The retreating monsoon has finally come to Marathwada. Two weeks of rain scattered across central Maharashtra has brought much-needed relief to the region, which has had almost no rain since the monsoon began in June. Marathwada usually gets some rain in the first months of the monsoon and is wettest as the monsoon retreats in September.
At the beginning of September, the crisis was so severe that officials in the region estimated their water supplies would not last beyond two months. With water now filling up at crucial storage points across the state, many parts of the region will now have drinking water, perhaps until June 2016. Encouraged by the rains, farmers have even begun sowing for the rabbi season.
The rain has also vindicated the position of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis that drought cannot officially be declared until the formal end of the monsoon season at September. These two weeks have changed the situation from extremely dire to simply dire.
Does this mean the crisis has ended?
Not exactly. The rain has taken the edge off the worst of the situation. What remains is still a complicated mess.
The worst affected districts before this round of rain – Beed, Latur and Osmanabad – continue to face a drinking water crunch that will only be exacerbated as the year goes on. In Osmanabad alone, as many farmers killed themselves between June to the last week of August as in the entire first six months of the year. There is no way to know whether the rain will arrest this spate of deaths.
There is also the problem of crops. Rain came so late to the region that kharif crops, usually sown at the beginning of the monsoon, have largely been wiped out. Several farmers invested in seeds twice – once at the start of the season and then, hoping for the best, in July or August. The rain might help a small percentage of these latterly sown crops, but not all.
“People sowed twice this year, but there was no rain,” said Vaidyanath Kunturwar, 65, a resident of Hadolti in Latur. “[Two weeks ago] there was only one rain. Now people are sowing for the third time, but the season has gone.”
The crisis has amplified the stark contrast in access to resources. Tall standing crops, irrigated by bores and pipes from tanks abut fields where a week of rain has resulted in tiny shoots of green.
“The fields should look like this in June,” added Kunturwar. “Now even if the crop grows, it might not be enough because the time for them to grow has gone. And if there is too much rain now, the crop might fail anyway.”
Then there are some, such as Vitthal Dhekne, of Kaudgaon (Bavi), a small and poor village nestled deep in the undulating plains of Osmanabad district. Dhekne did not sow at all on his three acres of land. His income this year will depend entirely on the rabbi season.
“This is the first time we have no kharif,” he said. “Usually we have a little but it is there.”
Yet sowing for this season is a slim hope. Crops sown during rabbi, which in some areas of Marathwada begins around now and in others around Diwali, are usually dry crops such as millets that can grow without needing too much water. These do not fetch as much in the market as for instance soyabean does. If this too fails, it will push many farmers deeper into a cycle of debt.
Another looming issue is sugarcane. Sugarcane is an immensely water-intensive crop that requires about 2,500 litres of water from field to factory for every kilo of sugar produced.
The sugarcane crushing season begins in November and ends by April. While the state had been toying with the idea of closing down sugar factories, which are also heavy water consumers, it now has the space to push off the crucial decision to another year. And as long as the state continues to remain ambivalent to the crop, farmers with bore wells will continue to grow the grass, at great expense to themselves and to the region’s already depleted groundwater levels.
Until now, the weather had also interrupted the annual cycle of work for people who don't own land. Without any crops being sown, agricultural labourers have not had any daily wages to tide them over until the next season. With hailstorms devastating last season's rabbi crop and no rains for this season's kharif, there have been fears of widespread distress migration to cities. The rain might be able to arrest that.