Drought but why: What happened to the promise of a drought-free Maharashtra?

Between October last year and February this year, the state government has declared 151 talukas and 268 revenue circle as drought-hit.

By Jitendra
Published: Saturday 09 March 2019
The old check dam on the Rawai in Maharashtra's Hangewari village lies defunct. The government, instead of repairing it, has built a new check dam on the rivulet under the government's Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan just before it enters the village. Its faulty d
The old check dam on the Rawai in Maharashtra's Hangewari village lies defunct. The government, instead of repairing it, has built a new check dam on the rivulet under the government's Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan just before it enters the village. Its faulty design and location has now blocked the river flow (Photographs: Adithyan PC) The old check dam on the Rawai in Maharashtra's Hangewari village lies defunct. The government, instead of repairing it, has built a new check dam on the rivulet under the government's Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan just before it enters the village. Its faulty design and location has now blocked the river flow (Photographs: Adithyan PC)

"Wilted crops had never been so precious to me,” blabbers 60-year-old Mohan Jadhav from Beed district of Maharashtra as he carefully uproots chickpea saplings that have turned brown. “Chickpea is highly drought-tolerant. But it has started failing now. I can at least use these to feed my starving cattle,” says Jadhav. His four-hectare farm in Hangewari village extends from the banks of the Rawai. But the rivulet has not carried a drop of water since the monsoon ended in September last year. In January, when Down To Earth visited the village, farms along it had turned bone-dry. “My well, located on banks of the Rawai, has dried up. The hand pump too has stopped working,” he says.

Almost every other house in the village has locks hanging from the doors. Jadhav says they have all migrated to cities in search of work. Those staying back have placed plastic barrels outside their houses to store tanker water that the district administration supplies twice a week. “But this is not enough to sustain our families as well as the cattle,” says Jadhav. To save the cattle from starving, Jadhav tried to sell them at the Salegaon market, the largest in Beed. “The market was packed with desperate farmers like me. I could not find a buyer for my milch buffalo even at one-third price.”

The situation is equally grim across half of the state, which reels from the fourth drought in the past six years. Southwest summer monsoon, which brings almost 80 per cent of the annual rainfall, was woefully inadequate last year. Marathwada region that falls in the rain shadow area and largely depends on monsoon rains was the worst hit. It received 36 per cent less rains than normal, according to the India Meteo-rological Department (IMD). Beed, for instance, received 50 per cent of the meagre 500-600 mm rainfall that the district receives in a normal monsoon year; Aurangabad and Osmanabad districts received 47 and 42 per cent less rainfall; a number of talukas in the region recorded over 60 per cent less rainfall. While the region pinned its hope on the winter showers between November and February to tide over the crisis, that too ditched the region.

Between October last year and February this year, the state government has declared 151 talukas and 268 revenue circle as drought-hit. These constitute over 21,000 villages across 26 of the 33 districts in the state. To alleviate the crisis, the government has sought Rs 7,961 crore assistance from the Union government. This includes Rs 7,103 crore towards farmers whose crops have been damaged, Rs 535 crore for fodder supply and Rs 325 crore for water supply.

Surprisingly, Jadhav does not blame the prevailing conditions on deficit rainfall. “We received only a few showers in 2014 and 2015. Yet, the Rawai and our fields had enough soil moisture to sustain the crops. In fact, I had never seen the Rawai drying up so early in November,” he adds. Government data supports his claims. According to IMD, Marathwada faced rainfall deficit of 47 per cent in 2014 and 44 per cent in 2015. Yet, some 2.58 million ha was under coarse grains in January 2015 compared to 1.37 million ha this year. Jayakwadi dam, dubbed the lifeline of Marath wada, usually remains 33 per cent full around this time of the year; this year, it is just 11 per cent full.

What’s more baffling is: 2019 is the year when the Maharashtra government had promised to make the state drought-free.

Faced with severe drought, the residents of Pusegaon village in Aurangabad now depend on tanker water. The village is on the periphery of Jayakwadi dam, which is just 11 per cent full compared to the usual 
33 per cent

A promise, grand and ambitious

Marathwada, worst-hit by drought, has been the focus area of Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan

In December 2014, when Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis launched Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (JSA) amid much fanfare, it was proje cted as a panacea to the state that has a long history of drought. “Nearly 82 per cent area of the state falls in rainfed sector and 52 per cent area is drought prone due to uncertain, insufficient and irregular rainfall which adversely affects agriculture,” reads the backgro und note. JSA thus aims to make 5,000 villages free of water scarcity every year and bring water empowerment to 25,000 drought-hit villages over the next five years.

“JSA is the integration of 14 water conservation schemes under various departments,” says Crispino Lobo, director of Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune based non-profit that played the key role in drafting JSA. Financed by both Central and state resources, including local area develo pment scheme funds of legislators and parliamentarians and corporate social responsibility funds, integrated water- shed management programme is at its core. On the new year’s eve of 2019, Fadnavis claimed that under JSA 254,000 soil and water conservation structures have been constructed in 16,522 villages spending Rs 7,692 crore. The works have helped create water storage capacity of 24,000 million cubic feet (1 TMC equals 28 billion litres) and bring 3.4 million ha under irrigation. Later, Fadnavis wrote in a newspaper that projects under JSA have helped improve crop yield by 45 per cent in villages where they have been completed. In Marathwada, which is the focus area of JSA, 70 per cent of the work has almost finished and created storage potential of 818,000 TMC water.

Water conservationists denounce the claims. “If JSA is so successful, why has the government declared 20,000 villages drought-hit? Are these the same villages where conservation works have been implemented?” asks H M Desadra, economist and former member with the State Planning Board. In 2017, Desarda filed a public interest petition with the Bombay High Court, pointing out lapses in JSA and how it has impacted ecology (more on this later).

So, why the drought?

Some blame it on erratic rainfall, while others on flawed implementation of the scheme

Though Marathwada recorded severe rainfall deficit in 2014 and 2015, drought intensity remained low as the rain was evenly distributed. In 2018, the state experienced longer dry spells. Barring Nanded, all seven districts of Marathwada faced over 100 days of dry spell in the 153-day rainy season. Osmanabad, Beed, Jalna and Aurangabad recorded the longest dry spells, extending up to 117, 114, 111 and 110 days.

These longer dry spells have had a direct impact on soil moisture and water storage level in medium and minor irrigation projects, explains Shekhar Gaikwad, commissioner at the Groundwater Surveys and Deve lopment Agency (GSDA). Adds C P Bhoyar, chief scientist at GSDA, longer dry spells also encourage more people to extract groundwater, perpetuating water scarcity. “People start extracting groundwater even if the dry spell extends for 10 days,” says Bhoyar, adding that groundwater table has depleted in 22,974 villages in 2018, compared to 10,306 in 2015.

Source: Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare; India Meteorological Department

JSA was launched to make people water secure during such dry spells, argues Ramesh Bhise of non-profit Jan Vikas Samajik Sanstha (JVSS). In 2017, JVSS conducted a survey in Beed’s Kaij block to assess the impact of JSA. It found that barely 15 per cent of the structures were functional. “Structures like contour bunds, built across a slope to prevent soil erosion, have collapsed. At places, streams have been dredged and deepened to the extent that aquifers lie exposed. Wells have become dry because of the stream deepening works downstream, says Ramesh Bhise of JVSS.

Jadhav explains how a check dam built on the Rawai under JSA has actually aggravated water crisis in his village. In theory, check dam is a small barrier constructed across a stream or rivulet to reduce the effective slope of the channel, thereby slowing down the water flow, reducing soil erosion and at the same time replenishing aquifers. “The officials installed the check dam just before the rivulet enters the village. First, the flawed height of the check dam does not allow water to flow freely through our village. The stone bedding upstream prevents ground water recharge. Now, all that one can see is a pool of stagnant water upstre am of the check dam,” says Jadhav, adding that the drought is the making of JSA. He is not the only one to says so.

Sugarcane accounts for 4 per cent of the total cultivable land in Maharashtra but consumes 70 per cent of the water meant for irrigation

Why JSA failed to help

The flawed model was an immediate escape route for a government embroiled in scams

“JSA is a conceptually and technically flawed idea. Instead of an integral approach to develop a ridge-to-valley watershed development programme, all it involves is digging and widening of streams,” says Pradeep Purandare, water expert based in Aurangabad.

In fact, he says, genesis of JSA lies in the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam exposed during the 2012 drought. Between 1999 and 2009, then water resources minister of the state and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar allegedly awarded big-ticket irrigation projects like dams at an inflated cost. A 2012 Economic Survey stated that despite spending Rs 70,000 crore on various projects, the state’s irrigation potential had increa sed by only 0.1 per cent during the decade, and that more than half of the amount was pocketed by corrupt lea ders. Pawar resigned amid corruption allegations. Though the Congress-NCP government released a white paper which gave him a clean chit, the scam spurred anger among people suffering from drought.

In the wake of assembly and parliamentary elections in 2014, the government tried to divert attention to small projects. Around this time a stream deepening and widening programme by geologist-turned-water conservationist Suresh Khana purkar in Shirpur taluka of Dhule district was in the media limelight. In two watersheds in Tapi basin, Khanapurkar had implemented water conservation measures, which included widening and deepening of small streams in each and every micro watershed, installing cemented bandhs on streams at regular intervals and recharging wells using canal water. He called it angioplasty of the river which would help store water in aquifers for at least three years.

For assessment of his claims, the state government appointed two committees, first chaired by Mukund Ghare in 2011 and the other under a chief scientist with GSDA. “The Ghare committee report never saw the light of the day,” says K J Joy, senior fellow at the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) in Pune. “But those who went through the report claim that the committees pointed out technical and financial flaws in the Shirpur model.” The GSDA committee report pointed out that deepening and straightening of streams and rivers on a large scale is a wrong idea. “The government appoi nted yet another committee, and this time headed by the director of GSDA which submitted a favourable report on April 20, 2013,” says Joy. Based on its recommendations, the Congress-NCP government started Jalyukt Gaon Abhiyan in five villages in Pune on a pilot basis in 2013.

But why did the government want to act against the recommendation of two committees that it had set up? Purandare explains: It was probably a face-saving measure. This view gets strengthened because the non-profit of Madhavrao Chitale, who was probing the irrigation scam, has been at the forefront of praising Shirpur model. “Chitale had, in fact, organised a programme in Shirpur and projected the model as ideal,” he adds.

Riding on people’s anger following the irrigation scam, Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena wrest control from the Congress-NCP government in 2014. But that was also the year when the state faced severe drought. “The Fadnavis government found refuge under the Jalyukt Gaon Abhiyan. He quickly renamed it to JSA and expanded its scope,” says Purandare.

Experts say the model might have worked in Shirpur because of its typical soil formation. But it cannot be replicated across the state.

In December 2017, acting on the petition by Desadra, the Bombay High Court ordered the state government to conduct an inquiry into JSA. The committee, which was entrusted with the responsibility, visited nine of the 16,511 villages and pointed out flaws in the programme. Wrong design in compartment bunding, improper slopes in nullah deepening and widening (ND&W) works, reduced water level in wells, excessive deepening of nullah and wells in the upper reaches of watershed left dry after ND&W works are few of its observations. While the committee did not arrive at any conclusion, it soon ran into criticism over non-expertise members.

In 2017, the government made farm ponds part of JSA and announced Rs 50,000 cash support to farmers. While the ponds should have been ideally used to store rainwater, the scheme prompted farmers to hoard groundwater, and further depleting aquifers in a state which is home to the maximum wells in the country.

Groundwater colonised

Desperate for water and a good income, farmers find solace in sugarcane, borewells

Ashok R Morare of Banegaon village in Beed has installed 15 borewells in his 4-ha field over the past 10 years. “I have invested Rs 30 lakh on the borewells but none of them are functional. Last year when the monsoon failed, I decided to install two more borewells and borrowed money for this. Even the new ones are not yielding water,” says Morare, who along with his wife now work in the sugarcane fields of a neighbour to pay off the debt.

Shekhar Gaikwad, commissioner, Sugarcane and Ground Water Division of the state, says obsession of farmers with borewells have been touching new heights every drought season. “There are 2,200 borewells in village Mane Rajuri in Sangli district, which is famous for grapes. People are now extracting water from 490 m below the ground,” he says.

The obsession for borewells is particularly high among sugarcane farmers, and for a reason. According to government agency, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the average net returns (based on cost of production which includes labour cost of the family as well as rent cost of land) from sugarcane is 20 to 25 times more than traditional crops like cotton and pulses. CACP data for 2018 shows that between 2012-13 and 2014-15, the average net return on sugarcane was Rs 59,452 per hectare. At the same time, average return from kharif crop like cotton was Rs 2,949 per ha and on pulses Rs 2,291 per ha. “It is a low-investment crop with guaranteed price,” says Lobo. The government has built the whole value chain ecosystem around sugar-cane in the state, making it lucrative.

For instance, between 2012-13 and 2018-19, area under sugarcane in Aurangabad increased by 45 per cent. But this growth comes at a cost. As per government data, sugarcane is cultivated on 4 per cent of total cropping area in Maharashtra but guzzles over 70 per cent of the irrigation water.

Though GSDA says the state has 2.7 million borewells, unofficial estimates peg it at over 5 million. “There were 40 borewells per square km in 1960 which increased to 190 in 2018,” says Gaikwad. This increase in borewells has not only resulted in groundwater depletion, but also created a social divide. Installing a borewell usually costs upwards of Rs 2 lakh and not affordable by small and marginal farmers, who have now been sidelined in this race for water.

Manjira river in Beed district being desilted under the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan. While farmers are benefitting by carrying the fertile silt to their fields, experts say such large-scale dredging will affect local ecology of the river

Maharashtra v Maharashtra

As sugar industry and people vie for water, the conflict has reached the Supreme Court

The race for water in Marathwada also saw two of the country’s topmost lawyers, representing clients from two regions of the state, locked in a battle in the Supreme Court in November 2018. Arguing on behalf of the farmers and sugar industries that lie upstream of the Godavari in western Maharashtra, Kapil Sibal demanded a stay on the Bombay High Court order, dated September 23, 2016, that said the river water must be used equitably, as mandated by the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act 2005 (MWRRAA). Representing the downs- tream Marathawada, Shyam Diwan argued if the upstream dams do not release water to Jayakwadi dam, the lifeline of Marathwada, it will deny the inhabitants their natural right over the river water.

The case started during the 2012 Maharashtra drought, when Pradeep Deshmukh, president of non-profit Marathwada Janata Vikas Parishad (MJVP), filed a public interest petition in the Aurangabad bench of the high court after the upstream dams refused to release water, citing poor storage in reservoirs. Water for irrigation was initially regulated by the Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976. In 2005, two new Acts came into force. One was MWRRAA, which set up the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority to regulate major, medium and minor water projects, and the second was the Maharashtra Management of Irrigation System by Farmers (MMISF) Act, 2005, to regulate water supply from different sources. “The Acts were for equitable distribution of water but are being violated,” says Deshmukh. “After Jayakwadi dam was built in 1965, many dams have been built upstream to protect the interests of sugar industries,” he argues. There are 22 major, medium and minor water projects in the upstream Godavari, which help canal-irrigated sugarcane fields.

In 2014, when Marathwada experienced severe drought, it forced people to approach the high court again for release of water. The court, in its interim order, directed both the parties to approach MWRRA, which, on September 19, 2014, ordered equitable distribution. The industry lobby contested the decision, stating that the authority’s order was arbitrary and constitutionally invalid. This was the petition that was dismissed on September 23, 2016, against which the industrialists approached the Supreme Court.

In its interim order, the high court also said that Marathwada should get equitable water from the Godavari Basin Corporation. It also directed that the state government to demarcate the Jayakwadi dam’s 0.278 million hectare command canal area by 2018 and repair the branch canal infrastructures. It also said that of Godavari’s 196 TMC of average flow (calculated on the basis of 75 per cent average rainfall), 53 TMC should go to Jayakwadi dam.

“The basis of the court’s calcula tions was the average utilisable capacity of the dam, which is 81 TMC. But they should have used the total capacity of the dam in their calculations, which is 103 TMC. Had that happened, Marathwada would have got 67 TMC,” complains Y R Jadhav, former advisor to MWRAA, also another petitioner in this case.

The court also said that the total cost for demarcating the area would be Rs 2,500 crore and the total number of water user associations formed should be around 3,000. “But the state government only allocated Rs 1,000 crore and just 950 water user associations have been formed. As a result, only 26 TMC water is released to Jayakwadi. The rest of 27 TMC is used by upper stream due to non-use by the downstream,” says Deshmukh.

Meanwhile, a new twist has emerged in the case. In 2018, after end of the monsoon on October 31 and water assessment in Godavari basin and upstream dams, the state government ordered release of 8.99 TMC water to Jayakwadi from upstre am dams. On an average, a third of the water gets lost in transmission and 6.1 TMC should have reached Jayakwadi. But only 4.60 TMC did. Sanjay Lakhe Patil of NCP has filed a case at the Aurangabad bench.

Deshmukh also accuses officials of Godavari Basin Corporation, working upstream, of working for the interests of sugar lobby and wrongly calculating water storage to curb the water released to Jayakwadi.

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