Parched Earth, Pouring Misery

Parched Earth, Pouring Misery

How the Marathwada region of Maharashtra is battling a second consecutive year of acute drought.


Bhayankar Dushkal

Swati VashishthaRupashree Nanda | CNN-NEWS18 rupashreenanda

Published: June 4, 2016

google skype

EVERYONE in Tandabudruk village were gathered outside a small one-room house where a young farmer killed himself the previous day. Santosh Kakode hung himself from a neem tree using a plastic hosepipe he had often used to water his sweet lime crop. As the rains continued to fail, the 150 sweet lime plants on which he had invested for six years, dried up.

With debt spiralling out of control, Santosh decided to give up his struggle.

Inside the house, his wife Tara sat near the door cradling the two little children, Babban and Dutta. Their cries pierced the hazy afternoon stillness. “I knew he was very worried, but I never thought it would come to this,” her voice rasped with grief. It was then that news reached me of another farmer suicide in Wodji village, not very far from there.

Tandabudruk and nearby villages fall in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. Aurangabad and seven other districts - Beed, Latur, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Jalna, Nanded and Hingoli – form Marathwada, a third of which is a rainshadow area.

Droughts are common here, shredding lives and uprooting people from their only sources of livelihood. What made it particularly severe this time is that it is the second year in a row.

Farmers call it ‘bhayankar dushkal' or 'terrible famine'.

It was dusk when we reached Wodji. Farmer Suresh Bhand’s body was taken for autopsy, his wife was in hospital heavily sedated. The children Uddajit and Amrita, both under five years of age, played around their grandmother without quite understanding the tragedy that has torn apart their family.

  • The children are oblivious to the death in the family in Tandabudruk village, Aurangabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • The children are oblivious to the death in the family in Tandabudruk village, Aurangabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

Suresh had taken a loan of Rs 7 lakh from five different banks . The money was for his sweet lime crop, to build a house and buy a motorcycle. As unpaid monthly instalments piled up, he started receiving notices from the banks and was under serious threat of losing his three acres of land. That was when the drought claimed his sweet lime crop.

My brother wrote to me saying what happened to him should not happen to anyone else, A person’s worth is recognized only after his death.

— Shobha, Suresh Bhand's sister

In 2015, 'Bhayankar Dushkal' affected the lives of 1.8 crore people in Marathwada. It did not happen all of a sudden. Unlike a flood or an earthquake, a drought gives ample warning signals. In April, the met department predicted a below normal monsoon.

The state and central governments did not bother to get ready with a plan. By August, the region was staring at an acute drinking water crisis, with 1188 tankers deployed by the administration to supply water to 870 villages. By November, water reserves levels were down to 6%. Five months later, by April 2016, the reserves plummeted to just 3%.

As water levels plunged, the number of suicides rose sharply. By November, there were 660 farmer suicides in the region. In five more months the toll crossed 1430.

The Supreme Court was to later sum it up in an order on drought mitigation: “The problem is not lack of resources or capability, but the lack of will".

Less than six months after the Met department’s negative forecast from Delhi, the arid brown landscape of Marathwada was dotted with water drums and water pots in many shades of blue and orange. People stopped going to work so that they could stay back and collect water every day. Children missed school so that they could help their families.

Long winding lines of water pots appeared before every single water point. Sometimes, it would be four days before anyone of them could receive a single drop. Farmers who had spent twice normal amounts to keep their crops growing, watched in agony as these started withering. Even those who could afford to pay Rs 600- 800 for a tanker were not sure they will get one. Such water scarcity was unprecedented, even in Marathwada.

There are 11 major irrigation projects in the area . Together they water a mere 5.5% of the total cultivable area of 54 lakh hectares. Medium and minor projects irrigate a negligible 60 thousand hectares each. The soil in Marathwada is always a dry greyish brown.

Any farmer would tell you –it’s cruellest when the crop fails just before it’s time for plucking. In some places like Vanzarwaadi in Beed district, people moved into cattle camps along with their cows due to acute shortage of water and fodder. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis recently attended a mass wedding held near a cattle camp. All the while, distress migration spiked. From Beed alone, an estimated 3 lakh people moved out to work as cane-cutters in other regions or find menial jobs in big cities.

The country has a law that a person has the right to work for a minimum 100 days – 150 in drought-hit areas - under the rural employment-guarantee scheme MNREGS. The local administration couldn’t meet that target.

“I can say that we have created man-days, but perhaps the need was for much more,” said Naval Kishore Ram, district collector of Beed. Bhagunai Mahargune of Gadewadi village in Beed, who also takes care of her six young grandchildren said, “In previous years, children left for work only after Diwali this year, they have left early because there has been absolutely no rain.”

I travelled 1,700 kms across Marathwada - from Aurangabad to Beed to Osmanabad to Latur – twice over the past few months. I witnessed farmer suicides, cattle camps, and distress migration during the first visit in September. Yet, during my second visit in April 2016, the extent of devastation still came as a shock.

Pathan Shanoor Gul Mohammad , a farmer in Osmanabad , fought back bitter tears as he repeated, "Bahut bhayankar dushkaal hai." It’s a terrible famine.

Bhayankar Dushkal. The words refused to go out of my mind.



Water, Water Nowhere

THE FLIGHT of steps which go down and down into the deep well stops ten feet short of the water. From there on, it is a slippery scramble through rock and mud to fill the pots. Bhagyashree is one of the few women in the village who has learnt to negotiate that hazardous final stretch.

That day, as we watched, an empty pot thrown from the edge of the steps hit Bhagyashree. She sank to the floor of the well, holding her aching head in her hands, while the others panicked and shouted for help. But the spirited woman composed herself in a few minutes, drew the pot closer with a big twig, filled it and handed it over to the women waiting at the narrow ledge ten feet above.

“It’s nothing,” she shrugged it off. “Sometimes empty pots fall on our heads, sometimes pots filled with water fall on our heads. And this water is not even clean, people step into it, people spit in it, but what can we do?”

The well in Pimpri village of Osmanabad was built during the great famine of 1972 and still has some water. The only catch – you have to descend a vertiginous 60 feet to the bottom to fetch it. The water is evidently unclean, but is used even for drinking.

Collecting water from this well is a collective activity, with two to three people needed to get one pot of water out. Even the aged, like Kerabai and Bhagwat who are both over sixty, pitch in. And since they cannot do the dangerous last lap, they depend on nimble-footed women like Bhagyashree.

“My legs tremble when I carry the water, I can work in the fields, but I do not want to do this job,” said a breathless Kerabai after climbing up with a pot of water weighing 60 kgs.

  • Bhagyashree navigates a flight of steps inside the well in Pimpri Village, Osmanabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • A villager awaits his turn with an array of pots at Pimpri Village, Osmanabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • Another villager walks out of the well with a vessel on his head at Pimpri Village, Osmanabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

There is a concrete tank in the village, but it has worked only once since it was built in 1985. At another water point, a serpentine queue of pots lay in wait for four days without receiving a drop of water.

“This is used for drinking purposes. Once in four days we get four pots,” said Salim Rehman Pathan.

Since the supply was not regular, villagers were forced to use the unclean water for drinking. It was a bad struggle for animals as well, as they were made to walk long distances for a few gulps of water once a day.

Instead of a normal 8 lakh cubic metre of surface water, Osmanabad has just 5000 - about 0.7% - because of the continuing drought. This increased dependence on ground water, but even that is only around 5%. Of the 943 villages, 200 depend entirely on tankers.

Pimpri has never seen one.


Water Tankers, Water Trains

MORE than a hundred villagers turned up with drums and hosepipes as news reached that a water tanker was on its way.

Each family of Masardi village in Latur has assigned two members for collecting water. Tankers reach once in four days, and if you miss your chance, it will be another four painful days of wait. “We don’t have even a mug of water,” Allaudin Maula Sheikh, who was coordinating with the drivers, shouted over the phone.


  • An abandoned hand pump at a village in Marathwada (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • Villagers of Masardi scramble to get their containers filled post the arrival of a tanker. (Photo:Rupashree Nanda).

  • Water pots lined up outside a house in Latur prior to the arrival of a tanker. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

Sometime later in the afternoon, a water tanker was sighted on the road leading to the village. Children scrambled to get on even before it stopped - the fastest ones get to put their hosepipes in first. Women threw one end of the pipes to the kids at the top, and sucked at the other end to draw out trapped air. Water started gushing into the drums.

Savita and her son, Sachin, have figured out the best way to do it, they always manage to fill a few pots more. “But we cannot drink this water. The water in the tanker is dirty, even the pipe we put in is dirty,” she said.

Sachin studies in Class 8 and travels 40 kilometers by bus to reach school. He misses school every time a tanker is expected in the village. “If I go, I make sure I come back after 2 pm. I have been missing school a lot of days over the last two years, and this year has been the worst. My father and elder brother go to find work, I have to help my mother,” he said.

As the drought showed no signs of relenting, water drums used for storing strong chemicals were pressed into use for storing water. “We tell the people these are not safe for storing drinking water,” said a vendor, Abdul Samad Mulla, whose business has shot up to twice over the year.

Masardi was famous for its sugarcane. But in the past six months, villagers have decided not to grow sugarcane, as their wells and bores, some as deep as 800 feet, dried up. A drought-prone area in the rain shadow region of Latur cannot afford a water-guzzling crop like cane. It was a lesson the villagers learnt the hard way.

Masardi was famous for its sugarcane. But in the past six months, villagers have decided not to grow sugarcane, as their wells and bores, some as deep as 800 feet, dried up. A drought-prone area in the rain shadow region of Latur cannot afford a water-guzzling crop like cane. It was a lesson the villagers learnt the hard way.

At Latur station, the water train from Miraj has brought in 25 lakh litres of water in 25 bogies, but this will cater only to the urban population. It will not reach the people I met in Masardi."We assess water levels on a quarterly basis. The last assessment was done in March, There is a 2.5 to 3 meter depletion compared to the average water level,” said Pandurang Pole, the district collector of Latur.

Of the three major dams in Marathwada, the Jaikawadi and Terna reported dead stocks by mid-April, and Manjara - which supplied water to Beed, Osmanabad and Latur - was bone dry. At Gandhi Chowk in Latur city, the water trains have made no difference – the line of water pots stretched endlessly along the footpath. Next to the footpath is an empty water tank. People from Indiranagar, Karim Nagar, Mahadev Nagar and many other areas of the city come here for water. A ten-hour wait is a minimum.

"Where is the water from the train going to?" one of them asked.

google skype

Rise in Water-Related Diseases

Suman Mashale in Gunjutiwadi village is one of those in drought-hit Osmanabad who can afford to take a bath twice a week. “We take bath twice a week, and that too sitting in a ‘tokri’. Then we use that water to wash our clothes,” she said with disgust. Outside her house were half-washed utensils coated with dried soap powder.

The tedious three-kilometre walk to fetch water has taken a toll on the health of the forty-year-old. She complains of fever, dizziness and swelling in both hands and feet.

In times of acute water scarcity, the government allocates 20 litres of water per person, which is one fifth of the norm. But even this does not reach people regularly, most are left to fend for themselves. Laxmi Bai, who is a regular at the government-run pharmacy said, “When we drink this water, my stomach gets bloated, I do not feel hungry, I do not feel like having food.”

Gunjutiwadi lies on the border between Maharashtra and Karnataka and the population comprises mostly notified tribals.

At the office of Osmanabad district collector Dr Prashant Narnaware, there is a map which has every water source in the district coded in red, yellow and green. While red signifies a completely dry source, yellow means a little water, and green means moderate water. Not surprisingly, reds dominate the map, with more than 80% of wells in villages running dry.

Asked whether the crisis is because of inadequate rainfall or poor management, Narnaware said: "Both. Because of poor rainfall, our exploitation of water has gone up. Since surface water has been depleting , our dependence on ground water has been increasing over the past three to four years. Hence ground water levels are going down and the situation is really alarming."

In the neighbouring district of Latur, life is tough for Prabhawati Balaji Kalshe. Her daughter Sangeeta has just given birth to a baby and the family needs more clean water, both for drinking and bathing.

"My daughter fell ill because of the bad water, but we don’t have money to go to the doctor. The water in the tankers is unfit to drink. Doctors ask us to drink clean water, but there is no clean water."

For women who use reusable cloth as sanitary pads, hygiene is an additional worry. "We can wash the cloth just once a day. The cloth, when it gets hard ( from dried blood ) causes a lot of pain."

The government medical college in Latur caters to villages around a radius of 20 to 30 kms. On an average, five patients are admitted to this hospital every day with water-related diseases. Most of it due to drinking less water, unpurified water, or salty water. They are admitted with dehydration, dysentery and kidney problems.

  • Ground water levels touched a new low in the region after a second consecutive drought this year.(Photo:Rupashree Nanda)

  • A long queue of containers await for the tankers to arrive at a village in Latur (Photo:Rupashree Nanda)

Pomegranate shrubs draped in saris

Dada Sahib was busy tearing saris in two at a pomegranate field near Masagaon in Osmanabad district. He and his sister-in-law then held a piece at each end and wrapped it around the two-feet high pomegranate shrub, tying knots at both hands. Half of the 700 shrubs in the one-acre farm were thus clad in old colourful saris.

They were planted four years ago, and since rains were scarce in Osmanabad during this period, the shrubs were stunted even as they started bearing fruit.

"If there were enough rains, this would have been a lush bush and we wouldn’t have needed the saris," Sahib said.

The water tanker wasn’t reaching that day, so the farmer switched on the motor at the 100-feet deep well. From a pipe that is connected at the other end to a bore, a thin stream of water starts falling inside the well. Ten minutes later, the motor started sputtering and he rushed to switch it off. The small puddle of water at the bottom of the well would now have to be pumped out for the crop.

Dada Sahib and his family migrated here and started working as farm labour after their three-acre farm in Jalna dried up. “There was hardly any rain. Jowar and bajra got burnt,” he said.

Pomegranates are grown in over 10,000 hectares in Marathwada. The district collector of Osmanabad, Dr Prashant Narnaware, said the administration encouraged horticulture but could do little to save the crop. We don’t have water to drink. Our only sources are farm ponds, but even those are dry’, he said.

While the pomegranate shrubs were still clinging to life, the fierce drought killed papaya crop in Sudhakar Sarajrao Tawar’s fields in Pimpalgaon Pandri in Aurangabad. Tawar, a man of few words, plucked one bright yellow fruit and smashed it open with his hand. A rancid smell filled the air - the papayas were rotting as they started to ripen.

On the trees, the green leaves were limp and yellowing. The papayas at the top were still green, the ones right below were yellow and decaying , and the ones at the bottom were a rotten dark brown.

“I spent Rs 40,000 on arranging water from tankers and took loans for buying pipes, hoping these plants would survive. But it was not to be,” Tawar said.

  • Tawar's papaya field is littered with rotten, half ripe papapyas in Pimpalgaon Pandri, Aurangabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • Dadasaheb and his sister-in-law wrap wet saris around the pomegranate shrub in Masagaon, Osmanabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • A pomegranate field wrapped with wet saris in Masagaon, Osmanabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

His field was littered with fallen papayas, all in various stages of decay. Some of the trees were bent double with the weight of the rotting fruit and their tips touched the ground. There was no water in the network of pipes laid for drip irrigation, or in the wells or in the farm pond.

Tawar had invested Rs 3 lakh over three years in this crop. A good harvest would have fetched him over a Rs 1.2 lakh and helped him marry off his daughter. He will now have to wait for another year.

Pathan Shahnoor Gul Mohammad in Pimpri village of Osmanabad stretched all his resources and tended his onion crop, but when it was ready for harvest, he was forced to leave them on his field because prices had plummeted to one rupee a kilo. Having already spent Rs 40 thousand on raising the crop, it did not make sense to hire labour for the harvest.

His voice trembling, he said,"Shouldn’t I get a proper price? I ran up huge debts and now, money lenders are asking for repayment. Where will I get the money to repay?"

Onion prices hit headlines only when they cross Rs 50 a kilo in big cities, but the distress of farmers who are forced to sell their crop at one rupee a kilo is never highlighted. The government machinery could have helped by offering support prices, but it never stepped in.

Shahnoor’s father Gul Mohammad looked tearfully at the ripe onion crop and said, “I feel sad, but what can we do. There are children to be fed, a loan to be repaid. How will we survive?

They could beat the drought, but they couldn’t beat the market.

Whither MGNREGS?

Carrying spades and shovels, around 30 people took shelter under a tree by the roadside in Kholewadi village of Beed. They had turned up to seek work on a road being built under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS). It was noon already and they were losing hope.

Among them were Sheetal Khole and her husband Madhukar. The young couple returned a month earlier than usual from cane-cutting work with no money in their hands. They had taken an advance of Rs 60 thousand, of which half was yet to be paid back.

"We go to different places looking for work. But there is no work and we return empty-handed," Sheetal said, before she moved on to pick up her shovel and tiffin box.

Manda Hanumantha Khole, who too was banking on getting work here could not hide her disappointment. “When we come to work, they send us back because there is no work. I left my 11-month-old child at home, and now I have nothing to take back,” she said.

Back in the 1970s, Maharashtra implemented the country's first rural employment guarantee scheme which was adopted at the national level decades later. Yet the scheme has not succeeded here in providing a safety net to the rural poor hit by droughts.

"Ït is true that more and more people are turning up for MGNREGS work. Hame kaam do, hame kaam do is the refrain. Compared to last year, there has been a 50% spurt in demand for work," Kailash Annasahib Tambe, the rozgaar mitra in Kholewadi, said.

Work worth 30 lakhs for constructing roads and wells was sanctioned here but it was nowhere close to absorbing the demand.

Delayed payments under MNREGS was another worry, said Bansi, who, despite his advancing age, toiled under the summer sun. His daughter-in-law Sunita preferred the hardship and uncertainty to landing up in Mumbai for work. "This work is difficult. But I have no complaints," she said.

Entitled to 150 days of work under the scheme, Bansi and Sunita would be lucky if they get 15 days.

  • During the 2014 elections dry dams became newsworthy after a politician made a snide remark about how he would like to fill them in the absence of rains.(Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • A dry dam in Marathwada region is proof of the misery in the region

The push for MGNREGS in Marathwada came much after distress signals were sent. Naval Kishore Ram, the district collector of Beed, said: "There is no denying, MGNREGS is is a programme with efficient officers. But we could have done better."

The scheme could have alleviated many of the problems in drought-hit Marathwada had it been taken up on a war-footing and wages paid on time.

"Social justice has been thrown out of the window," the Supreme Court was to later remark scathingly while taking note of the dismal commitment to MGNREGS by the state and central governments

Half-Orphans of The Drought

The shouts of children at play failed to dispel the gloom at the Hedgewar Public School in Aurangabad. It was summer holidays, but no one came to take some of the children home. They gathered around after a while to recite a mournful poem in Marathi.

There is one voice we are hearing
We are waiting for you, father
Please do not worry
Please do not consume poison

  • Half-orphans assemble in a ground at Hedgewar Public School, Aurangabad. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • Wives were left to raise a family on their own, an impossible task during drought. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

They are the half orphans of the Marathwada drought. Brought to this charitable school far from home after their fathers killed themselves to escape mounting debts. Among them is Ganesh Bhagwat Tunde, barely into his teens , who lives with the trauma of discovering his father’s body hang from a tree in their field.

“My father had taken a loan for my sister’s marriage. We had two acres of land, but the cotton crop failed,” said Ganesh. Unable to pay back the money, his father killed himself a month after his sister’s wedding, and his mother sent him to this school.

Anmol Ramesh Sudhakar , who lost his father in 2010, lived through a similar shock. When asked whether he felt angry that his father left them to struggle on their own, he replied, “I don’t feel angry with my father. I just feel sad, very sad that he committed suicide."

Vaibhavi Dnyaneswar Suryavansi, who is in the same school with her three sisters, remembered the date her father gave up on his life - November 28, 2015.

“My father committed suicide, I want to tell other parents not to do that. Because their families are then robbed of happiness forever,” Vaibhavi said.

More than 1430 farmers in Marathwada, most of them in their thirties, committed suicide since January 1, 2015, leaving more than 3500 children to the mercy of fate. Their wives were left to raise a family on their own, an impossible task during years of drought.

For the Burkul family in Pimpri Malli village, tragedy struck early on a December morning. Bandu Sahibrao Burkul stepped out of the house as usual to milk the buffaloes, but did not return even after a long while. His wife Sobhabai went out to look for him and found the body hanging from a neem tree. Burkul’s death left her to fend for herself and their three children.

My father had gone out to get milk,” said her son Subham, breaking down as the memory of that day overwhelmed him.

After the tragedy, the family went through another painful separation. 11-year old Subham and his brother were sent off to a charitable school in Pune. His sister stayed behind with the mother to continue her studies off a small aid received from the government.

Burkul had taken two loans of Rs 50,000 each from a bank and a private finance company for his farm and home. Then for two years the monsoon failed, ruining his cotton crop and turning his maize plants into cattle fodder.

“I have no idea how we will survive now. When he was here, he took care of everything,” Sobhabai said. The money she received from the government will not last long.

The farmers in Marathwada committed suicide because frequent droughts made it impossible to pay back loans taken from banks and moneylenders. It’s a different thing that even if you add up all their debts it would only be a fraction of what a big corporate defaulter owes a public sector bank.

  • Trying to get their life back on track. (Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

  • A family grieves the death of a member.(Photo: Rupashree Nanda)

Government officials have claimed that increasing interventions in recent times lessened the rate of suicide. “Compared to the same time last year, we have less number of suicides. There is a problem of credit crunch. District cooperative banks do not have the money. We are trying to get help from nationalised banks,” said Naval Kishore Ram, the district collector of Beed.

With the children coming from such tragic backgrounds, the focus at the Aurangabad school is to emotionally rehabilitate them. “There is a need to bring out the children from the environment of despair in their families,” school principal Shyam Kanke said. In the background could be heard the strains of a ditty on a child's search for his mother's letter.

When a new session begins later in the year there will be more such children arriving from the drought-hit villages of Marathwada.