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Maharashtra farmers face severe water crisis as winter rains play truant, damage prospects of rabi crops

Farmers across the country are fighting with their backs to the wall. They had pinned their hopes on the winter rains for the rabi season. However, unfortunately, the rainfall deficit across large swathes of the country has come as a setback.

Maharashtra had the largest rainfall deficit — 74 percent below normal in the period from 1 October to 31 December 2018. In Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh as well, the deficit was over 60 per cent. In the rest of the country, the deficit was to the tune of 44 percent.

Nana Pande, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, said he is not in a position to grow any crops during the winter season. “We usually grow gram. This year, I have not grown anything due to the lack of water. As it is, the rainfall between July and September was inadequate, and this adversely affected our tur crop. The yield for tur per acre is usually between 4 and 5 quintals, but this time, I will be lucky if I can get even 1.5 to 2 quintals per acre,” he said.

Farmers in Maharashtra’s Beed, Solapur, Jalgaon and Ahmednagar districts are voicing similar concerns. Their situation has been made worse due to the high temperatures during November.

Representational image. Reuters

Across the country, farmers are fighting with their backs to the wall. Representational image. Reuters

The lack of winter rainfall has come as a double whammy for the Devendra Fadnavis-led government, given that 201 talukas in 32 districts of Maharashtra were already facing water scarcity owing to the deficient rainfall from the south-west monsoon. Only four out of 36 districts in the state are outside the grip of drought, an indication of how grim the situation is.

Water expert Himanshu Thakkar, who heads SANDRP, does not mince words when he says, “Maharashtra is staring at a severe water crisis. Experts say that 1972 was declared to have been Maharashtra’s worst recorded drought in history. But this year is expected to be even worse. Already, water levels in dams have plunged to less than half their capacity. The Marathwada region is the worst affected, with its dams presently having water only up to 16 percent of their capacity.” However, it is not that the situation in other parts is significantly better. The Maharashtra Water Resources Department has released figures which show that as on 18 October, 2018, water in large dams is down to a quarter of their capacity. In medium and small dams, the water level is down to between 20 and 25 percent, unlike last year, when dams were around 70 percent full.

Thakkar further said, “Despite the government having declared Marathwada and Vidarbha as being drought-hit, it continues to divert water of the Koyna and Tata dams from vulnerable and drought-hit regions to the high rainfall Konkan belt to be used for hydro power generation. This is happening despite the country being a power surplus one. By doing so, we are depriving our farmers of their livelihood sources, thereby impoverishing them further.”

Yogendra Yadav, founder of Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organisation that works to mitigate the problems of farmers, pointed out, “The summer monsoon was very poor in north Karnataka, parts of Telangana and large swathes of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Even though the quantum of rain during the winter months is small, the moisture in the soil is important for crop germination. The lack of winter rainfall in Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh is bound to affect the wheat crop, given that half the farmers in this region do not have access to irrigation.”

Yadav further said, “The Maharashtra government had launched the Jalyukta Shivar scheme to help recharge ground water. A similar initiative was launched by Rajasthan under Vasundhare Raje, which was called the Jal Swavalamban Abhiyan. Depleting ground water resources is an issue that cuts across all states, and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has to be given more teeth in order to end all individual exploitation of ground water. Unfortunately, government institutions are not being given the freedom to function in an autonomous manner. Otherwise, how can the CGWB explain its recent notification, in which it specified that water-guzzling industries such as mining and and dewatering units were free to extract as much ground water as they needed, so long as they were willing to pay for it?”

Geologists attached to the CGWA warn against excessive ground water extraction taking place across cities and farms, which has reached an all-time high. “In our parched cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, people are digging 800 feet below the ground, and yet not finding water. But a similar situation now prevails in our villages too. If this indiscriminate boring is not halted immediately, it will lead to depletion of our ground water resources,” said a geologist with the CGWA, citing the recent example of Mumbai, where up to 500 borewells were dug and still, no water was found.

Geologists further point out that water percolation in the ground requires a steady pattern of rainfall. Monsoon rains, thanks to El Nino and climate change, are getting increasingly sporadic. We witness heavy spurts of rain over a few days, but that does not mean there has been good percolation. For the accumulation of ground water, steady rainfall over a longer period of time is needed.

Yadav remarked, “If we are facing acute water shortage in January, what will it be like by mid-March, by which time summer will have set in? The entire country is set to face a water
emergency. Already, in the winter months, Aurangabad is receiving water once in four days. The situation is similar in north Karnataka and parts of Gujarat.”

File image of Yogendra Yadav. PTI

File image of Yogendra Yadav. PTI

Sevaram, a farmer in a village in Sikar district who grows chickpeas, said that while his investment cost worked out to over Rs 13,000 per hectare, he could sell his produce at only Rs 4,800 per hectare. Similarly, the input cost for the green gram crop was Rs 9,000 per hectare, while the produce was sold for Rs 3,000 per hectare.

He said, “The lack of rains, chronic water shortage and increase in cost of production have created a situation due to which I will not grow any rabi crop in this season.”

Shripad Dharmadhikari, who runs Pune-based NGO Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, believes both the state and central governments have to come up with strong and decisive policies to avoid a water crisis. He said, “The recent Niti Aayog report highlights how India is facing its worst water crisis, with over 600 million people facing acute water shortage. The Jalyukta Shivar policy started off as a good idea, but it soon translated into a free-for-all largely benefitting big farmers at the expense of those who have small and medium-sized holdings. I have seen well-to-do farmers bringing in four to five excavators to dig up stretches of rivers in search of water. There was no kind of regulation or monitoring of what was going on.”

Vikram Soni, a physicist and water expert, believes that the time has come for a radical shift in the style of agriculture. “Farmers need to change their cropping patterns and move to growing millets and channa, which consume less water,” he said.

Soni cited the example of sugarcane, which occupies only five percent of farm land in Maharashtra, but consumes 700 TMC of water, which is more than half the water available annually in the state through irrigation.

He also said that farmers, under government supervision, should start using river fronts to grow fruit trees, in order to be able to generate income as also to help water recharge for the river. Simultaneously, the government must encourage farmers to start producing power, which they can sell in order to earn an additional income.

While boosting incomes assumes prime significance, the Ministry of Water Resources must come up with a strong policy to help augment India’s dwindling water sources in order to help farmers’ livelihoods. Lack of water (whether through rain or irrigation) has been shown to be the prime cause of pushing farmers into poverty.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2019 17:25 PM

Updated: January 5, 2019 — 9:12 pm
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