If there is one season that sets the stage for the mood in India’s farm sector, it’s the June-September monsoon. Despite a good start this year, the showers tapered off, leaving vast areas parched. But for Marathwada, which includes eight out of Maharashtra’s 36 districts, the 50% deficit rainfall means that the region is bracing for the worst drinking water crisis in 40 years.
The situation is so severe that the Indian Railways has been roped in to ferry water from ‘water-rich’ to water-stressed areas. Villagers are defaulting on loan payments and many are buying water from private tankers at exorbitant prices. In a news report, a farmer in Marathwada succinctly — and poignantly — summed up what water means to him: “Water is not just an essential commodity for us — how thirsty we are defines our earning capacity, our animals’ longevity, and therefore, our assets, our economic growth or rising debt”.
A Marathwada-like crisis is not new to India. Such events keep happening because there is no concerted effort to anticipate and minimise such crises. Sometime ago, the Bundelkhand region, which is divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, had five continuous years of drought. The situation was so dire that to avoid water riots, armed security guards were deployed to protect water tankers. Yet, successive state and central governments have not fixed what is in their hands such as expanding irrigation, credit and marketing facilities for farmers. Nearly 53% of the cropped area in the country has no artificial irrigation, making it a regular prey to drought.
What is unfolding in Marathwada is a public policy and governance failure: Everyone knew it is a water-stressed region, almost every 20 years, a big drought has hit the region, while smaller droughts visited it from time to time. Since the deficient monsoon in 2009, there was little rain in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and severe droughts in 2012 and 2014. Yet no one stopped them from digging borewells or asked them to invest in water harvesting and less water-intensive crops, and reduce the use of fertilisers. Instead of cotton, farmers are going for water-intensive sugarcane, which feeds sugar factories, also huge water guzzlers and are owned by politicians. Breaking this disastrous cycle will need political will. And that seems to have dried up for the moment.