It is 11:30 am. The bright sun is blazing on a field in Bhatangli village in Latur district of Maharashtra, some 500 km from Mumbai. Asha Bhagotmale and her neighbours walked four km before they could find a field where a kind farmer is sharing his borewell water with people like her.
“We have to walk a few km every day in search of water,” Bhagotmale says. She usually starts her day at 6 am in search of water but in these days of scarcity, she sometimes has to set out at midnight. “I have to fill any kind of water; even if it is not potable, I can at least use that for doing other chores,” she says.
In Latur town, the government sends a tanker every 20-30 days, and locals have to depend on private operators to procure water.
Miles of fertile, black soil farms are dried, and the crisis has pierced hamlets such as Bhatangli, Bhatkheda and Sonavati. With two more months of summer round the corner, where the mercury can soar above 40 degree celsius, Latur and the neighbouring districts of Beed and Osmanabad, in the Marathwada region, are facing one of the worst droughts in four decades. Marathwada is largely an agricultural belt in Maharashtra, one of the most industrialised states of the country.
As rains turned deceptive for a third year in a row, the crisis aggravated. In 2015, the state received 59.4 per cent deficient rainfall while the national shortfall was 14 per cent compared to the normal.
The drought in the region is so bad that stored water in the dams of Marathwada are as low as five-six per cent; last year, it was 18 per cent at this time. The groundwater level in the region has dipped at an alarming rate. Most of the rivers and reservoirs in Latur district are dry. Manjara dam, which is the source of water in Beed, Osmanabad and Latur districts, has dried completely.
The district administration has been deploying water through tankers. According to the water supply and sanitation department of Maharashtra, the number of tankers in the region is 2,017, of which only 126 are by the administration. The rest are by private operators, for a region which houses 1,035 villages and 2,344 hamlets.
Marathwada, as also Maharashtra, has seen such crises in the past. The Vidarbha region was termed “suicide capital of the country” after over 1,000 farmers committed suicide in 2015, the highest in about 14 years. “There isn’t a drop in our village. The time has come to migrate from this region,” says Ramchandra Patil, who serves as the police patil of Bhatkheda village.
Clutching at straws
To tide over the crisis, the Latur district administration has deployed around 300 tankers this year for 961 villages. Following water scarcity in Latur city, the municipal corporation is filling up big tankers from Dongargaon, in Nilanga district and Lower Terana Lake and deploys around 3.5 million litres of water once in five days. Besides, the corporation-controlled 600 borewells serve the purpose.
“The drinking water condition of the city is more difficult than rural areas because of its size,” says Sudhakar Telang, Latur municipal commissioner. Because of the provisions undertaken by the corporation, the city can be assured of supply till June-end. “Then it is all up to the rains to fill our dams,” he says.
To improve the condition, the corporation has demanded Rs 67 crore from the state government to build a pipeline from the Bandarwadi dam. Recently, the central government sanctioned Rs 3,049.36 crore to tackle drought in the state. “As compensation, we are receiving Rs 12,000 per hectare, irrespective of the size of our fields,” says Patil disappointedly.
For farmers, along with compensation for crop damages, availability of potable water is the highest priority.
Households face financial crisis
Chababai Hivrale, a farm labourer, used to work from 11 am to 6 pm. After toiling in the fields, she used to earn Rs 100 per day. As the monsoons turned deceptive, kharif crops were destroyed. As a result, she has no work.
Like Bhagotmale, Hirvale who hails from Palaswadi also walks for about three km in search of water. “This year, it has become even more difficult,” says Sunita Shinde, who is with Hirvale. The women are not aware of various programmes and benefits the government has announced.
The government had announced it would be waiving educational fees of farmers’ children in the drought-hit districts, but it hasn’t trickled down to the villagers. Shinde paid Rs 10,000 as fees for her two children this year.
The drinking water crisis means the situation for cattle and other animals is worse. To provide relief to farmers, the administration has opened cattle camps across the districts. The authorities at the camp are expected to provide wet and dry fodder along with water to the cattle.
“We have to manage these animals until further notice from the government, even if it means adding more animals to the camp,” said Vitthal Lamture, who manages a camp called Shree Santh Bhagwan Baba Bahu Uddeshiya Seva Bhavi Sanstha in Ter village on the border of Latur and Osmanabad.
According to government rules, every animal should get dry fodder of six kg, but Lamture says it is not sufficient. “It needs to be increased at least by one-and-a-half times to nine kg. Only then will it be sufficient to the animal.”
Cattle camps are not satisfied with the daily amount that is given per animal. For big animals, the amount needs to be increased to Rs 100 per animal from Rs 70, whereas for small animals, the amount should be increased to Rs 50 from Rs 35, they say.
Also, the minimum number of animals a camp needs to have is 500. Till the number is met, the camp managers take care of the animals at their own expense. “The limit needs to be decreased a bit,” says Navnaat Naikwadi, one of the camp owners, “So that the camps can start receiving aid from government early.”
A recipe for disaster
The primary reason for the drought is dry spells along with uneven distribution of rainfall in the region over the past three years. Groundwater levels have depleted. Water tables have dipped in the past five years, even as digging of wells and borewells has seen a major increase.
Experts say cropping patterns have also contributed as cash crops like sugarcane and banana played a role.
“Sugarcane is the main culprit. Indiscriminate water has been lifted for cultivating sugarcane,” says Pradeep Purandare, retired associate professor, Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad, and former expert member, Marathwada Development Board.
Sugar mills have mushroomed in the past four years as well. In the drought-prone region of Marathwada, around 20 new industries have come up. “This should not have been allowed in a drought-prone area,” says Purandare.
In 1999, a commission headed by water management expert Madhav Chitale had proposed there should not be any sugar factories in drought-prone areas and exiting factories should be relocated.
“While the sugar industry is one of the reasons for the drought, from a farmer’s point of view, sugarcane is a hardy cash crop. So, farmers prefer this crop when water is available,” says Jagjit Sinha Patil, who was minister of state for industries, revenue and agriculture in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government and is now an MLA from Osmanabad constituency.
Purandare believes the water resources department neglected the crisis. “The situation was clear in September-October 2015. The government should have taken precautions,” he says.
The Latur district administration has been providing water to the district. “Our main focus is providing water for drinking purposes. When all other solutions fail, we focus on tankers, wells and borewells,” said Pandurang Pol, Latur district collector.
Fifty new borewells have been dug; over 100 hand pumps have been installed along with supplying water from nearby lakes. However, the state has now stopped digging new borewells.
Azam Shiekh who teaches at the nearby school, but grew up in a farming family, says, “So far, the provisions are only on paper. We have not seen any drastic changes here on ground.”
The collector, however, feels accusing the administration of neglecting the issue is not correct. “Not all provisions have been implemented, I agree. However, saying nothing has been implemented is also not true,” says Pol.
The government has pinned its hopes on this year’s monsoon and is aggressively trying to push the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan programme. The scheme emphasises on recharge of wells, farm ponds, and revival of rivers, along with old structures, in a cost-efficient manner.
“The scheme is beneficial to us. The government should seriously consider implementing this scheme,” says Srinivas Mule, a distressed farmer.
Purandare agrees the scheme can be a game-changer if all components are implemented. “On paper, Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan scheme is very good but only if justice is given to all the components, and not only to the deepening and widening of canals.”