“The land is thirsty, the Korku is hungry,” goes the refrain of the Korku Adivasis in the Satpura forest in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district.

An unrelenting drought since 2014 has parched the Korku farmland, driving a population of over 40,000 spread across 100-odd villages to desperation. In Khari village, for example, more than half the farmers have been forced to migrate in search of livelihood.

Vishram Kajale, 33, has found work in a pulse-processing unit in Dhule, a town across the state border in Maharashtra. His three brothers have followed him out as well. “I have a well on my farm but it got filled up with mud,” he said, explaining why he had to leave. “I had cemented the walls but cracked developed in the concrete and it got filled up again.”

A parched field in Khari village.
A parched field in Khari village.

The water crisis in the Adivasi region is all too visible. In Khari, there is only one 50-foot deep well that still has some water in it. “We have to walk one kilometre to fetch water from that well,” said Saraswati Kajale, 30.

Nearly 5 kilometres away in Karwani village, Sushi Kumari mistook this reporter for a government official and asked if I was there to pay “compensation”. What for? “My field was submerged after the government built a pond near it,” she replied. The pond, built a few years ago to tide over the water scarcity, is fast running dry.

“Farmers are free men,” Vishram Kajale said, ruefully. “But the lack of water has killed us.”

Only one well in Khari village still has some water in it.
Only one well in Khari village still has some water in it.

All is not lost, though. While growing soybean and maize, the traditional crops of the Korku, is hardly economically viable, cultivating onion is. In 2016, a few farmers switched to onion farming at the persuasion of SocioFarm, a non-profit launched the previous year with the “sole objective to generate livelihood for these Adivasi farmers”.

A year on, several farms in Khari and Junapani villages are under onion cultivation. It is an indigenous variety of onion now branded as “Koro”, which means human in Korku language.

“This is a pilot initiative where farmers sow onion on less than an acre of land,” said SocioFarm founder Mohit Raj. “We bring them together into farmer groups for collective production, provide seeds and ensure efficient use of the available irrigation facilities.”

SocioFarm chose fields that still had a water source in the vicinity – a depleted well, a pond.

Pratap Patil's family harvest the crop.
Pratap Patil's family harvest the crop.
Pratap Patil’s brother Sikdar with the produce, which is sold in Khandwa's wholesale market.
Pratap Patil’s brother Sikdar with the produce, which is sold in Khandwa's wholesale market.
The Patil brothers take the onion in a bullock cart to the village square, from where a truck takes it to the Khandwa market.
The Patil brothers take the onion in a bullock cart to the village square, from where a truck takes it to the Khandwa market.

Tausif Ali Shah, co-founder of SocioFarm, said after the farmers have learned to grow onion on a small scale, “we will train them to grow it in bulk and market it directly to consumers to eradicate middlemen so that the farmers get their due”.

Raj added: “Post production, the farmer groups are trained in grading, storage and packaging. The brand ‘Koro’ was created to enhance their collective selling power.”

Another Khari farmer Tarachand (in background) and his father collect onion from their field.
Another Khari farmer Tarachand (in background) and his father collect onion from their field.
Tarachand’s daughters lend a hand in sorting and packaging the onion.
Tarachand’s daughters lend a hand in sorting and packaging the onion.
Tarachand's family at work.
Tarachand's family at work.

Pratap Patil, 30, is among the farmers in Khari who have switched to onion cultivation. It did not go as well as he had hoped in the first season, but he has decided to stick with it. “My land was not levelled so water did not stay in the field and that is why the crop was not so good,” he said. “Next time, with more training and better planning, I will have a better crop.”

Before last season, Patil, like most Korku farmers, sowed soybean and maize. The crops earned him about Rs 20,000 annually. Onion farming promises to be more rewarding. According to Patil, an acre of land yields onion worth Rs 18,000 to Rs 24,000. SocioFarm claimed that in the next two-three seasons, the income of the farmers will rise by 50% to 60%.

More than anything, Patil is grateful he does not need to migrate now. “We are farmers,” he said. “But when we go out for work, we become labourers.”

Pratap Patil and Tarachand watch as their onion is unloaded at the Khandwa market.
Pratap Patil and Tarachand watch as their onion is unloaded at the Khandwa market.
The Koro brand logo is painted on every onion farmer's house.
The Koro brand logo is painted on every onion farmer's house.

All photos courtesy Rohit Jain