In the desert-like barrenness of brown around him, Suresh Mangsuli is growing grapes.
As the rest of his drought-hit village thirsts for drinking water, he splashes his three acres of vines with over 10,000 litres a day.
His huge farm pond is brimming, insured against seepage by a black polythene sheet stretched across its floor. Its water is pumped out to irrigate the vineyard through a network of drip pipes.
Growing grapes in Bilur, a village in Maharashtra’s rain shadow area, isn’t just difficult — it’s crazy. So is Mangsuli a hero taking on impossible odds, or a Don Quixote?
The truth is, he and a few others like him — affluent farmers from the dominant Maratha community — are milking their political connections to corner the parched landscape’s meagre water resources at a time hundreds are spending their entire day searching for drinking water.
Mangsuli makes a cool income from his two JCBs that he rents to construction companies. This year, he has ploughed his savings into the grape orchard.
He, neighbour Apparaya Bhiradar and a few others pooled money and laid a pipeline from a well about 6km from their farms. The private well, which belongs to another farmer, supplies their vineyards for several months a year.
“We pump water from the well and fill up our ponds,” Mangsuli says. If necessary, he can also buy water from private tankers arriving from Sangli’s wet western parts.
He has 21 rows of 125 grape plants each. The 2,625 plants each require 4-5 litres of water a day, or roughly four million litres (4,000 cubic metres) a year.
Mangsuli knows he is taking a gamble but says it’s worth it. After harvesting the grapes in December, he will dry them and sell the raisins. He expects to make Rs 10-20 lakh.
“Every drop of water means life — and money,” Mangsuli says. Money for him, life for his neighbours: the daily water requirement of his farm can meet the drinking needs of his village for a week.
Together, the grape growers in the drought-hit Jath tehsil in eastern Sangli district account for less than two per cent of the farmers but their number is rising steadily, as is that of sugarcane farmers. The returns from these two cash crops far outstrip those from the dairies or bajra and maize fields that others have.
Farm data point to a sharp jump last year in sugarcane cultivation. Take Jath: while the recorded long-term average area under sugarcane is 400 hectares, the plantations accounted for 2,192 hectares in 2011-12. In Atpadi tehsil, the corresponding figures are 100 acres and 1,795 hectares.
One kilo of sugarcane consumes 100 litres of water; 1kg of sugar requires 800 litres. So, how does political patronage ensure that a few can siphon off water in a scarcity zone to grow rich?
Great water robbery
First, political clout helps protect the water sources. The government is supposed to acquire large wells like the one that waters Mangsuli’s orchard, but he and his partners have taken care of that. Of course, you have to be affluent like them to lay the pipelines.
Second, the government has for the past five years been subsidising drip irrigation sets, digging of farm ponds, electricity and pump-sets. Most of this has been cornered by the richer and influential farmers who grow sugarcane and grapes.
Even the risk Mangsuli and his partners claim to be taking — of water running out — is partly insured by political backing. If they suffer losses, it may not be difficult to have the issue raised in the Assembly and secure relief.
Third, canal water is released selectively to favoured constituencies in a region that sends several ministers to the Assembly.
Grape orchards dot Tasgaon-Kavthe Mahankaal, among the worst drought-prone areas, and water is flowing through its canals even now. After all, it happens to be home minister R.R. Patil’s constituency.
Ditto for Baramati in Pune, where the Lok Sabha seat passed from Sharad Pawar to daughter Supriya Sule while the Assembly seat belongs to Pawar’s nephew and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. Indapur in Pune is represented by state cooperative minister Harshwardhan Patil of the Congress, and Palus by Congress forest minister Patangrao Kadam, who also holds the rehabilitation and relief portfolio.
The canal water benefits only some in these constituencies: you need money to pump it to your fields. In early summer, the Osmanabad collector stopped the release from the Sina-Kolegaon dam to northern Solapur, meant for its thirsty millions, because farmers flanking a nearer stretch of the canal began pumping the water to their sugarcane fields.
Once you travel east beyond Palus, the VIP constituencies end and the barren red begins. Blue plastic barrels line the roads, left by local people for the government’s water tankers to fill them when they pass by. Every second person you see is in search of water.