Early this year, Shahaji Dhanure decided to install a new borewell on his two-acre farm in Harali village. He was worried about his crops; the open well on his land had dried out completely and summers in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra are dry and hot, with temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius. With the borewell, he imagined he could safely count on a good harvest. Shahaji was not to know that a national lockdown followed by heavy unseasonal rains would swiftly sink those plans.
In March, Shahaji spent Rs. 1.2 lakh on his borewell, taking a loan of Rs. 25,000 at 2 per cent monthly interest from a self-help group where his wife, Pushpa Shahaji Dhanure is a member. He took another Rs. 50,000 from the local sahukar (moneylender) at 5 per cent monthly interest. His savings made up the balance. He planned to use the money from the sale of vegetables to repay the loans. As his income dried up, Shahaji had to default on his loans, unable to pay even a single installment.
“I have a bank account in Marathwada Gramin Bank, but they ask for a lot of documents and one has to go several times to get the loan approved. This is so much easier,” he explained, when asked why he didn’t take loans from the bank.
Shahaji is in his sixties and has two children: His daughter Anita Kale, 37, is married and lives in Osmanabad town. His son Shivaji Dhanure, 35 and daughter-in-law Archana, 28 live with him and his wife. Shivaji and Archana help him by working on the farm. They have three sons: Abhishek, 15, Aashirvad, 9 and Omkar, 7 who are studying in the village.
“My family depends only on agriculture [for our livelihood]. We do not have any other source of income. If our crop does not get sold, it is difficult to carry on living,” shares Shahaji. Almost the entire working population of Harali village of 1,252 people are listed as cultivators and agricultural labourers in the census 2011; 77 per cent of Osmanabad district is engaged in the primary sector.
There is a small dam on the Terna river near the village. However, farmers from Harali do not have access to the water in this dam as they are upstream. Instead, they rely on wells that recharge when the rainfall is good. The Marathwada region of Maharashtra has experienced several droughts – the ones in 2012 and 2014 were particularly severe. It has seen a rise in farmer suicides as recently as in 2015.
On his two acres of land, Shahaji cultivates vegetables and annual crops such as soybean, wheat and jowar. He sells onions and other vegetables including dill, spinach, fenugreek and ladies finger at the mandi in Lohara, the taluka headquarters. He spends Rs. 200 to travel once a week to and from the mandi by bus.
Just a few weeks after Shahaji’s 550-feet-deep borewell was installed, the lockdown was announced on March 23. He could no longer travel. His crop of harvested vegetables began to perish. He tried to sell what he could in the local mandi. “Spinach, fenugreek, dill normally sell at 10 rupees for 250 grams, but in the lockdown sell for three to four rupees. Green chillies normally sell at 40 rupees a kilogram, but I had to sell them at less than half that,” says Shahaji.
“I had to see most of my onions rot. I could only sell a few locally at eight to ten rupees a kilogram,” he says, referring to the onions he had cultivated in the rabi cropping season that ended in March. Shahaji gets an average yield of 1,250 kilograms in the rabi season. “Onion prices fluctuate. It is like gambling. You can sell them at 50-60 rupees a kilogram if you are lucky, but the prices can drop as low as five to six rupees a kilogram. I have lost a lot of money due to the lockdown,” he says.
In the rabi season, Shahaji also grows jowar and wheat largely for his family’s consumption and in the kharif season he plants soybean. He sells these at the Latur mandi, around 55 kilometres from Harali. He teams up with other farmers in his village and they share the costs of transport.
As crop income is often delayed and unpredictable, milk money is used for daily expenses. Shahaji has one jersey cow, a young calf and a buffalo calf. “Our cow gives around 10 litres of milk a day and we used to get Rs. 250 to Rs. 280 daily before the lockdown,” said Archana, Shahaji’s daughter-in-law. During the lockdown, restaurants and sweet shops were closed so the demand for milk dropped sharply and prices fell. “We could not sell the milk for a week during the first phase of the lockdown and later the prices fell from Rs. 25 a litre to Rs. 18, so there was no money for our daily expenses,” adds Pushpa, Shahaji’s wife.
Harali’s farmers sow their kharif crop in June, but this year, the poor income from vegetable sales has left them with little money in hand. The major kharif crop in this region is soybean, and Shahaji says he bought the seeds in the second week of June, soon after the first showers. “The price of seeds had shot up. Last year I got two bags [30 kilogram each] of soybean seeds at Rs. 1,700 each; this year the price was Rs. 2,200.”
Mahesh Raje, a professor at Jnana Prabodhini’s Agriculture Polytechnic in Harali and a resident of the village says, “Last October and November , the soybean saplings were drenched in unseasonal rain. Consequently, the soybean seed production dropped and seeds have become expensive.”
This year too, Harali experienced heavy unseasonal rain in October. “It rained continuously for 15 days and there was water stagnating everywhere,” says Archana. Rainfall data collected by the polytechnic shows 234 mm on October 13 and 14, 2020, a third of the average annual rainfall in just two days. “We were about to harvest the crop when the rain started and it didn’t stop.”
Their soybean crop was badly damaged. “The crop was completely waterlogged. We expected to harvest around 500 kilograms, but we hardly got around 200 kilograms. Even our vegetables, such as chillies, that had good flowers were washed away,” says Shahaji. “In case of drought we have some idea or expectation about the losses, but these sudden untimely rains during peak harvesting season are very painful.”
2020 Farm Bills
Soybean is the major cash crop in this region. Farmers tend to hold their produce till they can get the best price. Shahaji held on to last year’s produce till March 2020 as the prices were rising. “Soybean was selling at Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 4,500 a quintal in March and we were expecting the price to increase to Rs. 5,000. Instead, prices crashed as soon as the lockdown was imposed,” reflects Shahaji. Today the price of soybean is around Rs. 3,000 a quintal and he has already sold 10 bags at the Latur Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) to fund seed purchases for the next sowing season. “We have been selling our produce at Latur APMC for years and we will not take any chances [selling anywhere else],” he said, when asked if the new farm bills would change anything for him.
Prof Raje, speaking on the new bills, adds: “Farmers are used to selling their produce at APMC and they would not easily accept change. They do not know or realize that the middlemen at APMCs are cheating them. One might see a difference in the future between private mandi and public mandi, just like we see the difference between a private hospital and public hospital. Farmers here have small land holdings and I doubt if they will have any bargaining power in contract farming.”
Since Shahaji has not taken any formal loans from banks he says he is not eligible for any benefits from the loan waiver scheme – Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Farmer Loan Waiver – announced by the Maharashtra government in December 2019. “Only God can get us out of the debt cycle now,” he said.
Bhakti Kelkar is studying for a bachelor’s in Economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. This story came out of a project to study the impact of Covid-19 on the agriculture sector. She did a study of five villages in the Marathwada region, in collaboration with Jnana Prabodhini Institute, Harali. She says: “While conducting the survey for my project I tried understanding the impact of the lockdown through a macro lens. But covering this story for PARI made me realize the magnitude and intensity of the lockdown and natural calamity on a single unit of the agricultural economy - a marginal farmer.”