The Maharashtra government has been forced to concede, after repeated denials, that more than 6,000 villages in the state’s interior areas were drought affected. Such a crisis is not new to Vidarbha. Hostage to perennial water crises, its cotton farmers have often resorted to taking their own lives. Though a 60 per cent crop failure existed in some places — thus classifying the region as drought-affected — the government insisted that it was just acute water shortage. A long hot spell and last year’s scanty rainfall have compounded the miseries of these farmers.
Another backward area, Gadchiroli, with a large tribal population, continue to face acute shortage of drinking water and, consequently, food supplies and cattle fodder. Desperate peasants and tribals dig holes in dried riverbeds, rivulets or nullahs only to get contaminated water. Its consumption has invariably resulted in epidemics of cholera and gastro-enteritis. Relief assistance has come late and on an ad hoc basis — crores of rupees spent on digging new tubewells, repairing and reactivating old ones. Usually, such temporary arrangements remain functional till the monsoon rains arrive.
Not a drop to drink
The futility of such schemes has been well brought out in the case of the Umarsara water scheme at Yavatmal. Although the scheme was launched primarily for improving water supply in the town and six surrounding villages, the covert objective was to supply purified water to the industrial area and the local medical college. Thus at the cost of drought relief, better infrastructural facilities were being created possibly due to the vested interests of local businessmen and politicians.
Reasons for this pathetic state of water resource management in Maharashtra are not far to seek. The crisis is an outcome of the unbridled growth of cash crops — sugarcane and cotton, at the cost of other staple crops. Both require vast quantities of water. Yet the absence of a water policy has left various lobbies with a free hand. Most of the medium-scale water irrigation schemes in Vidarbha have been launched half-heartedly. Inadequate funds allocated for the projects resulted in over 2,600 schemes being abandoned. In 1997, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government proposed a budget of Rs15, 000 crores to bring piped water to the people. Previous governments have encouraged indiscriminate digging of borewells with the objective of stopping water supply from tankers. It is estimated that between 1971-95, the government dug about 1,64,000 borewells.
Digging of borewells has only meant rapid depletion of groundwater resources. Vidarbha receives adequate rainfall and the soil has good water retention capacity. But little effort has been expended to construct bunds across the rivers and rivulets carrying abundant rainwater.
The government’s ambitious water and soil conservation programme, Mahatma Phule Jal-Bhoomi Sansdharan Abhiyan, was launched on May 1, 2002 and aimed at harvesting rainwater and conserving every drop of water has thus far proved to be a non-starter. Headed by the chief minister and comprising committees at the divisional and district level, it sought to promote watershed management in every village unit, check soil erosion, reclaim wastelands and create employment opportunities for villagers. To ensure success, a soil and water literacy movement was also launched all the over the state involving villagers. Measures like digging tanks, deepening existing ones, proper soil conservation measures as well as advocacy of scientific tilling of farms to make sure that at least 25 per cent of rain water percolated to recharge groundwater have been included.
However, the campaign had a belated launch. It should have come immediately after the monsoons. That way the government and non governmental organizations would have had more time on their hands to work towards better water conservation.