The state of the squishy soil on which his vineyard stands is similar to the grapes hanging over it: Squeezed, mashed and ruptured. The condition of fruit in Shashikant Bhamre's vineyard makes it hard to believe his village exported grapes worth Rs 100 crore just last year. "This year, not even one percent of what we harvested is left," says the 40-year old farmer, walking through his three-acre vineyard in the village of Pingalwade, located around 100 kilometres from Nashik.
Unseasonal rains continued to lash the state of Maharashtra from October onwards, just when the farmers start harvesting their crops. They have destroyed crops on 94 lakh hectares of farmland, devastating Kharif crops and horticulture alike. The losses to farmers are pegged at thousands of crores of rupees.
The destruction in Pingalwade is as stark as it could be. With 3,000 residents cultivating grapes on around a thousand acres, the vineyards here have been reduced to rubble. "Annual investment in an acre of grapes is around Rs 2.5 lakh," says Shashikant, "In a good season, we harvest around eight to 10 tonnes of grapes. A tonne is sold for about Rs one lakh. This time around, even recovering what we invested is a long shot."
Damaged grapes in Pingalwade. Firstpost/Parth MN
Pingalwade used to carry out traditional farming until the 1990s. The village's fortunes changed for the better when Keda Bhamre, 63, in the mid-1990s had an idea. "Some of the villages around us cultivated grapes while we planted cabbage, bajra, wheat and so on," he says, "The harvesting of grapes would happen in February and March. I tried the experiment of changing the grape cycle a bit. We planned the crop in a way that it was harvested between October and December when the grapes are not in the market. That is the time when the rates are high."
The gamble paid off, slowly and steadily, and the rest of the village followed suit. Today, almost every household in the village nurtures a vineyard in varying portions. Keda had inherited 30 acres of farmland from his father. In the past 25 years, he has gradually expanded his area to around 100 acres. "We reached our peak last year when the gross income of the village was Rs 100 crore," he says, "The expenses would be around Rs 20 crore, so the village made a profit of around Rs 80 crore. Traders land at our doorstep and procure from us. These grapes, we are told, are exported to Russia as well as Dubai."
This year, though, Pingalwade has little to offer to the traders. "The unseasonal rains damaged the buds of the trees. Once the bud is damaged, it means the season is down the drain. We can only hope to make up for the loss next year now," Keda says.
Whatever the farmers managed to recover is being packed in the verandah of Keda's home. Labourers from Gujarat travel here every year at around this time. As a result of this year's losses, though, their labour too has been restricted.
Keda Bhamre. Firstpost/Parth MN
Earning Rs 300 a day, Yeno Rathod, who hails from the remote village of Dandval in Gujarat's Valsad district, says her labour work has dwindled by half this year. "It is usually a 90-day labour period," she says, weeding grapes into a bucket and packing them into a box. "This year, we will be back home in 40 or 45 days."
The unseasonal rains have not only caused shortage of grapes. But the market is starved of green vegetables, tomatoes and onions, forcing the skyrocketing of their prices. Experts believe it is only going to be more frequent in the years to come due to climate change and global warming. Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and adjunct faculty, IDP Climate studies, IIT-Bombay, says, "Over the years, due to climate change accelerated global warming, the land stores up a lot of heat and hence, convective available potential energy (CAPE), which causes thunderstorms, is very high. In fact, the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Hence, unseasonal thunderstorms have been on the rise."
Little is being done to protect farmers from climate change. The economic survey of 2018 predicts it could reduce annual agriculture income by 15 to 18 percent on average.
Further, farmers who endured losses this season have not even received much compensation, because the destruction coincided with the Assembly elections of Maharashtra, which was followed by month-long political machinations to form the government.
Anil Bonde, former agriculture minister in the cabinet of Devendra Fadnavis, says the state had asked for a relief package from the Centre immediately after the election results. "I think we asked for the funds on 25 or 26 October itself (the results were announced on 24 October)," he says, "A National Disaster Relief Force team even visited the state after that. But the funds have not come through yet. At least they had not come through for as long as I was the minister."
The Disaster Management Act, 2005, has cyclone as a registered natural calamity, meaning the Centre is bound to help a state struck by it. Balasubramanian says this year saw a "record number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea". He adds, "And Arabian Sea activity is important for rains in Maharashtra. Due to a super-active Arabian Sea, we had many cyclones, which gave unseasonal rains resulting in crop damage."
Bonde says the new government led by Uddhav Thackeray should pursue the request made by the earlier government, and resume the compensation process. "Of the destroyed areas, 70 lakh hectares of land out of 94 lakh hectares comprises Kharif crops," says Bonde, "The rest is horticultural land. The new chief minister has said his government would pay compensation of Rs 25,000 per hectare for Kharif crops, and Rs one lakh per hectare for horticulture. This amounts to around Rs 41,000 crore. We have given Rs 8,000 crores, the new government should quickly disburse the rest."
Meanwhile, back in Pingalwade, Shashikant says the farmers are hopeful of a turnaround. "Sharad Pawar had recently visited our village regarding the losses. Farmers across Maharashtra are struggling, but the pressure on people like us is more because the investments in horticulture are much more. We had found a lifeline when we turned to grapes. It had only been a few years since some stability had kicked in. We can only hope this year was an aberration," he sighs.