While inter-state water wars are fairly common, intra-state ones were almost unheard of until two regions of Maharashtra locked horns in the Supreme Court in November last year. Cane farmers and the sugar industries along upstream Godavari in western Maharashtra have challenged the Bombay High Court’s September 2016 order that held that the river’s water must be used equitably as envisioned by laws on regulating water resources and irrigation enacted by the state government. Farmers from the Marathwada region that lies downstream of the river have countered this, saying if upstream reaches didn’t release enough water to the Jayakwadi dam, the lifeline of the downstream areas, the water rights of the people of Marathwada would have been violated. This water-war, as Down to Earth (DTE) reports, has poor water resource management, wasteful water use perpetuated by a strong sugar lobby in the state, graft, climate change and ill-conceived policy at its core.
How disastrous Maharashtra’s moves on water have been are evident from the fact that while the state suffered a 27% deficiency in rainfall in 2015 as compared to 9% in 2018, the number of drought-hit villages has risen, from 15,747 to 20,000. The amount of water stored also fell dramatically, from 63% to 10% in the case of medium and minor irrigation projects and from 38.5% to 16% for major irrigation projects. While long dry spells and a few days of incessant downpour during the monsoons instead of more evenly distributed rainfall—this is increasingly becoming common, thanks to climate change—is a factor, a hasty, ill-conceived shift to a disaggregated storage, watershed management and groundwater recharge scheme, the Jal Shivar Abhiyan (JSA), experts have argued, is also responsible. Ironically, the scheme’s adoption happened against the backdrop of the state investing Rs 70,000 crore in irrigation projects between 1999-2009 that increased the state’s irrigation potential by a mere 0.1%. Experts say the stream-deepening and widening model of the JSA has resulted in aquifers getting exposed and drying up. When, in 2017, the state government announced incentives under JSA for farm ponds, farmers started hoarding groundwater in ponds even though these ponds were meant to store rainwater. Indeed, the alarm on the state’s falling groundwater levels had been sounded long ago, but little has been done to curb it. While there were 40 borewells per square km in 1960, the figure stood close to 200 in 2018.
The water-guzzler sugarcane is exacerbating the state’s water woes—it is cultivated in just 4% of the cultivable land in Maharashtra (though the area under sugarcane is seeing rapid increase every year), but consumes 70% of its irrigation water. The sugar lobby in the state has ensured that this grab continues. Indeed, of the 53 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of Godavari water allocated to the Jayakwadi dam, 27 TMC is used up by the upstream sugarcane areas given the government is dragging its feet in forming water-use associations in the downstream areas. To address Maharashtra’s water-woes—and now, water-wars—the government must take legacy issues head-on. From discouraging sugarcane farming to fixing water storage and management, tackling drought in the state will need a multi-pronged approach.