Experts suggest drastic shift from waterintensive cash crops

As Marathwada’s groundwater table plummets to 500 ft, farmers here, as in other districts, are freely violating the law in a frantic bid to strike water. Mahadeo Mule has invested Rs. 1 lakh during the past five months to save his crops and livestock, drilling at five different points on his land, despite already having a borewell. He has also spent close to Rs. 35,000 on water from private tankers.

This is in contravention of the Maharashtra Groundwater (Regulation for Drinking Water Purposes) Act, 1993, that prohibits the sinking of a well within 500 m of a public drinking water source in the same watershed source. “Earlier, if one dug 40 ft, one struck water. People today are digging up to 500 feet,” said Marathwada Statutory Development Board member Vijay Diwan.

As Maharashtra’s parched Marathwada region is in the throes of a full-blown water crisis, a disastrous fusion of government torpor coupled with water intensive cropping patterns are proving catastrophic for the villagers of Rui in the drought-prone Ambad taluk. Its 2,200-strong populace is gambling on the monsoon this year and spending every last paisa on water in a bid to salvage their crops and livestock.

“The villagers here dread to think of the fatal possibility of rains failing this June,” says Dattatray Bhagat, who has invested Rs. 45,000 on water since August last year to keep his sweet-lime crop alive. Others, like Sultan Sheikh, have not been so lucky. His cotton and sweet-lime crops have been completely scorched by the sun. The output from his two-acre land has been a paltry jowar yield of 8 kg.

Despite sustainable watershed initiatives in the district and the existence of almost 9,000 micro-watersheds in the region, extensive water conservation has only taken off at the community-level with no concrete push from the State government. Water and agriculture experts advise that Marathwada farmers need to make a drastic shift from growing water-intensive cash crops, like sugar and cotton, in a region with a chronic shortage. “How can we profit if we do not invest in cash crops,” asks Mr. Sheikh.Rui, like hundreds of other villages across the region, depends primarily on the waters of the Jayakwadi dam for its drinking and irrigation functions. With the dam’s live water storage levels sinking dangerously to a dismal two per cent, the hardships of farmers here have been aggravated by the increase in upstream water utilisation in the districts of Western Maharashtra. Shiru Rajguru’s one-acre sweet-lime crop has been totally ruined, saddling him with a debt of Rs. 75,000. There is no water in most villages here. In Partur, one of the worst-hit of the district’s eight taluks, there is not a single government tanker to cater to the needs of the populace.

A private tanker costs Rs. 300 only for the actual operation of pumping water into wells. Apart from this, the charge is anywhere between Rs. 1,500-2,000 per trip. These costs are expected to rise with the mounting summer.

To enable them cope with their increased water costs, a collective refrain from the farmers is the demand for payment of their insurance claims. The farmers who pay Rs. 1,100 per acre for cotton, Rs. 3,600 for sweet-lime, state they could spend the money received in insurance claims to mitigate their water troubles.

Despondent with the total ruin of the cotton crop, Ramesh Lamge has decided to dabble in ancillary businesses. He now ferries people in a shared autorickshaw from village to village. “I bought a rickshaw last October when things started to go really bad... I have my wife, elderly parents and my field to look after,” he says.

Mr. Lamge makes between Rs. 150-200 a day. His friends quip he is rehearsing for his new job in the city. Farmers agree that the spectre of migration is haunting them.

Temporary fixes, like providing steady work under employment guarantee schemes like the MGNREGS, have failed despite 990 approved schemes in eight taluks of Jalna at a cost of Rs. 553 crore.

“I am trying to salvage the 250 sweet-lime trees that remain of my crop on my 10 acres of land,” says Jija Motale, who has invested close to Rs. 50,000 to buy private water and keep his crop going. “If rains fail us this time... then migration to the big city [Mumbai] is the only option,” he remarks.

An inexplicable lack of fodder camps bedevils Jalna, though the government claims it spends Rs. 1.6 crore every day in the State.

“A majority of these funds find their way to the camps in Western Maharashtra,” alleges Babanrao Lonikar, a former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Partur Taluk in Jalna.

The State electricity distribution company has filed cases against nearly 1,000 people in two electricity divisions of the district this year.

“Electricity bills are collected forcefully and on non-payment, the company resorts to disconnection... We anyway get power only for a few hours each day,” says Eknath Patekar, another farmer.

The district, meanwhile, has witnessed political rallies in rapid succession by Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and most recently by Raj Thackeray. Maybe the politicians will come up with something... After all, they need our votes next year, don’t they?” hope villagers, as they await the next political show in town.

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