On a scorching hot April afternoon, standing under a mango tree on his 5.7-hectare (ha) farm, Ramvithal Valse declares, “This year’s drought is unprecedented. It has surpassed the drought of 1972.” The 81-year-old farmer from Sonwati village in Latur district says that in 1972, when the state witnessed one of its worst droughts ever, the shortage was of food grains and not water. “Groundwater was available within six metres, but now even 244-metre-deep borewells have gone dry. This is not akal; it is trikal—no water, no fodder and decline in farm produce,” says the farmer.
Valse’s village falls in the Latur tehsil of Marathwada, the worst drought-affected region in Maharashtra. According to an April 2016 report of the Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation, 11 major irrigation projects, 75 medium irrigation projects and 729 minor irrigation projects in the eight Marathwada districts have only four per cent, five per cent and three per cent of live water storage respectively. The picture is not much different in other parts of Maharashtra that has more than 60 per cent villages under drought this year. The situation is expected to worsen till June when the monsoon showers begin.
Given the magnitude of the crisis, the state government has resorted to several desperate measures, including transportation of water on trains—with over 50 wagons—to Latur and prohibiting people from gathering around water supply points. However, as the crisis deepens, people are increasingly asking one fundamental question: why did the government not act earlier? “Unlike other disasters, drought gives sufficient warning. It was building for the past five years. Why did the state government not reserve water for drinking and regulate water supply to industries?” asks Pradeep Purandare, ex-associate professor at the Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad.
Valse echoes Purandare’s sentiment when he says that the current situation is a result of drought-like conditions that have been prevailing in the region for the past four years. “My annual income has reduced by 80 per cent in four years. I had 12 cattle then. Now I am left with a cow and its calf.” Three borewells in his farmland have gone dry. The last one has little water left that is used only for drinking purposes.
H M Desarda, former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission, goes a step further when he says the state is facing a “policy-induced water scarcity”. “Faulty policies, regional imbalance, wrong cropping pattern, unregulated mining of the groundwater and political apathy have ruined the rural economy,” says Desarda.
The deteriorating water situation in the region can be gauged by the steady decline in farming in the area. “The problem started in 2011 when we had below average rainfall. The next year, Marathwada received excess rainfall of 136 per cent. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, we again had about 50 per cent deficit monsoon. Freak hailstorms during February-March in 2014 and 2015 destroyed the standing rabi crops (October-March),” says Vijay Diwan, president of Aurangabad-based Nisarga Mitra Mandal and former member of The Marathwada Development Board. Mohan Bhise, agriculture officer, Latur, says farmers in 15 per cent of the villages in the Latur district did not sow the kharif crop (July-October) last year after the area had a 50 per cent monsoon deficit.
The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16 says that during the 2015 kharif season, sowing was completed on 14 million hectares (ha) of area in the state, which is six per cent less than the previous year. This is expected to result in an 18 per cent decline in the production of foodgrains and two per cent in oilseeds production for kharif crops. The area under rabi crops is also expected to decrease by 16 per cent as compared to the previous year resulting in an expected decline of 27 per cent and 50 per cent in foodgrains and oilseeds production respectively. In 2014-15, deficit monsoon and unseasonal rains lead to a decline in the production of foodgrains, cereals and pulses—24.9 per cent, 18.7 per cent and 47.0 per cent respectively over the previous year. Production of fruits and vegetables also decreased by nearly 15 per cent. There was, however, a 19 per cent increase in sugarcane production.
At the heart of the current drought is the changing farming pattern in the semi-arid Marathwada region in the past few decades. Several farmers have ditched drought-resistant crops such as jowar (sorghum) and chana (chickpea) for water-intensive cash crops such as sugarcane. Marathwada receives an annual average rainfall of 844 mm, while sugarcane ideally needs 2,100-2,500 mm of rainfall.
Uday Deolankar, agriculture officer, Aurangabad, says while crops such as moong and maize, which were traditionally grown in the region, consume 3.5 -7 million litres of water per ha to grow, sugarcane needs 25 million litres of water per ha. But sugarcane farming continues despite the drought. In Marathwada, the sugarcane area has gone up from 184,900 ha in 2009-10 to 219,400 ha in 2014-15. In the same period, sugarcane production in Latur increased from 39,900 ha to 46,400 ha. The production of kharif jowar for the same period, however, reduced from 117,200 ha to 88,300 ha.
Uday Despande, a farmer from Latur’s Nagzari village, says it is not the farmers, but the government that should be blamed for the growing popularity of sugarcane in the region. “Farmers will grow crops which get assured returns. Sugarcane fetches us good money. If the government assures us it would pick up our other crops like vegetables and pulses, and gives us a good FRP (fair and remunerative price), we will switch over to those crops,” says Deshpande.
Of the total 205 sugar factories in Maharashtra, 34 per cent are in Marathwada. Latur alone has 13 sugar factories and 45,000-50,000 ha area under annual sugarcane cultivation. Pandurang Pole, collector, Latur, says that of the district’s irrigation capacity of 118,000 ha, barely 50-60 per cent is active. “And almost 90 per cent of the total water available for irrigation in the district is used for sugarcane cultivation.” In fact, seven to eight of the 13 functional sugar factories in the district crushed sugarcane even till February this year. When asked why this was not arrested, Pole says, “There is no law that gives me the power to stop sugar factories. We are trying to educate farmers not to grow sugarcane.” This, despite the fact that as early as in 1999, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission’s report had recommended no sugarcane cultivation in drought-prone areas, and relocation of sugar factories. Instead, in 2012, the state government sanctioned 20 more private sugar factories in Marathwada. “The Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976, gives enough powers to the state government to reduce water supply to water-intensive crops. Even crops in the command area of an irrigation project can be controlled during the drought years. What was the state government doing all these years?” questions Purandare.
The Maharashtra government has finally woken up and decided to not give new permits to sugar factories in Marathwada for the next five years.
Allowing sugarcane production to flourish at a time of droughts is not the only way in which the state government has faltered. The water structures in the state—which has one of the highest numbers of large dams in the country—have failed to help because of government policies to divert water from farm to industries and urban centres. A March 2013 report titled Water Grabbing in Maharashtra shows that between 2003 and 2011, the state government’s Ministerial-level High Power Committee on Water Allocation and Reallocation diverted 1983.43 million cubic metres of water from 51 irrigation dam projects to non-irrigation purposes. The report by Pune-based Prayas Resources and Livelihoods Group says that the diversion for non-irrigation purposes, mainly for big cities and industries, has been to the tune of 30-90 per cent of the dams’ live storage capacities, leading to acute water shortage for agriculture.
As a result, despite having the maximum numbers of large dams in the country—1,845—the state has failed in providing water to its people. Similarly, The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16 says the state has 3,909 irrigation projects that on paper provided the potential to irrigate 4.9 million ha on June 2014. But, the total irrigation potential utilised is only 31.37 per cent. Because of lack of irrigation facilities and inappropriate cropping pattern, desperate farmers of Marathwada have turned to groundwater. As a result, in some tehsils of Latur, there is no water even 304 metres below the ground. According to Bhise, eight watersheds in Latur district are over-exploited (groundwater extraction is more than 100 per cent of the recharge), whereas six are under semi-critical category (groundwater extraction is between 70 and 90 per cent of the recharge). Three years ago not even a single watershed in Latur was overexploited. In the past one year, the water table in Latur has gone down by 3.5-4 metre, says Pole.
Government figures highlight the regional imbalance in distribution of water in the state. According to an October 2013 report by the state’s Planning Department, Marathwada’s per capita water availability is 438 cubic metres (cum), as against 985 cum in Vidarbha and 1,346 cum in the rest of Maharashtra. This has happened because the state government has regularly neglected the water requirement of the Marathwada region. For example, in 1965, the Maharashtra government proposed the Jayakwadi dam on the Godavari river in Paithan tehsil of Aurangabad to make Marathwada districts water-sufficient. In the first report on the dam, there was a provision of 240-km-long left bank canal and 180-km-long right bank canal for irrigation purposes. The declared command area for irrigation facilities was 272,000 ha. But, by the time the project was completed in 1976, the right bank canal was reduced to 80 km and command area decreased to 140,000 ha. According to the plan, the dam should receive 81 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) every year from irrigation projects upstream of Jayakwadi to irrigate Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Parbhani and Nanded districts. “But, for more than 15 years now, Jayakwadi has received only 40 TMC water,” complains Diwan. At present, the dam has no live water storage. Of the 11 major irrigation projects in Marathwada, seven have zero live water storage.
The lone state government scheme that promises to save the people from droughts is ill-conceived to say the least. The Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan was started in 2014 with the promise to drought-proof the state by 2019. It aims to make 5,000 villages free of water scarcity every year through deepening and widening of streams, construction of cement and earthen stop dams, work on nullahs and digging of farm ponds. A total of 158,089 works are to be carried out under this project, of which 51,660 were completed till April 22 this year.
However, the project has already run into rough weather as Desarda has filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court alleging Jalyukta Shivar is against the principles of watershed management. The basic principle of watershed management, explains Desarda, is ridge-to-valley, which means any work of water and soil conservation must begin from the ridge in order to arrest faster run-off, and eventually come to the valley down below. “Jalyukt Shivar is doing exactly the opposite. Scattered and single line activities are being carried out in farms and villages without any works on the ridge. River beds and rivulets are being dredged with heavy machinery in the most unscientific manner,” complains Desarda, who has recently toured 17 Maharashtra districts to assess Jalyukt Shivar and river rejuvenation projects.
A visit to sites in Latur and Aurangabad districts where widening and deepening of streams is being carried out bears out the complaints. In Aurangabad, river rejuvenation works have been carried out in Yelganga and Fullmasta rivers using funds raised under corporate social responsibility. In Latur, 18 km of Manjara river is being widened and deepened between Sai and Nagzari barrages. The project was launched on April 8, 2016, and heavy excavator machines are working day and night to deepen the river. At Harangul village on the outskirts of Latur city, local irrigation officials and farmers are widening and deepening 27 km of main stream and its mini-streams that flow through the 160-ha cultivable land of the village. At some places the river has been dredged to more than five metres depth.
“Rivers and streams should not be deepened below three metres else they might expose the groundwater and cause permanent damage to the aquifers,” says Diwan.
Experts say the other problem with the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan is that it is primarily doing the works that are also mentioned under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), but without involving the people in the process. If the Central scheme was funded and implemented properly, it would have generated employment for the people in the drought-hit region during the time of crisis. Instead, Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan is benefiting only the contractors who are mindlessly dredging. Another problem is that people, desperate for water, are also arbitrarily dredging rivers and streams on their own. Purandare warns that haphazard water conservation are “heading us towards an ecological disaster”.
Amid all the bad news, administration in Bhadegaon village in Khuldabad tehsil of Aurangabad district has been successful in keeping drought at bay by adopting the ridge-to-valley approach of watershed management. In 2015, village residents, along with the forest department and agriculture officers, carried out deep continuous contour trench on the entire ridge around Bhadegaon on an area of 75 ha. Cemented nullah bandhs were constructed and compartment bunding was carried out in each farmland covering 60 ha. A number of farmers also adopted drip-irrigation.
The benefits have now started to show. Till last summer, Bhadegaon was dependent on water tankers to meet its drinking water needs. Starting June 2015, not even a single water tanker has come to the village. Water storage of 122 TCM has been created and there has been an increase in crop output. In the past one year, farmers have sown both kharif and rabi crop. Some have sown a third crop as well. The average annual income of families has gone up from Rs 31,000 to Rs 63,000.
Uday Deolankar, agriculture officer, Aurangabad, says his team now plans to survey all the villages in three blocks of Aurangabad in the first week of May to prepare a plan to drought-proof villages using ridge-to-valley concept.