A worsening drought and a rising number of suicides by desperate farmers in the Marathwada region of western Indian state Maharashtra has left many asking why the state government has not fulfilled its promise to help.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Maharashtra government declared a drought in major parts of the region in October last year, but distressed farmers claim they have still not had the backup employment the state promised to provide.

The majority of people in the Marathwada region make their living from agriculture. Because of a lack of water, farmers have not been able to plant their crops in both the winter and monsoon seasons.

The Maharashtra state government has so far not provided work to the farmers and farm laborers under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which is supposed to ensure that each distressed household gets at least 100 days of work every year. With India’s general elections starting from April 11, unhappy farmers could turn on the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the state.

The Marathwada region, comprising eight districts with a population of 18 million, according to the 2011 Census, has been drought affected for decades. This year there was 30% less rain than in previous years and the drought has become severe.

According to one report, 87% of the region has depended on rain for agriculture and since 2012, barring last year, the region had faced drought conditions. This has also led people to pump out whatever little groundwater was available for agriculture, lowering water levels even more. State intervention to help farmers has been negligible.

Ongoing drought

Even though the Maharashtra government announced a farm loan waiver in June 2017 and launched a project called Jalyukta Shivar in 2016 to make Maharashtra drought-free by 2019, farmer suicides doubled in the last four years. In the same time period, the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra recorded the highest number of suicides at 5,214, followed by Aurangabad division, also known as Marathwada, with 4,699. The suicides are commonly driven by crop failures and farm debt.

Marathwada farmers planted crops from June to September during the last monsoon, but because of inconsistent and low rainfall, they produced only half what they normally harvest. Farmers could not even plant crops between October and January in winter due to a lack of rain.

Although the area has 968 dams, both major and small, levels were down to 25% in October and the administration barred any use of water apart for drinking. Now the dam levels are only 5.89%, not enough for drinking.

According to figures from the Department of Agriculture, more than three million farmers and an almost equal number of laborers live in the Marathwada region.

The MGNREGA was designed to give farmers the right to work and a livelihood when they are affected by droughts. But despite the law and the fact that the region has been declared drought affected, the state has not provided sufficient work for people.

H M Desrada, a social activist who has worked on droughts and an economist who was a member of the Maharashtra planning commission, said: “Jobs under MGNREGA has become rare as the state does not avail work. They keep aside funds for the schemes but people who need jobs don’t get it. During such severe drought, it is the duty of the government to avail jobs.”

However, Rajendra Ahir, a deputy commissioner at the Employment Guarantee Scheme in Aurangabad, the administrative headquarters of Marathwada, said: “The state government has provided work under MGNREGA. Currently, 1.75 lakh [175 thousand] employment in developing canals, ponds at village levels have been given in the [Marathwada] division. Each village has four to five projects going on. Last week, 91,000 laborers got work under the scheme.”

Million have demanded employment, but only 91,000 have been given work under the MGNREGA.

Jobless millions

Vishnu Bahir, along with other residents of Shirapur Dhumal village in Beed district, was sitting idle in the village council – the local government administration – office as there was no work. Meanwhile, women were getting water from the village tank in front of the office.

Contradicting Ahir, Bahir said: “There has not been work under MGNREGA for the last six months. We have been asking officials about work but we are told no orders are passed yet. How can we survive without work? The village has 2,800 people and 1,100 are farmers. Almost half of them are without work.”

Shirapur Dhumal village is under the Shirur Kasar administrative block in Beed district. Shirur Kasar has 116 villages. Assuming each village has at least 1000 farmers, a minimum of 11,600 farmers and agricultural laborers are without work in Shirur Kasar. Beed district has 11 administrative blocks. Using the same calculation, there are at least 120,000 farmers and laborers looking for jobs in Beed district.

But according to Deputy Commissioner Rajendra Ahir, 495 projects were ongoing and 9,280 laborers had work in Beed district from last week.

When it was pointed out that many laborers from many villages had complained they were not getting work under the scheme, he said: “Work is not available in every village. Besides, laborers should go to the village council to demand work. They should not say that they would do only digging work or another work. They need to do whatever work is being offered by the village council.”

People say there is no work in their villages. Shahabai Sawashe, a female farmer from Kanobachi Wadi village in Marathwada, said: “We just need work, even if they give us Rs 100-150 per day, it is fine. It has become difficult to manage the household, to pay fees of kids, pay for the hospital.

“People having small farms or landless farmers have nowhere to go. Whom should we trust if we decide to migrate? It is better to get small work in the village.” Many women in the villages also work as farm laborers to support their families.

Umesh Shinde, a youth from Khalegoan village in Marathwada, said: “Once people don’t get jobs, they start stealing and doing robberies for survival. Youth or even adults start drinking alcohol and develop other bad habits.”

Manisha Tokle, a social activist from Marathwada, said: “If people do not get jobs and money they become violent. Women, in turn, become victims of that violence. To stop this cycle, the state needs to avail jobs under MGNREGA.”