Professor Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of India, had closely worked with the state government during the launch of its flagship project Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan in 2015. The plan was to make Maharashtra a drought-free state by 2019 through reviving streams, constructing stop dams, working on nullahs and digging farm ponds. As the state reels under severe drought four-and-a-half years later, Singh tells The Indian Express why the project failed and the shortcomings on part of the government.
How do you look at the recurring drought in state?
The drought in Maharashtra is the worst in the entire country. Of the total 36 districts, 32 have been affected. I firmly believe that the drought in Maharashtra is manmade. The state has 42 per cent of the country’s major dams. More than Rs 70,000 crore have been invested in irrigation over the decades. Still, if there is recurring drought, it shows there is a gap between your plans and their implementation. I am not here to criticise any party or government. My concern is drought, which is a serious issue.
Under Jalyukt Shivar, five lakh works were executed. Still, why did it fail in drought mitigation?
Jalyukta Shivar is a very good project to tackle drought. I have repeatedly cited its example at national and international forums. In 2015, when the government launched the project, I was closely associated with it. I had travelled extensively to promote the project and create awareness among villagers.The government has created five lakh water structures. But if the monsoons fail, how can we store water?
Critics have questioned the project.
The problem is not with the project. Problems arise if we fail to executive projects properly. Somewhere, after a headstart, contractors started driving the scheme. Now, when you involve contractors, their concern is not about water but profit. Secondly, wherever local residents helped in the execution of Jalyukt Shivar, it has worked very well. In Sangli, we revived rivers Mahakali and Agrani. Even now, when the state is reeling under drought, there is plenty of water in these rivers. There are thousands of such examples where Jalyukt Shivar has helped villagers cope with water scarcity.
What explains the current drought in 151 of the 355 talukas?
It is the lack of political will to push tough policies. How can the government allow high water intensive sugarcane cultivation in drought-prone districts? Somehow, I get the sense that the government lacked the courage to take bold decisions. By now, it should have clearly come out with a holistic drought plan. Crop pattern (proportion of area under different crops at a particular period of time) should be linked to rainfall. There should be a complete ban on sugarcane cultivation in 60 per cent of the rain shadow area. It has to adopt stricter guidelines on agriculture and water. Why is the government afraid of the sugar lobby?
Farmers prefer sugarcane cultivation as it brings assured income.
True, sugarcane brings better results financially. It requires less investment and labour. But apart from guzzling more water, it does not percolate deep into the soil. Sugarcane farming has its drawbracks, as it adversely impacts soil health. Policies should be made to enforce change in crop pattern. Farmers in Marathwada can switch from sugarcane to pulses and cereals. Cultivating tur (yellow dal) along with urad and moong is a good combination. There is always a way forward. Alternative cultivation can bring financial rewards for farmers.
Crop pattern theoretically sounds good. But is it practical?
If we have to tackle drought, it is essential. The problem is partly to do with mindset and culture. Those advocating sugarcane cultivation in drought-prone areas are concerned about their vested interests. Else, they are oblivious about the water crisis. You cannot continue to exploit water without worrying about falling groundwater levels. Recurring drought is an outcome of excess water mining. People are digging borewells at a depth of 1,000 feet.
How would you compare the water crisis in Maharashtra with Rajasthan?
Geographical conditions make Rajasthan more vulnerable, as it has large stretches of deserts. Yet, we have never seen farmers committing suicide in Rajasthan. But Maharashtra has always topped the suicide list. Many factors may be responsible, including culture and lifestyle. Also, migration in Rajasthan, from rural to urban, is temporary and much less. In Maharashtra, largerscale migration takes place during drought and it is also permanent.