Photo Essay | India’s devastating floods

Farmers and agricultural workers in Maharashtra state are homeless, landless and wiped out financially as they continue to struggle with Covid-19.

Fifteen days after sowing his soybeans, Vijay Wagh was rethinking his decision. “It was a drought-like situation on 21 July,” he remembers. Within the next three days, Wagh’s two-acre field and house were under water. He had aimed to harvest more than 3 000kg of soybeans worth Rs90 000 (about R18 000).

Agriculture has become unsustainable in recent years for the Wagh family from Khochi village in western India’s Maharashtra state. “In the 2019 floods, we lost 120 tonnes of sugar cane.” The floods – spurred by torrential downpours, climate change, overflowing rivers, discharge from dams and unregulated mining – have yet again ravaged 1 048 villages in more than eight districts in Maharashtra, resulting in 209 deaths. Landslides and floods killed 95 people in Raigad district alone.

Every minute that Wagh is not earning is a disaster. Now homeless, he has also spent more than 30 days recovering from Covid-19. “Even today, I feel breathless,” he says. Already crippled by mounting agriculture debts, the Waghs have no money left. “In 2019, we got a compensation of Rs6 000 for our fallen house. With that meagre money, one can just buy two weeks’ groceries,” he says.

24 July 2021: Several residents of Kochi village describe the floods as the ‘deadliest they have seen in their lives’.

With 82 000 active coronavirus cases in Maharashtra, predominantly in rural areas, 216 relief camps in the city of Kolhapur offer little hope. Sanjay Khondre, 40, a resident of Ghalwad village, east of Kolhapur, chose not to go to a relief facility. Instead, he sleeps on the roadside or in a tempo – similar to a bakkie – converted into a makeshift home. “There’s Covid risk, and we can’t afford losing more days of work,” he says.

Khondre is worried about his cattle. “I had to shift five buffaloes to my relative’s place 30km away. I could only keep two oxen here [on the roadside],” he says. Homeless for six days at this point, “every day I walk at least 8km requesting the unaffected farmers to give some fodder”. Not many farmers respond kindly to his request, he says.

Lalita Kamble, 48, who is in a government relief camp in Kolhapur’s Shirol region, has already had a difficult time working as an agricultural labourer. And she is now on the brink of losing her last source of income. “How do we find fodder for the cattle when everyone’s field is drowned? In case anything happens to them, even the bare minimum dairy earnings will stop,” she says.

27 July 2021: In several villages, civilians use what resources they have to save countless lives. Youngsters from Ghalwad village helped evacuate more than 2 500 stranded villagers.

Her village of Shirati reported a rise in Covid-19 cases in the past few months. With stricter lockdowns, “I couldn’t get work for the past 30 days”. When it rained on 23 July, she was hoping to find some work. “It turned out to be the opposite. Forget getting some work. This time, merely within 24 hours, our village drowned.”

About 59 000 domestic animals had died in the floods by 28 July and preliminary estimates suggested the destruction of 200 000 hectares of crops. Almost 434 200 people had been evacuated, with eight missing. “These floods are much worse than 2019,” says Wagh. He fears Covid-19 as he is struggling with fatigue, but asks, “Who do you think will wear a mask when they can see their houses drowning in flood?”

Kamble, who owns 0.25 acres of land, has no money left to cultivate other crops. She remembers the 2019 floods, when the receding water levels left behind mucky sewage. “We cleaned the house for 15 days and still the stench was unbearable. It’s only women who have to do this work,” she says, pointing out how every disaster affects women worse than men.

24 July 2021: A farmer from Kavathesar uses his cart to help evacuate stranded villagers.
24 July 2021: A resident of Kolhapur’s Kavathesar village spent several hours rescuing his stranded cat.
25 July 2021: A resident of Udgaon village makes his way through the floodwater.
25 July 2021: Kolhapur’s Udgaon and Chinchwad villages have been ravaged by two floods in the past three years.
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