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Drought in Maharashtra

The government’s inability to deal with the drought situation is deepening rural distress.

Following constant public pressure from drought-affected areas and after indulging in semantics over definitions, the Maharashtra government finally declared drought in 151 talukas across 26 districts, on 31 October. Reports from the ground indicate that the government’s assessment is a gross underestimation. This is primarily due to the compliance with stringent and arbitrary rules of the central government’s Drought Manual of 2016.

Maharashtra is facing an unprecedented drought. The current drought is considered to be much more serious as compared to the 1972 one. This is primarily because perhaps for the first time, the state is facing a kharif as well as a rabi drought. As on 15 November, rabi crops have been sown on 13.05 lakh hectares, compared with the 28.35 lakh hectare area sown during the comparable period in 2017. Lack of soil moisture and the decision to reserve water in reservoirs for drinking purposes in summer will affect the rabi crop this season. Thirty percent lower rainfall than the average annual precipitation has already created an acute crisis of water scarcity.

The severity of the water crisis is most acutely felt in the Nashik–north Maharashtra and Marathwada regions as the dams there have about 65% and 27% water stored in them respectively. In the beginning of November itself, 575 water tankers were catering to 498 villages and 959 hamlets. By the end of the month this number had increased to 816 tankers catering to 698 villages and 1,511 hamlets. Last year this figure stood at 93 tankers catering to 122 villages. This situation cannot be blamed on the deficient rainfall alone. It is a policy-induced/human-made disaster. However, the grandiose claims of the state government and the actual damning reality make it necessary to reiterate these figures. The drought situation once again raises fundamental questions about the Jalyukta Shivar (field full of water) scheme which is showcased as the path-breaking intervention in water conservation by the Devendra Fadnavis-led government. It is a pitiable irony that within a few days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proclamation in Shirdi that this scheme had made 16,000 villages drought-free, the state government had to declare drought in 151 talukas covering nearly 20,000 villages. The state government has conveniently not disclosed how many of the so-called drought-free villages number among those where drought has been declared. For all the claims made by the government and certain experts about the success of the scheme in increasing the groundwater level, the data released by the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA) shows that the groundwater level has fallen by more than a metre in 11,487 villages and by one to two metres in 5,556 villages. The groundwater level had declined by two to three metres in 2,990 and more than three metres in 2,941 villages of Maharashtra. This cannot be attributed to deficient rainfall alone as the GSDA data itself shows that despite more deficient rainfall in 2014 and 2015, the number of villages with more than one metre groundwater depletion was considerably less.

Questions are legitimately being raised about the Jalyukta Shivar scheme on which more than ₹ 8,000 crore have been spent, and which seems to have had no outcome at best and has been counterproductive at worst. Several experts and activists have questioned the environmental, hydrological and social costs of this scheme which has effectively come to be identified with JCB-contractor lobby driven nullah deepening and widening works. This drought should compel the government to tone down its self-adulation and pay heed to these critical voices.

The Maharashtra government’s approach of maintaining a façade of studiousness and passing off fancy schemes as innovation, as evidenced in the Jalyukta Shivar case, is also threatening to be a burden on the issue of fodder scarcity. With the growing demand for setting up fodder camps (chara chhavani) for animals, the animal husbandry department has proposed direct cash transfer to farmers to induce them to grow fodder. This is seen as a cruel joke as the acute shortage of water would make it impossible to grow any crop. It should be noted that the demand for delivering fodder at the doorstep has also been raised so that one working person in the household is not forced to stay in the fodder camps to collect it for farming.

The drought is different from the 1972 one for another significant reason. The 1972 drought resulted in a vigorous people’s movement for drought mitigation and eradication, led by the Dushkal Nivaran ani Nirmoolan Mandal which included public intellectuals–academicians and leaders of the toiling masses. This initiative can be credited with bringing the question of integrated watershed development and eradication of drought as a human-made disaster to the centre stage of public discourse. The calamitous situation today is yet to evoke such a popular response which can thereby force meaningful government intervention. There have been recent efforts to reinvigorate the initiative of Dushkal Nivaran ani Nirmoolan Mandal. The singular focus of drought mitigation is necessary today for immediate relief and cannot overshadow the long-term task of drought eradication. This is the constant refrain of activists–intellectuals associated with this initiative. The power of vested interests and lobbies that have thrived around the works associated with relief and mitigation can be surmounted by popularising this vision and mobilising the masses around it.

Updated On : 11th Dec, 2018

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