A severe drought has affected almost 10,000 villages in 16 districts of Maharashtra. Tales of misery have started to trickle in. People and animal alike have to go without water; at times, for days together. The government has pressed into service 2,280 tankers in the drought-affected villages, but that isn't of much help. The water level at reservoirs is at a record low. Last three crops have been seriously impacted. With no prospects of income in the villages, many people have left home in search of jobs in cities. This threatens to stretch the already-crumbling infrastructure of cities like Mumbai and senior district officers have been asked to discourage such migration. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has called the situation "grim", while Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has acknowledged that the central area of the state is facing a water shortage that is worse than the calamitous drought of 1972. Political parties and non-government organisations, or NGOs, in Maharashtra have blamed ineffective functioning of the water conservation projects due to the government's apathy, bureaucrats' lethargy and massive corruption. More than Rs 70,000 crore has been spent since 1999 to improve irrigation in the state, but that has led to an improvement of just 5.17 per cent - a result of blatant corruption, activists say. While the corruption charges are under investigation, it is clear that the construction of check dams, percolation tank and farm tanks has been extremely tardy. To complete the double whammy, another Rs 80,000 crore will be required to complete the stalled irrigation projects. Like in Maharashtra, some 4,000 villages in Saurashtra, another semi-arid zone, have seen scanty rainfall in recent months, especially those in the Jamnagar, Porbandar, Rajkot, Amreli, Surendranagar and Bhavnagar districts. Still, there is ample water in the region; so much so, it is driving Gujarat's agricultural growth (estimated at 9 per cent between 2002 and 2012, up from 3.2 per cent in the previous decade). The state claims that unlike 1987, the situation is not dire in spite of less rainfall because of the community-led and government-supported water conversation projects undertaken in the region. The Narendra Modi-led government has also declared that all possible measures are being taken to bring Narmada water to the region.
* * *The Gujarat government, realising the seriousness of the issue, had launched a series of initiatives way back in 2001 which continue to date, especially in Saurashtra. More than 600,000 water structures were created, which included 100,000 check dams (each cost nearly Rs 15 lakh). Over 700,000 wells in the Saurashtra region have improved the ground water aquifers. Rainwater harvesting and recharging of water sources have also helped improve the levels of ground water. The government's programme to conserve water has yielded positive results as more than 70 tehsils in the state, from the Saurashtra and Kutch regions, in particular, have seen an improvement in the water table. It had fallen sharply in the preceding years, but has now risen back to normal. An officer of the Gujarat government notes that the improved availability of water and power, coupled with better sowing and farming technology, has come in handy to tackle the drought-like condition caused by inadequate rainfall in the Saurashtra region. The cropping pattern in some of the villages has changed from the water-guzzling cotton-til-cumin cycle to groundnut/blackgram-wheat cycle.
The average productivity of all crops has also increased. The productivity per hectare of cotton has increased 27 per cent, while that of wheat and green fodder has improved 36 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively, after the watershed project. Praful Senjalia, the president of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, adds that his organisation's efforts to involve farmers and villagers to construct check dams, recharge water sources of big and small rivers and more importantly shift to drip irrigation have been instrumental to handle the present situation. "We have conducted a special campaign during the last one year in almost all the districts of the Saurashtra region. Farm production has increased substantially in Bhavnagar and Junagarh," he adds. Senjalia says farmers are encouraged to change the crop pattern. "The watershed projects have also introduced new water-efficient irrigation technologies to the villages. The use of drip and sprinkler irrigation is on the increase. Even when farmers use flood irrigation they now construct channels across fields to reduce water loss," he says. Vasudev M Vora, director, Hind Swaraj Mandal, which has been working on education, social, transformation and constructive work in Gujarat since 1988, admits that the construction of small ponds and check dams have helped farmers to tide over water availability, but adds that more is required to be done. "Water from these small ponds and check dams is not enough beyond January or February if there is less rainfall. The state government should immediately fill up these small ponds and check dams by Narmada water as demanded by the farmers. Besides, the government will have to organise fodder, if required, through special trains, for the survival of livestock." Vora says his organisation has held a series of training camps and experiments to help farmers shift to organic farming instead of using chemicals and fertiliser. "This will be quite useful to boost productivity by the more effective use of water," says he. Government officers as well as NGOs like Hind Swaraj Mandal and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh claim that the incidence of distress migration among the poor has reduced considerably in Saurashtra. The watershed activities have increased the irrigation and cropping intensities and simultaneously reduced the runoff loss. The crop yields have increased and so has the income from agriculture.
* * *However, in Maharashtra the groundwater has been depleted badly, thanks to reckless exploitation mainly by farmers going in for cash crops including sugarcane and cotton. Rajesh Tope, the minister for higher and technical education minister, who hails from the drought-affected Jalna district in Marathwada and is a member of the cabinet committee on drought relief, says: "It is difficult to find water even if you dig 300 metres. The district authorities have launched programmes to recharge water sources." Nitin Rau, the minister for water conservation, claims there are success stories too amid the gloom. "Using rainwater of the catchment areas, tapping all the available sources of water, making nullahs wide and deep and constructing a chain of weirs have resulted in successful water refilling projects." Undoubtedly, the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra is struggling to cope with the drought situation. But the situation continues to worsen. Even the transportation of water by tankers faces major hurdles due to the low level of water in the reservoirs. "With every passing day, the tankers have to travel a greater distance. It's a huge logistical issue," Chief Minister Chavan says. According to him, hundreds of cattle camps have been set up to keep the livestock alive until monsoon. The state government has sought Rs 2,200 crore from the central government, mainly to complete small irrigation projects. On its part, the empowered group of ministers at the Centre, led by Sharad Pawar, has sanctioned Rs 1,207.84 crore for drought relief to Maharashtra. This comprises Rs 807.84 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund for losses to the rabi crop and Rs 400 crore from the National Horticulture Mission Fund to save horticulture crops. Moreover, Chavan has told the legislative assembly that the government would set aside 25 per cent of the annual budget for irrigation and water conservation projects. Maharashtra Agriculture Secretary Sudhir Kumar Goel informs that the government proposes to invest Rs 2,750 crore in the next five years to secure water for sustainable agriculture in Maharashtra. "An economically-sound business model under public-private partnership will ensure water security and pave the way for sustainable food security," says he. However, the opposition parties have criticised the government for ignoring drought relief. Popatrao Pawar, who helped transform the drought-affected Hiware Bazar village in the Ahmednagar district into a model village, believes that the current drought situation will help shape the crop and water management policy for the future. He informs that in Hiware Bazar, crops like sugarcane and banana, which consume more water, are no longer sown and drip irrigation has been taken up on a large scale. But that needs to be taken up on an even larger scale. With three months to go for the monsoon season to arrive in the state, the focus is on the authorities and the drought-hit villagers - how will they cope with the crisis?