Many projects for supplying water in Vidarbha remain on paper, though the money allotted is very real.

Sarada Badre and her daughters have stopped their bi-weekly 20-km walking trips. That was their routine for a while. “The orange trees have withered and there's no water anyway,” says Saradabai at her home in Sirasgaon village in Amravati district.

In theory, watering their 214 orange trees shouldn't be too hard. Though the nearby canal has dried up, their new water source is 300 metres away. Next door by rural standards. “But that's 214 pots of water.” Back and forth, that is 428 trips, half of them with a full pot of water on their heads. Or over 40 km for each of the three women — in short trips. They cover “half the trees on Mondays and the other half on Thursdays”. That is apart from working in the fields all the other days with temperatures in Amravati well past 45°C in April itself. But now even that source is turning dry.

Water in Vidarbha can be a mirage — and not just in summer. Many of its “projects” in this sector remain on paper, though the money tied to them can be very real. Nearly Rs.3,000 crores of tenders have been floated for the Lower Penganga project — for which no land has been acquired other than 325 hectares for the dam site. “16,000 hectares required, 325 acquired,” scoffs a senior official. “Of those tenders floated, Rs.2,400 crore worth appear to have been allotted and some Rs.600 crores worth are under consideration or up for approval.” The region's landscape is dotted with “projects” for which work orders have been issued but no work ever done.

In Yavatmal, over 1,000 very angry people attended a “pani parishad” (Water Council) organised by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). The parishad declared it was fed up with “the total failure of government to address these problems”. So rasta rokos and other protests against the severe water shortages are in the offing. That will turn up the political heat as well. In many places protests have also broken out over load-shedding running to 14 hours or worse — with little information given to the public. MSEB engineers have been roughed up by farmers in some places.

Vidarbha's water crisis has half-crippled the Chandrapur Super Power Thermal Station which shut down the fifth of its seven units last week. The station now generates just 15 per cent of its capacity of 2340 MW. Such experiences have not deterred the state from proposing another 43 thermal power plants in the region. Around 19 of these have already been approved. “We live like there is no tomorrow,” says one official.

Panderkauda town in Yavatmal certainly lives that way. “They are pumping out 20 lakh litres of water a day from every known source and many new ones they've drilled into,” says Kishor Tiwari of the VJAS. “Their bores now run very deep. Anyone but the municipal parishad can see this coming to a sudden dead-end with no chance of recharge or recovery. Water is being sought, bought, sold, even stolen. This is a quick route to disaster.”

In Jarur village, Yavatmal, activists fought a politically-connected farmer selling water to poor people at high prices. That from a well which belongs to the village but with records fudged to show it as his property. He was selling ten litres for Rs.5. (Almost 150 per cent costlier than tanker water.) “He was earning Rs.1,000 a day from this,” says one activist. While they managed to halt this, the well itself is nearly empty.

Dismal performance

And there is very little work when lots of people need it badly. Like in much of Maharashtra, Vidarbha's performance in terms of MREGS work remains dismal. In the entire Amravati division, where 10 million humans reside in five districts, there are just about 16,000 covered by the rural employment guarantee scheme. Of these, around 13,500 — 84 per cent — are in Amravati district alone. Within Amravati, around 80 per cent of these workers are concentrated in just Melghat.

Current attendance is worse in the other districts of the division, as official figures show. Yavatmal has some 950 workers on the MREGS. Washim around 680, Buldhana 480 and Akola a mere 440. Neighbouring Wardha, the sixth of the “crisis” districts covered by the Prime Minister's and Chief Minister's “packages”, has around 650. So there is very little work to be had here. “When Bhandara district reached nearly 1,200 workers,” mocks Mr. Tiwari, “that was presented as a success story.” There is much hair-splitting over the factors behind this abysmal failure. “Lack of demand”, is a common official claim, one activists challenge. Whichever way you cut it, Maharashtra's overall performance in MREGS lags far behind many other states — and gets worse.

One result is a rise in out-migrations. “As soon as the agricultural season is over,” says Sunita Nagulkar in Wadiraithad village of Washim, “we go to wherever the contractors call us. That could be Nagpur, Pune, Mumbai or other places. Though my husband and his two brothers own three acres jointly, it was never enough.” In the places they went to, they faced harsh conditions but earned more than the maximum of Rs.105 each could possibly get if they were on the MREGS. All that came to an end this week. Her husband Chandraban had suffered an electric shock in the field that had damaged his arm. Depressed by that and their poor crop, he took his own life leaving Sunita to look after their three young daughters. But other “migrations are on and gaining in force”, says Prakash Rathor, teacher and farm activist in Washim.

In Sirasgaon, Akola, Saradabai shows little interest in the now stunted orange trees. In her, they evoke only the worst of memories. Her son Shekar took his life less than a week ago as their farm headed for its third straight year of failure. “I don't care about it,” she says, “if the trees die.” What she did care about, already did.

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