The villages in Jharkhand's Latehar district are parched.

Latehar, in western Jharkhand, was carved out of Palamu – one of the poorest and driest districts in the country known for famines and immense scarcity.

Palamu, which lies in the rain shadow of the Netarhat hills and is deprived of good rains because of this, is reeling under a drought. But this time, Latehar too, which has good forest cover with several streams and rivers and usually enjoys better moisture than the rest of the region, is struggling for water.

Latehar district’s ponds and streams have all dried up for the first time in several years. Of its 12,000-odd handpumps, one-third are not functioning, admitted district officials.

The most visible signs of the water scarcity and distress are at crowded handpumps, where women and children line up for several hours, and in dry fields, where emaciated cattle search for any leaves or grass to feed on.

In Nadi Tola, a hamlet which gets its name from the river Aragundi that flows through it, the river has dried up. Dalit Bhuian families had dug a pit in the riverbed for water for both the villagers and cattle to use.

“There are two handpumps in the village but with the water levels low, it takes a two-hour wait to use water from the handpumps,” said Chhatni Bhuian, as she used the water in the pit to wash clothes with the help of her daughter. A weak-looking cow stood nearby waiting for its turn to drink water.

In March, cattle trader Majloom Ansari, 32, and schoolboy Imtiaz Khan were killed and hanged from a tree when they were taking cattle to sell at a fair from Balumath in Latehar to the adjoining district. Now, several weeks after the lynching, villagers say no one can dare to sell cattle, and even if they try, no one is willing to buy.

The dry months before the monsoon were usually a time in which the villagers sold their cattle. While some purchased new cattle to plough fields once the monsoon arrived, others sold cows and oxen for cash to tide over any financial distress, and, in some instances, to organise weddings during the lean farm months. This time, however, villagers say they have not been able to sell cattle because of the fear of repercussions.

“I have four oxen, it becomes necessary to sell to tide over these months, but if anyone buys, they may get phaansi [be executed],” said Babulal Oraon, a tribal farmer. “Then, who will buy?”

Oraon lives in Amwatoli hamlet adjoining Nawada village where cattle trader Ansari was lynched and killed in March. A local cow protection group has been propagating against the sale of cattle in the area for the past two years.

Babulal Oraon, a farmer, says villagers are scared of being caught selling cattle.
Babulal Oraon, a farmer, says villagers are scared of being caught selling cattle.

Oraon said that it was difficult to keep cattle as there was no grass or leaves in the fields, and the only pond in the village had all but dried up. “There is no fodder,” said Oraon. “When cattle go to drink water in the pond, the weaker cattle's legs get stuck in the quicksand-like mud and they die.”

Villagers fish in the only pond left with water in Amwatoli in Balumath, Latehar. Weak cattle get stuck in the wet mud if they try to enter the pond.
Villagers fish in the only pond left with water in Amwatoli in Balumath, Latehar. Weak cattle get stuck in the wet mud if they try to enter the pond.

Vijay Oraon, a local contractor, said with only subsistence farming in the area, tribal villagers used cattle sales as a means of supplementing their income. “But now no one can dare sell cattle.”

In Nawada village, over 50 families that survived on the cattle trade have now left that work. Most youth have left for construction work elsewhere in the district.

Ayub Ansari used to regularly buy cattle in Latehar to sell in Chatra, the next district, for a small profit. He said that a week earlier, a Hindu Sau family from Baniyatoli approached him to sell him a calf, but he refused. “What will I do after purchasing it when I can no longer sell it,” said Ansari. “Wear it like a tabeez (amulet), I asked him?”

Like most other villages, Nawada too is struggling for water, with only one well in the village having water that both people and cattle depend on.

In Balu village, Sanjay Kujur, a tribal Christian farmer, said that the villagers saw the lynching as wrong but were unable to act freely, like they did before, anymore. “There is fear, and no one can sell cattle even when there is nothing to feed them,” said Kujur. “The forest is catching fire, there are no leaves on trees, nothing for the cattle to graze on, grass is all dried up. At this rate, the cattle will die.”

All photographs by Anumeha Yadav.