Beed District: Drought and Govt Policies
PART 1- PLIGHT OF KISANS
BY January this year, 300 districts across India had already been declared drought hit by various state governments. Among these districts is the district of Beed in Maharashtra. It was declared drought affected in October of last year, but even three months later, in mid January when I accompanied a district level team of the CPI(M) and Kisan Sabha to meet hundreds of affected people from around 25 villages in different talukas, there was absolutely no drought relief work in sight. Not a single government team had visited the affected areas to assess the damage to the crops.
The kisans were getting ready to clear their fields of the dried up crops but were afraid to do so in case it affected their insurance claims. Every single kisan we met is in debt with no hope of relief. A striking and most disturbing feature is the plight of agricultural workers and particularly agricultural women workers. In many villages, the majority of male members of families have migrated looking for work elsewhere. This is because in spite of it being declared drought affected, the workdays being provided under MGNREGA are far below the demand. In 2018-2019 the average number of workdays provided to households in Beed was just 43 days.
After the village level meetings, the delegation also met the collector with the detailed report of the ground situation and the demands voiced by the people.
The experiences of the kisans in this district also highlight the injustice in the Modi government framed Drought Manual guidelines, 2016.
Some of the issues are discussed below.
EXTENT OF DAMAGE, COMPENSATION & RELIEF
All the 11 talukas have been declared drought affected in Beed. However there has been no assessment of the damage. This is critical for the amount of compensation and insurance to be paid. The tension among the kisans is that the damage percentage will be played down and they will be denied fair compensation as had happened in the past. Beed has suffered drought in four of the last five years, with adequate rainfall only in 2017.
This is an area where the crops sown include sugarcane, cotton, soyabean, tur dal, bajra, jowar. Apart from the impact of drought, the BT-cotton crop since 2016 has been hit by a “bondali” worm. This has also meant the use of more insecticides and fertilizer, hiking up the expense per acre. The majority of landholdings are below five acres. The damage according to the kisans was over 80 per cent of the kharif crop with little likelihood of rabi crop since there has been a deficient rainfall. All through the district one can see the dried up cotton plants, the sugarcane turned brown and the remnants of soyabean fields. However the debts incurred and the lack of any income for the last eight months or so has not led to any urgency as far as government relief and the insurance compensation is concerned.
INADEQUATE LOANS: DEBTS CAN BE
HIDDEN, NOT THE PAIN
Although the government boasts of the crop loan scheme, many farmers we met had not been able to take loans from the banks. There have been several agitations but the answer from the banks is telling. According to a gram panchayat member Mazhar Deshmukh, the officers say “our quotas for farm loans are over, so we cannot give loans.The crop loans are inadequate enough, just Rs 15,000 per acre depending on the type of crop being sown, but everyone does not get it.” In Mandekhel village of Parli taluk, farmers who had asked for loans for sugarcane cultivation were told that they would get the loans only if they had a letter of guarantee from the sugar mill owners. This gives the owners, a powerful political lobby, great power over the sugarcane growers. This is the common practice of all banks in the region.
We did not meet a single farmer who had benefitted from the Maharashtra government’s loan waiver scheme. However some of the farmers who had been forced to take loans from moneylenders complained that there was discrimination and kisans were being punished for the banks failure to give them loans. Babsaheb Pawar, a soyabean grower who had lost more than 80 per cent of his crop, asked at a block level meeting in Dharur, ‘Is it fair that those kisans who were denied loans and were forced to take loans from moneylenders should get no relief from the government?” But the kisans were reluctant in the open meeting to give details about the amount of the debt they had incurred. One of them said later “it is a question of making our vulnerabilities public in the village. We cannot do that. If we say in an open meeting as to how much we owe, our status will be affected, tomorrow we will find it difficult to get loans from others.” A horrible situation, where kisans keep silent about their debts, shouldering the burden, they hide the size of the debt incurred, but even the most stoic among them, cannot hide the pain.
FRAUDULENT INSURANCE SCHEMES:
THE MACHINE DOES NOT TALK
The kisans are extremely bitter about their experience with insurance companies. In Beed district, there is no insurance for sugarcane growers this year. When asked why, officers said the premium was too high and kisans would not pay it. Kisans say they were never consulted. This is an issue which needs further enquiry.
At a meeting in Dharmevadi village in Majalgaon block, a big group of kisans spoke about their experiences. Sandeepan Bhumble, a cotton farmer summed it up this way ‘In 2017, I had paid insurance of Rs 1200 per acre for the cotton crop. Although there was rain that year, the harvest was affected by the bondali worm and whereas I should have got 10 quintals I could harvest only 6 quintals. The procedures to get insurance are very difficult since it is online. In our village there is very poor internet connection. It took me many days and wasted hours to complete the online form. I have got the receipt of the money I paid as premium. But of what use is it? Earlier there used to be an insurance agent whom we knew face to face, whom we could argue with. Now there is only the machine. What can you explain to a machine? I kept waiting for someone to check the loss, to pay me my insurance claim. But no one came and I did not get a single paisa. Going to the BDO office is also very time consuming. So I left it.’
This frustration was echoed by another group of kisans in Netrud village. Sharas Porchadi said, “Farmers have a deadline given by insurance companies to pay the premium by December 31. But insurance companies have no such deadline to pay us for the damages. What can we do? Since there is online registration we have no chance of contacting the insurance company. We have to depend on the government to decide and give us the compensation. We have gone several times to meet the BDO but he says they have no instructions. No one has come to assess the damage. I am going to clear my field of the dead plants. But tomorrow what proof will I have?’
CATTLE AND FODDER
According to official data, there are over 5 lakh cows, 2.6 lakh bulls and 2.4 lakh buffalos in the district. Dairy farming and cattle trade are very important income sources. However, in all the villages, kisans were desperate to sell their cattle as the lack of fodder and water is making it very difficult to maintain the animals. According to kisans in the Talkhed panchayat meeting, a pair of bullocks require three quintals of fodder a month costing Rs 2000 a quintal that is Rs 72,000 a year just for the fodder. The other big problem is water scarcity. There are not enough tankers to cover the needs of humans leave alone cattle. However, because of the BJP policies in the name of cow protection, the kisans say that generally the cattle trade has been very badly hit. Added to that the drought has further pushed down the prices so there are big losses for those who are forced into distress sales of cattle. No cattle shelters have been set up yet. In any case, the kisans demand that government should supply fodder to the villages as taking the cattle to shelters means that one adult has to give up his daily earning to stay with the cattle.
ABSENCE OF EXTENSION SERVICES AND HELP
The extension services which should be run by the government have more or less disappeared. Kisans said that from time to time they were informed that government had taken a decision to change the cropping patters and crops sown in the area and kisans would be helped to switch crops. But no services were provided. On the contrary they said that official agencies encouraged private seed and fertilizer agencies to sell BT cotton seeds, and fertilizers and also extended help to sugar mills. They cited the power given to sugar mill owners by the government. In such a situation, planning for agricultural practices to deal with drought or which would be more sustainable in nature is totally absent. Clearly the government has withdrawn from its minimum responsibilities for extension services, for research to produce better seeds, to promote sustainable agricultural practices, all impacting negatively on agricultural production and the interests of kisans.
The collector in his response to the problems of loans and insurance that we heard in village after village admitted to “some blocks.” The fact is that the procedures for online insurance are extremely difficult for farmers. The accountability of the companies getting the insurance premium is zero as far as the kisans are concerned. It is the government that will decide. The collector agreed that this led to much bureaucratic delay. He also agreed that the delay in assessment of damage is worrying, however according to the new rules of drought assessment, physical verification on a village level basis was no longer necessary. It is done on an extrapolated average of yield at the district and block level. There is no differentiation between well-off farmers with bigger landholdings and the middle and marginal peasant. Nor is there any data collected as to accessibility to water for irrigation. This is extremely unfair. In some areas where there are more well-off farmers who can afford irrigation through pumps and borewells, the yield may be higher, which will take the average up.
These methods will also leave scope for manipulation by officials to cut down on the financial liability of drought relief. We have seen how the Modi government can pressurise officials in the collection of statistics, say for example on unemployment figures. Now through the new methods for drought damage assessments, there is scope for getting results far from the truth of the actual damage suffered.
The new drought manual of 2016, brought out by the Modi government is designed in a way which is not to mitigate the effects of drought but more to downplay them. The parameters to declare a district drought affected and to assess the degree of impact, from ‘moderate’, to ‘severe’ ‘very severe’ have been made much more stringent and technologically driven. Physical verification, the best method verification has been virtually eliminated, certainly downgraded as a method to assess severity. These categorisations are critical in the disbursement of funds. The manual has pages and pages of lectures to state governments of what they should do in the case of drought. However, as far as funds are concerned, the main responsibility is expected to be borne by the state government. There are two relief funds: the SDRF which has a 75 per cent contribution by the central government and 25 per cent by the state government and the NDRF which is entirely from central funds.
It was reported that according to this manual, only three districts of Maharashtra would qualify to have been declared drought affected. But the state government, facing a political backlash from kisans, was forced to write to the central government. However, the extent of the drought impact is yet to be decided since this involves funds. It is this criminal callousness in allocating adequate funds for drought relief which has compounded the terrible plight of the kisans of Beed district.
(Next Week, Part 2: The plight of agricultural workers in a drought hit district)