Warped Schemes Parched Earth

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Paani amchya hakkacha, naahin konacha baapachya.
“The water is rightfully ours, not anyone’s private property.” The slogan is angry, the sloganeering despaired. About 300 urban poor, mostly women and children, have trudged a mile from their slum in the central Maharashtra city of Jalna this morning of 9 March and squatted with their empty pots in the middle of a busy crossing. It is Saturday, but traffic slows and snarls. The protesters dig in as the police try to move them. “My family has not had a bath in over a week,” says Sangeeta Chhaer, a protester. It is months since taps have run water or water tankers arrived at the slum. “My husband doesn’t go to work, he has to look for water all day.” When water is found, it is to be bought for jerrycans of 10 litres at 5 each. Such protests are increasingly frequent, says SR Daukare, who is in charge of the local police station. “The people have legitimate demands,” he says. “We cannot just ask them to leave.” Last week, Maharashtra Police sent out warnings over a likelihood of violence.

A terrible drought now ravages 16 of the state’s 35 districts in central and western Maharashtra that have fetched extremely low rainfall since last year, the worst in over four decades. The scale is gigantic. It has affected more than 2 crore people spread over three of Maharashtra’s six administrative divisions. Besides those in cities and towns, people in nearly 12,000 villages are gasping for water. Geographically, one-third of Maharashtra is facing drought in varying degrees. The worst affected are eight adjoining districts colloquially known as Marathwada, so named by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the princeling who ruled it before India was freed from British rule in 1947.

Marathwada is generally a dry area that receives around 500-700 mm rainfall annually. Last year, it got only half of that, leading to a severe shortage of water in many parts. The little groundwater there was in the urban areas is being systematically commandeered by the “tanker mafias”, or private operators who sell water in tankers for a profit. Besides Jalna, the situation in Osmanabad district, which is to its south, is alarming. Tap water is barely available twice a month. Even the thousands of private tankers are not enough to meet the needs of the two districts that account for 40 lakh people (Read: At the Mercy of the Tanker Mafia). Even more worrying is the fact that having exhausted groundwater nearby, these tankers are increasingly driving further afield in search of water to draw and sell.

There is no other option as the dams of the state have only 35 percent water left for the summer. Last year, during the same time, they had 40 percent water. Some of the major dams in the state, including Jayakwadi and Ujjani, have almost exhausted their entire storage capacity. This has given rise to the demand that these dams be refilled by releasing water from the northwest region.

In Osmanabad city, water is being brought from a source 30 km away. That, too, would soon run out. Many cities are trying to secure their water supply from dams in the water-rich areas of northwest Maharashtra. Experts warn that if the process to transfer water to the nearest dam gets delayed, the exploitation of groundwater can reach disastrous levels. In Sangli district, which borders Karnataka to the south, farmers in 50-odd worst-hit villages have each dug 15-20 borewells, drawing groundwater through pipes. It is estimated that there is now one borewell for every five people. Borewells are expensive but farmers have been rich from growing grapes and pomegranates. When the monsoon failed last year and borewells went dry, farmers dug deeper up to 1,500 ft, five times the legal limit. Two months ago, borewells were banned. By then, farmers say, they had sunk in over Rs 400 crore into borewells. Now they are dependent on water tankers for drinking water. Many farmers also bought water tankers to irrigate their orchards, as a pomegranate tree takes five years to bloom, so it can bear fruit for a lifetime of 15 years.

Not everyone could bear the expenses, to disastrous results as evidenced in the rival fates of two pomegranate orchards in Daribadchi, a village of 8,000 people. The trees in one orchard are in full bloom. Its owner bought water for Rs 40,000. In the other, they have wilted. The farmer who owns it could spend no more than Rs 15,000 on the water tankers. “We tried our hardest but could not save the trees,” says Mahananda, 19, from the family that lost the trees. “We have been selling our goats, one a month, to survive.”

The villages are located in what is technically known as a rain-shadow area that normally gets less rainfall than other areas and, therefore, perennially faces water shortages. The situation was so dire last year that the locals petitioned the government to bring water from Krishna, a key river that passes through the district, or hand over administrative control of the villages to the neighbouring state of Karnataka. “At least Karnataka takes good care of its farmers,” says Tikundi village chief Siddhana Rachagondhi. “It does not abandon its farmers like Maharashtra does.” The villagers are especially miffed because Sangli is the hometown of four heavyweight ministers, including Home Minister RR Patil and Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Patangrao Kadam. Villagers complain they haven’t even cared to visit them. When a local field officer visited the area, protesters threw stones at his car forcing him to turn back.

This scarcity of water is expected to get even more acute by March-end when locals, who had earlier migrated to other parts of Maharashtra to work as farmhands on sugarcane fields, begin to return. As many as one in five of the 25 lakh people in Beed district in central Maharashtra are such temporary migrants to the western Maharashtra districts of Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara. Some 600 of the 1,000 people in a village named Angarwadi that sits atop a hill in the Beed district had migrated in November to work in sugarcane fields. “Those of us who stayed back have worked the hand pumps for drinking water,” says Laxman Gyanba Lakade, a sarpanch (elected village head). “But once everyone is back, we will have to ask for the tankers.”

The story repeats itself across thousands of villages. In Arali, a village in Osmanabad district, hardly any young people can be found at home. Over the years, most have migrated to nearby cities such as Solapur, Satara and Sangli. Some have even migrated to Pune and Mumbai, which are 250 km away. “Agriculture has now become a gamble where you have to predict the rainfall to irrigate your land,” says Santosh Kambli, an Indian Army soldier visiting home from the Kashmir Valley. “If you move across the village in the daytime, you will find it almost empty.” Many people, he said, who have moved to cities have given their land to contract farmers.

The crisis is affecting not just humans but animals too. Hardly any fodder is left with the farmers due to successive crop failure over the past three seasons. In Ashti subdivision of Beed district, crops were grown only in 22 percent of the total agricultural area due to negligible rainfall. Such has been the effect of drought that in some places even that little sowing did not happen. Anil Shankar Jadhav, a fertiliser seller, says, “My sale has reduced by 80 percent. You can see it by the dust accumulated over the fertiliser bags. I haven’t sold a bag since last year.” Low productivity meant the animals got little to eat.

To help cattle survive, the government set up fodder camps in the drought-affected areas. In reality, the camps are open grounds with temporary sheds where five lakh cattle are kept. Their owners, who number about 10 lakh, too, stay with them. Big animals are given 15 kg of fodder per day and small animals 7 kg. Farmers say that is inadequate as a big animal needs 30 kg of fodder every day and a small animal at least 12 kg. Opposition leaders have alleged that contracts for such camps were given only to cronies. Of course, many parts of the affected area do not have such cattle camps. This is now forcing farmers to sell their cattle in distress (Read: Cheap Fodder for Slaughter).

Rust in peace The Mhaishal lift irrigation project was conceived to ease the pain of farmers in Sangli but has failed to do so

Raosahib Pundlik Pawar, a farmer in Beed district, took a loan of Rs 50,000 from a local cooperative bank to grow sugarcane. Water from a large pond near his village would have irrigated his crop. Except that the pond dried up and he lost his entire crop. This year, he only got dry sugarcane that is good only as cattle fodder from his 2.5-acre land. Unable to repay his loan, Pawar now works as a labourer with 150 others under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Under the scheme, they have been asked to dig the pond deeper. He and his wife earned Rs 2,200 from 15 days of work. “We used to make some money by selling milk, but both my cows are at the fodder camp and hardly get enough to eat,” says his wife Lata. Their children now mind the cows at the camp. “We are desperate to keep the cows alive.”

When the last big drought hit the region in 1972, massive crop failures had forced some 30 lakh people to seek livelihood under similar government schemes. Less than a 10th have yet applied for work this time. But local officials say the numbers are bound to shoot up once the temporary migrants are back home. Anna Damu Kharath, a village employment officer in Bhingewadi village of Sangli district, who is overseeing the construction of a pond under MGNREGS, says earlier no one was willing to work under the scheme. “But now more and more are taking up such work because they have no other work and the government is their only hope.” He concedes that the scheme provides the workers with much less earning than needed. An overwhelmingly large number of villagers working under MGNREGS are women because most men have migrated to the cities. Nearly all the workers at the pond construction work in Bhingewadi are women. “We want to work only in our village,” says Sarika Shankar Tale, a labourer at the pond. “The government should help us do that.”

Politicians in the state have sought to portray the drought as an inevitable calamity that hits the region every four years. But there can be no doubt that water resources have been mismanaged exacerbating the crisis. Hydroelectricity projects across Maharashtra have been given water from the drought-hit areas. TEHELKA had last month highlighted this diversion and documented how efficient use of water could help mitigate the drought (Between Thirst and Darkness by Baba Umar, 9 February). Providing water to hydroelectricity projects in times of scarcity also goes against the National Water Policy, which says that drinking water should be given first priority, followed by irrigation and then hydroelectricity projects. The state government, however, has had to walk a double- edged sword in dealing with the situation as it will have to select choose between water and electricity for the state that is starved of both.

Water supply is also unhindered to water-guzzling industries. Steel factories in Jalna consume almost as much water as is needed by the entire city. Industrialists justify their water consumption saying that stopping work would mean loss of jobs for a large number of people. “More than 50,000 people are directly dependent on the steel industry,” says Kishor Agrawal, president of the Industrial Entrepreneurs Association of Jalna. “We, too, have had to buy water tankers from 50 km away at 10 times the price we paid only two months ago.” Agrawal complains that the future of industries is bleak as the sources supplying water to the industries are going to run dry by May-end, ultimately forcing the industries to shut shop. He blames the government for mismanagement of water and claims that a pipeline that was planned to be built from a water source 60 km from the city would have solved its water shortage.

His words echo with farmers across western Maharashtra and Marathwada, who are disgruntled with incomplete irrigation projects that could have come to their rescue at this grave hour. A classic case is of Mhaishal and Tembhu lift irrigation projects built on the Krishna river. These projects were conceived to receive water from the state’s largest dam in Satara district in the southwestern part of the state. These irrigation projects would have, in turn, taken care of large swathes of farmland in Solapur, Sangali and Satara districts. However, they have got involved so much in political wrangling that only parts of these projects have yet been completed. Villagers allege that money meant for lower phases of Mhaishal has been diverted towards completion of stretches that belong to the political constituency of ministers from the region. Similar is the fate of the Tembhu project, which aims to lift water in five stages and transfer it to a distance of close to 400 km. The project is moving at snail’s pace and has seen major cost escalations.

“The cost of transportation of water becomes extremely high when transported beyond 100 km. This often makes the project unviable,” says Madhav Chitle, former secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources, who is a noted water engineer. He also heads a probe into a multi-thousand crore irrigation scam. Yet, he has no authority to question officials and politicians.

In fact, TEHELKA had run a detailed exposé barely six months ago (Greed: Investigation into the Maharashtra Irrigation Scam by Ashish Khetan, 6 October 2012) on the massive scam in the irrigation projects in the state to the tune of Rs 70,000 crore. Just a week earlier, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who was also then irrigation minister, was forced to resign from the Cabinet. TEHELKA’s exclusive report showed that a top official in the government’s irrigation department, Chief Engineer Vijay Pandhare, had written to the government with the claim that politicians and others had embezzled half of the Rs 70,000 crore spent on irrigation schemes between 1999-2009.

Top politicians in Maharashtra have already spotted a political opportunity in the current drought. Nationalist Congress Party President and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena leader Udhav Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray have visited the drought-affected Jalna in a bid to bolster their political positions for the Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections, which are both due next year. Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Patangrao Kadam has used the drought as an opportunity to launch the political career of his son Vishwajit Kadam, the state Youth Congress chief. Vishwajit has finished a 550-km-long march across drought-hit areas in the beginning of this month.

Money has also started flowing to the coffers of the state government. To deal with the drought, the state had last year demanded more than Rs 2,500 crore, but the Centre had given Rs 780 crore. This year, a fresh demand was made, after which a Central team was sent to assess the situation. This year, the state sought an assistance of Rs 1,800 crore. On 13 March, the Centre announced a package of Rs 1,200 crore. Also, the Centre announced Union Agriculture Minister Pawar would head an Empowered Group of Ministers on the drought. As much as Rs 807 crore would be under the National Disaster Relief Fund to reach out to nearly 4,000 villages where crops have been badly affected. But would such a package be able to beat the spiral of corruption that runs through drought management in Maharashtra? Some 2 crore people keenly await an answer.

prakhar@tehelka.com

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