Drought of equity

A large part of Maharashtra has been declared drought-hit. But distribution of water is quite incongruous. While the few who are politically and financially powerful take the lion’s share for sugarcane crops, thermal plants and other industries, the rest are struggling to survive. The government has failed to deal with the crisis, report Aparna Pallavi and Akshay Deshmane from the state

By Akshay Deshmane, Aparna Pallavi
Published: Sunday 31 March 2013

Drought of equity

A farmer goes down to the dry bed of Babhulgaon dam in Osmanabad to fetch his cattle

Stark yellow hills surround a fodder camp at Salse village in Maharashtra’s Solapur district. In the afternoon heat, cattle desultorily munch on hard chunks of sugarcane, while farmers doze in nooks of shade. The picture of drought is dismal. But the lush green banana plantation barely 500 feet away is puzzling.

“Maybe that farmer has a borewell,” says farmer Motiram Gadge. “Many powerful people here are growing banana and sugarcane despite the drought.” Gadge’s animals walk 14 kilometres every day to a fast-drying dam to drink water.

On the face of it, the severe drought defies explanation. The drought-affected area received 60 to 70 per cent rainfall this year against the state average of 90 to 92 per cent. This is deficient but not deficient enough to cause drought of this magnitude. Fourteen districts in Marathwada, Khandesh and south Maharashtra have been declared drought-hit. More than 11,000 villages are facing water crisis and 3,905 villages have suffered more than 50 per cent crop loss.

Comparing this year’s drought to that in 1972, the most severe in recent history, Bharat Patankar, a senior drought mitigation and dam displacement activist, says the rich and the poor alike were forced to migrate in 1972. This time the landscape shows alternate patches of acute scarcity and abundance. Water-intensive cane and banana crops stand cheek-by-jowl with withered jowar seedlings. The failure of the rainfed jowar crop has caused a severe fodder crisis, but unlike 1972, sugarcane has not just survived but is in excess, and being fed to animals as fodder.

Unlike in 1972, the current drought is characterised by a severe drinking water crisis, both for humans and cattle. Significantly, villages with highest acreage of sugarcane are also the worse hit by drinking water crisis.

All set for the summer?
It is still many months before water-starved Maharashtra gets rainfall. But government officials say the situation is comfortable. “The state government has already invested Rs 2,000 crore in relief measures,” says Milind Mhaiskar, state secretary for relief and rehabilitation. “As many as 1,700 piped water projects are being set up in urban and rural areas to ensure drinking water. Fodder camps are also being set up. Another Rs 1,000 crore has been sanctioned for the remaining summer months,” he says. But the situation does not seem so hunky-dory. As per government’s plan water for the new projects will be sourced from Jayakwadi and Ujni dams, which are already asking for water. Besides, if all is well, why did Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar announce that Maharashtra will buy water from Almatti dam in Karnataka to meet its drinking water requirement? Negotiations are on for this, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had said on March 2. On March 10, government instructed the Mumbai police prepare itself for a water-related conflict.

Like many other farmers, Rahul Kargode of Pali village in Beed district pays Rs 200 for 500 litres of drinking water to private tanker owners every second or third day. He uses the water to save his standing sugarcane crop. But his new sugarcane crop has withered. The borewell he had installed a few years ago has gone dry. In Pathrud village of Osmanabad district, Taramati Wadke, who runs a small eatery, shells out Rs 300 daily for 800 litres of tanker water. “The price has doubled since November. If it increases further I don’t know how I will pay,” she says.

This apart, unethical water consumption continues unabated even in the face of drought. While Aurangabad, Solapur and Beed districts reel from drinking water crisis, unscrupulous use of water in golf courses, water parks and swimming pools is rising every day. Parli thermal power plant in Beed was shut down in February due to water crisis, even as breweries and distilleries in Aurangabad flourish. The biggest paradox, however, is that the drought has hit a state that has the largest network of dams in the country.

War over water

Thirty-six per cent of the country’s dams are in Maharashtra. But politically and financially powerful groups almost always grab the lion’s share of water. Conflicts exist between water users upstream and downstream, industry and agriculture, urban and rural users and even village-level political groups.

According to the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) Act, 2005, there should be equal distribution of water to all projects in a river basin during water crisis. In November 2012, water in Jayakwadi dam, on the Godavari river in Aurangabad, dropped to two per cent of its storage capacity of 107 thousand million cubic feet (tmc).

But upstream dams in Pune and Nashik regions, which were 81 to 92 per cent full, did not release water. Jayakwadi dam supplies water to four cities, 200 villages, the 1,130-megawatt Parli power plant in Beed, and the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporations (MIDCs) in five districts. While Jayakwadi dam had less water for use, Ujni dam in southern Maharashtra, the third largest in Maharashtra, had not water that could be used. Again, upstream dams did not release water. Ujni provides water to Solapur town and about 40 villages.

Angry farmers and civil society groups launched a fierce agitation, asking for release of water even as they faced stiff resistance from political and farmers’ groups upstream. On November 27, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asked for release of water to Jayakwadi. A total of 8.5 tmc was released from four dams, that too under heavy police protection. “The resistance is shocking. The water was not for industry or agriculture. It was for drinking,” says Vijay Diwan of non-profit Nisarga Mitra Mandal in Aurangabad.

Ujni dam has not got water yet. The conflict is likely to intensify as summer progresses, says Diwan. The contenders upstream are the industrially advanced Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad cities, while downstream it is the powerful sugar lobby.

“Jayakwadi and Ujni were constructed to meet the water needs of people living near this arid region. Later, projects were sanctioned upstream, which diverted water to the water-rich parts of Pune and Nasik,” says Diwan. In the past 10 years, Jayakwadi has not filled up to its capacity. The conflict has defeated the purpose for which the two dams were built, he says.

Driver of the conflict

The fight is because of the legal mess in water governance, says Pradeep Purandare, former professor at the Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad. According to the Maharashtra Irrigation Act (MIA) of 1976, all irrigation projects and their command areas should be notified under it. Thirty-seven years later, the Act has not been implemented because their rules have not been framed. “The irrigation department does not have the power to take action and prevent water diversions from agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes like industry,” he says.

To complicate matters, in 2005 two water sector reform legislations—MWRRA Act and Management of Irrigation Systems by Farmers Act—were passed on the premise that MIA 1976 is brought into force. Besides, two water governance bodies were constituted—State Water Board and State Water Authority—to prepare Integrated State Water Plan. Neither has held a meeting in the past eight years.

Even basic governance is difficult in absence of infrastructure, prescribed procedures for measuring water use, irrigated area, evaporation, siltation, conveyance loss and theft. But Pramod Mandade, state deputy secretary denies absence of a working mechanism. “Too precise mechanisms were not needed when there was ample water,” he says (see ‘All set for the summer?’).

With no clear reference point for governance, malpractices have become easy, says Purandare. “The process of sanctioning projects is in the hands of unscrupulous politicians,” he alleges.

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