Tucking her pallu in at the waist and gritting her teeth, Alimun Mulla, 32, tugs on a rope to try and get her two cows to their feet. It’s a 40-degree-Celsius afternoon in April. Two years ago, Mulla would have been resting after a quiet lunch at her home in Sirsal village in the Latur district of Marathwada.
That one-hour break is now a luxury. So is lunch itself.
Successive years of deficient rainfall have caused income from her family’s 2-acre farm to plummet. Her meal has been reduced to a roti and salt. A little dal, sometimes, shared with her husband and three children.
Two years ago, realising that their farms wasn’t likely to earn them enough to feed and educate their children, Alimun took a loan of Rs 60,000 from a government bank to buy the cows and has been making a profit of about Rs 175 a day since, by selling their milk.
“It was a big decision. I was a little nervous,” she says. But other women in her village were making it work, and she decided she could too.
“Its more work. My legs and back aches. But at least we have some money now,” Alimun says.
As the tragedy of crop failure and deficient monsoons plays out across the arid stretches of cracked earth in Marathwada and Vidarbha, wives are taking on the onus of supporting the children and the family, trading in goats, buying hens to sell their eggs, or going door to door with bangles, with the help of small loans made available to them by NGOs and government banks.
This is in regions where most women are either illiterate or drop out after a few years of schooling, where the average girl is married by 16, and where it used to be a matter of pride if she then only left the home to work in the fields.
‘Aamhi radnar nahi, ladnar (We shall not cry, we’ll fight)’ is the motto framed by women associated with NGO Apeksha Homeo Society, which works with women and children in drought-affected regions of the state.
“The situation is dire. There is no water, no food and no work,” says Madhukar Gumble, founder and director of the Amravati-based NGO. “So the women are taking small loans and setting up tiny businesses.”
In most cases, the profits are tiny too. Once the interest on the loans has been paid — the average rate is 2% — the women make between Rs 3,500 and Rs 5,000 a month.
As the drought worsens, even these margins are shrinking. Mulla, for instance, used to make a profit of Rs 300 a day, until last year. But this year, from beginning of the dry summers it has dwindled. “Grass to feed the cows is hard to find. We now buy it, paying Rs 35 a bundle, and a cow needs at least seven bundles a day,” Mulla says. “Since we can’t feed them to their heart’s content, the milk output has dropped too.”
The sustainability of these businesses is in question as well.
As Latur activist BP Suryavanshi points out: “In regions where both rural and urban economies are faltering, such efforts can do little good in the long-term.”
So, for now, meat traders are buying the goats and eggs, local villagers are still spending on that vital marker, the coloured bangle. But as another dry year looms, it’s a very thin silver lining, and one that could be set to fade.
“Repeated crop failure over the past five years has pushed women to break the social norms and step out of the house, as they try to support their families,” says economist Shriram Waghmare. “But as the purchasing power of people in the region dwindles, these enterprises too could run into losses unless the farm economy is revived to its pre-drought status.”
Either way, this is not an ideal situation, adds Manisha Tokle, a women’s rights activist from Beed. “Women here work harder and longer than men even in good times. Now they are finding themselves stretched further. Coupled with their lack of nutrition, these factors could combine to affect their physical and psychological health.”
The response from Beed collector Naval Kishore Ram remains predictable. “Women do get a raw deal, especially during drought,” he says. “We are trying to make easy access to water available and introduce finance schemes to help them start their small businesses.”
Bangles help a daughter get her BA
Ganga Kharshe’s husband Ramesh stares silently while she arranges and rearranges her bangles as she talks.
“I had to do something,” she says.
Ganga still feels the need to explain why she decided to earn a living outside the family’s 4-acre fields in Dapori village in the Amravati district of Vidharbha.
“There is no water and absolutely nothing growing there,” she says. “For five years, we have earned less and less and owed more and more.”
With two teenage daughters to support, and a farm debt of Rs 22,000 with an interest rate of 22%, the illiterate 40-year-old begged and borrowed Rs 2,000 from friends and family three years ago and travelled 5 km to the nearest town, to buy the first batch of bangles for her business.
Ganga’s choice of wares turned out to be a good one. Even in impoverished Dapori, she earns about Rs 175 a day in profits.
“Bangles are an important tradition, and they break,” she says. “Even if they don’t have money for food, the women must replace their bangles.”
What she hadn’t anticipated was how much it would hurt to be judged by her friends and neighbours as she went on her daily rounds.
“Men look at me disapprovingly. I’ve been told to sit at home and not set a bad example for other women,” she says. “I’ve overheard women say I don’t care about my house and just want to loiter around the village.”
But it’s been worth it, she adds. Her elder daughter was married last year, and the younger has managed to stay in college and is now a year away from getting a BA — an extremely rare feat in this demographic.
Ganga, meanwhile, is already planning her next step. “This business of carrying kilos of bangles is giving me backaches,” she says. “After my younger daughter is married, I will quit this and open a stationary store. There, I will sit and work.”
For now, she must set out to help her 66-year-old husband in the fields. “You study. I’ll come back and cook the rice,” she shouts out to her daughter as she leaves.
Raising goats to pay for medicine
The trouble for Hasinabi Shirgapur, 57, began three years ago.
Ever since she lost her husband in 2004, she and her son had lived off their 2-acre farm in Sirsal village in the Latur district of Marathwada, and off their earnings as farm labourers.
Things coasted along even after her son married six years ago and went on to father three children.
Then the rains began to fail and profits from the farm started to dwindle. Her son, now 25, still managed to find enough work on others’ farms to keep the family going. But by the second year of deficient monsoon, 2015, the six months of farm work had dropped to three and the pay had fallen from Rs 200 a day to Rs 150.
“Whatever little he makes goes in feeding his family and there is no money for me,” says Hasinabi. “When food is scarce, I have to make do with roti and salt.”
Realising that she needed to raise her own money, especially to pay for her treatment — she has a knee ache that sounds like arthritis — she took a loan of Rs 4,000 from a women’s cooperative, at 2% interest, and bought two goats a year ago.
“These are hard times and one has to fight,” she says. “My son also seemed okay with it. Now, he is glad that he doesn’t have to worry about paying for my medicines.”
When the goats had one kid each, she sold the adults to pay for her transport to the nearest government hospital, five km away in Kilari, and her pain medication.
Tending to the kids means she has to hobble with them to the nearest patches of dry grass areas so they can feed.
“There’s still a little fodder, though most plants have dried up,” she says. “But this has to be the driest year I’ve ever lived through. If it doesn’t rain this year, what will happen to old people like me?”
‘By selling eggs and hens, I have repaid our farm debt’
Shobha Ohal’s is the only mud-and-brick two-room home in her village of Kathoda in the Beed district of Marathwada.
Most houses in this OBC village are made of mud, but hers even has furniture — a stainless steel sofa with bright red upholstery. Bought six months ago, it is still covered in plastic.
Things were different three years ago, when 40-year-old Shobha bought her first hens. She and her husband Madhukar, 55, were distressed about the failure of their 4.5-acre crop, and had taken a Rs 80,000 loan that year to boot.
Shobha decided to act, and sold some of her jewellery to buy her first batch of five hens.
“I was desperate,” she says. “Nothing had grown in our farm for two years and there wasn’t any farm work.”
Her husband and kids supported her decision and so did her friends, relatives and neighbours. “In times like these, when money and food are so hard to come, no one disagrees with anything that helps bring money home,” she says.
She picked hens because they’d be easier to care for. “You just have to feed them some grain and they’re fine. They loiter around the house and return to their coops every evening on their own.”
Shobha now has 20 hens, has been able to repay half the farm loan, and managed to save Rs 2,500 to buy her precious sofa.
She is now saving up for her daughter’s wedding and her 16-year-old son’s dreams of being a doctor. “I think I might be able to save up Rs 2 lakh in the next two years, if my business flourishes the way it is now,” she says.
Her main challenge for now, she adds, laughing, is chasing down her chickens when she needs to. “You have to be a good runner. It’s a skill I’ve acquired over the past two years.”