A visit to this parched region of Maharashtra shows the daily struggle of people for water and how advance emergency measures could have mitigated the distress
By Vivian Fernandes in Latur
Driving from Pabhani to Latur, Beed and Jalna—four of Marathwada’s eight districts—in April, one could not help comparing the landscape to the one seen last September. The monsoon was receding and the deficit, at 36 percent, was close to the region’s overall shortfall of 40 percent for the season. There was practically no rain in the agriculturally crucial month of July. But there were downpours towards the end of the rainy season, triggering flash floods in some areas. On September 18, Parbhani got 57 mm of rain or a sixth of the precipitation for the season. Not only were rains scanty, they were erratic as well.
The late rains covered the region in a patina. But they could not salvage the soybean and cane crop. Stunted cotton plants got a boost, as did tur or pigeon pea, which needs little water.
The recent visit unravelled the deception. Miles of brown were pocked with tiny patches of grass, jowar and cane. Though a spike in suicides, which had drawn healing touches from actors Nana Patekar and Akshay Kumar, spoke of despondency, there was no overall sense of resignation. Fields were being ploughed in anticipation of a good monsoon after two back-to-back droughts. (The monsoon deficit in 2014 was 42 percent).
DROUGHTS AS EQUALIZERS
The drinking water shortage was acute in Latur city. Tankers were buzzing as purposively as bees. The enduring images were of queues at municipal taps. Droughts, like floods, are great equalizers, but they have a class bias. The quest for water was added to the many indignities that makes life miserable for the poor.
At a municipal tap at the city’s Vivekananda Chowk, life insurance agent Gaikwad Shivdas Kerba had placed eight pots and two cans at 10 am. At 6 pm, he said, he was about two hours away from his turn. His wife had relieved him in between. One of their three school-going children had also pitched in.
Mangal Sonwane, who works in the city’s wholesale mandi, had filled two pots after a 10-hour wait. Her sister, Manisha Bharat Tenkale, a construction worker, expected her turn to come at 11 pm after a nine-hour vigil.
At Aravi village, near Latur railway station, there was another queue at the panchayat’s water tap. Raju Rajput, a grocer, said one would lose one’s place if not physically present. Spots were marked just past midnight. Arvind Vithal Sabne, a Class X student, said his family was first off the mark because it lives just across the tap on Sai Road. Sheikh Hakani, who has a rented pan shop near the tap, said he paid `40 for a bottle of 18 liters. The panchayat, meanwhile, provides him 200 liters free.
For politicians, a drought is a photo opportunity. Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Eknath Khadse inaugurated a bank of pumps at a private well next to the city’s railway station, where it will discharge four lakh litres of water every hour. This was brought from Miraj, 342 km away, by train and then dumped into the well through a kilometer-long pipeline. From the well, it is pumped to the filtration unit three km away. Work was being done in double-quick time, contractor GG Makne said. The water train was the town’s talk. The other memorable example of water being supplied by train was to Rajkot in Gujarat in 1986.
The state government and local administrations were aware of the crisis. But their response did not match its scale. Aurangabad had imposed a 10 percent cut on water supply to breweries in August. The government had deployed water tankers. A newspaper report said 132 of them were in action on September 21 in Latur district.
Khadse and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had discussed about half-a-dozen emergency plans with officials to augment Latur city’s water supply—including by rail—soon after the last monsoon, said Lokmat’s Latur bureau chief Datta Thore. But execution did not keep pace with the depletion of water in reservoirs and wells. Drinking water should have been prioritized. Tube wells should have been commandeered. Apart from bureaucratic sloth, political competition, had thrown sand in administrative gears, Thore said. The municipal corporation—quite effete, in his view—is Congress-controlled but the state is ruled by the BJP.
Unlike drought-affected Bundelkhand which straddles Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, awareness about rainwater conservation is quite visible in Marathwada. There are a large number of baodis (open wells) and check dams. But the structures must have water to harvest in the first place. When a 42 percent deficit in 2014 is followed by a 40 shortfall in rainfall in 2015, there is bound to be hardship.
This has been aggravated by new agricultural patterns. About two dozen brand-new cane harvesters were parked last September at the Bhageshwari sugar mills campus at Partur in Maharashtra’s Jalna district. Each costs about Rs 1.25 crore. To recover the cost of the machines, the mill will have to increase cane production. True, it is situated near the Lower Dudhana dam. Its own cane fields, about 200 acres of them, are drip-irrigated. Cane on drips uses half the quantity of water than if flood-irrigated. That is still a lot of water. Cane requires 2,500 mm of rainfall; in the last monsoon season, Jalna got 444 mm.
“Sugarcane is a lazy man’s crop,” said B Venkateswarlu, vice-chancellor of Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University at Parbhani. It requires little care. Cane farmers need to worry only about the weather; the price risk is taken care of as mills are obli-gated to buy cane at prices fixed by the state. For politicians, it is a nice way to nurse their constituencies. State industries minister told PTI there are 62 of them in Marathwada.
At Ukhad Gaon in Parbhani’s Sonepeth taluka, Manohar More is tending to his three-month cane crop. He has grown it on two acres. He is using well water to irrigate it. Cane is a three-year crop, he says. Once the first harvest is cut, secondary shoots obviate replanting (known as ratoon crop) for the next two seasons.
At Pokarni Phata village in Parbhani taluka, Gajanan Gaikwad buys water to irrigate his cane field. He has a roadside juice shop which makes it viable for him.
But individual gain comes at social expense. The state has just barred new sugar mills from coming up in Marathwada for the next five years. There is a move to convert existing fields to drip irrigation. But with power rates subsidized, there will be little incentive to curb wasteful use. It is best to charge full rates and give a cash subsidy or have a separate grid for agricultural pumps, like in Gujarat, with power rationed for a few hours. That will put a check on the withdrawal of water as well.
Horticulture is another profitable activity which might not gel with the state’s ecology. There are not too many orchards though. Back-to-back droughts have caused some
of them to dry up. Trimbak Ganpat Kale of Padalsinghi village in Beed’s Georai taluka is keeping his orchard of 450 mousambi trees alive by paying Rs 1,500 for water every day.
He says income from the orchard more than compensates for the cost of water. Farmers like him are in a bind. If they cut losses and stop watering the fruit trees, they will have to write off sunk investments.
Marathwada used to grow climate resilient millets, pulses and oilseeds but there has been little yield improvements in them. So farmers switched to crops like soybean, cotton and cane. Nutritious millets are getting back into vogue. A campaign to promote them would help immensely. The production of pulses and oilseeds also needs to be encouraged not only because they are in short supply—and costly— but also to improve soil health. Farmers will be willing to grow these if purchase is assured and they get a higher share of retail prices. An Amul dairy-type engagement with farmers will help.
Droughts are not new to Marathwada, but lifestyles have changed. They will also have to adapt to new weather patterns.
–Vivian Fernandes is the editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in
(This article features in India Legal – May 15 issue)