SALIGAON, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For 39-year-old Chittaragi Renuka, June is usually the month of homecoming. When the first monsoon raindrops fall, the migrant worker locks her makeshift hut in Saligaon, a neighbourhood of Calangute in India’s tourist state of Goa, and heads home to grow cotton on her two-acre farm in Karadi village, in Karnataka state.
But this year, the water-parched district of Bagalkot, where Karadi is located, has received even less rainfall than normal and a drought has been declared. So instead of going home, Renuka is working at a tourist resort, helping her gardener husband, Chittaragi Mahipal, stay on top of his many tasks.
Yet while Mahipal gets paid 70 Indian rupees ($1.16) a day, Renuka labours for free.
“The owner (of the resort) says my husband is already getting a salary, so he will not pay me,” she says, raking leaves scattered across the courtyard.
Renuka’s plight is typical of many small-scale farmers who have little choice but to join India’s millions of unpaid labourers in order to survive as erratic weather patterns, made worse by climate change, make marginal agriculture increasingly precarious.
Reports published in July by Skymet, a New Delhi-based meteorological agency, say that at least 75 percent of India has a high chance of drought this year due to insufficient rainfall. Such a widespread deficit has only been seen 12 times in the last 113 years, according to Skymet.
In Bagalkot district, the average rainfall is just 543 mm annually, well below the national average of more than 1,000 mm. As a result, seasonal migration during the summer months of March to May is common here, especially among small-scale and marginal farmers.
Goa, which has thriving fishing and tourism industries, is a popular destination for them. Renuka spent the summer sorting fish on Calangute beach for a local fisherman.
But once the monsoon season begins in early June, fishing is banned to allow free spawning. With no other options to earn money, Renuka became vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
The same trend can be seen in some cities, such as Hyderabad, the joint capital of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana states. According to the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, a government-affiliated body, Hyderabad is suffering a rainfall deficit of 37 percent.
In the backroom of an eatery in the city’s Hayathnagar neighbourhood catering to migrant construction workers, four women in their early 30s are busy preparing the day’s meal. All of them are marginal farmers from Chitoor, a drought-hit district of Andhra Pradesh, and like Renuka in Saligaon, they are not being paid.
Pesaparthy Swaroopa, aged 31, says her duties include preparing spices, chopping vegetables and cooking five or six curries twice a day.
“We...were paid 650 rupees a month till May. But from June, the owner stopped paying us. We can’t return home because there is no rain. What shall we eat there?” she asks.
In return for her work, she is allowed to eat and sleep at the restaurant, along with other women. But besides short visits to nearby shops, she is not allowed to go outside. Nor can she talk to locals or the restaurant’s customers.
As women like Renuka and Swaroopa find it harder to make a basic living, there is a risk that growing climate pressures will end up swelling the ranks of India’s forced labourers.
There are nearly 12 million forced labourers in Asia, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But a more recent report, the Global Slavery Index 2013, published by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates that India alone has nearly 14 million. Most are employed in unorganised industries such as brick kilns, construction sites, confectioneries, eateries and individual homes.
Tathagata Sengupta is a Hyderabad-based activist at Solidarity for Brick Kiln Workers, a rights group that has rescued over 100 forced labourers from brick factories in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Many of them were landless or marginal farmers.
According to Sengupta, most marginal farmers cannot get loans from a government bank because they lack the required documents, or are disqualified for failing to repay an earlier loan. Instead, the farmers borrow from private money lenders to buy seeds - but that is just the start of their problems.
“This is a vicious cycle: the farmer takes a loan to sow, but bad weather destroys the crop. The moneylender then promises to get them jobs, brings them to a city and hands them over to a factory owner. The employer pays the moneylender, but not the workers,” Sengupta explains.
“Usually, the supplier (moneylender) promises to take them back home when a cropping season starts. But if the weather fails again, the forced labour continues.”
According to a statement by revenue minister Srinivas Prasad on July 11 this year, the Karnataka government is providing villagers with a drought-relief package including free supplies of fodder for cattle and potable drinking water.
But Uma Shankari, a farmer in Chittoor, says the government must stop taking ad hoc economic steps, and instead develop permanent income alternatives for drought-affected farmers.
“Compensation takes months to come. What will the farmers do in the meanwhile? It’s time the government encouraged them to move to systems that are less risky, and discouraged water-intensive and high-input cropping, particularly commercial crops such as cotton and peanut,” says Shankari, who is a member of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a farmers union that campaigns for sustainable agriculture.
According to Shankari, although most states have a disaster monitoring cell, their services are not used to prepare farmers for droughts.
Others suggest greater use of technology to help give farmers early warning of extreme weather. Karan Patel, a Bangalore-based engineer whose firm Kamal Kisan designs innovative tools for farming communities, says droughts are mostly seen as bad luck in India rather than a serious disaster.
“If the drought-prone districts have a Doppler radar network, they can provide real-time data on rainfall intensity, wind speeds, direction and cloud formation. This can help a farmer far more than a mere compensation package,” he says.
Meanwhile, Renuka is bracing herself for a long season of hard work without pay. “The fishing season will restart only after September. Until then, I can’t go anywhere,” she says.
Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.