The drought in a large part of Maharashtra, said to be the worst since 1972, may have been triggered by poor rainfall in the last monsoon season - but it has been compounded by mismanagement of the available water. Nearly one-third of the state's population living in the 15 drought-hit districts in and around the Marathwada region is facing a severe scarcity of drinking water, apart from water for salvaging its wilting crops. The paucity of fodder for livestock, the mainstay of livelihood for the small and marginal farmers and landless households, too, is acute. This, paradoxically, is the state of affairs in a state that has the country's largest network of dams. What this has meant is that financially and politically influential farmers and industrialists are managing to corner enough water to irrigate crops and run industrial units, while the poor are deprived of even drinking water. This is evident in various areas where water-guzzling sugarcane and banana farms are in fairly good shape, while the neighbouring fields of less water-requiring sorghum - which belong to resource-poor farmers - wither away. Remember, the Marathwada region, which lies in the rain-shadow zone, is drought-prone. It is, therefore, unfit for the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane. It is also worth recalling that the state government had decided in February, when the signs of a water crisis became imminent, to give priority to meeting drinking-water needs before letting water to be used for other purposes.
This well-intended resolve has, however, remained largely on paper. Since the bulk of the state's sugar industry is in the co-operative sector and is controlled by politicians, cane crushing, which requires substantial amounts of water, is still going on in water-stressed areas. Maharashtra, indeed, does not lack a legal framework for carrying out worthwhile water reforms to ensure fair distribution of this scarce natural resource. Several progressive laws have been passed; unfortunately, these statutes have not been enforced in the right spirit. The laws provide for notification of all irrigation command areas; prioritising water allotment for drinking purposes; even distribution of water in different storage dams in a river basin, especially during water crises; and involvement of farmers in the release of water for actual consumption. Had these measures been implemented prudently, the situation might not have turned as grim as it has today. Groundwater, too, has not been properly regulated. This has caused the water table to recede to lower depths and shallow wells to dry up. Given that the drought is set to exacerbate as the temperature shoots up in the next few weeks of intense summer, the drinking water and fodder may become scarcer. This may necessitate sourcing and transport of potable water and cattle feed from distant areas. Such strategies have worked well in managing past droughts in several states and, therefore, need to be conceived and executed in Maharashtra as well to mitigate the impact of the current drought.