Jiviben and Deviben are wrinkled, stooping and hard of hearing. They both say they are around 80 years old. They are neighbours and live in similar decrepit huts on the margins of Vijarkhi village in Gujarat’s drought-hit Jamnagar district.
The similarities don’t end there for the two Dalit widows.
Deviben has three sons, Jiviben has two. Up till 2012, their sons and grandchildren worked as farmhands for other villagers as they had no land of their own. Then, poor rainfall for a whole season caused most crops to fail and left farmers in debt. With no agricultural jobs in sight, young men from Vijarkhi began to migrate to the nearest cities. Deviben and Jiviben’s sons were among those who left with their wives and children in the winter of 2013.
Back in the village, their aged mothers manage alone.
“I don’t know where my sons have gone but they work as labourers breaking stones,” said Deviben, in the Kathiawadi dialect of Gujarati spoken in the state’s Saurashtra region. “And they send a little money once in a while so I can eat. For almost three years I have been cooking and cleaning for myself, what else to do?”
Jiviben nodded in agreement. “Cooking and cleaning is difficult because there is no water in the village,” she said. “The tankers come once in three days and some village children help us collect a few cans of water. We try not to wash utensils often and have a bath once in 15 days.”
The old left behind
Deviben and Jiviben’s situation is not unique to their caste status or their village alone.
After three consecutive years of scanty rainfall, leading to dwindling water reserves, districts across western Gujarat have been experiencing drought-like conditions. In April, the state government announced a state of “semi-scarcity” in 623 villages and has now raised this figure to 1,100 villages. But Gujarat insists that the crisis is not severe enough to be classified as a drought.
In rural Saurashtra, however, villagers claim that they are in their third year of a long drought – evident in the barren farms, dying cattle and erratic supply of drinking water, food and fodder rations. It is also evident in the steady rise of distress migration among the youth, who leave behind hundreds of elderly men and women.
“We are a village of 3,000 people and more than half of them are old people who can’t move to cities for work,” said Maheshbhai Aahir, a cotton farmer from Vijarkhi.
Across Jamnagar and Dwarka districts, different villages offer different statistics, but the overall theme is the same – the young are migrating for work and survival. While some villages claim 30% of their population has moved out, others say 60% of their youth have left in search of work elsewhere. Weddings, they say, have come to a complete standstill. “No one wants to give their daughter to a village without water – they don’t want their girls to spend all their time fetching water,” said Nathabhai Lokhil, a farmer from Bhelsan village in Jamnagar district.
Migrating for work
The villagers are migrating largely within Gujarat to bigger cities like Rajkot, Surat and Ahmedabad. Most of them, said Lokhil, get work as truck drivers, construction workers or as labourers in small-scale industries.
But many distress migrants have sought jobs closer to home, near Jamnagar city, where brass factories under the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation and large petrochemical factories owned by Reliance and Essar are located.
“These companies always have new projects that need semi-skilled labourers, and people rush there even though the money isn’t much,” said Ramshibhai Chawda, the sarpanch of Vadatra village in Dwarka district. “At the big factories our boys earn around Rs 2,000 a month, and at the brass factories they pay Rs 125 or Rs 150 a day.”
Lokhil, who is 57 but still fit and active, would have liked to migrate for a job too. “But at my age no industry gives me work,” said Lokhil. “I have nothing to do but spend my time filling water and collecting fodder in the village… I have asked the local government for NREGA work several times in the past two years, but they always say there is none available.”
Where are the NREGA jobs?
A Supreme Court order in May had directed states, including Gujarat, to make jobs under the central government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme available as a form of relief in drought-hit regions. At the district collector’s office in Jamnagar, collector RJ Makadia acknowledged that the apex court’s order meant that it was mandatory for the state government to provide jobs under that scheme even in “semi-scarcity” areas.
But that is not happening.
Lokhil is not the only villager from Jamnagar district who was unable to find unskilled labour work under the central government scheme. In almost every village Scroll.in visited, villagers said that they had not seen jobs under this scheme on offer even though crop yields were low and farm work had all but dried up.
“We have not had NREGA work in our villages for a long time,” said Mansukhbhai Mungra, a farmer from Theba village who is the district head of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, a non-profit farmers’ collective. “People then end up going to the cities for work, and prefer it because it pays better.”
But collector Makadia denied that villagers weren’t being given jobs. “NREGA funds have been released and we have been providing the people with the required jobs,” said Makadia. An information brochure from his office claimed that in just the second week of June, 5,219 workers were given jobs to de-silt lakes and dig trenches in 196 sites in the district.
“People need to come and register themselves under the scheme,” said Makadia. “The problem with many villagers is that they don’t want to do unskilled jobs. They just prefer doing semi-skilled jobs in factories.”
Drowning in debt
For the drought-hit populations of Saurashtra, labour jobs in factories or under NREGA merely serve to provide daily sustenance. With most of their meagre earnings spent on food, water and fodder, there is nothing left to alleviate the burden of debt accumulated over three years of drought-related distress.
“Literally every single farmer in this region is in debt, to both banks and moneylenders,” said Lakhmanbhai Karangiya, a groundnut farmer with eight acres of land in Dwarka’s Patelka village. “My own debt is of Rs 10 lakh, of which Rs 1.3 lakh was taken as a bank loan.”
Farmers regularly take agricultural loans to buy seeds and fertilisers before each sowing season, which they repay after harvests are sold. In May, in view of the drought across several states, the Supreme Court ordered that farmers be compensated for severe crop losses instead of having to pay back loans.
“But we haven’t received a single rupee as compensation even though our crops have been failing for three seasons,” said Karangiya. “And the government has not waived a single bank loan. Not just that, the banks continue to charge premiums from us on those loans.”
Preparing for a new season
It was the same story in several villages in the region with some farmers claiming that banks were threatening to auction their land if they failed to repay loans. In the midst of this pressure, land owners are preparing their fields for the new sowing season, egged on by predictions of a good monsoon this year.
Like many farmers around him, Karangiya is bearing this year’s expenses on seeds and fertilisers by mortgaging his family’s gold. Others are either incurring more debt by approaching money lenders, or selling off portions of their land. “At least 10 acres of good farmland have been sold off to industries or builders in my village alone,” said Mansukhbhai Mungra. “People are willing to accept any price that they get.”
Farmers feel they have few other options since the price of fertiliser has increased from Rs 800 to Rs 1,375 for a 50 kg bag in just four years – a 71% increase. “We can’t go to the banks, they are refusing to give us fresh loans and many of them don’t allow farmers to enter anymore,” said Mungra.
Meanwhile, officials at the block development office in Jamnagar said they couldn’t understand why farmers weren’t approaching banks for loans for the new sowing season. “To my knowledge, none of the banks here are refusing to give new agricultural loans,” said Kirit Sanghvi, the deputy block officer. “If they pay back their old loans, they will definitely get new ones.”
All photographs by Aarefa Johari.