For want of Rs 10 a day, Radha Wankhede, 16, may fail her Class 10 board exams.

She has been missing classes ever since her father committed suicide on February 17, because her family can no longer raise the money for the bus fare.

“This month, for her first four exams, we somehow managed to borrow Rs 40,” says her mother Shivangi, 40. “But our neighbours and relatives have lent it reluctantly. I don’t blame them. Most of us are surviving on roti and chutney. In such times, asking for bus fare seems unreasonable.”

Savita Hadbade says her family was comfortable until the crops began failing three years ago. Her husband committed suicide in 2013 and she supported her daughter Shweta (in photo) and son by working as a farm labourer. Here, she stands in the farm where she works, which has been destroyed by unseasonal rain. She is not sure how she will feed her family this year. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT photo)

A third consecutive year of deficient monsoon, followed by unseasonal rain and showers of hail, has destroyed crops across the arid, drought-prone regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada — to the extent that many farmers, including the Wankhedes, have not bothered to harvest the fields this year.With the crop on their 2-acre cotton farm in Dahegaon, Vidarbha, destroyed, and no harvesting in the region, Shivangi cannot even find work.

The successive years of erratic weather and failed crops have also eroded the family support structure and even the allied local industries that kept farmers going in bad years. Thus, as with the Wankhedes, there are no relatively better-off loved ones to borrow from.

And the cotton ginning factories that once provided part-time employment when crops failed are getting so little raw material that they have slashed production hours, on average, from 24 hours a day to eight. Many have shut altogether, until supply improves.

Shivangi’s 19-year-old son Amit, in his final year of college, is now planning to drop out and leave home in search of work.

“My mother and I have looked… there are no jobs in or near our village,” he says.

Across the region, education is taking a back seat, migration rates have soared and bonded labour is on the rise this year, as the cumulative effect of three bad years kicks in.

“Over the past three months, migration in Jalna has increased by about 30% over last year,” says advocate Kalpana Tribhuvan, secretary of Marathwada NGO Sarth Mahila Vikas Sanstha.

The untimely rains in December and February damaged whatever little the farms might have yielded. Early estimates suggest that moong output in 2014-15 has declined by 61%, tur by 42%, urad by 48%, soyabean by 59% and oilseeds by 56% over 2013-14.

Cotton ginning plants offered farmers part-time employment in desperate times. But with little raw material supply, they too are running reduced shifts or closing down temporarily. Here, a worker carries a half-empty basket across a deserted factory floor in Dhamangaon village, Vidarbha. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT photo)
“The situation is even more desperate than usual. The suicide rate in Vidarbha has risen from an average of 180 in a month in 2014 to 202 a month this year,” says Kishore Tiwari, president of NGO Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.

Activists, meanwhile, say that the state needs to switch from compensating suicides to more actively preventing them.

“The government is willing to give Rs 1 lakh as compensation. Why not allot that money to develop an irrigation network or give seed, pesticide and fertiliser subsidies — or to waive more loans while the farmer is still alive? Most of the farmers here owe less than Rs 2 lakh,” says Tribhuvan.

Radha and Amit’s father, for instance, hanged himself over an accumulated debt of Rs 1.08 lakh. Madan, 44, had already mortgaged the family’s farm, home and copper utensils. “Each year we hoped that things would be better. That God and the government would do something to help us. Each year our condition worsened,” says Shivangi. “Now we are left with no money, no crop and no belongings.”

In a well-off village, first one suicide, then another…
On New Year’s Day, 2015, 38-year-old Madhukar Pendor walked out to the edge of his rain-battered 9-acre farm and drank a bottle of pesticide.

It was the first-ever suicide case in Roonjha village in Yavatmal. The tally there has already risen to two.

Roonjha used to be a relatively well-off Vidarbha settlement. Most houses here are made of concrete, not mud. The farmers would traditionally harvest two crops a year. It was a hard life, but it used to be stable.

That began to change in 2012. First the rains failed, then they came too early, and were followed by devastating hailstorms.

“After two bad years, my husband was already losing hope. Then it rained on January 1 and our entire field of cotton, tur dal and soyabean was destroyed,” says his wife Sunita, 40. “He left home to check the condition of the farm and never returned.”

For Sunita, who is struggling to pay the interest on a loan of Rs 2 lakh while supporting two children, the neighbours’ failed crops brought more bad news.

Where it was once easy to find at least part-time work at an aanganwadi (government-run crèche) or women’s cooperative, these jobs have now all been taken.

“I have even applied for a job on the police force,” she says. “There are just no vacancies. Everyone is desperately trying to find work because they have realised that farming will just bring them disappointment.”

Her late husband had tried to get a job too. “We have tried and tried, but we have failed,” she says. “I have no idea what to do next, how to feed and educate my daughters. I think, in the end, we will have to sell the land.”

‘It’s hard to believe we were once comfortable’
Until three years ago, 14-year-old Shweta Hadbade lived a relatively comfortable life.

Her father, Raju, made enough off his family’s 10-acre farm to pay off his debts and even build a one-room home for himself, his wife and their two children in their village of Dahegaon in Yavatmal, Vidarbha.

Then the crops began to fail, and kept failing. “He had a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh, and had lost all hope of paying it back,” says his wife Savita. In mid-2013, after yet another failed crop, Raju, then 45, committed suicide by drinking pesticide. Savita, 40, has been working as a farm labourer ever since. This year, crop failure has hit even this meagre livelihood.

“I used to earn Rs 110 per day working on a farm. Even this income has been reduced to half this year, because I get work for only three days a week as opposed to seven,” she says.

Shweta must now get used to a hand-to-mouth existence. And, what feels worse to her, she must resign herself to waking up at 5.30 every morning and walking 20 minutes to defecate. “It’s horrible. Every time I need to go, I have to ask a friend or relative to accompany me,” she says. “We’ve also been taught in school that it’s unhygienic.”

Her father had promised to build her a toilet in the house. But that is a distant dream now. “I am not sure if I will be ever able to fulfil my daughter’s wishes,” says Savita. “Still, we have not given up. I want to give my girl a better life.”

Trapped between joblessness, exploitation
Farm labourer Rameshwar Randhwe, 30, of Hadap village in Jalna, Marathwada, had always been able to find enough work in the fields to support himself and his wife, mother and two children.

Over the past three years, the work dwindled. “We used to get work eight months a year. Then the crops failed one after another and, by October last year, we had no real work for six months.”

Desperate, Rameshwar and his mother Girija, 55, decided they would take up an agent’s offer to go to Bhimaghat in Karnataka to harvest sugarcane.

“I was very happy because they paid Rs 30,000 in advance for the two of us for six months,” says Rameshwar.

After working on the fields for a month, the duo fled and returned home.

“They made us work from 5 am to midnight, pulling out the sugarcane and loading it onto trucks,” says Rameshwar. “We lived and cooked on the farm and most days ended up eating just rice because we were too tired to make anything else,” adds Girija. “If we took an unscheduled break, we were hit with sugarcane sticks.”

Now, the mother and son are desperately trying to find a way to repay the money so that they can stop dodging the agents, who come looking for them from time to time, threatening to take them back by force.

“We don’t want to go back,” says Girija. “But also need to think about what else we can do, because there is no work in the village.”

Sometimes I think this is all so strange. The government is willing to give Rs 1 lakh as compensation when a farmer commits suicide. Why not allot that money to the farmer when he is still alive! Most farmers here owe less than Rs 2 lakh. The government currently offers waivers in name, and even those only in select cases. With more loan waivers, we could really begin to address the problem of indebtedness and lift the blanket of depression here.
– Kalpana Tribhuvan, advocate and secretary of Marathwada NGO Sarth Mahila Vikas Sanstha

From a 10-acre cotton farm, I have harvested just 2 quintals of produce — after sowing seeds thrice. Normally, I get about 40 quintals, but this time most of the seeds went bad when it didn’t rain on time. Then the soyabean crop was ruined by the recent rains. I haven’t even bothered to cut it down. I have no idea how I will pay the interest on my debt of Rs 40,000 and sustain my family of eight. Forget loan waivers, most of us haven’t been compensated for crop losses. Corruption is a big problem here too. For everything, you have to pay under the table.
– Fakira Arle, 78, farmer from Yavatmal, Vidarbha, who became indebted in 2012

I have hardly been able to procure any cotton, so I have decided to temporarily shut my factory. Three years ago, work was on full swing, round the clock, for six to seven months a year. For three years, due to limited supply of cotton, the work hours have been reducing. This year I realised that there is just no point opening the factory and incurring labour and electricity costs.
– Uday Dharamsi, owner of Dharamsi ginning mill in Dahegoan, Yavatmal, Vidharbha

The cost of everything from pesticides to fertilisers has gone up, but the selling price of cotton has fallen from Rs 7,000 in 2013 to Rs 5,000 in 2014 and now a mere Rs 3,500 per quintal. Government policies are killing us.
– Ashok Bhole, 50, cotton farmer from Yavatmal, Vidarbha

Picture below: Rameshwar Randhwe, 30, and his 55-year-old mother Girija (seated) are trapped between unemployment at home and bonded labour in Karnataka. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT photo)