Farmers in India are weary of politicians’ lackluster response to their climate-driven water crisis

Last Updated on May 24, 2024 4:40 pm

On a stifling hot day this May, farm worker Shobha Londhe is reminded of the desperate conditions that led her husband to take his own life. It’s the hottest and driest summer in years, she said, and for farm workers that often means little to no income, rising debts and intolerable heat.

Londhe, a resident of Talegaon village in western India, knows well the toll these climate change-induced droughts can take on farmers. Three years ago, she said the family’s financial situation was untenable as crops failed from too much heat and not enough water. Her husband Tatya went out to the fields one October day, and never returned.

“He was struggling because we were always in debt,” said Londhe, a framed picture of her husband beside her. She partly blames his death on the increasingly hot and dry weather in their home region of Marathwada in Maharashtra state. “We are completely dependent on rainwater for agriculture,” she said.

Londhe is one of India’s 120 million farmers who share fast-shrinking water resources as groundwater is pumped out faster than rain can replenish it. Drought-prone areas like Marathwada are at the sharp end of the shortage, making life unbearable for many. As the country continues to vote in its marathon six-week election, farmers are looking for longer-term solutions to the water problem, like building canal networks from distant rivers. But politicians have promised and done little to secure water for them, with activists saying that big businesses and large farms are being prioritized instead.

In western Maharashtra state, successive droughts caused in part by human-caused climate change have compounded the problems for farmers, forcing them to take out loans to buy crops. Community members say that when those crops also fail, it drives some farmers to take their own lives. According to government estimates, 1,088 farmers died by suicide in Marathwada last year, and federal government records show the number of farmers and farm workers dying by suicide across India has been increasing in recent years.

Debt, crop failure, alcohol addiction and lack of jobs are some reasons for the high rate of suicides among farmers, says local politician and head of Dhondrai village, Shital Sakhare. “We are trying to help young people get more jobs outside of farming so they don’t take such drastic measures,” she said.

Londhe said the heat, failing crops and money problems are only getting worse since her husband’s death. “This summer, we can’t even find work as laborers, it is becoming difficult for us to survive,” she said. Scientists say that the frequency and intensity of the droughts are being driven by human-caused climate change, with overextraction of groundwater and a lack of conservation adding to the crisis.

In most villages in the region The Associated Press visited, local government-funded water tankers were stationed around main squares to provide drinking water for residents. But villagers still had no water for their dying crops: the Sindhphana tributary that runs through the region was dry, as were most of the reservoirs. Election campaigning in the region on the issue was virtually non-existent.

That’s despite the fact that farmers in the area are politically active, and “do vote every time there’s elections,” said 76-year-old Sarjerao Gholap, a resident and retired head of Talegaon village. But when politicians don’t act on their promises, many lose faith in the process, he said.

Gholap said politicians from various parties in the past promised to set up a canal to supply water to their village, ensure better prices for their produce and supply running water through hand pumps. Gholap said none of these have been implemented, and no water comes from the hand pump that was installed a year ago in the village.

Manisha Tokle, an activist based in Beed, said most politicians in the region favor those who already have economic power, like the upper caste, large land-holding farmers, sugarcane factory owners and pesticide manufacturers. “They are never thinking about small farmers, women workers and farm laborers,” she said.

The average wage for farm workers has remained at about $3 to $4 per day for at least 15 years according to Indian government data, despite repeated calls by farmers groups from across the country to increase it on par with rising costs. Vegetable prices rose by 27% this year compared to the previous year with tomatoes and onions seeing an increase of 38% and 29% in their costs.

Atul Jadhav, 26, a smallholder farmer in Kambi village in the region, said returns on farming are so dire that he “won’t allow” his children to take it up when they’re older.

He spends 5,000 rupees ($60) every day to water his five acre field of sweet lime and sugarcane, but the soil is still bone-dry, and most plants are dead or wilted. “I don’t know if anything will remain if this heat continues, but I have to try,” said Jadhav.

Village head Sakhare said farmers frustrated with the water shortage need to vote in big numbers to get the issue on the table, admitting that it’s not high on politicians minds.

But she warned that while politicians can do more to help on finding alternative water sources, promoting less water-intensive crops or giving financial support to farmers, “they can’t reverse the effect of climate change.”

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