Severe drought foretells greater rural distress

Livestock on a parched land in Raichur district, Karnataka. dh photo/Anitha Pailoor

Anita, 14, lives in a village near the temple town of Tuljapur in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra. Every alternate day, she walks 4 to 5 km to fetch water. In Latur, hotelier Niraj Deshmukh has a constant worry: water scarcity. Here, municipal water is supplied once in a week or once in two weeks. For farmer Jayawant Mundhe in Beed, there is no option as water sources have gone dry and temporary migration to towns like Mumbai and Pune is the only way to earn a livelihood.

This is the situation in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, the ground zero of drought and water crisis in the state. A majority of people in the eight districts of the region depend on tanker water. As a result, Marathwada is referred to as ‘Tankerwada’.

In fact, Maharashtra is one of the worst-affected states in the country as nearly 50% of its geographical area is in distress. The current heat wave in central India has compounded the problem.

In India, more than 100 districts spread over a dozen states are declared as drought-affected. Parts of Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are hit by drought, deepening the country’s agrarian crisis.

ALSO READ: Silted lakes, water-intensive crops worsen the crisis

According to the Drought Early Warning System, a real-time drought monitoring system, more than 40% of the geographical area in the country is reeling under drought. Meanwhile, the latest forecast of the India Meteorological Department states that the southwest monsoon is expected to set in Kerala by June 6, suggesting a delay of a few days.

On the other hand, El Nino, a phenomenon that has an impact on weather and climatic patterns across the globe, is expected to persist from June to August, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

Weather experts had forecast a “near normal monsoon” for India and the hinterland is hoping for the best. Across Maharashtra and Karnataka, where the water table has depleted, situation is going to turn serious in case monsoon fails.

Migration is inevitable

In Andhra Pradesh, 257 blocks in 11 districts are drought-affected. Even as the government has claimed that jobs have been provided to rural people through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, there is a migration of labour to Bengaluru and Hyderabad from Anantapur, Kurnool and Kadapa districts. 

On the other hand, as many as 5,555 villages of Rajasthan are reeling under drought. Of them, around 2,741 are in Barmer district and the rest are in Jaisalmer, Churu, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Pali and Hanumangarh.

Drought has affected both humans and animals: it has hampered agricultural production and resulted in the shortage of drinking water and fodder. Moreover, crop loss and low purchasing power have pushed these regions into poverty.

In Gujarat, the government has declared 51 taluks spread across 16 districts as drought-hit. The worst-affected regions are Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat districts. This year, the drought condition also hit some parts of south Gujarat that receive maximum rains, indicating human-induced causes.

However, the condition in Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat are the worst. The government has been pumping the Narmada water to Kutch and other far-flung regions but it doesn’t seem to be enough. According to a senior government official, on an average, 500 water tankers are being dispatched everyday to these regions to tackle the drinking water crisis.

“Gujarat’s drought cycle repeats every three years. We have also noted this and therefore, there is a need to develop a system to minimise the damage during such crisis,” an official said. He said, “Discussions are on to start rationing water from next year to all the municipalities and other areas. As of now, we have found that there is no accountability among water 
users and that’s why rationing seems to be important.”

In Maharashtra, more than 28,000 villages are affected by drought. Nearly, 6,000 tankers supply water to over 5,000 villages and 10,000 hamlets.

“The situation is worse than the great drought of 1972,” said former Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said that the government was doing whatever possible, be it the supply of water by tankers, starting employment guarantee scheme works or running cattle camps.

“Latur, Beed and Osmanabad districts are the worst-affected. The situation is not good in Aurangabad, the divisional headquarters,” said veteran economist 
H M Desarda. He was a member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board.

Hydrological drought

“This is not a meteorological drought but hydrological drought caused by the failure of government and public policy. Sugarcane fields are the biggest water guzzlers,” said Desarda, who is a visiting professor at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune. “Sugarcane requires more water than any other crop. Despite this, the land under sugarcane cultivation is increasing by the years,” he added.

The rainfall has not been very bad in the Marathwada region comprising Aurangabad, Beed, Hingoli, Jalna, Latur, Nanded, Osmanabad and Parbhani districts.

Desarda said that the Marathwada region on an average gets 700 mm rainfall whereas this monsoon the rainfall recorded was 450 to 550 mm. “You cannot call this bad if you collate it with the data of the last 10 or 15 years. The government has failed to manage the situation,” he told DH.

He also said that Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, the flagship project of the Maharashtra government has not shown desired results in the Marathwada region.

Desarda said the depletion of groundwater has been dramatic in the region. In Marathwada, over two lakh hectares of land is under sugarcane cultivation. “We have to select a crop pattern that suits the region,” he said. There are around 200 sugar factories in Maharashtra. Of them, about 50 are in Marathwada.

“Drought has become an annual affair in Marathwada. We are witnessing back-to-back droughts,” Tukaram Kumbhar of Ausa near Latur told DH. Some experts also use the term ‘desertification’ to explain the pattern.

Latur-based hotelier Niraj pays Rs 1,500 for 5,000 litres of tanker water. “We cannot depend on tap water as the supply is once in 15 days,” he said.

A few years ago, the Maharashtra government and the Indian Railways had to supply water to Latur through a train known as Jaldoot Express to sustain through drought. “The current situation is worse,” he said.

Ganesh Madge, who is a driver and shuttles in these districts, said that though it is difficult, people are now being accustomed. “The situation is going from bad to worse, people from the region, particularly Beed, are moving to urban areas in search of livelihoods,” Dhananjay Munde, leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, said. He hails from Beed.

Only 3.02% of water was left in the reservoirs of Marathwada in mid-May as against 23.52% around the same time last year. Of the nine major reservoirs, eight have zero stock while Jayakwadi Dam has a dead stock for use.While most of the water sources have gone dry, people are depending on whatever water is left in the wells. Even after digging 800 feet deep, people are not getting water in borewells. Till a decade ago, one could get water at 300 feet deep.

The opposition alleged that the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan to make villages and hamlets drought-free in a phased manner has failed.“The situation in Vidarbha and Marathwada, which are facing agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides, remains the same,” said farmer activist Vijay Jawandhiya.

Senior journalist Sanjay Miskin, who hails from Marathwada, said that rejuvenation of water bodies and plantation of trees in a scientific manner is the best option. The situation is not very different in other parts of the state. Savita, 16, from a village near the temple town of Akkolkat has to take several plastic matkas on her cycle on the Solapur-Gulbarga road, to get water. If one travels to Barde-chi-Wadi near the temple town of Trimbakeshwar in Nashik district, women have to rappel 60 feet into the wells using ropes to lift water in five-litre containers in which edible oil is sold.

As water levels plummet, the Buldhana district of Vidarbha region too is affected. Farmers in the dry land areas need to be given relief at the earliest, states Dr Ashok Dhawale, the president of All India Kisan Sabha. “You have to look at the issue in totality. Loan waiver merely will not solve the agrarian crisis. You have to look into other issues such as health, education and remunerative price as well,” he said.

(With inputs from JBS Umanadh in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Tabeenah Anjum in Rajasthan and Satish Jha in Gujarat)

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