A convoy of five cars cruises quietly through the dusty roads in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, making its way through herds of cattle, stopping by obscure villages and seeking the views of the farmers. It is Yogendra Yadav's idea of a rally, which he is undertaking to highlight the travails of drought-hit farmers in 25 worst-affected districts across seven states. Yadav, who launched a new initiative called the Swaraj Abhiyan after his expulsion from the Aam Aadmi Party a few months ago, hopes to grab the attention of the nation with his Samvedana Yatra and present before it the details of the “invisible tragedy” that has struck millions of farmers. With drought prevailing in most parts of the country, India is heading for a major agrarian crisis. Former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, social activist Harsh Mander and a number of local activists lend Yadav support in his campaign.
“When an earthquake or a flood strikes, it becomes a national disaster. The government and society’s response is voluntary and overwhelming,” says Yadav. “But today, the country is quietly passing through a greater tragedy of drought, which has affected 50 crore people and 40 per cent of the total land area in India. Our effort is to understand and highlight the magnitude of the tragedy and moot alternative models to mitigate the disaster.”
The yatra, which started at Hanchinal village in Yadgir district of Karnataka on October 2, will conclude at Bhiwani in Haryana on October 15 after passing through 25 drought-hit districts in Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. A social media profile of the yatra warns that since the ongoing drought is likely to extend till April next year, the kharif and rabi crops could perish and the farming community could be on the verge of extinction.
“A public hearing with leading voices of the country and a report to the nation will be presented to draw the nation’s attention,” says Yadav. “In Yadgir, farmers are migrating although the district has two rivers, the Krishna and the Bhima, flowing through it. It takes only a few lakh rupees to harness the water, which is already here. Groundwater is good in many places, but people have no access to it,” he says.
At Murhanpura village in Raichur district, intermittent showers lured small and landless farmers to borrow money and sow the seeds thrice during the kharif season. But the crops have not been successful, burying them under huge debt. Some of them are just not able to cope. After his crops failed thrice, Venkatesh, a young farmer, committed suicide last month. His wife Parvati Amma, is now left with a debt of Rs.50,000 and four young children to take care of. “I did not even receive any compensation as my husband was an alcoholic and no postmortem examination was carried out,” says Parvati, 32.
The drought is so acute that people in Murhanpura do not even have access to drinking water. The village depends on a single well built by the Nizam, but its water has high fluoride content. “But it is still better than bore-well water,” says Amaramma, an old woman.
Yadav says public support is required to tide over the crisis. “Every farmer family in distress can be bailed out if one lakh middle-class families in Bengaluru contribute a portion of their monthly income. The corporate houses can help with their corporate social responsibility initiatives and the NGOs and individuals, too, can help,” says Yadav.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was set up to help the unemployed rural poor, is not functioning properly in most of the drought-hit villages. Inadequate availability of bank loans has forced people to borrow money from private moneylenders. B. Thippanna, an old farmer, lost his cotton, toor and sunflower crops and is now preparing to try his luck with chickpeas. “I cultivate five acres of my own land and 20 acres of leased land. I have taken a loan of Rs.2 lakh at 36 per cent interest,” he says. Yadav says the corporate debt restructuring model should be made applicable to farmer loans as well.
The condition of the cattle is pathetic, too, as fodder and water are scarce. “I am no cow protection buff. But for those who are interested, this is the moment to do it,” says Yadav. He recommends an overhaul of cropping pattern and crop compensation to tackle the crisis. Advancements in science and technology could go a long way in helping the farmers. Satellite technology should replace the obsolete system of patwari (onsite crop assessment). Yadav is unhappy about the existing compensation mechanism, too. “A joint secretary from Delhi will come down to assess the damage. What does he know about Karnataka?” he asks. In his opinion, the farmers should become proactive and tap the traditional wisdom and methods instead of remaining dependent on government or corporates for seeds and fertilisers.
Yadav and his associates are hopeful that their initiative will force the government to listen to the farmers' woes. Kannada writer Devanuru Mahadev, who is part of the movement, says farmer suicides are pointers to a greater agrarian crisis. “I am hopeful that our movement will reach out to the people and the government, and lead to a positive change,” he says.
Yadav rues the fact that there is no minimum assured income for the farmers, and raises a bold challenge before the government: “If there can be a seventh pay commission for government employees, why not a first pay commission for the farmers?”
* India is facing a second successive drought year for the first time since 1965-66
* 295 districts have suffered severe or drastic shortfall in rains
* Drought has affected 50 crore people and 40 per cent of the total land area in India
* Marathwada and central and eastern Uttar Pradesh are the worst-affected
* Yogendra Yadav, under his new initiative Swaraj Abhiyan, has launched the Samvedana Yatra to understand and highlight the magnitude of the drought crisis and suggest remedial measures
* The yatra, which started from Hanchinal village in Karnataka on October 2, will end on October 15 at Bhiwani in Haryana, after passing through 25 drought-hit districts in Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan