.” So much so that he buys up cows bound for slaughter and cares for them. He presently shelters over a hundred such animals — apart from other livestock.

Lachchu became famous by intercepting cows due for slaughter on the roads, in the villages, “even at the butcher’s.” Not with violence or threats, but as a buyer. And the truck drivers carting cows to the abattoirs know a good touch when they see one. They stop at his house en route. “Knowing,” says one of his friends, “that they will get a much better rate from Lachchu than from the slaughter house. Earlier, he chased the trucks, now they come uninvited to his place.” But how on earth does he afford feeding them, big farmer though he might be? That’s where his skills and acumen come in. “About a dozen of these animals aren’t so bad,” says Lachchu. From these, after restoring them to health, he gets 40 litres of milk or more daily, which he can sell and make up to Rs. 800 a day on average. Or well over Rs. 20,000 a month. That still isn’t enough to care for such a large herd on the scale that Lachchu does. So he puts in the rest himself.

However, we press him, you cannot endlessly acquire new head of cattle, that too in bad shape? “Each year, I give away about 30 to 40 when I’ve got them healthy,” he says. “And since that’s about how many I pick up each year, the number remains roughly constant. All I ask is that the poor or needy family I give them to promises to keep the cow and not ever send it to the abattoir. It adds to their income and security. Farmers need cows. Cows need farmers.”

On the highways, though, are still vans headed for abattoirs. Evidence of farms in distress, losing the cows they need.