Nashik, Maharashtra – The scenery in Nashik district in India’s western Maharashtra state is breathtaking. It can also be life-taking, and Dasrat Daulat Bamre, 69, knows all too well.
Bamre sits on the ground, sorting through his damaged onion crops in the same field that his youngest son committed suicide at the beginning of April, a month after the last storm destroyed what was supposed to be a bumper crop.
His only other son killed himself a few years ago after a crop loss from drought. Now the pile of rotting onions is all he and his two grandsons have been left with.
Even so, he says he has to keep on farming.
“I have no alternative,” he told Al Jazeera. “How will I fill my stomach? If I do not work, how will I raise my grandsons? Even clearing off these dead crops costs money.”
Bad crops and debt
Like Bamre, who does not have money, many farmers have to take out a loan every year to plant for the season.
A blight last year destroyed much of last year’s harvest meaning many were in debt even before this season began.
Eight districts in the state of Maharashtra have been hit by hail and rain storms this year, damaging crops on thousands of hectares of farmland.
In Nashik alone, 33,000 hectares of cropland in and around 161 villages sustained damage from the storms – a sudden event, with hail, rain, and winds hitting the area over the course of two weeks in late February and early March.
Onions, pomegranates, corn, and tomatoes are the crops mostly affected in the rough weather.
Going to virtually any of the small and medium farms that dot the landscape, one can still see dead crops still lying in the fields.
“This should be green and at this height by now,” said farmer Rohit Saharsa Budi, gesturing at his knee to indicate the height his brown and withered tomato plant should have been by at this time.
Crop failures, usually caused by drought, are part of life and death here.
Budi says the hail and unseasonal rains bring a different sort of death to the fields – one that will take longer to recover from than drought would.
“The rain soaked up, then washed away all the minerals in the soil. So for the next two years, whatever crops we plant, they won’t be as good a quality as before,” he said.
Beyond the farms, the effects of the storm are now reaching the market. Last week, the wholesale price of onion – a staple for Indian households – has gone up by 40 percent, according to traders.
With the parliamentary elections under way, farmers are raising concerns that the process could delay aid to them.
During India’s national elections, which are on-going between April 7 and May 12, the Election Commission puts strict limits on any government funding, as a way to prevent vote buying.
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Ashwini Kumar Poddar, a district official, assures that the money is coming, with the Commission’s blessing.
He shows cheques and describes how the money will be deposited directly into each farmer’s bank account.
“In the past money was given to village leaders, who would routinely take a cut,” he said.
The direct deposit method is seen a way to ‘cut out the middle man’ and curb corruption.
Compensation will be a one-time payment between $400 and $800, depending on the size of the farmer’s land – far short of recovering the loss farmers are indebted with.
That fact is the reason many farmers have turned to suicide. They will still be left with debt from this year, as well as from past unsuccessful seasons.
Admitting that the amount will not fully cover many farmers’ losses, Poddar said the compensation was intended to “help” farmers.
Asked if he personally thought it was enough, Poddar replied cautiously: “That is the amount the central government has decided. And I am a government servant so that is all I can say.”
Because Bamre owns only two small fields, he will likely only be entitled to the lower end of the compensation – not nearly enough to cover the $2,500 that he owes.
Bamre says his next step will be to approach the village council and “plea for another loan” so that he can keep farming.
It is going to be a back-breaking work to bring his two small fields back to life. But it is the only way he knows to grow a future for his grandsons.
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