How would Janabai Korde or Prabhakar Bhumre have responded to the government’s claims made in the Rajya Sabha that the Centre was doing everything it could to address the grave drought situation in 257 districts across India? The two are residents of Beed and Jalna in Marathwada, the region comprising the eight districts worst hit by a three-year drought, and which has now reached epic proportions.
Janabai Korde is the sarpanch of a village in Beed. Our team met her when, as part of the Kisan Sabha campaign in the Marathwada region, we were interacting with workers at Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) worksites. With agricultural work at a standstill, the only lifeline here is MGNREGA. The Central government had declared that the provision of work under MGNREGA would be extended from 100 to 150 days in all drought-affected areas. But this has not happened. In 2015-2016, according to the Ministry website, in five of the districts — Aurangabad, Jalna, Nanded, Osmanabad and Hingoli — the average days of work in each of the districts was just 47 days or lower. In Latur it was 72 days, and in Beed, 81.
MGNREGA and a fund trickle Even though lakhs of landless agricultural workers, cane cutters and marginal farmers are desperately looking for work, the number of individuals who actually got work under MGNREGA last year was just 70,000 people or fewer in each district. The only exception was in Beed, where 1.19 lakh individual workers got work. This month, when demand is at its peak, the average figure in each district is just 4,000. Officials tell you, off the record, that the main reason is the Central government’s refusal to release adequate funds. For the State as a whole, the funds from the Centre in 2015-2016 have been less, by Rs.212 crore, than what was spent in the pre-drought year of 2012-2013.
What is equally appalling is that even those who got work did not get wages. Beed district, with a comparatively better record of providing work, was the worst in terms of the disbursal of wages. Last year, the government owed workers Rs.5.58 crore in terms of wages in this district. At a worksite where we met Ms. Korde in her village of Takarwan, 150 workers had not been paid even a paisa since the project began a month-and-a-half ago. In the searing heat, with scarce drinking water, the women are expected to dig and carry 5,000 kg of mud in a single workday of eight hours. Can there be a more inhuman work norm than this? It is an impossible task. Officials admit that because of the drought, the soil has become hard and stony. But the schedule of rates — that is the work norms which determine the piece-rated wages — has not been changed. As a result, workers will get around 30 per cent less than the minimum wage, unless they extend the workday to 11 or 12 hours. Ms. Korde has been fighting on behalf of the workers. She has also raised the crucial issue of food security. Emergency measures to provide food grains through the Public Distribution System are urgently required, she says, but who is listening?
Landless and agricultural workers, the vast majority of whom are Dalit, are obviously the worst hit but the plight of farmers is no better.
Farmers in distress
Prabhakar Bhumre is a farmer from Jalna district. Like many others here, he was a fruit grower with 400 orange trees. He had taken a loan of Rs.2 lakh over two years. But in spite of the large amounts he paid to private companies for water to be supplied, he could not save his trees from drying up. Ultimately, he had to cut them down. His is not an isolated case. In the district, orange trees which were planted over 9,000 hectares — which is more than a third of the land where these trees have been planted — have had to be cut down. But there is little government help. Nor have the majority of fruit growers in the region received any compensation. On the contrary, banks are sending notices to farmers like Mr. Bhumre across Marathwada demanding repayment. The despair is palpable and 325 farmers have committed suicide in this region since January this year.
We had met Mr. Bhumre at a cattle sale in Pachod in Aurangabad district where he had sold two pairs of bullocks. Sitting in a group of distraught farmers, he was dejected and close to tears. He had sold the animals, bought for Rs.1 lakh a year or so ago, for just Rs.20,000. Another farmer, Salar Khan, had a similiar story. He had sold a pair of bullocks for half the price he had paid for them. In debt, for Rs.90,000, his daughters have had to drop out of school. After the ban on cow slaughter imposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, the price of these animals has plummeted throughout the State. In the Marathwada region, the situation is further accentuated by the high cost of maintenance. There were around 3,000 heads of cattle brought for sale to this fair — a distress sale is a last-ditch survival strategy. They had no alternative.
The cattle shelters set up under a government scheme could have provided some relief. But the government outsourced them to a variety of registered cooperatives. In Beed district, where the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s two daughters fought and won the election, there are 137 such cow shelters, the highest in the region. One of the bigger shelters, in Kej, with 1,400 animals, is run by the Jai Bajrang Bali society which has not received funds since it started in March. According to the supervisor, the running cost is close to Rs.1 lakh a day.
How do they manage, we asked. Through more loans, he said. However, others said that many of these registered societies do not give out the actual amount of fodder that a farmer is entitled to. The government subsidy to be provided in kind, and fodder and water for the animals is set at the rate of Rs.70 for a large animal and Rs.31 for a small one. But, in a bizarre policy decision, the government cuts Rs.8 of the subsidy per animal against the price for the manure that the owner is presumed to get, from the sale of the manure. This has infuriated cattle owners. One asked, “Did a government officer measure the manure of my cow before he cut eight rupees?”
In most districts, the scheme for cattle shelters has not taken off. Clearly, it is the government that should run these shelters in greater numbers for a specified period and the Central government needs to provide assistance for this. No assurances were made in the parliamentary debate.
While the >flagging off of a water train to Latur has had a blaze of publicity, the reality is that the 3,000 tankers provided in the region are woefully inadequate. There is no regulation of the price of water being charged by private companies. It is Rs.1,000 for a 3,000-litre tanker, double the amount it costs in Delhi. It is an open secret that many of these private water companies have close contacts with different political leaders of the area, which is the reason why no one dares touch them.
The priorities of the BJP-led State government lie elsewhere. On April 26, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court >heard a petition asking for a reduction of water supply to breweries and distilleries . Aurangabad is an important centre for beer production and these units require more than five million litres of water a day. When the matter was raised in the Assembly, the Minister for Rural Development in the State, Pankaja Munde, refused the demand for cuts to these units. She was later accused of putting the interests of the company, of which she is a director and which runs a distillery, before those of the people. The court though directed the government to give priority to ensuring drinking water to the region.
The absence of any sense of urgency by government agencies is glaring. During the Lok Sabha and later the Assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a slew of promises to farmers and residents of Marathwada — from writing off loans, to ensuring crop compensation, to guaranteeing the supply of water and 24-hour supply of electricity. His party won six of the eight Lok Sabha seats and increased its tally of Assembly seats from two to 15 (out of 46) in a region known to be a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party base. But today, every one of those promises remains unfulfilled. Mr. Modi should spare a few days from his busy schedule of foreign tours to visit and study the situation here. That would help him understand why Janabai and Bhumre may consider his government’s claims, at least as far as short-term measures are concerned, to be a straight lie.
Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP.