The water train chugging into Latur last week captured national attention. But it took the spotlight away from the daily struggle of lakhs of people facing the immediate consequences of extended drought and acute water scarcity in Latur district. The vagaries of nature have already taken their toll: the farmer in the hinterland has no way out, and the common man clings to a collapsing water infrastructure in the cramped city.
Nitin Kalantary, CEO, Kalantry Food Products Limited, a leading exporter and supplier of pulses from Latur, says, “Water scarcity has resulted in poor farm yield, low income and diminishing spending power of the farmers; weddings lack pomp. Festivities are curtailed both in urban and rural areas. It has never been like this.”
The local Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) reported a turnover of Rs 905 crore in 2015-16, as opposed to Rs 1,460 cr the previous year and Rs 1,875 cr in 2013-14. Experts say the drop in the pigeon-peas crop, from 15,000 quintals last year to only 5,000 this year, is an indicator of the crashing economy.
There are other repercussions. “Not only is lack of water leading to fungal infections and skin diseases, but the fall in income is also making [sufferers] postpone treatment as long as they can. Some are going for cheaper surgeries when given a choice,” says Dr Satish Birajdar of the Gurkul Dental Clinic, a leading medical centre in Latur.
A complex phenomenon
Drought has different causes, depending on who you ask. The district administration blames nature’s vagaries; the oilseed and pulses lobby point fingers at the water-guzzling sugarcane crop; politicians, of course, blame each other.
Geographically, too, the impact of the crisis has varied. The north-eastern belt — Jalkot, Ahmedpur, Deoni, Nitur, Udgir — faces more of a hydrological drought and scarcity. The slightly better-off and greener north-western belt — Renapur, Latur City and Ausa — is hit by both agricultural and meteorological drought.
Groundwater levels at Jalkot are at an alarming -4.7 metres; at Ahmedpur it is -4.38m; at Deoni, -4.08m. According to the groundwater act, levels below -1m are ‘manageable scarcity’, below -2m is ‘critical’ and below -3m is ‘alarming’. Jalkot hit the danger mark in October, when the average fall was -3.53m across its ten talukas.
The east’s few barrages and dams have gone bone dry after three deficient monsoons in a row. In the 33 small water projects at Ahmedpur, with a total capacity of 14.4 million cubic metres (mcm), current water availability is zero. Ditto in Jalkot’s 10 water projects (capacity 25.26 mcm).
Ironically, this is in an ‘assured rainfall’ zone (it gets 700–800 mm each monsoon), while the prosperous western sugar belt is a ‘Declared DPAP (Drought Prone Areas Programme) Zone’. This is because it is home to three powerful sugar factories, and has major sources of water, including the Manjara dam and Bhandarwadi barrage, among others.
“The western belt grew around the big three: Manjara, Raina and Vikas sugar factories,” says Sudhir Mane of NAAM foundation, started by actor Nana Patekar, which offers funds as drought relief for farmers. “The banks too belong to the same politicians. The cyclical economy was complete once they got better access to water from the barrages. It is this economy that is facing the prospect of a collapse.”
“The east was never meant for development,” says Vaijnathrao Shinde, former Congress MLA from Latur Rural and director of Vikas Cooperative Sugar Factory near Niwali in the western belt. He explains that because of its elevation, water doesn’t flow down to it, and “the soil is somehow less fertile than the west.” He also said that contrary to perception, water used for sugarcane is not wasted; rather, it percolates back into the soil.
The dried up Manjara Dam near Latur. Photo: Vivek Bendre
Shifting rainfall patterns are the biggest cause of crop failure, which has hit both kharif and rabi sowing this year. For example, the average July rainfall in Latur in 2013 and 2014 was 331.54 mm, but in 2015 it was just 31.7 mm. The number of rain days in a year are now just 36 in Latur and 37 in Beed. The deficit in the district was 50.12% in 2014, and 47.94% in 2015. Lower rainfall means poor ground water replenishment.
Usually, rain starts here in July, but most of it is concentrated around August; there is some in October, and then a likelihood of hailstorms in February. It is therefore challenging for a farmer to opt for pulses like pigeon-pea, urad and moong, and easier to grow oilseeds (soyabean). With only 1.72% water left in 141 small and big sources, district officials estimate failure in excess of 70% of the kharif crop.
In 2015, Latur district reported 106 farmer suicides; this year, as of end-March, the grim count is already 35. In Marathwada’s eight districts, 2015 saw 1133 farmer suicides; as of 28 March 2016, it is 253 this year.
Atul Deulgaonkar, environmentalist and author of several books on Maharashtra’s agrarian crisis, says “Some farmers managed to reap last year, but the subsequent long dry spell has not allowed them to even sow this time around. Where sowing did take place, the crop dried up. The devastation of good crop in front of your own eyes, the ongoing preparation of marriage in a family, and other reasons, forces the farmer to commit suicide.”
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