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Farmers suffer in India drought

India Dispatch: As the country awaits the arrival of crucial rains for agriculture and livestock, a prolonged dry season is exacerbated by manmade problems. Mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency are only adding to the pain.

Pomegranate farmer Rajaram Yelpale inspects a temporary water reservoir in Ajnale in the Solapur district of Maharashtra, one of the worst drought affected areas. Subhash Sharma for The National
Pomegranate farmer Rajaram Yelpale inspects a temporary water reservoir in Ajnale in the Solapur district of Maharashtra, one of the worst drought affected areas. Subhash Sharma for The National

Krishna Bankar, from a rural village in Solapur in India, is living at a dusty outdoor cattle camp about a kilometre from his home.

The dairy farmer, 55, moved his 40 cows to the government-funded emergency facility because it is the only way he can provide water for the animals and keep them and his business alive as the state of Maharashtra suffers its worst drought in four decades.

"It's a struggle," says Mr Bankar. "If the rains come, I'll get some hope to continue."

Sheets of cloth stretched across rickety wooden poles serve as the only shelter from the baking-hot afternoon sun for the animals and the farmers. Set up in October, the makeshift camp now has more than 1,700 cattle from a few nearby villages.

Nature is not the only factor behind the drought, however. Widely referred to as a man-made disaster, poor planning, corruption, mismanagement of water supplies and the unbridled development of the water-guzzling sugar-cane industry in the state are also to blame for the drought, farmers and officials say.

With agriculture accounting for about 14 per cent of India's economy, droughts have a significant impact, with the weak monsoon season last year contributing to India's slower GDP growth, which is expected to have hit a decade low.

The rains are expected to start next month. Last year's insufficient monsoon meant a lot of crops failed and it has resulted in lower water supplies.

Reservoirs are at alarmingly low levels, with water being restricted to drinking use only and irrigation use forbidden, while some rivers and canals are completely dry.

Pomegranate farmers in the village of Ajnale in Maharashtra have seen most of their crops destroyed because of the drought.

"It will take three to four years to recover," says Rajaram Yelpale, a pomegranate farmer with 15 hectares of land. He says there are 400 pomegranate farmers in the village with bank loans totalling 80 million rupees (Dh5.2m). They have also borrowed money from private lenders. The farmers say they are struggling to repay their debts.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the farmers will find it difficult to repay their loans," says Mr Yelpale, who has a bank loan of 500,000 rupees to repay. "This year, we have to apply to the bank for more time to repay the loans," he says.

"We're hoping for a good rainfall this year. But if it's bad, the situation will be terrible and we'll have no option but to leave this place."

He blames unfair water distribution in the state for the problems.

"Most of the water is going to the sugar-cane industry and it's not being used properly," he says. "It's political." The government built a large canal near the village years ago but the farmers complain that water has never reached it. Millions of dollars have been spent on dams and water solutions in Maharashtra but the farmers in Ajnale say they are not seeing any of the benefits of this investment.

They managed to keep some of their crops alive this year by buying water from privately-owned tankers, which came to the village and sold water for agricultural use at 1,300 rupees for 10,000 litres.

"We couldn't afford this for all our crops - only part of them," Mr Yelpale says.

Kolawale Dharamraj Sambhaj, another farmer in the village, sank a bore well to 400 metres in search of water but he failed to find a single drop.

Maharashtra has an exceptionally high rate of farmer suicides, but farmers in the district of Solapur say suicide is not in their culture and they are determined to pay off their loans eventually.

Uttam Reddy is a bank inspector at the Solapur Jilha Madyavarti Sahakari bank. He says loans have been issued to hundreds of farmers in the areas but payments are not being made because of the drought.

"There are no payments from the farmers," he says.

"They come and they tell us that there's a drought, their crops have failed and the bank gives them time to repay."

No loans are being given out at the moment, Mr Reddy says. Land is securitised when the bank issues the loans, but he believes the money will be recovered eventually.

"We have a recovery officer that follows the people, so sooner or later they'll pay," he says.

Agriculture is not the only industry affected. In drought-hit areas, construction projects have been put on hold, while weaker income for the farmers results in reduced expenditure on consumer goods.

"Mismanagement, overuse of water, the increasing population, sugar cane crops," says Shilpa Tokade, the tahsildar (a revenues and taxes district official) for Solapur, listing the factors behind the water shortage in Maharahstra.

The government has taken steps to try to help the farmers. Emergency fodder camps, which provide free food and water to livestock, cost 80 rupees per animal each day, according to Sahebra Gaekwad, the deputy collector for Solapur. About 300 cattle camps have been set up in the district, housing about 237,600 animals. More than 2 billion rupees have already been spent on cattle camps by the federal and state governments in the past six months in Solapur. Some farmers have also received subsidies to develop water tanks but they had to cover about half of the costs themselves.

The pomegranate farmers in Ajnale say they are applying for grants of up to 60,000 rupees to help save their crops.

"If the rain doesn't come in this season also, then the severity will increase," Mr Gaekwad says.

"There is fighting among the different areas for the same water. Every industry requires water and everything should be balanced, then all the industries will survive.

"There needs to be proper planning for its utilisation. More and more areas will be converted to drip irrigation [a system of crop irrigation involving the controlled delivery of water directly to individual plants through a network of tubes or pipes]."

Wealthier farmers have managed to come up with solutions.

Datta Kale, a grape grower in Nanaj with 30 acres of land, says he has invested millions of rupees over the past decade in a water pipeline and water storage facilities, although he says even his crops are weaker than they should be this year because of reduced water supplies.

Others are not as fortunate.

Raju Bhaganagare, a dairy farmer, was last week wandering through the roads with a herd of 25 buffalo outside the main town in the district in search of a fodder camp for his well-trained animals.

He said he had already been looking for a solution for several days and had taken his buffalo to two cattle camps, only to be turned away because they were full.

"I'm going to keep trying to find fodder and water for them," he said.

"I don't want to sell my animals - only the butcher would buy them."

 

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