Column: Maharashtra’s water woes

Maharashtra’s Latur district, of late, has become a symbol of acute water scarcity. Several jal doots (water trains) had to ferry water to thirsty Latur.

Column: Maharashtra’s water woes
After two successive years of deficient monsoon (2014 and 2015), the IMD recently predicted ‘above normal’ rainfall this year at 106% of the benchmark long period average (LPA), with a model error of ± 5%.

Maharashtra’s Latur district, of late, has become a symbol of acute water scarcity. Several jal doots (water trains) had to ferry water to thirsty Latur. The government of Maharashtra also imposed section 144 of CrPC to maintain law and order near water bodies/distribution points. Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court intervened over IPL cricket matches and asked them to be shifted out of the state to save about 60 lakh litres of water that was required for these matches.

It is not the first time—and certainly won’t be the last time—that trains had to ferry drinking water to water-stressed areas. Their frequency and coverage may increase unless major corrective actions are taken. Back-to-back droughts have exposed the vulnerable water situation in the country—not just in Latur but in more than 250 districts (out of 678 districts) in India. While the timid curse Nature, the bold and wise rise to the challenge and convert a crisis into an opportunity for change that can benefit the masses. Union minister Nitin Gadkari, in his Express Adda interview, flagged this issue by pointing out that Maharashtra’s lag in developing irrigation cover—it had invested just R7,000 crore compared to Telangana’s R25,000 crore.

Let us analyse the water situation in Maharashtra dispassionately to find a sustainable solution. Maharashtra has only 18% of its cropped area under irrigation compared to an all-India average of 47%—a state like Punjab has 97% under irrigation.

No doubt, the state needs to invest more in irrigation. If Maharashtra can think of a bullet train costing R90,000 crore, why can’t it assign a similar priority to developing water resources for the masses? It needs to start with removing the elitist biases in public policy making and resource allocation.

Let us look at the money Maharashtra has already put in irrigation, say, during the 10 years of the 10th and 11th Five year plans (FY2003-FY2012), and what came out of it. For ease of comparison, we converted yearly expenditures to FY15 prices. The cumulative public expenditure for irrigation over these 10 years in Maharashtra works out to R1,18,235 crore. During this period, the irrigation potential created (IPC) was 8.9 lakh ha and irrigation potential utilised (IPU) was just 5.9 lakh ha. This gives us R20 lakh/ha cost of IPU. Compare this with Gujarat, which spent only R46,888 crore (at FY15 prices) over the same 10-year period, and created irrigation potential of 22.5 lakh ha and utilised

17.3 lakh ha—cost of IPU being only

R2.71 lakh/ha. For Madhya Pradesh, the cost works out to R4.26 lakh/ha over the same period. So, the real issue is not Maharashtra’s expenditure on irrigation. It is why has it incurred much higher costs than Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat. Is the topography of Maharashtra the reason, or are there massive leakages in the development of its irrigation infrastructure? Although one would tend to agree with Gadkari that more resources are needed to boost Maharashtra’s irrigation, pouring in more money without fixing the leakages will not give the desired results. Maharashtra needs a White Paper scrutinising its irrigation expenditure and irrigation potential created and utilised, in comparison to other states in the region to find out why such huge investments have not yielded results.

Now, let us turn to the issue of sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra. Just one fact should expose the whole story. Sugarcane occupies about 4% of gross cropped area in Maharashtra but takes up almost two-thirds of the irrigation water in the state! Such a huge inequity in access to irrigation water does not exist in any other state. In a market economy, the progressively rising price of irrigation water with increased usage of water (and power for irrigation) can solve this anomaly. But when water (and power) for agriculture is highly subsidised, it creates artificial, excess demand, triggering a scramble for these scarce resources. No wonder, the more powerful players in the system win and eat into the potential prosperity of others. The fact that cotton area in Maharashtra is just 3% irrigated, while sugarcane is 100% irrigated, and cotton needs just 4-5 irrigations while sugarcane is flooded with 25-30 irrigations, tells a sordid story. In Gujarat, cotton is 57% irrigated; no wonder then that their yields are double that of Maharashtra.

What can be done on the demand-management side of water? The government has already taken a decision that in the next five years, no new sugar factories can come up in the Marathwada region of the state. It is welcome step, but what about the 20 sugar factories that came up in the last three years? When water is scarce, only way to manage its demand is either by raising its price progressively with use, or by rationing quantities. Can the government move in that direction giving everyone same water on per ha basis, and let them trade thereafter? Just short of that is making drip irrigation compulsory for sugarcane cultivation in the state. Should the government ask sugar factories, under the pain of losing the right to operate, to ensure that at least 75% of sugarcane area in their command is brought under drip irrigation in next three years? Drip will save almost 40-50% water. Historically, eastern UP and Bihar—naturally endowed with lot of water—were centres of sugarcane, but licensing priority to cooperatives brought sugar to a belt that does not have ample water. So, the water conflicts are obvious.

Lastly, what about the High Court’s decision to push IPL out of the state because it require 60 lakh litres of

water? One kilogram of sugar uses more than 2,000 litres of water. Only three tonnes of sugar, costing about R1 lakh, could have supplied equivalent water for IPL matches, which were supposed to generate R100 crore in revenue. How much emotion, hype, drama and rationality is there in these policies and pronouncements, readers can judge for themselves.

The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 25-04-2016 at 06:19 IST