India, April 17, 2016:Â The cattle camp, on a dusty back road lined with thorny babul trees that seem to thrive no matter how weak the rains, is just about impossible to miss.
On a recent day, nearly 3,000 impassive animals took shelter from the midday heat under makeshift tents. They munched the 30 pounds or so of hacked-up sugar cane and sorghum stalks they are allotted and lapped up all the water they wanted, a precious gift in this drought-stricken part of the country.
After a third consecutive deficient monsoon season, the government of the Beed district has established as a temporary measure 264 of these camps â€” long a fixture of drought relief efforts in Maharashtra State â€” after surveys predicted a shortage of fodder for the animals. But the camps, set up to handle thousands of cattle, have run into an unanticipated problem: The owners of the livestock, who were supposed to drop them off, have instead moved in â€” cooking utensils, spare cots, water drums and all.
The hundreds of farmers packed into the camp do not always enjoy the same comforts as their cattle, which are considered sacred in Hinduism. Slaughtering cows is outlawed in most states, and preserving them is considered essential to avoiding a large-scale catastrophe.
The farmers are forced to fend for themselves, cooking their own meals and living in tents surrounded by mounds of fodder, the ground nearby covered with fresh droppings. Nevertheless, they swore they would not return home until the rains came, whenever that might be.
â€œIt gets very cold in the winters and in the mornings and evenings,â€ said Bhimabai Garje, 65, who moved three months ago from her home in Khilad. â€œItâ€™s very hot during the day inside the tent. Mosquitoes bite us all night. But we have no choice.â€
The local authorities are aware of the squalid conditions, but say there is not much they can do.
â€œIt was not our expectation,â€ said Naval Kishore Ram, the senior administrator for the Beed district. â€œWe run the camp for the animals. If you start providing food for the human beings, the camp will take another form. This will be a camp for human beings. The basic objective will be disturbed.â€
Last year in Beed, 45 waterless days stretched out grimly in the middle of what was supposed to be its prime rainy season, as drought was widespread in India. In Marathwada, a region in central Maharashtra State that includes Beed and seven other districts, rainfall was 40 percent below the norm.
Wells and hand pumps have run dry, and rumors of mass migrations swirl. Politicians clash over how to address the crisis, and experts worry that the emergency relief, including the cattle camps and the tankers that deliver drinking water to villages, will never stem its root causes.
The crisis extends well beyond the Beed district. In nearby Latur, the government sent drinking water by train to meet a surging need. Last month, thousands of farmers in Nashik, in Maharashtra, took to the streets to demand, among other things, compensation for lost crops. And on Wednesday, the Bombay High Court banned Indian Premier League cricket matches in the parched state starting in May in the hope of conserving water.
Ajay Dandekar, a professor at Shiv Nadar University near New Delhi who has studied the drought, said the conditions in Marathwada had resulted from dual calamities: a chronically arid landscape ravaged further by rising temperatures and El NiÃ±o, as well as the diversion of water to western Maharashtra, where most of its industry and thirsty sugar cane crops lie.
â€œThe situation is very grave â€” itâ€™s hopeless,â€ he said of the arid countryside.
Ms. Garje felt the gravity of the situation last winter in Khilad. The cotton and sorghum monsoon crops had failed, and the village well was nearly dry. Tankers brought drinking water, but she worried about her three cattle, three buffalo and an ox that the family had bought, one by one, beginning 25 years ago when crop yields were bountiful.
â€œI saw the cattle of other villages dying,â€ she said.
So at one January dawn, she and her husband set out for the cattle camp, nearly two miles away, walking across a bridge over a rocky ravine that was once a river, past the sorghum and cotton fields that had yielded so little last year. They foraged for wood to build their tents, and took dried cow dung from the neighbors for their roofs.
She now cooks vegetables over an open fire, and returns home twice a month to check in on her son who looks over their fields. But she does not contemplate going back for good.
â€œI love my cattle more than my children,â€ she said. â€œI want to stay with them. The life of a farmer all depends on cattle.â€
It is a sentiment echoed by many residents of the camp, mostly men who have shifted with their animals, and are visited occasionally by their small children and wives.
Babasaheb Garje, 30, also of Khilad but no immediate relation to Ms. Garje, said that at the camp, at least, there was drinking water. His wife comes in the morning, helping him feed their cows and bringing food from home, then leaves in the evening.
â€œAfter she goes, I sit and think what will happen to the animals,â€ he said. â€œI think about the rainfall, and whether it will come this year.â€
Not all cattle camps are bare-bones: A sprawling establishment in the Beed district village of Palwan supplies meals for the farmers staying there and is trying to address one symptom of their distress â€” their inability to pay for their childrenâ€™s weddings. The camp organizers are planning a joint marriage ceremony this month for 50 couples of drought-affected farmers, including 14 couples whose families stay in the camp.
The program is being financed by the nongovernmental organization that runs the camp. Rajendra Maske, its secretary, is also a member of the Shiv Sangram Party, which stood for state elections with Prime Minister Narendra Modiâ€™s Bharatiya Janata Party. Camp residents say the government has awarded the contracts for many of the camps to NGOs run by political workers.
In a starched cotton shirt and crisp trousers, Mr. Maske surveyed the camp with evident satisfaction. He said he hoped the chief minister of Maharashtra would come for the marriage ceremony, and that at $30,000 for the whole affair the NGO was sparing no expense.
â€œPeople have an emotional connection to the camp,â€ Mr. Maske said.
In February, with some postmonsoon crops showing promise, Mr. Ram, the Beed administrative official, recommended closing the camps â€œfor a month or two.â€ The government agreed, but the outcry from farmers and politicians was swift, and officials relented.
Sanjay Malani, the executive editor of a small daily newspaper in Beed, said that the government was caving to political pressure, and that the camps were being used as vote banks for political parties.
â€œItâ€™s a moneymaking and image-making business,â€ Mr. Malani said.
The relative lavishness of the Palwan camp is atypical, however. The Khalid camp, which is run by the NGO of Vijay Golhar, a Bharatiya Janata Party member and a former member of the district assembly, appeared more austere.
â€œMy father has always been working for the betterment and development of the farmers,â€ said his daughter, Ratnaprabha Golhar. She said that the NGO was providing for all the farmersâ€™ needs, and that any critique of the camp might have come from â€œsome opposition.â€
But Suresh Wanve, 34, who tends 20 cows and buffalo with his brother at the camp in Khilad, said he would prefer that farmers receive the money the government is spending on the animalsâ€™ fodder in cash, so they could buy fodder themselves and stay in their homes.
Still, he felt compelled to stay with the animals, whom he likened to the goddess Lakshmi, or the Hindu goddess of wealth. He worries about thieves now that his wife stays alone with their children.
â€œWe know all these things,â€ he said, â€œbut we donâ€™t have any other options.â€