Dark clouds were looming in the sky. I could see the fields were all tilled and ready, waiting for the heavens to open up any time now, many in hope of harvesting their first crop in an entire year. The drought and water-deprivation in Maharashtra have been so severe that farming isn't an option throughout the year except for the few months of the monsoon. The meager yield produced in these 2-3 months has been stored and used by families to sustain them through the dry spell that followed the monsoon.
Travelling from Ahmednagar towards Ashti in Beed district, we took a diversion from the state highway to go along the bumpy and broken road towards a lake. Dust kicked up by tractors and trucks visible in the far distance signaled we were approaching our destination where de-silting work was being carried on. A few days ago, someone had told me about a very old lake, apparently built during the time of the Nizams, which was never known to have dried up.
Climbing onto the embankment of the lake, locally known as Ruti-Imangaon Talaab, I could see it wasn't small. One of the biggest lakes in the whole of Ashti Taluka, it has not a drop of water today. Close to the lake, a family sitting outside a makeshift home next to a canal tells me that water used to overflow through the canal.
In his 67 years Eknath Devrao, the head of the family, tells me he's never seen the lake dry up or suffered such losses in farming. But all of that changed in the past two years.
Devrao, his wife, two sons and their families used to live off the land they owned. Today they have stocks of unopened seed packets, which they could never sow due to lack of water. When the drought hit, with no other means of earning livelihood, his two sons and their wives were forced to migrate and work for the sugarcane factories, leaving behind their old parents and young children. It didn't help that the younger son is a graduate; he is also an agricultural laborer working in others' fields today. With such precedents set, will people be keen on educating their children? A young and shy-looking Suvarna, the grand-daughter who studied till Class 7, tells me she has already stopped going to school because she has to work to support the family.
The family hasn't harvested a crop in over a year. They planted water-intensive sugarcane but that didn't survive the drought either. The leftover from the dried-up field now feeds their cattle. The sons have just returned with the end of the sugarcane cutting season. The elder one said, "Even sugarcane factories don't have much work now. We returned early because there isn't sugarcane to harvest either. It is all drying up!" When asked about the lake, he recounts fond memories of playing and fishing in the brimming waters.
With severe lack of water in the village, a few months ago the old man moved out of his home and set up camp in his field, close to the dried-up lake. Even though the lake is empty, the groundwater hasn't dried up entirely yet. He takes care of the cattle, while the grand-daughter milks the cows to earn whatever they can. He said there is no water in the village and it gets difficult to manage with water from tankers.
I asked him, "So what do people in the village do?"
"What else can we do? We sit around and wait for the tankers to arrive!"
Photos by Neelima Vallangi
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