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Dammed: Who took my water, Vidarbha farmer asks

Congress politicians in suicide-prone eastern Maharashtra lost a battle with their own leaders: As farmers await irrigation water from a dam, the government has allocated a quarter of it to a private power plant, Dharmendra Jore reports. Special: My India My Vote

india Updated: Mar 31, 2009 01:46 IST
Dharmendra Jore

Dadarao Wamanrao Thakre (45) paid Rs 15 lakh to have a canal built through his 10 acres of cotton and wheat farms in Amravati, Maharashtra.

He had to take a huge bank loan, but it seemed worth it — the government had promised him more water for his fields from a big dam being built nearby.

“Now, the dam is not even finished and our netas have gone back on that promise,” he says. “They’re planning to give a quarter of all that water to one private company for a thermal power project.”

In a strange political drama playing out in eastern Maharashtra, local Congress leaders representing farmers’ interests have been campaigning against their own state government — led by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party — over the water from the two dams coming up in the region, 800 kilometres north-east of the state capital of Mumbai.

Three other dams are planned in Vidarbha — in Amravati, Yavatmal and Bhandara. But about 35 private and state thermal power projects are already eyeing them for water supply.

Meanwhile, only 11 per cent of cultivated land is covered by irrigation in Maharashtra, compared with 99 per cent in Punjab — the highest in the country.

And across the six drought-prone districts of Vidarbha, an average of two farmers commit suicide every day, driven to desperation by a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poor rainfall, crop failure and debt.

Three years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh granted Rs 3,000 crore exclusively for the region’s irrigation projects.

“But what’s the point,” says Thakre (45), “if the government is spending crores on irrigation only to give most of the water to mighty industrialists?”

Local politicians agree.

The protests are being led by a Congress minister, several party workers and the President Pratibha Patil’s husband Devisingh Shekhawat — the President is from Amravati.

“When I was minister of state for water resources, I had opposed the reservation of water for Sophia Company, but seniors overruled me,” says Minister of State for Energy and senior Congress leader Sunil Deshmukh (50). “Now, I don’t know how to approach my voters, what to tell them.”

Sophia Company will get a quarter of the water from the Upper Wardha Irrigation Project in Maharashtra’s once-prosperous Orange Country of Maharashtra, to be used for a private thermal power station that will sell power at exorbitant rates on the open market.

Sophia company officials declined comment.

“I don’t know you. I cannot speak to you,” said Amravati-based senior vice-president Mukesh Singhal.

For Thakre, the environmental clearance granted to the power project last week means the end of his plans to switch from his conventional crops to more profitable but water-intensive crops like soya or even flowers for the export market.

Someshwar Pusadkar (40), vice-president of an all-party action committee that has been leading protests against the water allocation, says there are environmental issues to be considered too.

“Fly ash, a byproduct of such power plants, will directly affect 400 hectares of cultivated land and will also pose an environmental threat to Amravati city barely 15 kilometres away,” he says.

“The company will provide just one direct job per megawatt, whereas several thousand full-time farmers will lose their means of livelihood.”

Back at Thakre’s farm, elections are the last thing on the worried farmer’s mind.

“The government does not care about farmers,” he says. “Why should I bother to vote?”