Field Notes: In A Land Of Drought, Resigned Farmers, As Summers Grow Ever Harsher


Mumbai: How do you compare the gathering outcomes of this year’s drought with those you experienced in recent drought years, I asked Ravindra Kisan Bawaskar of Fardapur village in central Maharashtra’s Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar district. “You big city folk see it as drought years and non-drought years,” the 52-year-old farmer said after a long pause. “For us there are drought years and aftermath years.”

With the south-west monsoon playing truant in the month of August, a critical period for the growth of the kharif or summer crop, swathes of Maharashtra are in the midst of a serious agricultural drought. 

Bawaskar’s experience of the 2023-24 drought  as a cumulative footprint—in the midst of the hottest year ever recorded—offers a powerful new way of looking at climate change and mitigation measures, positing that the tried and tested measures now fall short. Every new crisis widens and deepens previous lacerations to incomes, home finances, credit history and mental health that band-aid mitigation measures never healed. 

At the peak of the 2019 summer, Maharashtra’s previous drought year, water reserves plummeted to 19%. Nearly three months before the summer even sets in, water storage in the Marathwada region’s major dams had already sunk to 40% on 10 January. 

Water level in the Manjara dam, a key source for Latur city’s 350,000 population, stood at 18.2% on 10 January—the town is already receiving municipal water supply only once a week. In April 2016, the parched town, a major agricultural commodities trade hub for sugarcane, soybean, pulses and oilseeds, had to be supplied water through a special train

Bawaskar and Fardapur’s elected head or sarpanch, Shakilabi Shaikh Hussain, said village wells were running dry at an alarming pace; villagers were once again  preparing to migrate to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar or Beed or Mumbai to look for work. The most desperate, “those with previous outstanding loans, the landless, those willing to work under difficult conditions” in Bawaskar’s words, would work as indentured labourers, as brick kiln workers and sugarcane harvest workers. 

In the accounts of villagers in several regions of Marathwada, the problem is no longer that 148 villages and 40 hamlets in Marathwada are already receiving water supply through tankers—the corresponding number for the previous year was zero—but that the hardscrabble months will be borne by women who have already neglected their health and nutrition during previous years of drought-related financial distress; by young girls who have lost a year or two of schooling earlier when they migrated along with their parents to work in the cane fields; by families that have faced the ignominy of taking up menial work or jobs beyond the social mores and traditional diktats of their caste and stature; by people riven by years of cyclical drought and the ensuing socio-economic distress.      

I have found the accounts of hardships narrated by those on the frontlines of coping with climate change to be routinely more informative, insightful and astute than the comments from ‘experts’ that editors often insist on using. The people of Fardapur were no different. 

They gathered when a central government-appointed team of experts visited them late in 2023, part of a ground assessment mission to evaluate the gravity of the current drought.

They accompanied the team to cotton fields lying unattended since September 2023 when it became obvious that the crop had failed to develop bolls and could not be salvaged. They could not, however, discuss the previous drought years’ crop losses, bad debts, inability to access fresh credit and a slow impoverishment that had set in.  

Those influencing policy often come with a prepared checklist of questions, the drought-weary farmers found, and these may not be ideally suited to understanding the cumulative impact of years of cyclical drought.  

Almost 80% of the district’s ground water sources were categorised by the Central Ground Water Board 2023 as “semi-critical”, where the stage of ground water extraction (percentage of extraction to recharge) is between 70 % and 90 %. All eight districts of Marathwada recorded a dip in ground water levels in the post-monsoon period of 2023 as compared to the five-year average.

By all accounts, a long summer is around the bend. Even if it’s not as dry as it was in May 2019, Bawaskar said, it is now always a harsher summer than the last.    

Read Kavitha Iyer’s full story here.

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