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Rain, not drought, sucks farm oxygen
- Killing fields again as topsoil is swept away and shift to soybean misfires in downpour

The phone crackled with tension. Wardha collector N. Nawin Sona could sense “the urgency and panic” in the caller’s voice.

“He was a bit furious at me,” Sona recalled. “He said, ‘Why didn’t you alert us about the release of dam waters?’ I told him, ‘Sir, when there’s no dam nearby, where’s the question of us releasing dam waters?’ He was astounded.”

That call on July 19 night from the divisional railway manager at Nagpur, Sona says, best illustrates the fury of the rain that lashed his district — and the whole of central India — from June till mid-August, peaking in mid-July.

One of those who bore the brunt was three-acre tribal farmer Nagorao Soyam in Pathri, a village in Vidarbha’s suicide-prone Yavatmal district, about 120km from Sona’s office.

A few days before killing himself, Soyam had propped the tilting walls of his ramshackle home with logs and draped a tarpaulin sheet over the crumbling roof. Merciless rain had left his dingy mud hut, which sunlight rarely entered, riddled with holes and cracks.

On September 5 morning, Soyam’s wife Parvata and sons Sitaram and Praful, aged 22 and 16, woke to find the debt-ridden farmer hanging from the roof of their kitchen, his feet barely an inch above the floor.

It wasn’t the day’s only suicide. At least five other farmers killed themselves in various parts of the region, says the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ organisation.

A look at Soyam’s fields suggests why. There is no trace of the soybean or cotton that Soyam had planted in June — no sign of the pigeon peas (tur) anywhere. All one sees is water and mud. It’s as though someone had driven a bulldozer across the farm.

Worse, the topsoil has been washed away. Farmers say the topsoil is to a farm what oxygen is to people.

Eastern Maharashtra is known for farmer suicides, but that usually has to do with late and erratic rain among other factors. Old-timers aged in their 70s and 80s say they cannot remember ever seeing such pelting rain as this year’s.

“There was something nasty about this year’s rain,” Samiti convener Kishor Tiwari said. “Its intensity was astonishing.”

The timing was nasty too. This year the region had witnessed a shift to soybean from the traditional cotton, whose rising production costs have been making the crop more and more unviable to grow.

But soybean is less equipped to withstand a belting from the rain.

The rain ravaged 3,000km of roads in central India, washed away 300-odd small and medium bridges, flattened more than one lakh houses and destroyed standing crops on 1.5 million hectares while damaging those on another few lakh hectares.

More than 100 people died in floods and as many by lightning. Nearly 200 farmers committed suicide.

Four-hour burst

On July 19, Sona had been up at his home late at night, constantly calling his officials to keep track of the situation in the district. The circle office had recorded 281mm of rain in four hours. “I was worried,” Sona said.

Around 11pm, one of his revenue officials called to say a confluence of two rivulets formed by the rain had smashed a small railway bridge, leaving nearly 500 metres of tracks hanging mid-air and bent near Sindi railway station.

The force of the water streaming from the fields had twisted the poles and “sliced the earthen foundation of the tracks”, Sona said.

Minutes later, the divisional railway manager called up to ask about “dam waters”.

Local people describe the day’s rain as “an Uttarakhand-like situation”.

It took more than 1,000 workers five days of non-stop repairs in the heavy rain to restore and reopen one track and over a week to bring train traffic to normality.

Wardha wasn’t a one-off: the whole of central India — parts of Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha and southeast Madhya Pradesh — registered excess rain this year. Some parts recorded almost double their long-term annual average in June-July.

“I have been farming for years but I can vouch that this year’s rains were unusual,” said five-acre farmer Arvind Bhoyar, 48, at Aashi village in Chandrapur district, about 80km from Soyam’s village.

Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan toured the region in August and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar followed an eight-member central team in September. They all promised relief.

Met officials said it was too early to say if the excess rain was linked to climate change, but several studies have said the monsoon is changing and behaving more and more erratically.

This year’s rain riot in eastern Maharashtra stood in sharp contrast to the drought in the state’s central and western regions.

Last purchase

With the monsoon now retreating, the farmers are trying to pick up the pieces of what is left of their fields. But it’s difficult.

Children’s education expenses have just begun for the year; prices are skyrocketing; healthcare costs are spiralling.

Loans are piling — and lending rates are going up.

When the rain stopped for a while in late July, Soyam had gone to his fields and returned home shell-shocked. “Nothing was left,” his wife recalled, “except mud.”

The poor tribal family had got the land under the land ceiling act several years ago. It didn’t have the best of soils. Soyam’s was a subsistence farm that over the years struggled to meet the family’s growing needs.

Too poor to engage labourers, all four members of the Soyam family worked on their fields. That left them with little time to earn a few extra rupees by working on others’ farms.

Soyam’s bank account shows he had an unpaid, two-year-old crop loan of Rs 16,000. His relatives say he owed private moneylenders Rs 1 lakh.

“For three years we suffered crop damage,” Parvata said. “This year, the rain flattened the cotton and soybean crops; there was knee-deep water on our farm for several days.”

By modest estimates, Soyam must have spent at least Rs 30,000 on this year’s crop. That money, in all probability, was borrowed from private lenders at high interest rates.

The day before he hanged himself, Soyam had gone about begging for a loan of Rs 1,000 from fellow villagers and relatives but drawn a blank. It was Pola the following day, the rural festival of bullocks.

With everybody in the village grappling with losses caused by rain, Soyam’s son Sitaram said, no one would lend him money for Pola celebrations, which were anyway quite subdued this year.

Soyam had never been able to buy a pair of bullocks for his farm. So, he bought a pair of clay bullock idols from the village market that afternoon, spending a part of the little cash he still had. The idols cost a pittance.

“It was his last purchase,” Parvata said.

In the collapsing mud hut with a hundred cracks, the tiny pair of clay bullocks stand intact on a wooden plank in the kitchen. It’s where Soyam had offered one last prayer.