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‘Landscapes of Loss: The Story of an Indian Drought’ review: Distress in Marathwada and its wider repercussions

One of the most unfortunate things to emerge from the 1990s, as better-off Indians rushed to tear themselves off from their less fortunate countrymen and women, was the way food was discussed. When an expensive pizza chain coined a slogan of ‘Hungry kya?’ as its tagline, the answer from millions should have been a tragic yes.

But that the question succeeded as an ad pitch signalled the distance the elite had travelled from India’s hungry.

Last winter, when thousands of farmers dug in their heels to protest outside the capital against the three farm laws hurriedly voted in, they made it a point to cook and serve pizzas to everyone who lined up. Farmers protested resolutely, in the face of barriers, walls on the roads, nails on the streets and a sustained campaign to project them as ‘anti-nationals’, and defended their pizza langars — making pizza from the grain they grew and cheese sourced from their dairies was just fine.

A new phenomenon

India has been in the throes of a deep agrarian crisis for years. Distress suicides have been news events drawing sympathy and tears. But assertive and articulate farmers like on the Delhi borders, demanding that their interests be protected, was a new phenomenon to a generation that grew up after the years when Mahendra Singh Tikait ensured farmers entered New Delhi to protest against shifts in policy.

Kavitha Iyer’s Landscapes of Loss, The Story of an Indian Drought, has to be read in that context of how the farm debate has shaped the nation and also got shaped by it. It is an important reporting intervention, with people bringing their stories to life. She catalogues sporadic policy interventions like the “only two loan waiver schemes” in 1990 and 2008, and their failure to energise the rural economy, “in the absence of wider policy corrections.” Drought-hit farmers were unable to access institutional credit due to a whole lot of factors, ultimately “rendering them credit-unworthy”.

Iyer introduces readers to a variety of characters, each one reflecting a different facet of the complex story of farming and life that she builds with women, farmers, Dalits, migrants, landlords and politicians. Hanumant Nagargoje, one of Beed’s biggest contractors, has “seen both sides of this life.”

For 15 years he worked as a labourer cutting sugarcane with his wife, but now in a ‘rare rags-to-riches’ story, he lives “like a king”. Then there are the Jadhavs of Manu Tanda in Mukhed, who decided on the seasonal move to Mumbai for seven to eight months a year, to eke out a subsistence wage in the city as Marathwada migrants. There is Shailaja Narwade in Osmanabad district’s Mhasla village mentored by Godavari Kshirsagar who has organised women into small savings groups. Shailaja works with 4,000 women in four villages around Mhasla. “Every woman should till two acres of land; that’s my recommendation now,” she says.

Not just a natural calamity

The book raises questions of sustainability and the environment, talking about drought not only as a ‘natural calamity’ but one where human beings leave an imprint with their policies. Iyer cites the worst drought to afflict Australia in 2007 which led to the “biggest ever water reform” that became the centrepiece of Prime Minister John Howard’s re-election campaign, and allowed regions to sustainably manage a national problem.

An arc connects food grown on the field, with the lives of consumers and goes on to link it to sustainability issues and the future of the planet. Somewhere down the years, links between these vital points got snapped and public debate assumed that talking about agriculture was arcane and not a direct concern. This book is an important history of farming in an important region, but equally, a manual urging its readers to look anew at questions, whose answers will define the quality of our future.

Landscapes of Loss: The Story of an Indian Drought; Kavitha Iyer, HarperCollins, ₹599.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist.


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