The Maharashtra government's response to the prevailing drought, worse than the one in 1972, is all sound and fury signifying nothing if you look at it from the farmer's perspective. From the side of localising wealth, it's a sunny day as usual.
That this year’s drought is worse than the one in 1972 is the constant refrain of politicians from Maharashtra right from Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. You wouldn’t know that going by what is uppermost in the minds of some other politicians from the state. Some of them have made lightning visits to assess the situation and some are touring and their speeches provoking pitched battles in their wake.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray who has publicly castigated drought tourism is indulging in one himself but using this opportunity to target the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for its failure to create irrigation potential in the state despite spending Rs 70,000 crores over a period of time. Raj also said a lot of other unprintable things and his main object of abuse was deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.
An unseemly war has ensued all over the state after that with his car being stoned and his MLAs exhorting cadres to hit back by attacking NCP offices.
The NCP, not averse to vandalism itself, has taken the high moral ground by saying that they don’t resort to violence and will fight the battle ideologically, except for Ajit Pawar who clearly believes in an eye for an eye. With elections coming up next year, the MNS needs to build its stature as a political party with some credibility and nothing like a good drought to target its enemies.
The state government, too, is in a bind with the water shortage assuming alarming proportions. But it should have seen this coming. The warning signs have been there for well over a decade. In 2004, in what was then described as a severe drought, places like Ashti in Beed district, the home of BJP MP Gopinath Munde, were water starved. Young boys would rappel down 70 to 100 feet deep wells to scoop out water and a single bucket could take hours to fetch.
The drought tourists, including journalists, travelled in AC cars and drank bottled water, while watching scenes of horror playing out in front of their eyes. Dead cattle, and acres and acres of parched earth with not a single blade of grass greeted the eye. Tankers came once a fortnight and the scramble for water would often lead to injuries among women and children.
In 2013, the situation is not much different but the water crisis is acute and there are no solutions in sight to a government blinded by the need to divert water for sugarcane which is the bedrock of political power in the state. It is easy to understand why Western Maharashtra which has a better irrigation cover faces a drought in some parts and a district like Osmanabad in Marathwada which has numerous sugar factories doesn’t have water for its poorer farmers.
A proposal to stop supplying water for sugarcane was met with horror and so the unequal saga continues.
Mr Chavan spoke of long term measures for drought mitigation but these should have been put in place by his predecessors. Mr Pawar too voices concern but backs sugarcane cultivation and horticulture even in places like Sangola where he claims pomegranate farmers have made crores. Farmers in Jalna are cutting down their sweet lime trees and water levels are plummeting below 700 ft.
Ground water regulation is nonexistent and yet we are a state that promotes Bt cotton and is quite proud of its coverage while farmers are gasping for breath in Vidarbha. Not less than three inquiry reports have laid bare the huge corruption scandals in irrigation in Vidarbha and a national project like Gosikhurd drags on with huge cost escalations.
There is a severe lack of accountability in a state which faces chronic drought in parts and the government officials charged in these inquiry reports are facing endless departmental inquiries. The politicians responsible will elude any punishment and the new Madhav Chitale committee which will probe the irrigation scams all over again will not look at the corruption angle or funds being siphoned off.
The contractor-politician nexus has come to stay in Maharashtra and no committee of inquiry can break that stranglehold, going by past experience. The easiest thing is to appoint another committee and buy time. Without accountability and punishment, status quo will be preserved much to everyone’s delight. The only sufferers of this institutionalized corruption will be the poor farmers. They are suffering anyway due to lack of water, poor seeds, poor credit, and who really cares for them?
Even the Union agriculture minister has repeatedly said that farm suicides are just like any other suicide everywhere else. Despite a strong political leadership from western Maharashtra, farmers there are also on the brink in that region for decades. By giving so much water and subsidies to sugarcane which is closely tied to the political power in the state, Maharashtra’s farmers face rack and ruin.
The drought in 2013 is a consequence of decades of neglect in the areas of water distribution, developing systems for irrigation, fixing accountability on the corrupt and an equitable approach which ensures that poor farmers are the basis for any policy. It cannot be wished away with the vast sums of money that everyone is now demanding for drought assistance from the Centre. It’s all sound and fury signifying nothing.