In Solapur’s Sangola taluka, residents of 14 villages are threatening a fast unto death if water is not released for them from the Tembhu lift irrigation project on the Krishna river. Villagers believe the water is legally theirs, but is not released from the upstream regions of Sangli and Satara owing to political pressures.
Nearly 400 km away, on the other side of Maharashtra, Uttam Laxman Choudhari, 36, of Nalegaon in Nashik’s Dindori taluka seethes at the mention of his nearly 8 acres of black gram, finger millet, groundnut and paddy. From 10-12 quintals per acre of paddy, his yield this year is down to 15 kg from 5 acres, and he blames it similarly on “politically motivated” release of water of the east-flowing rivers from the western talukas of Nashik. The water was gone before the crop gained strength, he rages.
Further north, in Juni Bej village of Kalwan taluka in Nashik, residents joined a rally called by the All India Kisan Sabha last week with their specific demand that water from the Chankapur dam across the Girna river not be released towards Malegaon and Chandwad, eastern talukas of Nashik, and further on towards the arid central Maharashtra region of Marathwada.
Across Maharashtra, as farmers mull another season of severe losses, disputes over scarce water resources have begun to percolate down to village and taluka levels. Earlier this month, the Nashik district administration released water for Jayakwadi, Marathwada’s largest dam, after the Supreme Court had dismissed a petition against the release to water-scarce lower riparian areas. Even so, the release of water had to be done under the protective gaze of Riot Control Police teams.
In Juni Bej village, the name reportedly a bastardisation of a colonial officer’s comment that the village’s jaggery production was “best”, sarpanch Ahilyabai Yendaith says 60 per cent or more of corn fields have dried up this year due to moisture stress. “Three quarters of the village is in the canal-irrigated area, and with the canals running dry as water is already diverted eastward, there is crop loss,” she says. Another villager, Ramesh Bacchav, complains that Juni Bej no longer has “Jai Swaraj”, or self-rule, in water, despite the dam built for their farm land.
In times of acute water distress such as this, the idea that ownership of the dammed water should remain with locals alone is a popular one in drought-hit regions. “The release of the stored water, which is legally ours, to us is the only way for us to survive this year. Once our orchards go dry, it will take minimum five years to get them back on track,” says Ramesh Jadhav, one of the Sangola villagers. Located at the tail end of Solapur district, Sangola is drought-prone. This year, against its annual average rainfall of 462.4 mm, Sangola has received around 159 mm, an over 70 per cent deficit that has put at risk its pomegranate crop, known for the excellent micro irrigation techniques the farmers here use. Sangola’s ground water table too has slipped, with borewells running dry.
Arvind Kedar of Vasud village says they are entitled to 5.5 TMC of water from the Tembhu lift irrigation scheme, 2 TMC of water from the Mhaisal lift irrigation project and another 2 TMC from the Nira Right Bank Canal project. This water, the protesters say, should be released into the Maan river to be diverted to various villages.
Ganpatrao Deshmukh, the nonagenarian Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) MLA of Sangola, calls the demand logical and just. “I have written to the chief minister for release of water,” he told The Indian Express.
At least some of the orders to release water are disputed by district officials themselves — top officials in Nashik, for example, say they were not consulted before the Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation issued its contested order for the release of waters. “There’s a general belief that there’s plenty of water here in the upper riparian parts of the Godavari basin, but our drinking water needs have grown tremendously. The rapid urbanisation in the district have to be taken into account,” says a senior officer. “There are 23 dams in the Godavari and Tapi basin, but even put together their capacity is less than 50 per cent of the capacity of Jayakwadi,” the officer adds.
Ramesh Choudhari of Nalegaon points to the release of water from Palkhed dam on Kadwa river, on which large tracts of Nashik’s vineyards are dependent. In Juni Bej, a bitter Vinod Khairnar talks about the onion crop he saved in storage ‘chawls’, a structure that a government scheme provides aid for. Storing the produce and releasing it to the markets gradually would help fetch better prices, Khairnar was told, like tens of thousands of farmers who have similarly built storage structures. “But the produce is rotting now, and with no rabi sowing because there’s no water for us in our dams, I’m selling the onions at whatever price I get,” says the 33-year-old.
With 10 acres of land, Khairnar is seen as a big farmer, but cyclical drought and poor market realisations have led him to cut corners. His parents, in their 60s, sort out the onion in the chawl before it’s taken to the market. He transports the produce himself, to save the cost of rentals. He’s even skipped fixing a new starter in a damaged electrical box outside his field. “The government thinks nothing of importing onions when prices rise, just so farmers like me can stay impoverished forever,” he says.
That there will be near-zero rabi sowing this year is a common assessment among farmers, all quick to add that had the release of dam waters been stalled a few months, a second crop may have been possible.
But those in the eastward districts are unhappy too. Prakash Somvanshi, former deputy president of the Jalgaon zilla parishad, scoffs at the idea that Nashik’s waters enrich Jalgaon’s cotton growers and banana plantation owners. While farmers in western Nashik say pointedly that Jalgaon is the home district of Maharashtra Water Resources Minister Girish Mahajan, Somvanshi, a Shiv Sena leader, points out, “There is tremendous destruction of the cotton crop this year in Chalisgaon and Pachora (in Jalgaon), maybe 50 per cent crop loss.”
Last week, Pachora town received municipal water supply after a 24-day gap. The situation is not very different in other taluka towns in Jalgaon.
Veteran economist H M Desarda says not just regional disputes but also disputes over the kind of use of water are emerging. “Even if it’s a small quantity, farmers are now upset at the use of dam water for the liquor industry. And farmers everywhere are rightly angry at the rapid growth of sugarcane cultivation — this has been a plunder of groundwater levels,” says the former member of the state’s Planning Commission, who is a litigant in a PIL seeking better preparedness in tackling of drought in Maharashtra. Widespread dredging and the operation of sand mafias have also left rivers without sand, he says. “They’re just nullahs.”
Warning that these water disputes may sharpen as rivers themselves respond unpredictably to stress, Desarda adds, “While we may not see riots or war, certainly these disputes will lead to social strife, deeper faultiness between groups, and all because policy-makers are unable to think about equitable distribution of water.”