The spot where Champat Narayan Jangle dropped dead is a rocky, forlorn patch of undulating cotton field.
Around these parts of Maharashtra, it is called halki jameen or shallow land. A lush green hillock provides a beautiful backdrop to this undulating canvas of lands belonging to the Andh clan, an isolated patch of farmland away from the village.
Champat’s thatched canopy – built as a shelter from the harsh sun and rain as he spent days and nights keeping vigil on his farm against marauding wild boars – still stands on this landscape strewn with boulders. He would always be there, tending to his farm, his neighbours remember.
From the canopy, Champat, an Andh tribal farmer in mid-40s, must have had a full view of his farm – and the unending spectre of loss, stunted plants sans bolls, and knee-high pigeon pea plants.He must have instinctively known that in two months, when harvest began, these fields would yield nothing. He had outstanding loans and the family’s daily expenses to be taken care of. And he had no money.
Late afternoon on August 29, 2022, while his wife Dhrupada and their children were visiting her sick father at the latter’s village 50 km away, Champat consumed a can of Monocil, a lethal insecticide he had bought on credit a day before.
Then, he shouted out to his cousin working on the opposite field, vigorously waving the empty can as if to bid goodbye before he fell to the ground. He died instantly.
“I dropped everything and rushed to him,” recalls Champat’s uncle Ramdas Jangle, 70, who was working on the adjoining farm, another infertile piece of rocky land, when the incident took place. He was declared ‘brought dead’ after relatives and villagers managed to arrange for a vehicle to take him to a rural hospital 30 kilometres from the village.
Ninganur, an obscure village in the Umarkhed tehsil of Yavatmal in Maharashtra’s western Vidarbha region, is inhabited mostly by small or marginal Andh tribal farmers, with subsistence living and shallow lands. It is also where Champat lived and died.
In the last two months Vidarbha has witnessed a spate of farmer suicides following a disastrous wet-drought in the wake of incessant, heavy rains through July and mid-August.“For almost three weeks, we did not see the sun,” says Ramdas. First, the heavy rains ruined the sowings, he says. Then the dry spells that followed stunted the plants that survived the rain. “When we wanted to apply fertilisers, the rains did not stop. Now, when we need rains, it isn't raining.”
Western Vidarbha’s cotton belt has, for over two decades, been in the news for a high incidence of farmer suicides owing to economic and increasingly ecological problems in farming.
Vidarbha and Marathwada, with a combined 19 districts, have received an average 30 per cent more rainfall in the ongoing monsoon season, according to the district-wise IMD rainfall data . Most of this rainfall was in July. With almost a month to go before monsoon recedes, the region had already received over 1100 mm rain between June and September 10, 2022 (compared to an average 800 mm rainfall recorded in the same period in previous years). This is turning into an exceptionally wet year.
But that figure does not reveal the variations and fluctuations. June was almost dry. The rains began in early July and, within a few days, covered the deficit. Flash floods were reported from several parts by of Maharashtra mid-July. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) reported heavy rains (above 65 mm in 24 hours) at many places during the first fortnight of July in Marathwada and Vidarbha.
The rains finally abated early August and many districts, including Yavatmal, witnessed long dry spells until early September. Then the rains showed up again all over Maharashtra.
Bursts of heavy-to-extreme rainfall followed by long dry spells seems to be becoming a pattern in this region, say farmers in Ninganur. A pattern that leaves them with difficult choices around what crops to grow, which practices to adopt, and how to manage water and soil moisture. The result is acute distress of the kind that drove Champat to take his own life.
Kishor Tiwari, who heads the Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swavalamban Mission, a government-run task force to mitigate agrarian distress, says there has been a spike in farmer suicides lately. The fortnight between August 25 and September 10 alone saw close to 30 farmer suicides in Vidarbha, he says, blaming extreme rain events and economic distress for driving more than a thousand farmers to suicide since January 2022.
Among those who ended their lives are two brothers from a village in Yavatmal, who died by suicide a month apart from each other.
“No amount of help will really help; this year’s devastation is really bad,” Tiwari says.
Their fields inundated and crops destroyed, a large number of small farmers in Maharashtra are looking at an extended period of distress ahead.
The office of the Agriculture Commissioner of Maharashtra estimates that around two million hectares of farmland across Vidarbha, Marathwada and north Maharashtra have been ruined by this season’s wet drought. Kharif is practically lost, farmers across the region say. Soyabean, cotton, pigeon pea – every major crop has suffered. For dry-land areas that rely primarily on the kharif crop, this year’s devastation could be excruciating.
Villages along the rivers and rivulets – such as Shelgaon in Nanded’s Ardhpur tehsil – bore the brunt of the unprecedented floods. “We were cut off for a week,” says Shelgaon sarpanch Punjab Rajegore. “Our houses and fields were inundated because of the fury of Uma river that flows along the village.” Uma meets Aasna river a few miles down the village, and together they meet the Godavari near Nanded. All these rivers were overflowing during the heavy rain spell.
“All through July, we had such [heavy] rains that it was difficult to work the fields,” he says. Tell-tale signs of this remain in the eroded soils and mauled crops. Some farmers are clearing whatever is left of their damaged crops so that they can prepare for early Rabi sowings in October.
Around 1200-hectares of farmland in Chandki in Wardha district remain under water even today, after incessant rains over seven days and a Yashoda river in spate inundated the entire village in July. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) had to be called in to evacuate trapped villagers.
“Thirteen houses caved in, including mine,” says 50-year-old Deepak Warfade, a farmer who has been living in a rented home after the deluge brought his own house down. “Our problem is that there is no agricultural work now; this is the first time I am without work.”
“We witnessed seven floods in a month’s time,” Deepak says. “The seventh time was like a knock-out punch; we were lucky that NDRF teams reached us in time, otherwise I would not be here.”
With the kharif gone, Chandki villagers are tormented by one question: What next?
On his field, where stunted cotton plants and a vast stretch of flattened farm paint a picture of devastation, Babarao Patil, 64, is trying to salvage whatever he can.
“I may or may not get anything out this year,” he says. “I am trying to resurrect some of these plants, instead of sitting idle at home.” The economic problem is grave and has only just begun, he adds.
Miles upon miles of fields in Maharashtra mirror the state of Babarao’s farmland: there’s no sign of healthy, standing crops anywhere.
“This crisis will aggravate over the next 16 months,” says Shrikant Barhate, a former World Bank consultant and regional development expert in Wardha. “That’s when the next crop will be ready for harvest.” The question is, how will the farmers sustain for 16 months?
Barhate’s own village of Rohankhed near Chandki has suffered massive losses. “Two things are happening,” he says, “People are mortgaging gold or other assets or borrowing money privately for household needs, and youths are contemplating migration in search of work.”
Obviously, banks will see unprecedented defaults on crop loans when the year ends, he says.
The loss of cotton crop alone in one village, Chandki, is close to Rs 20 crore — that is how much money cotton would have brought into just this one village this year under favourable circumstances. The estimate is based on the per acre average productivity of cotton in this part.
“Not only have we lost the crop,” says Namdev Bhoyar, 47, “we [also] won’t be able to recover the money we spent on sowing and other operations thus far.
“And this isn’t a one-time loss,” he warns. “Soil erosion is a long-term (ecological) problem.”
While hundreds of thousands of farmers across Maharashtra were reeling under the rains July through August, the state had no functional government in the wake of a revolt in the Shiv Sena that led to the toppling of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government.
Early September, the new Eknath Shinde-government announced a financial aid of Rs 3500 crore for the state, a partial help that will not cover the actual loss to crop and life. Besides, it could take at least a year before people actually receive the money in their banks after the beneficiaries are identified through surveys. However, people need help today.
“Did you see my farm?” asks Dhrupada, Champat’s widow, looking frail and distraught; she is surrounded by three young children, Poonam, 8, Puja, 6, and Krishna, 3. “What do you grow on such land?” Champat and Dhrupada would double up as farm labourers to make ends meet.
Last year, the couple married their eldest daughter, Tajuli, who claims to be 16 but does not look more than 15 years old; she has a three-month baby. To repay the debts arising from their daughter's wedding, Champat and Dhrupada gave their farm on lease to a relative for a paltry sum and went to Kolhapur last year to work as sugarcane cutters.
The Jangles live in a shanty with no electricity. Right now, the family has nothing to eat; the neighbours – equally poor and devastated by the rain – are pitching in with help.
“This country knows how to fool our poor,” says Moinuddin Saudagar, a local journalist-stringer and farmer, who first reported on Champat’s suicide. He wrote a stinging piece on the local BJP MLA’s paltry aid of Rs 2000 to Dhrupada, calling it a royal insult.
“First,” Moinuddin says, “we give them lands no one would want to cultivate – shallow, rocky, infertile. And then we deny them support.” The land Champat inherited from his father, he adds, is a class-II land that came to the household as part of the land distribution programme under the Land Ceiling Act.
“Over the decades, these men and women have spent their sweat and blood to turn it fertile, to grow something for themselves,” says Moinuddin. Ninganur village is among the poorest in this area, a village inhabited mostly by Andh tribal families and Gonds, he adds.
Most Andh farmers are so poor that they would not be able to withstand climatic aberrations like the one they witnessed this year, Moinuddin says. Andhs, he adds, are a synonym for hardship and abject penury, including hunger.
At the time of his death, Champat had outstanding debts, both formal and informal. About Rs 4 lakh, Dhrupada reveals after much persuasion. “We took loans last year for the wedding; this year, we took money from our relatives for the farm and to take care of our daily needs,” she says. “We are in no position to repay our loans.”
With an uncertain future for her family, she is also worried about one of their bulls taking ill recently. “Even my bull has given up eating since his master left the world.”