As a postwoman, Archana Bhosale is expected to get to work in Devsinga Tul village, 380 km from Mumbai, by 10 am. But invariably, at 4 am, she is still awake, ensuring her eight plastic pots are in queue correctly, awaiting the arrival of the water tanker’s first trip of the day.
“The three-phase motor works only at night sometimes, so it’s easier for tanker operators to fill up then. That means the tanker could arrive at 5 am or 6 am, and I can’t afford to miss it,” says Bhosale, also a farmer with four awards under her belt for her work with women’s self-help groups that focus on agrarian issues.
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Bhosale, like thousands of women across the dust bowl of central Maharashtra or Marathwada, plans her day around the tanker’s comings and goings. “And still, sometimes we sit down to eat dinner and the tanker arrives. We just drop everything and run.” In Devsinga, Belwadi, Gandora and Salgara Devti, all villages in Osmanabad district’s Tuljapur taluka, women are relieved that the district administration has announced all schools shut by March 31 — the children will help fetch water; not having to shower before school means the morning scramble for water can slow down; the older children can accompany the men to cattle camps.
As afternoon temperatures creep towards 40 degree Celsius with two whole months of summer still to come, residents of the eight districts that comprise Marathwada face an acute water crisis that is threatening to spiral out of control. As many as 2,189 tankers are currently supplying water to Marathwada’s villages and also to some small towns in the region, a record high. Beed district alone has 597 tankers in operation already, with the numbers anticipated to exceed 900 tankers a day in May. In comparison, the previous high in the number of tankers in operation in Beed everyday was 582, in May 2013.
Water storage in Marathwada’s reservoirs is now about 5 per cent, another record. In early-March last year, also a drought year, the region’s reservoirs had 20 per cent water.
The situation is gravest in Beed and Osmanabad districts and in Latur city. In Beed, overall water availability in the large, medium and small dams was pegged at 2.13 per cent by February end. In Latur, where the administration is trying to stanch demand for water by ordering coaching classes to shut in order to push the 1 lakh-strong migrant student population back to their home villages and home districts, protesting villagers from around the Dongargaon dam had to face a police team after they refused to let tankers draw water for the city.
“The only available sources for the tankers are wells and borewells that still have some water. Every day, I count off another day until the next monsoon, because every day, the water from these sources is reducing to a slower trickle,” says Godavari Kshirsagar, 44, of Gandora village in Tuljapur. In a desperate bid to shore up water availability, the state government has acquired 4,913 such private wells and borewells, another record, from farmers or private land-owners on payment of a monthly fee.
Whether this water will last through the summer depends on fortune — ground water levels in Marathwada have witnessed an alarming dip. For example, the Shirur and Ashti talukas of Beed recorded a departure from average depth at which water is available by 9.58 metres and 5.65 metres respectively. That was in January, and levels dip every day as the summer drags on. This January, of Marathwada’s 76 talukas, ground water levels in 32 talukas recorded a dip of more than 3 metres.
“We have to add bleaching powder to the water. Because the water we collect is sometimes filthy, we are down to the dredges,” says Nagnath Jadhav, 48, a tanker operator in Osmanabad. He’s filling water from a farm well in Belwadi village in Tuljapur, and will drive 24 km to Karajkheda village that he is assigned. He needs to make the trip to the water source three times a day. It’s a long journey on village roads, and he admits he sometimes doesn’t complete three rounds.
In Salgara Devti village, Archana Koli, 38, has decided that all the talk of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to end open defecation is silly. “Villagers are taking money to build toilets in the house, but how do you use them without water?” she asks. Her own toilet is a pit in her backyard. The tankers never stopped in her village since last summer. They reduced in number during the monsoon months, but the village has actually had water supply via tanker right from March-April 2015 onwards.
Bhosale and Koli both say they’ve stopped going to family functions on the rare occasion that these are not cancelled or curtailed — travel and celebrations always mean more water is needed.
Even small towns in the region are getting water supply only through tankers. In Beed’s Dharur town, for example, with the Manjara dam having run dry, supply is via 20-odd tankers that pick up water from the Kundalika river. Kaij and Ashti towns get 10 tankers a day. “Even in the Krishi Vikas Kendras, our trial fields have run dry. There’s no water at home in Tuljapur town, where is the water for farms?” asks Anita Jinturkar, an agriculture scientist who has worked extensively on hydroponic methods, azolla for livestock feed and on encouraging women in Tuljapur to pick up allied occupations such as poultry.