Droughts in Maharashtra: Lack of management or vagaries of climate change?

None of our policies seem to be designed keeping in mind the farmer and his convenience, says Suneel Joshi, State Coordinator for Jal Biradari, in an interview with India Water Portal.
Severe droughts (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Severe droughts (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Recent news has been flooded with reports of the severe drought situation in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra. Even more shocking are the reports of large-scale suicides by farmers due to crop losses.

Although the government has announced a relief package for drought-affected areas, these sort of quick- fix solutions are not enough to solve the real problems on the ground, argues Suneel Joshi.

Maharashtra is experiencing drought this year too. Why does this happen every year?

For this, we need to understand the geographical and climatic situation of Maharashtra. As high as 80% to 84% of the agriculture in Maharashtra is rainfed, which means that it totally depends on rainfall for its crops but there is a huge variability in rainfall in different regions of the state.

One-third of the state falls under the semi-arid climatic zone and has its agriculture dependent on the monsoons. Deficient rainfall is reported once every 5 years and drought conditions occur once every 8-9 years. Marathwada and Vidarbha have been experiencing severe drought over the last three years due to deficient rainfall and this has further worsened the situation with a drastic drop in groundwater levels, acute water shortages and severe loss of crops during the kharif and rabi seasons.  
 
Over the last 5 years, newspapers have been full of reports related to relief being provided in the form of water tankers supplying water daily to drought-affected districts and water shortages have affected domestic needs, agriculture, livestock, and livelihoods of hundreds. The worst hit are the resource poor and marginal farmers.

Despite this happening over and over again, the irrigation in the state is very low at 16% as compared to the national average of 42%. Over-dependence on private sources of groundwater use such as tube wells, bore wells, wells and piped water, limits access of farmers to water resources and has also led to over exploitation and severe drop in groundwater levels in the area.

Thus, the major problem in this area is the lack of assured water supply as no other methods of irrigation are utilised. Rather, irrigation is more developed in western Maharashtra as compared to Vidarbha and Marathwada, which needs it the most. Both regions continue to remain relatively backward in terms of socio-economic indicators as well.

Is it due to geography, climate change or mismanagement of resources?

Geography is a factor that we know about for a long time. Climate change has worsened the situation over the last few years, but what is more worrying is the lack of planning, short sightedness and pure disregard shown for the situation at the policy level. The vulnerable situation of the area is already known, but we still depend on dams for water, which goes to the farmers at a price.

What will the small and marginal farmers do? We still focus on water-intensive crops like sugarcane. for better and assured money. The poor farmer is forced to practice an agricultural model based on demand and supply where he is unable to get an output that is at least equal if not more than what he put in. Development of industries and cities have also put an additional load on water resources from dams, which in many cases are diverted to cities. The farmer is thus caught in a web of unending demands and a maze of circumstances from where there is no way out.

What is the actual situation of farmers in the area? Who are the ones committing suicide?

We have to understand the situation of a farmer in a broader context. Our policies have not looked at the overall development of farming communities. Our farmers in the area are totally dependant on land for their livelihoods. It is only a few farmers that also have other members in the family working in the cities, who can provide additional income to the family in times of crisis. And farming is a resource intensive process. You need money to buy seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, water, manpower, electricity. You put in all the money for resources and then depend on the rain and climate to do their bit. When the vagaries of climate take their toll, the farmer has no way out. He is then caught in the loan web to sow the next crop for the next season.

Take the example of Vidarbha where cotton, tur and soyabeans are the important crops. Low levels of groundwater and irregular supply of electricity makes it very difficult for farmers. There is only 4% irrigation in an area where the capacity for irrigation can be as high as 65%. So the farmers have to invest in tube wells, wells and pipelines in an area which already has dangerously low levels of groundwater. So why then does farming  become unremunerative? It is this emphasis on cash crops, overdependence on monsoons, low productivity, poor irrigation facilities and dependence on wells in an area where the water tables have already gone down coupled with poor electrification, which makes it very difficult for the farmer.

And do our policies make it easy for him? No way! So what happens when the farmer ends up with very less produce and cannot get back an amount even equal to what he has invested in his farm? He has to look out for another season of good harvest with which he can support his family and continue cultivation. He then falls into the trap of procuring loans in the hope of a good harvest next season.

Farmer couple working in their fieldsAfter changes in worldwide policies in 1991, privatisation and free economy have changed banking practises. Banks are not very eager to give loans to farmers. The poor and marginal farmers thus fall into the clutches of moneylenders, who charge higher rates of interest, which the farmers are unable to repay.  

With no guarantee of a good crop even during the next season within the limitations they have to face, the farmers continue to borrow from money lenders as they get money on demand. Getting loans from banks and cooperatives often takes long and they have to go through agents at times, who demand commissions.

And mind you, my experience shows that farmers are extremely sentimental and proud with genuine attachment for the piece of land they own. It is our policies that have unfortunately been unable to understand their value and give them the respect they deserve by treating them as beggars! Farmers caught in this trap of cyclical indebtedness then have no other option, but to resort to suicide!

Why do you think this situation has arisen? What is the real problem and the ground level situation?

I think this situation has arisen only because of the lack of sensitivity at the policy level to understanding agriculture as an important occupation and not only as a revenue generator but also as a food generator. None of the policies seem to be designed while keeping in mind the farmer and his convenience. We have ignored irrigation, there is no infrastructure provided to take care of the produce from the farms that can degrade fast such as onions and other vegetables. These need cold storage facilities, which still do not exist on a large scale leading to massive wastage of resources.

State and national policies are often found to favour input-oriented markets. Farmers are forced to buy genetically modified seeds at high prices. Fertilisers and pesticides also come at a price, which farmers have to buy from companies. So who benefits? It is the manufacturers who sell these at ridiculous prices and make farmers dependent on these products. Thus it is the manufacturing companies of these agricultural products that stand to gain while the farmer is left to his own destiny. The governmental system also brought in subsidies in agriculture which have put the farmer into the additional pressure of corruption by which an average farmer has lost his belief in the system.

Water was also converted into a commodity, and not as a common resource to be utilised carefully by farmers. This led to diversion of water to dams, there was no effort to encourage farmers to focus on harvesting water and making it available at the local level. Focus was diverted to cash crops like sugarcane, pomegranate and other fruits while local crops like jowar, bajra, oilseeds were not equally encouraged. The groundwater levels in the area are precariously down. No efforts are being made to utilise the short span of rainfall available to harvest water and recharge the groundwater in the region. The soil in the region has also deteriorated with less capacity of absorption due to high salinity.

The government has taken some steps, are those enough? Will packages serve the purpose?

What has the government done? It has announced 'packages' to take care of the suicide situation in the state. Trying to compensate for what can be called as the 'failure of the system' to value and understand the needs of the farmer by giving money is extremely wrong and insensitive! Can temporary means like handing away money really solve the problems of the farmers? Is the government aware of the real problems of the farmers?

It is firstly important to understand that if at all financial help has to be given it has to be given keeping in mind a long term plan for the farmer and his family. Why does the farmer get into this situation? It is because he is totally dependant on land for his income.

I come from a farming family myself. Why did my family have to migrate? We had land, cattle, but no other source of income to depend upon in times of crisis. Can we try to help people to have education or skills to be able to seek other sources of income in addition to farming? Overall educational development of the family is also important and would also help in granting status to the occupation of farming.

A farmer with his cattle

What should be done in your opinion to deal with this situation?

I think no temporary solution will help. What ever plans we make have to be well thought out and should not be restricted over 4 to 5 years, but should focus on the next 25 years. What we do should be planned keeping in mind the farmer as an important and central unit in agriculture. The problem of suicides among farmers needs to be tackled in a holistic way.

For example:

  • Policies need to be designed to improve the education and quality of life of the farmers and their households along with improvement in infrastructural facilities at the village level. Developing other additional skills or income generating activities among farmers should also be encouraged to make them better equipped to cope with uncertainties arising out of cultivation.
  • Improvement in bank lending mechanisms that help and respect the farmers and provide support and training should be encouraged, rather than banks functioning as structures that treat the farmer as a poor victim that needs loan waivers.
  • Non institutional lending mechanisms like moneylenders should be brought under regulation so that they stop charging the farmers high rates of interest that increase the risk of farmers of falling into debt traps.
  • Efforts need to be made to improve irrigation facilities in rural areas and to stop emphasis on dams. Farmers must be encouraged to harvest and use water in their own areas sustainably and equitably. Local streams, canals in the villages should be identified, deepened and widened to enhance harvesting of water. Rivers should be considered as important units of the village and revived.
  • Development should be targeted at the village and towards small groups of farmers as units to bring about real change. In our country, farmers suicides have happened due to the failure of the cooperative movement.
  • For cash crops like sugarcane, grapes and other fruits, cotton, tur and soyabeans, the crop insurance has to be strengthened. Innovative methods for loan settlement should be developed to help farmers to cope in times of financial crisis.
  • Dependence of farmers on seeds from manufacturers and fertilisers must be stopped by encouraging development of local seed grower families, development of organic local fertilisers and pesticides and further development in products by using Ayurveda rather than using technologies based on western models.
  • The knowledge of farmers is based on their years of experience with the local climate. This should be valued and incorporated at the policy level since most of the knowledge taught even in agricultural universities is based on western models.
  • We should encourage research and development that can aid our farmers such as better weather predicting systems, knowledge generation that is based on the day to day needs and queries of farmers. We should encourage better dialogue between agriculturalists and farmers who can work together to find solutions to problems.

And I think, ultimately we need to remember that farming is a tremendously satisfying activity, it is a way of life for the farmers and we have to remember that they do the job of feeding us, which is considered as a highly selfless activity in our culture.

We should stop looking at farming as an industry that focuses on exploitation of the soil and other resources such as water to produce more and more for profit. It is an incredibly spiritual endeavour, attained by being in tune with nature, and using its resources with respect, care and gratitude.

Suneel Joshi, is the State co-ordinator for Jal Biradari, an NGO working for water conservation and other environmental issues.

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