“I’ll see you at your house in the evening,” I said to Mahendra on the phone as I was driving from Pune to Dhawalpuri.
“No,” he said, “we have moved. Not staying at our usual place. Come into the village and call my cousin. He will bring you to our camp”.
Two weeks ago, I was in Pune and decided to visit Mahendra and catch up with him after a gap of about nine months. As I drove past the dry arid areas of Ahmednagar district, I noticed something peculiar: although the fields along the highway had been ploughed, not a single one had been planted with a crop. Abhishek, my driver, pointed out that people had abandoned farming this season due to lack of rains.
India is going though a fourth consecutive year of drought, and this year might be the worst. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 42% of India is rainfall deficient this season, with the south-west monsoon having failed.
The districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra are facing the worst ever drought in 100 years, and people in the area get drinking water only once a week. Eighty-seven per cent of Marathwada depends on these seasonal rains for agriculture.
I eventually caught up with Mahendra. “Everything is bad this year,” he said. “There is no grass and no water”.
It has been barely three weeks since the Dhangars have come to Dhawalpuri, and they are already thinking of heading back.
“Our stream has no water this year. There is barely even a blade of grass for the sheep to graze on,” Mahendra lamented. “If it does not rain in the next few days, we will have no choice but to go back to western Maharashtra and depend on the fallows.”
The agrarian crisis looms large, and the shepherds face the same issue. While there might be some relief from the government for the farmers, the nomadic shepherds will not get anything.
Mahendra feels that he will lose a big part of his livestock this year. Even if he were able to somehow manage fodder, getting access to drinking water for the sheep every day is almost impossible.
He has been walking twice the usual distance everyday to find enough grass for his sheep. As we headed back to the camp along the dusty plains, dark clouds appeared in the horizon. Mahendra stared at it, sighed and walked on. When we reach the camp, I find out that Mahendra has had a fourth child.
“If this drought continues, this will be the end of my livelihood. I might as well sell all my sheep and do some work in the big city.”
I left after having dinner with his family. Sometime during the long drive back to Pune, I got a call from him: “Its raining, its raining”. The relief in his voice was palpable. And temporary. After all, how long could one shower last? How much of the water deficit could it make up for?
When I spoke to Mahendra yesterday, he says the rains have given a temporary lease of life. There is some growth of grass and he will stay. For now.