The Marathwada region where Beed is situated is a marker of India’s rural distress: 77% of farmers have no more than five acres of land, the region has experienced three years of drought over the last decade, its rural per capita income is Rs 90,460, or Rs 12,547 less than the national average, IndiaSpend reported in July 2017.
Beed has been reporting an increasing number of farmer suicides brought on by consecutive drought years, growing debts and poverty: It recorded 125 farmer suicides in 2018, the highest in Marathwada. This agricultural distress has become a political issue in the state which, on April 29, faces its fourth and final phase of voting in the ongoing 2019 general elections.
This is the fourth story in our series on the drought that is affecting more than 40% of India’s land area.This story examines the situation in Beed, where successive years of scanty rainfall have depleted almost all the wells, taps and reservoirs. Reporting from five talukas, we found villagers entirely dependent on water tankers brought from distant places. With farming no longer viable, villagers have been forced to migrate and find work in the sugar factories and sugarcane fields elsewhere in the state. Anticipating water shortage, many big farmers have not sown any rabi (spring) crops this year.
Over 50% area under cultivation hit by water shortage
The government of Maharashtra declared Beed one of the 26 severely drought-hit districts on October 31, 2018, based on ground truthing (a field survey) and various indicators, such as rainfall deficit, reservoir storage, groundwater index, and soil moisture. The average rainfall of Beed in 2018 was 334.70 mm, making water conservation difficultThe survey report of the 2018 kharif (monsoon crops) season (dated June 28, 2018) showed that drought affected more than 50% of the area under cultivation in all the 11 talukas of Beed. The percent available soil moisture (PASM) values of Beed district have also consistently declined this post-monsoon season--from 20.974 on October 1, 2018 to 0.042 on February 28, 2019.
“One of the biggest problems I noticed in the areas is that due to low rainfall, the soil is not getting enough moisture,” said Abhishek Banerjee, a geographic information system researcher and consultant with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “The deteriorating soil quality, combined with low precipitation, insufficient groundwater recharge, lack of water conservation knowledge, and poor management of available clean surface water have all contributed to the current agricultural and meteorological drought in Maharashtra.”
Without intervention, the problem might result in a hydrological drought (a marked depletion of surface water and groundwater) in the near future, he added.
Migrating to work in sugar factories, sugarcane fields
With hardly any agricultural labour opportunities in Dahiwandi, many villagers have begun migrating to work in the sugar factories of Sangli, around 269 km away, or Baramati, 94 km away. They also seek out seasonal jobs as sugarcane cutters in other corners of the state, mostly Solapur, Kolhapur and Ahmednagar.
Shindubai Upekar (40) of Uttamnagar, a village near Dahiwandi, and her husband, Uttam, work in the sugar factories of Baramati and Sangli where they together earn Rs 12,000 a month. The minimum daily wage for men is Rs 300 and women Rs 250.
The family lives in shanties around factory areas when they migrate along with their three children--two daughters and a son. There is no one to care for the children in Dahiwandi so the couple have no option but to take them along.
“We want our children to study and become respected officers in some company or in the government,” said Shindubai. “But every year we must migrate to the sugar factories, so we cannot send them to school. We do not know how they can study to fulfill this dream.”
Shindubai is not educated while her husband has studied upto the fifth standard. When they return home to Dahiwandi they look for construction jobs, working on roads and buildings.
Rekha Babasaheb Gade (26) also takes her two children along when she goes in search of jobs at sugarcane factories. She earns Rs 244 a day to break a ton of sugarcane but there are times when she gets this work only four days a week.
“We are paid in pairs, two sugarcane workers together are paid Rs 12,000-15,000 a month,” said Gade. “Sugar factories are closed between February and April when we come back home.” But life back in Dahiwandi is as tough, if not tougher, than in the sugarcane fields.
There are big drums parked outside every home in Beed and drinking water is sold all over the district through reverse osmosis (RO) plants. A 15-litre jar costs Rs 20, said Harish Daware, deputy general manager, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune-based organisation working on participatory watershed development. “This price will go up as the summer progresses,” he said.
Beed district has five blocks where the water shortage is the worst. Here, 570 tankers supply water to 621 villages, as per official documents provided by the district collector’s office.
The well in Pimpalgaon Dhas village of Patoda taluka has completely dried up. Two government tankers arrive here each day--one from Ukhanda Talaab, around 16 km away, and another from Domri Talaab, 25-30 km away, carrying 13,000 litres per trip. “The population of my village is now almost 2,200, maybe even more,” said Rajpure Baburao, sarpanch of Patoda taluka. “We need the tanker to make one more trip.”
The water from the borewells is dirty, complained Drupada Nana Bahadurgarh (85) of Pimpalgaon Dhas, so everyone depends on water tankers. She used to work in the sugarcane factories till a few years ago and now lives alone in the village. “My sons have completed their higher secondary schooling but could not stay in the village because of lack of opportunities here,” she said. “But they visit me once in a while and send me money regularly.”
Cattle being sent to camps
Mandar Aghav has 12 acres of farmland on which he cultivates cotton, jowar, bajra, and chikoos. He has been purchasing water from a private supplier for his crops: four tankers of 5,000 litres last for 8 days. Each tanker of 5,000 litres costs Rs 700. “This year, the cost of farming has gone up considerably,” he said. “We had to buy fodder for our cattle. Since the cattle camp started eight days ago, my cattle are living at the camp.”
One cattle camp has been set up in Shirur to house 1,000 cattle. The one asset that has saved many farmers from distress and forced migration is the cattle, said Chetana Gala Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, an NGO working for the empowerment of rural women in Mhaswad, Satara in western Maharashtra. But each cow or buffalo needs at least 40 litres of water a day and Jersey cows 60 litres.
Ashti taluka has 3,501 small animals and 43,015 large animals, according to the animal census conducted by the district collector’s office. The number of accepted proposals for cattle camps is 277, and 87 cattle camps had started in Ashti on March 18, 2019.
“People who have animals have bought large storage tanks in my village,” said Ambadas Amgashe, a field agent for WOTR, who lives in Dhanora village of Ashti taluka.
All reservoirs are dry, water tables down
Of the 5,264 completed large dams, 2,069 are in Maharashtra, which is the highest number of completed large dams, according to the National Register of Large Dams (updated in 2016). And 285 more are under construction.
At Moha village of Parali taluka in Beed, 40 km from Majalgaon dam, the water table has gone down and the village’s two borewells have dried up. “We were compelled to drill two more borewells as low as 650 ft,” said farmer Vishal Deshmukh. “We are aware that this is not good for the water table, but we simply had no other option.”
The groundwater problems in Marathwada arise from the uncontrolled digging of borewells, said Banerjee. “While we cannot blame the farmers for digging wells to access groundwater, borewells within short distances of each other all directed towards the same aquifer lead to groundwater depletion,” he added.
The provisions of the Maharashtra Groundwater Act, 2009, if implemented effectively, could have controlled the drought crisis, said Eshwer Kale, senior researcher with WOTR. The Act forbids digging wells beyond 60 m (200 ft) and mandates that crop patterns be decided taking into account the water availability in the region.