The clearest sign of drought to be found in Maharashtra is in the empty, defeated eyes of farmers like Kondiram Chandane, 60.
His gaze, fixed on the dusty alleys of his native Rui village in Jalna district, reflects a people fraught with thirst: grown men squealing as they run towards an approaching water-tanker truck; desperate children filling cans from a leak in the bottom of the drum; women pulling at each other as the tanker water is piped into a dry well.
Chandane no longer lives here. It’s the day before Holi. He has returned home to visit his 80-year-old mother. He will leave again in two days, returning to the fields in Ahmednagar where he now works as a farm labourer.
“When I see people still struggling for water and food here in Rui, I am glad I decided to migrate,” he says. As he talks, water from the tanker splashes into the well.
Rui, a village of 4,000, receives one government tanker a day — about 10 litres per person. This must suffice for all cooking, washing and drinking. It is the only water available here. All the wells have gone dry, as have most of the dams.
It is the same across most of Marathwada, a region currently in the grip of the worst drought in 40 years. Over the past six months, dams here have recorded the lowest levels of water storage the state has ever seen.
“In terms of the amount of water available, this is worse than the drought of 1972,” says Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator of the non-profit organisation South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People.
With groundwater regulation rules not enforced, opportunistic businessmen have been digging deep to create a booming private water-tanker business. Some of these tankers are now being called into service by the government.
“We have been providing water tankers to drought-affected areas and many people are getting more than the mandated minimum of 20 litres per person per day,” says Milind Mhaiskar, secretary of the state government’s relief and rehabilitation department.
Chandane says about half the people in his village do not get any water on most days, because of the water lost in transit and wasted amid the desperate jostling around the well.
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His three acres of farmland yielded neither cotton nor jowar this season. So Chandane chose migration, becoming one of 9,469 villagers from Jalna alone, according to collectorate records, to leave their homes as drought set in. Local activists say the figure is actually much higher, closer to 20,000.
It all began in July, when the taps in Chandane’s village home — a one-room, mud- and tin-walled structure that he shared with his mother, wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren — ran dry.
Two months later, as the wells began to dry up and the daily scramble for water began to remind him of the drought of 1972, he and his elder son, Vishnu, 30, began looking for jobs outside Rui.
In mid-September, Vishnu heard that there were jobs available in Nashik’s Pimpalgaon village. Borrowing R300 from a neighbour for the nine-hour journey, he set off.
“I had no idea what to do when I got there,” he says. After walking around for eight days, asking local farmers for work, he finally bagged jobs for himself and his wife on a grape farm. “In those eight days, I slept on the street and washed dishes for restaurant owners in exchange for meals.” Meanwhile, Chandane had found work on a sugarcane field in Rahuri in Ahmednagar district.
The family now had to make some tough decisions: Chandane would go to Rahuri with his wife and 14-year-old younger son, who was pulled out of school for the shift. Vishnu, his wife, and two children would go to Pimpalgaon. Chandane’s mother, Laxmibai, would stay in Rui. She was too old and infirm to make the journey.
This would have been painful enough for a family that had never lived apart. But then Vishnu and his wife realised that they would have to find another home for their daughter, Ankita, 4.
“She could not be left unsupervised. If we took her to Pimpalgaon, I would not be able to earn,” says Archana, Vishnu’s wife. “We decided to leave her with my brother’s family in Parbhani. It is unbearable for me, but at least she is well-fed there.”
Making ends meet
Vishnu and Archana finally left Rui with Rs.1,000 borrowed from a friend, a bundle of clothes and utensils and their son Ajay, 6, who had also been pulled out of school.
The nine-hour journey involved a dusty bus ride from Rui to Jalna city, a ride in a packed passenger train to Niphad and finally another State Transport bus to a depot near Pimpalgaon.
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From Pimpalgaon, with their sleeping son in their arms, they had to walk two kilometres to their employer’s farm, and get to work immediately.
Vishnu now lives in a crude mud hut at the edge of his employer’s grape field. The couple earns Rs.225 a day working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in the fields. They have no savings, but they have enough food, and water.
Chandane, in Rahuri, is doing marginally better. Earlier this month, he sent home a money order for Rs.500, for his mother. “I get food and water from some neighbours, and make my own bhakri,” says Laxmibai. “I miss my family but I am glad they left. Many who remained are worse off.”