Everybody Just Adores A Good Drought
The present drought situation in Maharashtra is hydrologically worse than that of 1972. There are many reasons for this dire situation. The construction of large dams, water intensive cropping patterns (sugarcane and grapes), neglect of traditional local water systems, industries (beer & sugar), diversion of water for thermal plants and unaccountable water management are the causes for this acute crisis which has been building up over the years.
There are still many more thermal power plants and water intensive industries planned in a fossil fuels orgy of “development” in this region. The coal-based power plants are the fad and there is little effort to harness alternative energy. According to reports, 140 thermal power plants with a collective capacity of 55,000 MW are on the anvil.
Sharad Pawar has announced Rs 1,000 crore package for compulsory conversion of the entire sugarcane farming from flooding to drip irrigation. Presently, of the one million hectares under sugarcane, barely 10 per cent is under drip irrigation. Even the Union Agriculture Minister’s own constituency has not shown any notable success on this front.
Measures like drip and sprinkler irrigation are only first aid solutions. It is a fact the sugarcane is a fundamentally inappropriate crop in drought prone areas. When it was grown on 16 per cent irrigated areas, sugarcane used 76 per cent of all water for irrigation. With the area under sugarcane increasing, its hegemony has increased exponentially. Not only does it capture maximum water, it results in waterlogging, salinity and severe water pollution by sugar factories. Incidentally, Maharashtra has 209 sugar factories, the highest in any state in India.
Sugarcane is one of the most water-intensive crops and requires ten times more water than jowar. Ironically, the regions where it is grown the most are chronically drought-hit regions, which have been receiving Central aid for drought proofing through the Drought Proof Area Programme and other such schemes. A stark example of links between drought and sugarcane is found in the worst-hit Solapur district in the Bhima Basin. The live storage of Ujani Dam (which incidentally the Deputy CM Ajit Pawan wanted to fill up by urinating) is zero and drinking water is being taken from dead storage. Drinking water supply has become a severe problem. Hundreds of villages and blocks have been declared drought affected.
The state is heavily entrenched in sugar politics; the political economy is unable to take any brave and sustainable decisions when it comes to cultivating sugarcane. Experts have pointed out that the entire water management of Maharashtra revolves around sugarcane.
As sugarcane is claiming almost all of irrigation and domestic water from dams, villagers in Marathwada and Western Maharashtra do not have drinking water; students are missing their exams to attend to cattle at cattle shelters and hospitals have to postpone surgeries for want of water. Villagers scramble on passing trains to collect water from the toilets. If Maharashtra wants to liberate itself from the shackle of regular droughts, it must break free from sugarcane and the politicians who control the sugar lobby.
After the decontrol of sugar pricing, India should not be growing sugarcane at all. The Indian sugarcane farmer can get only two cropping cycles at the most. Besides, being a water intensive crop, a lot of subsidy goes into the production. There is a virtual import ban on sugarcane. India should import sugarcane from Brazil at nearly one third of the procurement price in India. Because of its abundance of water, Brazil has six annual crop cycles, and is the cheapest source of sugar in the world
Satellite images by NASA show that there is more withdrawal of groundwater in the Deccan and Indo-Gangetic belts than anywhere else in the world, a fact corroborated by India’s own Central Groundwater Board and the Central Water Commission.
Most of the drought-affected districts of Maharashtra, especially those in Marathwada and Vidharbha, fall under this belt. But does anyone really care? Even today, you can go around the drought-hit areas, staying in hotels, meeting factory and vineyard managers and sugarcane plantation owners, and come away with no awareness of any water shortage. They have bore wells deep enough to last till the monsoon.
There is a clear failure of governance here and with both Assembly and Parliamentary elections due next year, politicians have been quick to blame one another. But has any bore well been shut down? Has the owner of any bore well been forced to share the water with thirsty villagers who cannot afford to break the rules?
India is a signatory to the UN Resolution of 2010, which recognises ‘Right to Water as a Human Right’. India also passed a National Water Policy in 2012 that encourages the role of private companies and minimise the role of government in supplying water. The railways are contemplating sending water trains from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka next month. We definitely need a national conversation on this.