Marathwada: Zero rabi crop, bone dry wells, serial hunger strikes in despair

Kavitha Iyer
At a dam site in parched Beed in Marathwada. (Express photo: Amit Chakravarty)

Twice over the last six months, residents of Chaklamba village in Beed district s Georai taluka have gone on a relay hunger strike in 43-degree temperatures, spending scorching afternoons in the shade of a flimsy cloth tent on the outskirts of the village, a banner behind them stating their demands. During February s 12-day hunger strike, the mood was still hopeful. Then April rolled around and the step-well located on Satish Patil s land, a century-old structure that had never failed the village, ran dry.

When villagers decided to undertake a second hunger strike by the end of May, it was once again to press for a sub-canal from the Jayakwadi dam to serve their farmland. But this time, the protestors were despairing at local officials disinterest. Every well has run dry here, there is not a single source of water for the crop. If we don t get substantial rain, we cannot sow our kharif crop this year, said Machhindra Gawde, 70, almost in tears.

Gawde led both hunger strikes this year, a previous one in 2017 and multiple other delegations to officials handling irrigation projects, each time seeking irrigation facilities for thousands of dryland farmers in the region. Since 2016, Chaklamba s residents have petitioned the Water Resources Department of the Maharashtra government multiple times.

Marathwada s largest dam Jayakwadi, built across the mighty Godavari, is located only 40 km away from about 80 villages in this arid belt where average rainfall in the 2018 monsoon was a paltry 300 mm, a third of the national average of about 900 mm. From one bank, canals take Jayakwadi s water 400 km away to parts of Nanded. From the opposite bank, the canals skirt this belt and head towards Majalgaon.

A sub-canal would resolve all our problems, every one of them. We can be sujalam sufalam, said Satish Patil, once among Chaklamba s largest land-owners, now working as a temp with a government company. Patil still owns 16 acres of land, but lost most of his crop in 2018-19 and is putting off plans for the coming kharif season.

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Chaklamba s story reflects the realities of dozens of villages in this part of Marathwada where ground water depletion has hit alarming levels, compounding the distress from years of truant monsoons and a deepening credit crisis. More than half the villages where the state Groundwater Survey and Development Agency s summer survey found a depletion of over 3 metres from the five-year average are in Marathwada, or 1,467 villages. The largest concentration of these villages is in Beed, Osmanabad and Aurangabad districts. Wells and borewells here are now bone dry, and the absence of sustainable irrigation facilities felt more acutely than ever before.

While Chaklamba s villagers planned to send a delegation to Mumbai to meet ministers, legislators and officials during the state Assembly s monsoon session now in session, cash constraints led them to eventually send a single emissary. In Mumbai for two days now trying to draw legislators attention to his village s woes, Krishna Khedkar said wearily, The government likes to say we are drunks and addicts killing ourselves. But the reality is that we have neither water for our fields nor any alternative source of income. After repeated years of losses, many just give up hope.

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Khedkar met Leader of the Opposition in Maharashtra s upper house, NCP leader Dhananjay Munde, who promised to add his might to their agitation. Khedkar hopes to meet Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis too.

In Georai, the concerns in dozens of villages are the same. In Dhondrai and Bhodegaon villages, residents say the MIDC area in Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra gets water from Jayakwadi but they don t. Gawde, who lived in western Maharashtra until 2006, says, In those parts, not a guntha is dry. And in our area, not a guntha is irrigated.

About 30 villages in the belt have passed gram sabha resolutions supporting the Chaklamba villagers struggle. Fifty more villages are expected to follow suit, said Lata Pandit, Georai taluka president of the Prahaar Janshakti Party floated by independent MLA Bachu Kadu, which fielded a farm widow from Yavatmal in the recent Lok Sabha election. Pandit says the party will agitate with Chaklamba s residents.

In Mumbai, Khedkar is hanging out with a friend from the village – one of the 1,500 young men from Chaklamba who have migrated in search of work. Even those with a Class X or XII certificate are working as labourers in Pune or Aurangabad or Mumbai, he says.

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Of the nearly 10,000-strong population of Chaklamba, 7,000 migrate annually for the sugarcane harvest, working as labourers. Not just communities that traditionally work as cane harvesters, poor people from all communities are signing up with the contractor. When they leave, it becomes a zero village . There is no business for local shops or businesses, there is no work on local farms anyway, and we become a village with just the senior citizens, some looking after grandkids left behind, Khedkar says.

Villagers say many who own 6-8 acres actually work as farm labourers on smaller fields in western Maharashtra. A sub-canal from Jayakwadi would unravel many of these knotty subjects, they say.

The Government of India Jai Shakti ministry s latest ambitious announcements and the Maharashtra government s own plans for piped drinking water supply cut no ice in Chaklamba. What we need is water for our fields, and what we re asking for is our right, says Gawde.

Dotting the region are empty farm ponds, some being built in preparation for the coming monsoon. Already, across Marathwada, one response to consecutive poor monsoons has been to drill fresh, deeper borewells. The Magel Tyala Shettala or Farm Pond On Demand scheme of the state government has also led thousands in the region to draw out ground water using pumps to store in the plastic-lined farm ponds for use as the summer worsens. The scheme, meant actually to conserve farm run-off, has seen 1,20,439 farm ponds built as of March 31, 2019.

Experts have already called for a scientific analysis of whether the very popular farm ponds are aggravating the ground water crisis. We don t need any of these government doles – the Rs 6,000 from the government, these subsidies, the annual ex gratia for drought losses, says Satish Patil. Just irrigate our lands, we can reap our own gold.