Last week, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that 151 talukas out of 355 in the state were facing agricultural drought, including 112 talukas where the drought is categorised as “severe”. That is almost 44 per cent of a state, now well entrenched in a pattern of cyclical drought, back-to-back crop losses and impoverishment of agrarian society. The declaration of drought came alongside the completion of four years in office during which the chief minister’s “Jalyukt Shivar” scheme of water conservation measures has been pegged as one of the showcase projects of the government, and one of its big successes. It is nobody’s case that water conservation measures over four years must ameliorate the impact decades of steady ground-water depletion, but data compiled by the government has to have a sobering effect on claims that thousands of villages are now free of drought in the state.
This October, in 13,984 villages, groundwater depletion from average levels was recorded at more than one metre from average. This includes 3,342 villages where depletion from average levels was over 3 metres. Aurangabad division, or the arid Marathwada region, accounts for 1,411 of these villages where groundwater depletion is at alarming levels. Mapping drought-prone areas, areas that have suffered a monsoon deficit and groundwater depletion, a state government report said 2,941 villages are estimated to be facing acute water scarcity right now. Of these, 1,344 villages are located in Marathwada. In total, by the time the summer of 2019 rolls around alongside general elections, 11,487 villages are expected to be facing water scarcity.
One thing amply clear now is that the math of Maharashtra’s improved agricultural output of kharif season 2017-18 does not align with the ground reality in these villages where farmers are penurious, increasingly dependent on state dole and relief. The other obvious inference is that no matter how extensive they are, water conservation programmes alone cannot drought-proof rural Maharashtra. The data on groundwater depletion indicates the need for radical changes in crop selection policies, particularly in dry areas where water guzzler cash crops such as sugarcane continue to be popular. Myopic water conservation plans not backed by equitable and sustainable access to water are self-defeating. Meanwhile, the farm loan-waiver has not improved farmers’ access to credit, the clean-up of the irrigation scam has begun but work on building and repairing canals and improving access to irrigation has not. That drought relief measures will peak at election time more or less guarantees wide-ranging and comprehensive relief works on now familiar lines, but drought-proofing agriculture will require more than an ambitious water conservation revolution.