Interview | Atul Deulgaonkar Lok Sabha Election

‘No one wants to make drought a campaign issue’

Residents of Chincholi village, around 35 km from Latur city, rush to a water tanker to fill up their pots on Tuesday. The tanker was the first in one-and-a-half months to reach the village, which has not received water supply for the last two days.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

From April to August 2016, Latur was a talking point all over the world after the goods train, Jaldoot Express, took water from western Maharashtra to the perennially parched city in Marathwada, where the crisis was aggravated by a drought.

Three years later, while the region is inching towards possibly one of the worst droughts since 1972, the issue seems to be missing from the speeches of political leaders campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena cannot stop boasting about the water train, the alliance has failed to give a satisfactory reply on why the situation has turned from bad to worse. The Congress, meanwhile, chooses not to raise the issue fearing questions as to what it did to solve the crisis when it enjoyed power.

Atul Deulgaonkar

Atul Deulgaonkar   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Author and researcher Atul Deulgaonkar, renowned for his work on water conservation, agriculture and climate change, talks to The Hindu on Marathwada being a ‘case study of climate change’, the superficial efforts taken to tackle water scarcity, and the unwillingness of political parties to make drought part of their core agenda.

The water train was brought to Latur in 2016. Is there any improvement in the situation three years later?

Negligible.

What was the reason to bring water using the train?

It was a casual decision, nothing else. We do not make policy decisions by putting too much thought into it. At that time, Latur came into the limelight because Section 144 had been applied over water scarcity — which I feel was not necessary. The collector had imposed Section 144 just to avoid confrontation with corporators. Then it became international news, and Latur became known as a place that was facing problems due to climate change. So everyone thought we should do something constructive. And the constructive idea was to provide water using the train. It had been done once before in Gujarat. So someone pointed out there was ample of water in western Maharashtra, we can send it to Latur. That’s it.

So there was no logical reasoning behind it?

Zero. No proposal was prepared here, neither was it sent to the State government. It was an ad hoc decision. Also, nobody calculated how many people benefited or how much water was given to whom. Even then, the city was receiving water once in eight days. It is happening even today. There has been no fundamental improvement in water management. Like in Australia. The country reduced its water needs to fight eight years of drought. In contrast, even our government buildings do not have rainwater harvesting.

Is the scarcity policy failure?

No, it largely depends on the bureaucracy. Neither the collector here nor the municipal corporation has taken any interest in the situation.

The government blames it on the poor rainfall.

What is the definition of less rain? Rainfall of 400 mm is not low. There are cities which can survive on 200 mm. Even in my speech in the legislature last year, I had said to at least try and demonstrate recycle and reuse of water in a small lane or a small village first. Don’t you have money? Technology?

What is the difficulty then?

Government. If there is neither reward nor punishment, then why would people do it? Action was limited to Jalyukta Shivar, which was in turn limited to benefiting contractors. Ask the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency about the lowering groundwater level. And then let the government tell us who exactly benefited from the scheme.

Whenever the issue of Jalyukta Shivar’s performance has been raised, the Chief Minister has pointed towards the lack of rain last year. Your response?

There is one more question that needs to be asked. If he thinks rainfall is less then there are people who survive on 200 mm rainfall also. Have we enhanced efficiency? In India, 60-70% water is used for agriculture, 10-20% for industry and 10% for household. What about drip irrigation? Was there a change in crop patterns? Were industries asked to recycle and reuse? When will you use the science and technology that is available?

How do you see the situation developing in Marathwada in the summer?

The condition in rural areas is terrible. There could be migration from Jalna and Osmanabad districts. Water availability is going to decrease and we do not have any plan to counter it. Climate change adaptation in farming, city management, water management is not even on our agenda. One can guess the disaster waiting to happen if it doesn’t rain in June.

Is this issue taking centre-stage in the campaign?

Not at all. Marathwada is turning into a desert and is a terrible case study of climate change. But these issues are not at the forefront. Neither the government nor the Opposition has it on their mind. Our level of intellectual discourse is so low that the demand would be for borewells or water tankers to fight scarcity. No one is ready to touch the root cause. We are witnessing and going through a disaster. In 1972, there were organisations working on the issue, journalists were writing about it. This time, no one is willing to do anything.

Excessive use of water in cultivating the water-intensive sugarcane crop is being blamed. Is it a valid criticism?

Let’s accept that for a moment. If you don’t want to cultivate a water-intensive crop like sugarcane then ban it. But at the same time, ban the water-intensive alcohol industry. List out all water-intensive activities and ban all, why just sugarcane farming? A farmer opts to take up sugarcane due to the lack of options or guaranteed income in other crops.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:38:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/no-one-wants-to-make-drought-a-campaign-issue/article26859164.ece

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