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By Khanjan Ravani
In the last three decades, the cotton-growing region of Yavatmal in Maharashtra has been witness to a spate of farmer suicides, on account of being drought-prone. Now, climate change has multiplied the farmers’ woes further. In addition, a host of factors have worsened the situation further, increasing the farmers’ vulnerability and pushing them further to the brink.
The agricultural fields of Yavatmal.
In the last Kharif season, farmers in the area faced huge losses due to erratic rainfall during monsoons. Production of cotton and soybean – which are the most important Kharif crops in the district – also took a hit due to recurrent pest attacks as well as unpredictable weather patterns.
In 2020, cotton crop in the farms was infested with pink bollworms- and the yield was very low. Due to untimely rains, the soybean crops were damaged too. “There were no seeds in the pods when soybean was harvested. The production was not enough even to cover the input costs,” Pundalik Bhjade, a farmer from Pandhurna Khurd village told Youth Ki Awaaz.
Purshottam Gedam, the sarpanch of Ganeri village in Yavatmal still remembers a time when the rains were timely. “Some 5-10 years ago, the monsoon used to be on time. And sowing was timed according to that. But now, the rainfall is erratic. After one or two showers, it stops raining for a few weeks. Sowing has to be done twice. Sometimes, it rains too much and the crops get destroyed,” he says.
On the five acres of land that he owns, Gedam had sown soybean on four acres in the last season. More than 90% of the crops were destroyed by untimely rainfall, he says. The production was hardly 0.5 to 1 quintal per acre, against the usual 7-10 quintals an acre should give.
The re-sowing due to the dry spells also increases the input cost for farmers. Also, impacting crop yields have been the changing climatic conditions.
“There was a hailstorm last year in which almost half of the crops were destroyed. Rainfall too has been very erratic for the last 3-4 years. Sometimes it rains too much, other times, it doesn’t rain at all. This means we have to do the sowing twice,” Parvata Aade, from Titwi village, tells YKA.
Aade has a 10-acre farm, which is completely rain-fed, making her household income completely dependent on Kharif crops. “At least we used to get compensation during drought years earlier. Now we don’t even get that,” she adds.
Climate change-induced weather patterns are a big threat in these parts, but they aren’t the only ones. Some of the other threats include crop depredation by wild animals that result in huge crop losses as well the high dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that farmers have been forced to use over the years due to reduction in fertility of soil.
Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary lies in the Ghatanji and Kelapur blocks of the Yavatmal district. The villages in the vicinity of these forest areas have been facing an increased incidence of human-wildlife conflict with wild boars and blue bulls raiding their crops frequently in the last few years. Villagers say it’s also difficult to keep a watch on the fields due to the fear of tigers who enter the villages from the forest at night. There have been cases of tiger attacks on livestock as well.
The reasons for the increase in crop raids are hard to discern. As per locals, with rising deforestation, the natural food available for wild animals has decreased, with the result that they are now forced to venture into agricultural fields. Some locals also believe that since Tipeshwar was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1997, the populations of wild boars and blue bulls have also increased.
“We have disturbed the balance of the food web by disturbing the habitats. Forests have been encroached upon, grasslands have been treated as wastelands. If the population of carnivores decreases, the population of herbivores increases. Due to the destruction of forests, they come to villages in search of food,” Ghansham Darne, professor at the Savitri Jyotirao Social Work College, told YKA.
It’s not just the nearby forests that have been destroyed over the years. Agriculture, itself, has undergone many changes in Yavatmal over the years. “The soil is losing its fertility due to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Although the yield increased (with their use), the input cost is also high. When we used cow-dung manure, the yield was less, but at least we were happy,” Gedam remarked. However, there is no going back to the traditional methods now. The farmers fear that without using chemicals, the soil won’t yield anything. Needless to say, the increased use of chemicals has meant that the quality of soil has taken a hit.
The change in agricultural patterns has also impacted food security and the health of the residents. Historically, jowar has been an important food crop cultivated in the Yavatmal district. However, its production has declined significantly in the last few years. “Wild boars and Rohi (blue bulls) eat away all the grains from Jowar crops. Hence, we don’t cultivate jowar anymore,” Aade says.
“Traditionally, a mixed cropping system was practiced where crops like jowar, bajra, udid, moong, til, rajgira were cultivated. Jowar was the staple food and was grown on almost one-third of the total cultivated land. It was also an important fodder source. Only cow-dung manure was used, and the mixed system of cropping acted as a natural pesticide. The input cost was very less since everything was available locally. Even if one crop was damaged, the losses were not huge, since the other crops helped sustain the farmer. But now, everything is lost in one shot,” explains Professor Darne.
“Twenty-five years ago, we would only eat bajra and jowar bhakris. Now, we eat wheat and rice, since those are available in the public distribution system. We stopped cultivating udid, moong, and bajra because of the attacks by wild animals,” Pundalik Bhujade, an old farmer from Pandhurna Khurd told YKA.
The advent of cash crops like cotton and soybean impacted crop diversity in the area leading to the disappearance of traditional food items from the diets of people.
No Way Out?
According to news reports, out of the 2270 farmer suicides in Maharashtra between January and November in 2020, 1,230 were from the cotton belt of Vidarbha. In Yavatmal, 57 farmers died by suicide between March and May last year.
Increasing threats due to a changing climate, as well as a host of factors like crop raids, pest attacks, and decreasing soil fertility, have meant that farmers find themselves in a precarious situation.
Maharashtra’s government scrapping of the Baliraja Chetana Abhiyan, a scheme launched in 2015 to help reduce farmers’ suicides in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha and Osmanabad district of Marathwada by offering compensation – has meant that farmers have little buffer left in terms of security.
“What option do we have? Committing suicide is the last resort,” a farmer from Pandhurna Khurd says. For many like him, there seems to be no way out of the vicious circle.
Feature image credit: Govind Pednekar