Column: Marathwada should not waste its water crisis

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Updated: May 2, 2016 7:30:00 AM

It must expand drip irrigation cover for sugarcane—the water saved could irrigate 15 lakh hectares under water-frugal crops

DroughtUnlike floods, droughts give advance notice. Last year’s monsoon deficit of 42% followed a 40% shortfall the previous year. (Reuters)

Contractor G G Makne says, with obvious pride, that his team laid a kilometre-long pipeline from Latur railway station to a nearby well in 48 hours. The plastic-film lined well stores water brought by train from Miraj, 342 km away. Soon Mahararashtra’s minister for relief and rehabilitation, Eknath Khadse, arrives in a plume of dust to inaugurate a bank of pumps that will discharge 4 lakh litres of water an hour to the city’s filtration unit from where it will be sent to homes in tankers. A 3-km ductile iron pipeline to that facility is being laid. When complete, the city of 3.82 million people (in 2011) will receive 2.5 million litres of water every day—with the allotment norm being 200 litres per household, even this will meet just one-sixth of the requirement. It will, however, ease the shortage considerably.

Unlike floods, droughts give advance notice. Last year’s monsoon deficit of 42% followed a 40% shortfall the previous year. Many villages ran out of drinking water. A newspaper reported the deployment of 815 tankers across the region, on September 21. Actors Nana Patekar and Akshay Kumar had reached out to stricken farmers. The state government had declared the eight districts of Marathwada as drought-affected last October.

Datta Thore, Lokmat’s Latur bureau chief said Khadse and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had discussed about half a dozen plans to augment Latur city’s water supply. But execution did not match the pace of water depletion. He blames the Congress-led municipal corporation’s incompetence and political rivalry—the state is BJP-ruled—for the jerky response. District collector Pandurang Pole does not think the situation is dire. He told the Indian Express in mid-April, that he did not send any SOS for water as there was enough stock in the dam that quenches the city.

The quest for water had disrupted routines and livelihoods. Municipal supply has become an irregular affair. Those with little money to spare have to pay with time. People living in nearby slums had placed pots and cans, drums and buckets at the municipal tap near Vivekananda Chowk. Such queues and the brisk movement of water tankers set the city apart, though Beed and Parbhani have also suffered monsoon deficits of above 50%. A life insurance agent, when met at 6 pm, said his turn would come two hours later—by then, he would have waited ten hours. A woman construction worker and another who winnows grain at the wholesale mandi had similar tales.

The state government may have been tardy but not entirely wanting. A number of fodder camps had sprung up in Marathwada. The one in Beed’s Parli taluka had 2,398 cattle, its caretaker, Tuliram Phad, a civil engineering student on temporary duty, said. The 15-acre campus had been outsourced to his family. Each animal was supposed to get 15 kg of grass and 6 kg of dry fodder, worth Rs 70, daily. Farmers admitted to getting the entitlement, but complained about quality. There is no individual limit on animals. One had brought 22 heads. Most owners were living on site. Phad said it was quite a job arranging over 50 tonnes of fodder a day. The government did not pay upfront. But farm yard manure was a bonus. Phad expected to make Rs 10 lakh from it.

Panchayats had been empowered to commandeer private wells for drinking purposes. The sarpanch of Vaitagwadi in Parbhani’s Sonepeth taluka had taken over one at a monthly rental of R12,000. The owner was drip irrigating a patch of brinjal but that would stop, the sarpanch said.

The water conservation habit is quite ingrained in Marathwada. Baodis (open wells) and bandaras (check dams) dot the landscape. More community structures are being built. But there should be rain to conserve in the first place.

The Vijay Kelkar Committee on balanced development of Maharashtra said in its 2013 report that Marathwada would have to rely on harnessed rain water as no major source of irrigation would be available for at least a decade. But its dams and canals irrigate just 38% of the area they should.

Manohar More, an aging farmer tending to his three-month sugarcane crop off the Parbhani-Latur road, shows how incentives can create private gain at public expense. More likes cane. He does not have to replant the crop for three years; regrowth from stumps after the first harvest will ensure that. A sugar mill would buy the harvest at rates fixed by the government. If rains failed, the cane would be rejected in which case it would be fed to the cattle. B Venkateswarlu, vice-chancellor of Parbhani’s agricultural university, calls cane a lazy man’s crop. It seems a smart thing to do.

Marathwada grows cane on 2.1 lakh hectares (out of 57 lakh cultivated hectares). The Kelkar committee had estimated the cost of subsidising drip irrigation in this area at R1,480 crore. The water saved, it said, could irrigate 15 lakh ha under crops that use water frugally, and thus boost incomes. The productivity of pigeon pea (tur) grown on 5.24 lakh ha could double from 700 kg/ha with two protective irrigations. Similarly with cotton grown on 11 lakh ha. That of un-irrigated chickpea (chana) grown on 4.4 lakh ha could double from 800 kg/ha with sprinklers. The yield fluctuations in soybean, covering 8.3 lakh ha would abate with a little water when most required.

Marathwada’s agricultural GDP grew by an annual average of nearly 7% in the last decade compared to Maharasthra’s 3.6%. Its population of nearly 19 million in 2011 grew by three million over the decade. With weather patterns acting up, Marathwada will have to prepare itself. It has 7,700 watersheds for development of which less than half have been completed. This crisis should not be wasted.

The author is editor of

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