Other States

‘Dams and sugarcane have conspired to reduce Marathwada to rack and ruin’

Economist and former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board HM Desarda.  

With Maharashtra reeling under the onslaught of an agrarian crisis more terrible than the 1972-73 drought, economist and former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board HM Desarda speaks to Shoumojit Banerjee on the complex factors leading up to the crisis and how a focussed watershed development programme and a radical restructuring of the employment guarantee scheme could be the key to mitigate agrarian distress levels.

With four consecutive rainfall deficit years and an all-time rise in farmer suicides, how is the State machinery to extricate itself from the acute water crisis?

The major difference between the conditions in 1972 and those of today is that the former was a meteorological drought. Last year, despite many areas having received half of the normal rainfall, it need not have triggered an acute water crisis. Statistics show that if 93 per cent of the State’s 355 talukas received around 300 mm rainfall, it still adds up to 3 million litres of water per hectare, which is more than adequate to meet farming and drinking needs of rural folk. So, one cannot blame the niggardliness of nature for this crisis. It is the administration’s ad hoc style of formulating policy which has failed to create durable assets. The government at once must begin anchoring all rural and semi-urban drinking water schemes to watershed works if there is to be any way out of this abyss.

With groundwater levels in Marathwada plummeting steeply, what is the most efficient solution to conserve water and generate employment?

I believe the answer lies in local rainwater harvesting. Despite substantial financial wherewithal, the present government must firmly advocate a strategy of watershed development for ensuring potable water and protective irrigation. What has been shocking so far is the sheer lack of literacy and the myopic vision of the bureaucracy of Maharashtra’s successive governments, be it the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party dispensation or the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine.

What are the systemic changes that need to be implemented to that end?

The Employee Guarantee Scheme must be overhauled. The money raised for financing the EGS should not be clubbed with the general State budget but should be placed in a separate escrow account called the ‘employment fund’ as stipulated in the EGS Act. With emphasis on vegetation cover and water harvesting structures, 75 per cent of the funds earmarked for EGS works should be utilised for the watershed programme with strict adherence to the watershed work- sequence- soil conservation sequence.At the wage rate of Rs 60 per day and considering the ratio of material to labour cost, each watershed work requires an estimate Rs 10,000 per hectare. It means that work on the 20 lakh cultivable hectares in the State can be undertaken from money allotted to the EGS itself – that is, if the political powers can show some will to earmark funds in this manner. Logically, the employment and water conservation departments ought to be merged and placed under the charge of one minister.

How effective has the Jal Yukt Shivar been as a vaunted panacea to the acute water crisis prevailing in Maharashtra?

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the BJP government has tom-tommed the programme as a great drought-proofing scheme but it is a most unscientific and arbitrary project which discounts sound hydrological principles and the scientific concept of ridge-to-valley. I doubt if the administration can prove its efficacy in even a handful of the 5,000 villages it claims to be benefiting from the scheme. If the State claims that it has successfully impounded 24 TMC of water, then why do tankers ferry at an ever increasing frequency in Marathwada, which has transformed into ‘Tankerwada.’

Why does the government need to mull about transporting water from Pune’s dams to Marathwada, thereby aggravating the crisis in western Maharashtra as well. More significantly, the construction of dams in Maharashtra has always masked an ulterior, political agenda. Maharashtra has 35 per cent of India’s large dams. To what end?

Their construction has merely profited the contractor-politico lobby that has siphoned off astronomical funds. In the last 40 years, successive State governments have spent a staggering Rs 80,000 crore to make Maharashtra drought-proof without any tangible results. Dams and the political economy of the sugarcane crop have hurtled Marathwada to rack and ruin.

Has sugarcane cultivation contributed to the water crisis?

It is a hoary agrarian axiom that sugarcane, that notorious water-guzzler, is ecologically unsuited for arid climes. Yet, since the creation of Maharashtra as a State in 1960, the political class, from Yashwantrao Chavan to Sharad Pawar, has used it as a powerful instrument for building its voter base. For instance, Latur, which witnesses water wars daily, has no less than five sugar factories spread across 54,000 hectares around a 20-km radius. Of the 200-odd sugar factories in the State, more than 60 are located in the parched Marathwada. A single hectare of sugarcane crop uses 30 million litres of water. Instead of giving incentives to pulses and oilseeds which India massively imports, the politicians dole out unwarranted incentives to perennial crops such as sugarcane.

The only key to this mess is skilful management of monsoon and water storage which can be brought about by the scientific organisation of watershed works.

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