The real reasons behind Maharashtra’s man-made drought

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Of late, and rightly so, the rapid degeneration of Marathwada in the wake of drought, increasing farmer suicides and the water crisis in Maharashtra is being splashed across every newspaper, in India and abroad. It’s disheartening, to say the least! It’s being labelled as a ‘man-made’ drought. But this phenomenon isn’t a recent one. It finds its beginnings in years prior to 2012 that led to a disastrous drought that year. From then on, it’s been five long, consecutive years of depleting water, indebtedness and farmers killing themselves, with no end in sight. For an easy understanding, we will look at events that occurred between 2012 and April 2016.

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In 2012, Maharashtra declared that the drought that hit Marathwada that year was the worst of them all. A deficit in rainfall adversely affects agriculture resulting in poor output of crop, which in turn affects the financial condition of farmers. While insufficient rainfall is a reason for drought, it’s not the only reason. Poor selection of crops, inefficient methods of irrigation and imbalanced use of ground and stored water also lead to drought-now commonly known as ‘man-made drought’. Maharashtra has been facing this man-made drought since 2012.

In 2011, the year preceding the drought, Maharashtra recorded an above-average rainfall and most of the dams were full (even today, Maharshtra has the highest number of dams in the country). In fact, a report by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in 2013 quoted the then State Agriculture Minister, who said, “The good distribution of rain has resulted in good quality of crops. The above-average rainfall has filled up nearly all dams, which will help replenish the soil in the run-up to the Rabi season.” Then why did the ‘worst’ of the droughts hit the State the very next year?

In 2013, with 3,712 major, minor and medium projects, Maharashtra had the highest number of dams in the country exclusively for irrigation; yet its irrigation coverage was 17.9 percent in 2009-10. In 2013, it was reported that these projects were plagued with delays and cost overruns, and a special team headed by Madhav Chitale, former Secretary of Ministry of Water Resources (1989-1992), was appointed to investigate these irregularities.

The Maharashtra Economic Survey of 2012-13 did not give any figure determining the extent of irrigated area, saying it was not available. In 2012, the figure had increased by a mere 0.1 percent after a decade-long expenditure of nearly Rs 70,000 crore. It looked like a horrifying scam was about to emerge. In a 2014 report, Chitale confirmed that indeed a scam involving irregularities in irrigation development had been unearthed. While many political figures faced the Anti-Corruption Bureau, post interrogation, they went scot-free and Maharashtra went back to doing business as usual.

In 2013, beside the scam, the State government also came under criticism for encouraging production of water-guzzling sugarcane. Today, the State accounts for almost 40 percent of the sugar production of India. The State is second to Uttar Pradesh (UP). It takes an average of 2,068 litres of water for cultivating the sugarcane crop and an additional amount for the mills to produce a kilo of sugar in Maharashtra, as compared to 1,044 litres in UP. This is a whopping amount of water required for just one crop! In Maharashtra, almost 72 percent of available irrigation and well water is directed to the production of sugarcane, leaving little water for cultivation of other crops.

None other than Chitale had warned the Maharashtra government against encouraging more production of sugarcane. According to him, to encourage such production was the wrong policy. In fact, way back in 1999 when the situation was not as serious, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission had recommended such a ban. The Commission had stated: “It is desirable to impose a total ban on water intensive crops like sugarcane in these deficit sub basins… less water intensive crops only and less water intensive economic activities only should be permitted.” A suggestion made in 1999 and again years later was unheeded by the Maharashtra government.

There had to be a reason. Fingers were pointing at the politicians all over again, who, if not completely, do to a large extent, comprise the wealthy sugar lobby in Maharashtra, even today. Such a ban would shatter the stronghold of these politicians. For obvious reasons, no government in Maharashtra ever considered regulating the sugarcane economy. Instead, they actively promoted and encouraged the sector. Nearly a third of the State cabinet at one time had direct or indirect interest in sugar mills.

Today, even after being in a constant state of drought since 2012, Marathwada has about 80 mills of the 200-205 across the State. Across the districts of Osmanabad, Beed, Latur, Aurangabad, Nanded, Parbhani, Jalna and Hingoli, the number of factories have only multiplied in the last few years. A similar situation exists in western Maharashtra’s drought-prone districts of Solapur and Ahmednagar. Water is being indiscriminately provided just for sugarcane cultivation to keep netas well fed. There has been no attempt in educating farmers to shift to other less water dependent crops and other activities like dairy to supplement income.

And, yet, villages like Hiware Bazar and Pulkoti have managed to escape the wrath of drought even after being in the heart of the drought-prone area, in the same State and under the same governments. How is such a thing even possible? Thanks to common sense and personal initiatives, these villages are thriving even today.

In 2012 (during drought in other parts of the State), Hiware Bazar under Popatrao Pawar was lush with maize, jowar, bajra, onions and potatoes. Inspired by Anna Hazare’s work in Ralegan Siddhi, a village 35 km away from Hiware Bazar, Popatrao had realised the importance of rainwater harvesting and water conservation. The villagers built 52 earthen bunds, 32 stone bunds, and nine check dams. With rising groundwater level, the village started to prosper. Even today, Hiware Bazar has not called for a single water tanker!

In Pulkoti, the transformation is credited to Chetna Gala Sinha and Vijay Sinha, the founders of Mann Deshi Foundation. A tiny stream running parallel to the dried-up river presented an opportunity. In consultation with hydrologists and geologists, the foundation installed five percolation tanks which worked as reservoirs. Every drop of rainfall, along with water from the stream, got stored in these reservoirs. In November 2014 the Mann taluka had eight crore litres of water in the reservoirs, providing respite to 15 of the 106 villages. Moreover, it had permanently solved the drinking water problem. Today, the water level in the Mann taluka has actually increased by one-and-a-half metre.

The State government could have easily replicated the methods used by these two villages across the affected regions. But, larger Marathwada is paying a heavy price for the selfish policies adopted by the State government. Lack of political will and vested interests have created this drought. As of April 2016, statistics released by the Rural Development Ministry show that Maharashtra has Rs 322 crore of unspent central funds for drinking water. The Centre provides funds to States under the national Rural Drinking Water programme through a budgetary allocation for the Rural Development Ministry. Over and above which, the State government has sought a loan of Rs 5,000 crore from the World Bank to mitigate the drought conditions. Let’s not forget the Chief Minister’s fund for drought relief.

Recently the State government declared that a five-year ban on new sugar mills will be applicable; that the State will put into place more effective methods of irrigation. Should the State government be trusted? After years of lackadaisical approach, purposefully ignoring expert advice, five years of continuous drought, thousands of crores of rupees unaccounted for and more than 6,000 priceless farmer lives lost (2012-March 2016), how can there be any credibility left in these claims?

While we can hope that the Maharashtra government becomes sensitive to others and to the gravity of the situation, what we must do is use water judiciously, adopt methods to conserve water, contribute in any way possible to bring relief to those reeling under drought and make the government accountable for its actions.