“Everybody loves a good drought” was award-winning journalist P Sainath’s rather intriguingly titled book a few years ago on rural poverty. In the last few weeks, even prime time television that has otherwise little space for rural India has “discovered” problems of water scarcity and farm suicides. Not because we’ve suddenly found an attachment to the faceless kisan but because images of parched earth and taps running dry can be deliciously contrasted with cheerleaders, celebrity cricketers and corporate czars at Indian Premier League games. What can be a better way to speak up for the beleaguered farmer than to make cricket’s multi-million dollar extravaganza the villain for the season.
Now, even the Bombay high court in a fit of excessive self-righteousness has got into the act and asked IPL matches to be shifted out of Maharashtra. Collective hysteria has spurred our judges to play to the gallery. After all, isn’t it true that 4-6 million litres of water will be used to maintain each IPL ground? Shouldn’t that water be better used for the drylands of Vidarbha and Marathwada? Don’t our IPL movers and shakers have a social conscience?
Well, yes and no. Yes, the IPL has been remarkably devoid of any moral obligation to either the fans or farmers. There was a time when the BCCI would organise charity matches to support worthy causes like drought and flood relief. Franchise owners could easily contribute a share of sponsorship/gate money to relief measures. That it required a PIL for the BCCI to offer help when its president is from Vidarbha, the country’s farm suicide capital, is appallingly insensitive: Obviously, cricket’s bosses are more interested in deciding who will be in the commentary box than in the sport’s philanthropic obligations.
And yet, to target the IPL or the BCCI for a serious water crisis is typical of how we trivialise grave issues. Moving cricket matches out of Maharashtra will have zero impact on the state’s drought prone belt: It is misplaced tokenism designed to grab headlines but makes no difference to the lives of water starved millions. It’s a bit like the self-congratulatory messages that flowed after a “water train” arrived in parched Latur town earlier this week: A train with ten bogies each carrying around 54,000 litres of water can only provide mild relief to Latur’s citizens who have been without tap water for four months now. When the patient is in ICU, band aids will not heal.
Travelling through Marathwada in the last week, one has been struck by the sheer scale of the problem after two years of consecutive drought have emptied the dams and four successive failed crops have impoverished the farmer. That it required a collector to impose section 144 in Latur to prevent “wars” over water tankers for us to suddenly wake up to the problem reflects the priorities of a media and a political class that is tied up in emotionally surcharged and divisive battles over issues like “Bharat mata ki jai”. Chanting “nationalistic” slogans won’t solve the deepening water crisis; only an honest appraisal of flawed water management can provide solutions.
Take, for example, the lopsided cropping pattern in Maharashtra with its heavy dependence on sugarcane. More than half of the state’s irrigation water goes to a crop, which accounts for just 6% of the irrigated area. According to some estimates, sugarcane needs “180 acre inches of water” or 18 million litres per acre which could meet the domestic water needs of 3,000 rural households for a month. Now, is any politician going to call for shifting from sugarcane to alternative crops when almost every sugar factory is owned by a politician? Even in drought-hit Latur, dozens of sugar and beer factories have sprung up in recent years under political patronage.
And what of the state investments in irrigation? The Congress-NCP government had budgeted Rs 70,000 crore for irrigation in the last decade, but land under irrigation went up by just 1% in this period. The BJP government came to power with the promise that those who corrupted Maharashtra’s irrigation department would be held accountable; so far, none of the main culprits have been touched.
Poi Tanda village near Beed town is representative of the sense of despair. More than 20 farmers have committed suicide in this village in the last year. Each farm widow in this Banjara community village has a similar story to share: Their husbands had experimented with Bt cotton, lured by the possibility of higher incomes through “white gold”. Bank loans were taken but as input costs spiralled and the promised outcomes didn’t materialise because of a failed monsoon, the farmers found themselves in a debt trap. More loans from the local money-lender were taken to meet marriage and education expenses, worsening the situation. Caught between an absentee sarkar and avaricious sahukars (money-lenders), suicide became a form of release.
A majority of the men-folk in the village have now migrated, working as contract labour in distant farmlands and cities. The MGNREGS job cards are caught in a web of bureaucracy, chief minister Devendra Fadvanis’s well-intentioned Jalyukt Shivar Yojana is yet to reach here while no one in the village had even heard of the prime minister’s much vaunted Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance scheme). How do you then create sustainable incomes in villages like Poi Tanda without innovative water conservation programmes or actionable information?
Maybe our prime minister should visit Poi Tanda and listen to the farm widows stories. One visit won’t usher in “achche din” but at least it might bridge the gap between policy-makers in the power corridors of Delhi and Mumbai and those with an ear to the ground.
Post-script: At a cattle fair in Paithan, we met farmers who in sheer desperation were negotiating a distress sale of their cattle with local meat traders. This, despite the state law banning any form of cow/bullock slaughter. Gau mata ki raksha, like Bharat mata ki jai, is a slogan; it won’t bring food to a farmer’s table in drought-hit regions.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author The views expressed are personal