Summer didn’t bring the drought. It’s been here since December, when the wells began drying.
Queuing men, women and children fill their red and blue cans with water from a black pipe in a corner of a barren field. The line is unending: many are returning with emptied cans to refill them and head home again — on foot, or on a bicycle or bullock cart.
“We are spending more time fetching water than doing anything else right now,” says Shekhappa Kushabhau Kamble, a middle-aged farmer.
As long as the power supply lasts, water will gush non-stop through this bore-well. “Maybe 8-10 hours a day,” says Dattatraya Shankar Sawant, 40, the owner of the farm and the bore-well.
His private bore-well is the only source of water now in Madgyal village, or within miles of it. Madgyal is lucky: other villages depend on the government’s water tankers whose irregular visits leave households with three or four full cans that must last four days — sometimes eight.
His bore-well, Sawant says, will be a lifeline for him and others in Madgyal for the next month or so till the rains arrive in July-end.
The signs of distress become more acute as you travel eastward through this drought-hit Jath tehsil in Sangli district’s east. Since winter, the 5,000 water-craved villages have been facing one of the worst droughts in recent times.
March kicked off water rationing and distress sale of cattle. Hordes of landless and small farmers migrated with their cows, buffaloes and sheep. By April, the situation had come to a boil. The villagers have now set strict dos and don’ts.
No using home toilets (every house in Madgyal has one): go to the fields instead.
No baths for humans or cattle, just a wipe with a wet towel. Drink sparingly. Share, if you have extra. That’s what Sawant is doing — he’s sharing his water.
The well-off dairy farmer, who doubles as a stringer for a Marathi daily, had struck pay dirt last December in the southeast corner of his three-acre farm. When the bore he had commissioned hit a depth of 350 metres, he struck a water source that hasn’t dried up even after being tapped for 8-10 hours every day since.
Fellow villager Janba Salunkhe’s gamble didn’t pay off, though. He has failed to coax a single drop out of the parched earth even after spending more than Rs 10 lakh.
If he isn’t broke, Salunkhe says, it’s thanks to his dairy business and a small tea-snacks shop that bring a steady income even during the worst droughts. Many others too ran into debt digging bores, so the deeply religious Sawant counts himself lucky.
He could have raised a grape orchard or planted a summer vegetable crop to earn good money, but he decided to leave the field barren so the water could quench the needs of fellow villagers.
“It can’t be my water when there’s no water anywhere,” Sawant says.
For most villagers across drought-hit western Maharashtra, water is a luxury. “The clouds just pass us by,” Sawant says.
The 100-mile-wide “rain shadow” zone from Dhule in the north to Sangli is a natural paradox, sandwiched between areas that receive very high rainfall — 3,000mm plus along the Western Ghats — or at least an assured 700-1,300mm.
Sometimes a single district witnesses extreme disparity: 3,000mm in the western parts of Sangli and Satara; an erratic 300-500mm in the east.
Nearly 80 tehsils, with over 20 million mostly agrarian people, receive mainly the receding or southeast monsoon. Among the 20 worst hit are Jath and Atpadi in Sangli, Man-Khatav in Satara, and tehsils across Solapur and parts of Pune. These are either located on hilly terrain, which makes it difficult to lift water from distant sources, or lack even seasonal rivers.
Not only is the rainfall scarce; it rains just six to 15 days — that too after July, says Ramchandra Sable, former head of meteorology at the University of Agriculture in Rahuri near Pune. If you have to conserve rainwater, you must do so within that window.
If the manmade reservoirs dry up, as they often do in a bad monsoon, people and farms have to rely on water tankers.
Kalappa Miali, 27, has just driven his 22,000-litre tanker into Kolageri, a few kilometres from Madgyal. This is his second trip of the day. Dozens scramble around the tanker’s taps. Within minutes, the tanker is empty.
“Two more trips to go,” says Kalappa, who is paid Rs 6,000 a month. His employer, the tanker’s owner, earns a daily rent of Rs 1,500 on his vehicle from the government’s drought-relief kitty.
“I bring water from 50km away; even that source will last only another week,” Kalappa says. What after that? “I don’t know.”
Over 2,400 water tankers are at work in the state, more than half of them in the five districts in the Pune division, according to the Pune divisional commissioner’s office. They supply from dam reservoirs and other water sources the government has acquired in the affected zone.
Private tankers make a killing during the drought period, villagers say. If someone has water in their well, they can make a fortune by selling it.
Sable, who is credited with developing a high-probability monsoon prediction model, says this year’s drought was inevitable after two successive years of failed rains. Most of the drought-hit blocks did not get 10 days of rain last year; Madgyal not even the minimum six days.
The government was simply not prepared. “The political leadership was busy with the local-body elections till April,” says Dhanaji Gurav, an activist of the Shramik Mukti Dal, a farmers’ organisation in Islampur, Sangli.
When the government woke up in mid-May, the chief minister led a cabinet team to Delhi to demand Rs 2,400 crore in drought aid, with the support of Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar whose new constituency of Madha near Pune is drought-hit too.
The Centre sanctioned Rs 588 crore but the funds could be distributed for contingency plans only by the first week of June, mainly for fodder, tankers and rainwater storages. The drought relief programme will continue at least till mid-July.
One blessing has been western Maharashtra’s well-oiled economy that keeps even families in the drought belt afloat. Most families have a member or two working in the sugarcane fields just outside the dry zone; the rest work their dairy farms and fields of jowar, bajra and maize that need less water.
When successive droughts hit from 1972 to 1975, people starved. This is the worst since then, but this time the scarcity is only of water, not food.
Gurav says: “When the southeast monsoon failed last year, people knew tough times lay ahead. The drought did not come all of a sudden.”