At the crossroads, where Masrudi ended and began roads that led to a settlement of nomads, dust billowed in the streets. Lone clusters of trees rattled in the winds. Few people were in the streets. Fewer in the woods. Along the edges of dead farms were shrubs that sprung into action with gusts of wind blowing from the other side, were old farmers who stared at distant skies.
Like Daulat’s grandmother, there were many more who sat before piles of onions in their courtyard. Some kept them protected in tarpaulin sheets. Across them were freshly dug pits where farmers vowed to dump their produce if the prices fell once more. Years later, in Maharashtra, a farmer sold 750 kg of onions for a little over Rs 1,000.
They spilled milk on the roads. Some destroyed their tomatoes in the markets. Pomegranate farmers threw away their produce in barren lands. A few in the cities lamented over food wastage. Meanwhile, in those parched lands where a family lost their father, a farmer buried his child, and another life was lost due to starvation, they dumped their crops into the pits as promised years ago. Their dreams shattered, and feet bruised they marched many times over to the nation’s capital in the last 36 months.
“Ekambi Thanda has suffered the worst too,” said Chandrakanth Ramachandra Jadhav. He was the Sarpanch’s brother. He took long strides towards Ganesh as he spotted him from a distance. A few men and women sang their traditional songs: the kinds we had heard in the Lambani settlements in Karnataka.
“For the last four years, we haven’t received any rainfall. I have five acres of farmland. I barely earned Rs 15,000 from my farm this year. I spent almost Rs 50,000 on seeds and fertiliser. On a good year, I could earn Rs 200,000. But we haven’t had that in a while now. Most of the farmers have migrated to the cities and work as construction labourers. Around 25 percent of our village has left. Farmers have sold their cattle. Loans have stopped being issued because our farmlands aren’t worth anything anymore. If a farmer commits suicide, his family must clear his loans and settle all his debts.”
A walk around the village revealed a familiar sight. Scores of women with empty pots stood around the large well. They have more people living in this village than the rest. “So, they send a tanker everyday,” he said.
The government school is functional here, quipped one of the young men following us all afternoon. “Most of the girls in our village are uneducated,” he said, “They get married early. The school is a government initiative for migrant children or lambani children whose parents have had to move out of villages in search of better jobs. It has been a monumental task to convince men and women to send their girls to school. They send their boys to the hostel but are unwilling to get their daughters educated. The government hasn’t released the funds yet to enable the school to extend their classes till twelfth grade,” he said showing us around the school. They had a farewell party for students from the eighth grade a few days ago. The girls were in tears. “What will happen to us now?” they asked their teachers. “I won’t have a future. I was never meant to have one,” they said.
“Tell everyone,” said the Sarpanch as we walked back to the village. “There’s nothing much you or I can do. But tell everyone of our plight here. Our daughters have suffered the worst. Perhaps, our granddaughters will lead a better life. If our children get education, then maybe they won’t suffer like the rest of us.”
A light drizzle changed the landscape just enough for the forest to create a symphony of sounds. In that moment, all was forgotten; the singed lands that held cracks so deep where neither walked human nor animal, the dead tree trunks where hid insects and other creatures.
“Ye nuksaan karega,” an ominous warning from an elderly man rang in our ears as we drove past thosequi homes where sat both the old and young guarding their onions lest the rates hiked a few weeks later.
“Rajkummar’s family isn’t that poor,” quipped one of the women accompanying Jannat that evening. She lived next door. “They deliberately put up an act in order to get all the help they can. They are even building another house for themselves. They are all actors,” she said. She was worried. What if their burdens weren’t worthy of our time?
“His mother died when he was quite young,” said Jannat when we left her house, “She was bitten by a snake and couldn’t get to the hospital on time. Rajkummar too had to drop out of school since his family couldn’t afford to pay his fees anymore. They are not bad people,” she explained without looking at us, “No one’s bad. Poverty pits one against the other. Everybody’s just trying to survive.”
Prathamesh, Rohini and Prashanth chased each other in the courtyard. We walked through the narrow streets; quietness settling in corners. Months later, reports of suicides spiked in these regions. Farmers lost everything. Wrong crop patterns, excess monsoon in some parts and none in others, bad loans: there were many reasons for their death.
“Indifference,” said Sattar Patel, “days later as we sat underneath a tree, one afternoon, “It is your indifference that killed them.”
Jannat stirred the pot of vegetables every few minutes. Her husband was almost home. “I don’t get along with my sister-in-law,” she said adjusting the bangles on her wrist, “We don’t talk to each other.”
We knew. But we didn’t ask her why. Kalim’s mother walked across the road. Her sons don’t talk to each other anymore. “After the earthquake, we shifted to upper Masrudi,” she said, “I had nothing when I came here.” She toiled in the fields everyday. Some days were especially hard.
“She has suffered all her life. Gradually, she bought 4 acres of farmland. Today, her sons barely acknowledge their existence. So, she split the land into two and gave them each their share. She lives with us now. That’s her story…”
“You can’t leave without eating puran poli,” said Vittal giggling as we had breakfast. His sister and a young man sat beside him, all the while keeping a watchful eye on Swamini who twirled her padwa haar in the air.
Years ago, Vittal was the only farmer in the village to grow sugarcane and chickpeas together. That year, he had a great yield. “This year, I have nothing. Farming has become more like gambling now. You never know what you’ll get.”
As we packed our bags and left, the kids hugged us and refused to leave for school. Vittal folded his hands and promised he wouldn’t forget us.
“Mohabbat buri cheez hai didi,” said Jannat as she wiped away stray tears on her cheeks, “Humain bhool mat jaana aap log…”
That year, it barely rained. Their crops failed. Their kids barely made it to school. Some days, they ate stale chapatis. In the night, the radio always crooned old songs of loss and love, of times that passed by as Vittal’s father smoked his beedis and ate his dinner in silence with his companions.
Children waited in the courtyard to catch one last glimpse of the moon. When the winds brought rain, their roofs rattled and walls glistened at night while the empty farms sprang to life one last time before they breathed their last…
“Take the right from Murud Akola and pass by Gaathe Gaon, Chincholi and Shirala. You will reach Bise Wagholi,” said Sattar Patel on the phone as we discovered we were on the wrong road. The paths turned narrow and in some corners shambolic as we drove towards the village. Stray cattle sought shelter under trees where a lone farmer took a nap. His feet were bruised, his hands trembled lightly.
At the panchayat office, in Bise Wagoli, gathered a large group of men murmuring to themselves as we spotted Sattar walking towards us. “They are all farmers,” he said pointing at an old man standing beside us, “And, this is the head of our village.”
In the hall, they looked at each other before a few spoke in tandem. “Water,” said an old man sitting behind us. “That’s what we will fight over next. It’s not the land and all its riches. It’s water. Yes, we don’t have any. There’s nothing left in the ground and it stopped raining years ago. But that doesn’t mean we stop farming. Look around you. One farmer decided to grow chillies. Another one grows brinjal. Some decided to take their produce to the markets. The experts said we’d receive copious amounts of rainfall this year. We didn’t. We never do. We don’t need an expert to tell us that the climate is no longer what is used to be. We have withstood the worst of it ourselves. We need genuine scientific progress in farming. For instance, can’t farmers be informed of pest infestation in tomatoes and chillies before their crops are plagued with disease? Why can’t we have such progressive information centres in the village? It’s not impossible. Perhaps they don’t want us to have such facilities.”
Kisaan ka maal chahe kuch bhi ho, ye muft main milna chahiye ye sab ka khayal hai, said Sattar as the men fell silent. “A few years ago, when the rate of onions increased to Rs 50 per kg, people in the cities spent a few tormented nights wondering if they could afford to eat onions anymore. The same thing happened when the price of sugar spiked to Rs 42 per kg. As long as the farmer sells his produce for little or nothing, as long as it doesn’t affect your life in the city, you will be happy,” they said. Despite all the schemes introduced for farmers over the years, the number of suicides is on the rise. “It makes headlines for a while, then we all forget what had happened to them,” said Sattar, “This is a matter of shame for our country and speaks volumes of the society we have created. Our suffering means nothing. It makes for a good discussion for a while but that’s about it.”
“Humari maang hai ki kisaan khud apne fasal ki daam tay karein,” they all said over the next few hours. “To give you an example, this handkerchief costs Rs 200. A farmer gets Rs 4 for 100 g of cotton. The factories get the best deals whereas almost certainly such systems result in the death of farmers. Why can’t farmers decide what their produce is worth? You will hear several reports of how sugarcane has led to the deaths of million farmers all over the country. But it isn’t sugarcane that killed them! It is apathy. Sugarcane purchase tax levied on mills destroyed many lives in these regions. Is desh main sirf kisaan hi apni marzi se apna maal bech nahin sakta. As long their vote banks are secured, the government is not too bothered about the plight of farmers. If we have to make a change, we have to go beyond politics and hidden agenda, beyond our selfishness…”
(to be continued…)
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