The Assembly elections are not the reason for excitement in this village located in the backward Marathwada region of Maharashtra. It’s water. In the afternoon heat, women and children are running towards the only source of water located outside sarpanch Achyut Gangane’s house. Mr. Gangane has sunk a borewell behind his house which caters to the entire village with a population of 1,500.
Power is erratic and water supply depends on it. Already steel pots glint in the afternoon sun in a long row near the pipe. “Water or lack of it is the biggest issue here,” says Mr. Gangane. Of the four handpumps, only one fetches water. Now part of the Parli Assembly seat, a BJP stronghold, the area has a major power project but local people are starved of light. Though the canal from the Manjra river is four km away, only a few farmers can afford the costly pipes and pumps for lift irrigation. On the way to Dhaitana, one can see acres of yellowing soya bean. This year soya, which has replaced the traditional cotton crop, is poor. Disease and lack of rains have taken their toll. Over 200 people work outside as farming is no longer profitable.
It is difficult to believe that two Chief Ministers have come from this region in the last 12 years. Poverty has to be addressed first, says Mr. Gangane, a former Shetkari Sanghatana member, now with the BJP. The late rains have made the place look green but the crops cannot revive really. Loan waivers have helped the rich farmers and sugarcane growers in the areas around. Credit is hard to come by from banks, say the villagers. However, thanks to the BJP, farmers get crop insurance every year and the Ambajogai taluka, where Dhaitana is located, gets among the highest crop insurance compensations.
Poor crops year after year means the farmers are unable to even pay their electricity bills. Their meters have been taken off and they all have huge arrears. Pathru Umar Khan has a bill of over Rs. 15,000. “I don’t even have money for sowing, forget paying such a large bill. I will have to sell my cattle to repay this debt,” he says. Farmers joke that they get no power or water, only these high power bills. Jamrud bi, the deputy sarpanch, waits expectantly to fill water. It is available only once a day. Anjana Bai has no electricity in her house, she makes do with kerosene lamps. All she wants is a meter but she can’t afford to pay her power bills first.
In the hilly areas of Beed, things are worse. Dwarkadas Lohia, who runs Manavlok, an NGO in Ambajogai since 1982, says the areas with rich soil bordering the Manjra canal are full of sugarcane. Twenty years ago, it was drought-prone. Beed is famous for its seasonal migration, especially from its dry hilly region. About four lakh people migrate every year to work as sugarcane cutters in the rest of the State. They get an assured income this way. There is very little work even under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and government officials are least interested in it.
Beed district is also infamous for its farm suicides, the highest in the region. Dr. Lohia, who is on the district committee on suicides as the NGO representative, says that in 2006 there were 124 cases. Of these, the committee decided that 24 were eligible for compensation of Rs.1 lakh as per the criteria. He argues that suicides are related to agrarian distress and cannot be classified in this manner. In 2007, there were 95 deaths, of which 39 were declared eligible for compensation.
Few politicians touch on the real problems or people’s needs in this backward region. “Water, prices of food, power and employment: where does this figure in the elections,” he asks.
He quotes a recent study which says that 57 per cent of the property in Marathwada belongs to two per cent of people while 50 per cent of people own a mere five per cent of the property.
There are more than 35 rivers in the Marathwada region. There are numerous water tanks in Beed, which are not maintained well. In addition, there are several small and medium dams, which are not utilised properly.
Sugar factories owned by BJP leader Gopinath Munde and others have created a political base but they contribute to water scarcity since sugarcane is a water-intensive crop. Dr. Lohia believes that water should be equally distributed so that one person cannot irrigate 100 hectares and leave little for others. The drought in Marathwada is due to the extensive cultivation of sugarcane, he says.
Though there is a recommendation to shift sugar factories to well irrigated areas by a government-appointed committee, nothing has been done. About 40 per cent of the factories are in dry areas like Beed.