Parts of Maharashtra received unseasonal rains this past week, and while this provided some relief from the sweltering heat, it does nothing to alleviate the state’s acute drought situation. In the first two months of 2016, around 170 farmers have ended their lives in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, following a drought-hit 2015 that saw 1,109 farmer suicides.
The situation is so dire in the state that the entire 28-member council of ministers has gone on a tour of the drought-hit districts — Beed, Osmanabad and Latur. The water table situation in these three districts can be compared to the lowest levels seen throughout the entire 20th Century. The move comes on the back of a series of agrarian rallies taken out by Congress leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, who has been drawing large crowds in several villages.
Pointing out that there were 244 drought-related suicides in January 2016 alone, Vikhe-Patil, in his public meetings, demanded a complete loan waiver and other relief measures for the farmers. The BJP, clearly expecting an onslaught from Opposition parties at the upcoming budget session of the state assembly, wants to do everything it can to ensure the drought doesn’t derail the farmer friendly image the party wants to portray.
An IndiaSpend report said the BJP government has spent Rs 1,400 crore in the first phase of its Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (Irrigated Farmlands Programme), which intends to make Maharashtra drought-free. However, although the money has been disbursed, it’s been spread far too thinly on the ground-level. “When the programme began, the worst-affected villages were selected. Later, we were told to include all the villages that were now receiving drinking water from tankers,” an agriculture officer told IndiaSpend.
Moreover, say experts, the programme is a temporary fix at best. A large number of farmers haven't benefited from the project, and it will never prove to be a self-sustaining solution to make an area drought-free.
But the sad reality is that no amount of state funding will alleviate the situation as long as rainfall continues to be deficient. Other than above-average rain in 2013, there have been three below-par monsoons (20 percent, 30 percent and 40 percent shortages in 2012, 2013 and 2015 respectively) in the last four years. These are worrying statistics, especially for a state with the second highest agricultural output in India.
But what makes it significantly worse is that Maharashtra is not an isolated case. Eight other states — Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal — all declared drought in 2015, seeking Rs 20,000 crore in Central aid.
And if drought alone wasn’t bad enough, the really worrying part is when drought is interspersed with unseasonal rain and hail, as witnessed this week in large parts of Maharashtra. In Nashik and Sangli, two of the biggest raisin-production centres of the state, farmers lament that a recent hail shower will hit sales in a very big way. “This will definitely affect the overall quality of the raisins, which lose colour due to the rains and as a result, the price gets affected as well,” Subhash Arve, president, Maharashtra State Grape Growers Association (MGGA), who looks after the Sangli region, told The Financial Express.
Arve said that raisin prices have dropped by 50 percent and most of the produce is already turning black and may remain unsold. Even warehouses have inadequate rainfall protection and are severely underprepared for the untimely rain-hail combination.
If there was ever a time the drought-hit farmers of Maharashtra wished it would not rain, this would be it.
But, then again, they have become used to not having their prayers answered.