Chlorophile: Marathwada’s crops must sway to random rain drops

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Published: October 5, 2015 12:20:07 AM

Marathwada’s drought has broken the resolve of Prahladrao Kakde, 61, of village Sarangpur in the Ambad taluk of Jalna district.

Marathwada’s drought has broken the resolve of Prahladrao Kakde, 61, of village Sarangpur in the Ambad taluk of Jalna district. A farmer known to chase profits and new practices, his orchard of pomegranate and mosambi, spread over 20 of the 45 acres he has, has fetched him a nice house and professional jobs for his children. But recurring droughts have made him doubt the viability of horticulture in Marathwada. This year he has spent about R25 lakh in arranging irrigation water through tankers. He feels like giving it all up and joining his son’s business exporting pomegranates to the Emirates.

In village Ukhanda of Beed district—represented in the Lok Sabha by BJP leader Gopinath Munde till his death in June last year in a car accident in Delhi—Gopinath Vithoba Bhondve, 56, stares at his patch of wilted soybean crop. Soybean has spread like an oil slick in Marathwada from 2 lakh hectares in 1990-91 to 35 lakh hectares in 2013-14, helped by demand for cooking oil and exports of de-oiled cakes to Europe. But soybean cannot withstand a prolonged dry spell in soil that cannot retain moisture. In July, a crucial month for crops, Aurangabad, one of Marathwada’s eight districts, for instance, got just one day of heavy rain and four days of drizzle.

At Hivarshinga village in Beed’s Shirur taluk, we find Rajendra Abaji Shinde, 41, and his wife, weeding a cotton field. The crop should have been five feet tall but is less than half the size. Each plant has about five bolls when there should have been 50. Shinde sowed three days after the first monsoon showers on June 9. Thereafter, it was virtually dry till the middle of September. A graduate in arts and physical education, Shinde has a tough time repaying a loan of R2.5 lakh he contracted from a sahukar at the usurious interest rate of R7,500 a month. Credit card companies charge that much on dues.

Cotton, soybean and fruits are like guests who have taken over the house. B Venkateswarlu, vice-chancellor of the Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University in Parbhani, says that lack of yield improvements in traditionally-grown crops such as jowar, bajra, safflower and pigeon pea or tur has given them the edge. But while they have fed rising aspirations, they have failed to be climate-resilient.

Droughts have been a frequent occurrence in Marathwada during the past 50 years. There have been years when rainfall deficit has been as high as 60%. Millets, pulses and oilseeds could survive the scorching weather. But the crops that have replaced them are less hardy, so the same rainfall deficit has a greater impact. This will aggravate in the years to come; weather models have shown that the region will continue to get about the same amount of rainfall, but there will be a few days of heavy showers with long dry spells in between.

The availability of foodgrain and fodder used to be an issue in previous decades; now people have grain to eat. Migration to cities such as Pune, Nagpur and Mumbai for work offers an escape chute. But fodder and water, both for drinking and industrial purposes, are difficult to find. Nanubhai Dasharath Hathagale, 61, of Hivarshinga village, whose three sons work as farm hands, says she had to pay R3,000 for a ‘siri’ of shrivelled cane to feed three oxen for a week.

The plight of landless farm workers is quite acute. Barkhubai Baban Barade, 45, a Bhil woman who lives with her clan in a clump of sheds made of new corrugated tin sheets in Patoda taluk’s Terla village, says they have to skip meals frequently as farm work has dried; they are looking forward to working in the cane fields in western Maharashtra’s Sangli and Kolhapur districts.

Cane is the bane of Marathwada. It requires an annual rainfall of 2,500 mm, against the 644 mm which the region got this season till September 23 (a deficit of 36%).

At Partur in Jalna district, about two dozen brand new cane harvesters, each costing R1.25 crore, are parked in the campus of Shri Bhageshwari sugar mills. The mill was set up by a state lawmaker but has been taken over by a Pune-based group. It costs about R300 to machine harvest a tonne of cane—more than the manual rate—but mechanical cutting is clean. No stubs are left behind and the sugar recovery rate is higher. However, to recover the cost of the machines alone, the mill will have to encourage cane growing. True, it is situated near the Lower Dudhana dam. Drip irrigation of cane fields saves about half the water that would have been used if they were flooded. But Venkateswarlu says pulses are water efficient by an order of magnitude than even drip-irrigated cane.

Venkateswarlu calls cane a lazy crop. It requires little maintenance. Farmers might have to bear the weather risk, but they are spared the price risk as buyback at state advised prices is assured. The area under cane has doubled from 5.36 lakh hectares in 1990-91 to 10.99 lakh hectares in 2013-14. About 25 mills are in existence; 15 more are said to be awaiting a licence.

Jayaji Suryavanshi, the founder of Annadata Shetkari Sanghatana, a grouping of farmers, and a fixture on television debates, says sugarcane offers security. Unless alternative crops can match that, farmers will not make the shift. He blames the Devendra Fadnavis government for not incentivising the cultivation of pigeon pea, whose prices have touched record levels, with subsidised seed, fertiliser and assured procurement.

Venkateswarlu says it is difficult divert area under cane to other crops, though his university has suggested alternatives which are as profitable but use less water, like mulberry and potatoes. Safflower, an oilseed, is also suited to the region’s soil and climate. Because the plants are thorny, manual harvesting is difficult. But the university has developed a device that makes them harvestable with combine machines.

Marathwada had taken to water conservation with enthusiasm. The landscape is dotted with check dams and other structures to arrest rain water runoff. Under a programme called Jalyukt Shivar, water bodies are being de-silted. Subsidies have encouraged the digging of open wells. Venkateswarlu says they act as percolation tanks and recharge the aquifers. But he cautions against the building of ponds on elevations. Water is pumped into them from borewells, so they can irrigate fields with the force of gravity when power is not available.

The gains of water conservation will be lost if cane area is not capped, and the use of drips is not compelled. But politicians, a university scientist says, cannot bear to hear anything against cane. Even the drought cannot dry up their greed.

Vivian Fernandes is consulting editor to

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