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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Drought of new ideas in old crisis

Maharashtra spends more than ever on tackling a recurring problem,but the measures themselves haven’t changed

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai | Published: May 16, 2012 3:30:46 am

Maharashtra possibly has among the worst track records when it comes to learning a thing or two from a crisis. In the midst of its fourth drought since 2000,the government has set in motion a slew of time-tested measures with what bureaucrats say is an unprecedented liberal hand. But there is little or no thought yet on why one of India’s most developed states repeatedly seeks drought relief dole.

Fifteen districts were declared drought-hit this April-May,including 6,201 villages producing kharif crops and 1,552 whose rabi yield will be hit,right after the Economic Survey forecast a 23 per cent decline in Maharashtra’s foodgrain production for 2011-12. Among reports of growing unrest in the worst hit regions,one group of villages in Sangli threatened to merge with Karnataka,a villagers’ march to the local government office in Sangli’s Jat Taluka turned violent,and sale of livestock and mortgaging of agricultural land have risen steeply.

“That there is water scarcity and concomitant deprivation are both true,but all steps the government should take have been put in place immediately,” said a bureaucrat,among several officials and politicians who agree that the scarcity this year is not as acute as in 2003,although repeated drought and crop failure have left rural families more vulnerable than ever.

The really severe crisis this year is in four districts — Satara,Sangli,Solapur and Ahmednagar,parts of which fall in the rainshadow region and have experienced a depletion in groundwater levels by about three metres. Three of these districts belong to Western Maharashtra,commonly tossed in the basket of “prosperous” regions with considerable political clout and also home to the sugar belt,the spine of Maharashtra’s agricultural economy. There are also sharp localised imbalances —Mahabaleshwar in Satara receives rainfall often in excess of 5,000mm a year,among the country’s highest,while the district’s drought-hit talukas are barely 125km away,receiving less than 300mm annually.

Then & now

Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Patangrao Kadam calls this year’s measures unprecedented. Collectors have been granted special powers to sanction repairs to water supply schemes up to Rs 25 lakh,divisional commissioners can sanction works up to Rs 1 crore for emergency repairs and other measures; tehsildars can approve despatch of water tankers on receiving calls from village elders. Operators of fodder depots for livestock are being reimbursed Rs 80 for every large animal,up from Rs 40,and Rs 40 for every small animal,against the Centre’s suggested reimbursements of Rs 72 and Rs 12 respectively.

The government has already spent nearly Rs 18 crore on paying outstanding dues of villagers for local water supply schemes that were disconnected by utility companies owing to non-payment. Satara and Sangli have eight to 10 fewer tankers operating since the charges were paid up and since village taps gone dry began to run once again.

Notwithstanding the additional gravitas lent to relief work,the measures themselves are no different from standard. In 2003,the last serious drought,identical measures were in place — deployment of a large number of water tankers,additional EGS works,payment through cash and foodgrain,fodder depots and cattle camps,mulching or use of plastic sheets to prevent water evaporation. A report of the state’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department to the Centre that year,following a plea for calamity relief assistance,even admitted that long-term measures need to be put in place. “The enormity of the drought conditions in these parts of the state calls for intervention on a more prolonged basis than what is being done at present,” the report said.

Mismatches

Those prolonged measures now lie forgotten amid mind-boggling data on irrigation projects and water resources management. Irrigated cropped area in the state is a mere 17.9 per cent of the total cropped area,a distant cry from the national average of 45.3. Western Maharashtra,home to Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar,has 35.24 per cent of its total cropped area irrigated,far removed from Konkan with 7.49 per cent.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,who recently set the cat among the pigeons by announcing a white paper on the NCP-controlled irrigation department following allegations of cost escalations and irregularities in dam projects,admits the crisis of rainfed cropped areas is serious. “It has been pointed out for example that Maharashtra has the largest area under cotton cultivation but the yield is low. But compare Gujarat’s 50 per cent irrigation with Amravati’s 10 per cent,there is naturally going to be a crisis,” he says.

On big dams too,he has ruffled feathers by calling for a paradigm shift. Not only are existing projects delayed beyond hope of completion but land acquisition too will be an increasingly complex problem. “We have done a pilot project with a check dam in Maan taluka (Satara) and we need to replicate that,” he said,adding he is also studying irrigation models of states including Gujarat.

The stasis in building big,medium and small dam projects is fast turning into a scandal. Rs 78,000 crore is needed to complete the projects already under way. Some of these have been delayed for nearly two decades and have seen costs escalate up to 2,500 per cent. Worse,some major projects have reservoirs completed but canal building and local water resource management are lagging,leading to an increase in the irrigation potential created but no parallel rise in cropped area under irrigation.

Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council Vinod Tawde calls it a tragedy. “Over the last decade,Maharashtra has spent Rs 66,000 crore on irrigation projects but a mere 0.1 per cent additional land has been brought under irrigation,” says the BJP legislator. Taking up multiple projects simultaneously has led to a thin spreading of funds,he says.

Sugarcane

Tawde alleges that regional imbalances in development and the additional budgetary allocations to meet the backlog has led to mismanagement. “Rs 5,117 crore has been allocated to meet this irrigation backlog for Western Maharashtra. However,since districts are considered a unit for measurement of the backlog,funds for a district are used by ministers in their home talukas. This is because they want to ensure the sugarcane crop gets the water supply it requires,” he alleges.

Maharashtra produces sugarcane in excess each year. Officials admit that loosely 70 per cent of the state’s water resources used for agriculture end up irrigating this one crop. But imputing a motive to the government for this is not fair,they protest. Every time a region comes under the command area of a dam or other water project,a local shift to sugarcane (in Western Maharashtra) or other high-yield crop is observed,they say. Maharashtra has done its bit to promote crops such as pomegranate and grape,but until crop planning and land use management are implemented,the tendency to shift to water guzzling crops that offer high returns will remain.

Chavan agrees better crop planning and focus on improved seed varieties has been lacking and promises these are part of long-term measures now being considered.

Inputs by Swatee Kher

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