Even before the heat sets in, the summer has turned merciless for the Dalits of Fusra. The village in Maharashtra’s Beed district is half deserted. In a month, even fewer people will be there. The only ones left behind will be the very old who can no longer travel.

Three years of repeated droughts, unseasonal rain and hailstorms have left Marathwada’s agricultural economy shattered. Last year, 565 farmers in the region ended their lives, a toll higher than even in Vidarbha. If the downturn has affected landowners so sharply, what about those without land?

When work in the village dries up, landless Dalits have no choice but to move.

“Why would anyone want to be here?” asked Apparao Mujmule, a worker from the Mang community. “There is no work here to feed us.”

The village has around 1,400 inhabitants, about a third of whom are Dalit. Most of them have already migrated to cities, towns and nearby sugar factories in search of work. While Dalits routinely migrate for work in the summer, this year, the exodus has begun early, and involved larger numbers of people. 

Those who cannot travel have to make do with paltry daily wages of Rs 50 for men and even lower for women. In normal times, the daily wage are about three times that amount. 

No land, no resources

Apparao Mujmule.

By forcing them to beg for work, drought attacks the hard-earned self-respect of Dalits. “Dignity comes with land,” said Rajesh Kshirsagar of the Manavi Hakk Abhiyan, a Dalit rights movement that has championed the cause of land redistribution in Marathwada. “When we have to ask people for help again, we go back to being oppressed and take whatever anyone gives us.” 

Around a fifth of Marathwada’s inhabitants are Dalits. Most of them have access to little to no land. Contrast this with the dominant Marathas, who used to have vast landholdings – though over time, these have fragmented through inheritance.

In the 1960s, Dalit activists gave shape to the gaairan movement, which encouraged Dalits to encroach on common grazing land in villages and cultivate it for themselves. The movement gained such momentum that in 1991, the government passed a resolution regularising these encroachments and formally transferring land to the names of its cultivators.

Twenty-five years later, the movement has dissipated, and even those Dalits who acquired slim slices of land are now finding it difficult to make a livelihood from them.

Shivaji Mujumule, in his sixties, a resident of Fusra, is one of these early encroachers. He owns two acres of rainfed land in the gaairan. In 2013, his crops ‒ cotton, bajra and broad beans ‒ were damaged by bad weather. Much of what was left was eaten by wild pigs.

Months after the hailstorm, the government announced a compensation package at the rate of Rs 2,000 per hectare. “I don’t have even one hectare of land so the government did not think I needed compensation,” said Mujumule. “And yet the savarna [upper caste] farmers in the village got Rs 25,000-30,000 because they have larger fields.”

For his investment of Rs 65,000 that year, he managed to harvest only Rs 15,000 worth of crops. Now, to make ends meet until the next agricultural cycle, he has been going to cut sugarcane and to do odd jobs in nearby towns.

“If I had water, I would put sugarcane, I would put better cotton,” he said. “But I don’t have anything.”

Water for cattle

Those Dalits who choose to remain in the village have few options. They don’t get rations easily at the shop and are always the last beneficiaries of any government welfare scheme. If the water crisis continues, as it is certain to this year, the government will send water tankers to villages to help people to survive. Yet, these tankers will come last to the Dalits.

“We have to walk at least one or two kilometres to reach a borewell that still has water,” said Kaushalya Salve, president of a self-help group in Kari village. “And we cannot go to the same borewell always. If we do, the owners chase us away.”

The well near Kari has not dried up yet, but the water is so polluted that dozens of children have contracted gastroenteritis. Salve’s two-year-old niece was recently hospitalised. Her family had to pay Rs 12,000 to the hospital.

What upsets the Dalit residents the most is to see that while they struggle to access drinking water, landowners with borewells pump out and squander litres of waters in washing and feeding their cattle. 

This is the fifth article in a series of reports on the agrarian crisis in Marathwada. The rest of the series can be read here.