Drought: Maharashtra government accused of playing politics with parched tehsils

The Opposition alleges political bias in declaring drought-hit areas as State reels under severe water scarcity.

Published : Nov 04, 2023 09:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Several regions in Maharashtra have been reeling under water scarcity for long now. In this photo from March this year, women are seen carrying water from a tap near their house in Kolhapur.

Several regions in Maharashtra have been reeling under water scarcity for long now. In this photo from March this year, women are seen carrying water from a tap near their house in Kolhapur. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

On October 31, the Maharashtra government declared a drought in 42 tehsils across 15 districts, a decision reached during a State cabinet meeting. The cabinet instructed the Relief and Rehabilitation department to swiftly initiate relief efforts in the affected areas. The State, run by a BJP-Shiv Sena-NCP coalition, also resolved to promptly engage with the central government to seek support and financial aid from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

In response, the State’s opposition parties have claimed that the selection of these tehsils was influenced more by political considerations than by the actual ground conditions. They have called for a state-wide declaration of drought, similar to the approach taken by Karnataka, instead of focussing on a few tehsils.

This year, Maharashtra has received 13 per cent less monsoon rainfall. According to the State’s Relief and Rehabilitation department, 177 out of the total 395 tehsils experienced a shortfall of five to ten per cent in rainfall. In 2016, the Central government established new criteria for declaring drought through the Drought Management Manual. Based on these norms, the State cabinet approved the declaration of “severe” drought in 24 tehsils and “middle-level” drought in 18 tehsils. The government resolution issued on October 31 outlined several immediate relief measures for the affected tehsils, including discounts on revenue receipts, crop loan restructuring, halting farm loan recovery, reducing agriculture pump metre bills by 33.5 per cent, and waiving school and college fees for students in these areas.

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Notable examples of the selected tehsils include Baramati, an Assembly constituency and tehsil associated with Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister Ajit Pawar; Bhokardan, a tehsil linked to Santosh Danve, son of Union Minister Raosaheb Danve; Yeola, an Assembly constituency of State’s Food and Civil Supplies Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, and Malegaon, an Assembly constituency of State’s Cabinet Minister Dadaji Bhuse. The opposition alleges that these choices demonstrate partiality by the government. NCP (Sharad Pawar faction) MLA Jitendra Awhad expressed his concern on social media, suggesting that tehsils represented by opposition MLAs were unjustly left out. “This kind of discrimination in times of serious natural calamity is not the right way of politics,” said Awhad on X (formerly Twitter).

Is government ignoring ground realities?

When declaring a drought, the State’s Relief and Rehabilitation department relies on data from the Revenue and Agriculture departments related to crops, fodder, and rainfall. Despite 177 tehsils facing water scarcity, the Drought Management Manual 2016 only allows for drought declarations in areas classified as “severe”. These criteria encompass both drinking water availability and fodder for animals, leading to the designation of 43 tehsils as “severe” drought areas. Ulhasnagar tehsil of Thane district, which is entirely urban, was added to the list, bringing the total to 42 tehsils. However, other tehsils not included in the list are also experiencing severe drought conditions. Consequently, opposition leaders in the State assembly have called for a state-wide drought declaration.

Out of the 395 tehsils in Maharashtra, 177 are grappling with drinking water and fodder shortages. Given this, the State government should have considered a declaration similar to Karnataka’s approach, which declared a drought across the State, stated Vijay Vadettiwar, the Leader of the Opposition (LOP) in the State Assembly. “The situation in Maharashtra is nearly as dire, but the government appears to be disregarding the ground realities,” Vadettiwar said.

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In Sangali’s Jat tehsil, local media reported a dispute between two groups of the public. The conflict centred around the management of water tankers. While four tehsils in Sangli district were classified as “middle level” drought-affected areas, Jat tehsil was omitted from the list. Vadettiwar alleged that this omission was due to the Jat MLA’s affiliation with the Congress party, implying political bias on the government’s part.

Responding to these allegations, Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Anil Patil argued that the inclusion or exclusion of tehsils from the drought list is determined solely by the criteria set out in the Drought Management Manual. Data on rainfall, the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), and the Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) inform these decisions. “So, allegations of politically motivated exclusion or inclusion of the tehsils are baseless,” said Patil.

A man crosses the dry and cracked bed of the Koparli dam on May 26, 2023.

A man crosses the dry and cracked bed of the Koparli dam on May 26, 2023. | Photo Credit: RITESH SHUKLA

While politics continues unabated in the face of drought or flooding, the real story lies in the number of sowings. This kharif season, the State had initially anticipated sowing on 142 lakh hectares but reduced it to 138 lakh hectares, according to the State’s Agriculture department. By October 31, only 12 per cent of rabi sowing had been completed, a significant drop from the usual 60 per cent. This indicates the severity of drought experienced by the State’s farmers, while the government seems to be missing the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, the State government has eased the compensation norms established by the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF). Farmers will now receive compensation for crop loss on up to 3 acres (1.21 hectares), up from the previous 2-acre limit. This adjustment is particularly important given the size of land holdings in Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada, where farmers typically own 3 to 5 acres of land. Consequently, more non-marginal farmers will be eligible for compensation.

Dealing with the drought

Maharashtra is facing its fourth severe drought in the last decade, having previously experienced droughts in 2013, 2016, and 2018. Managing these droughts presents several challenges, including the provision of fodder for animals and addressing rural-to-urban migration, particularly to major cities such as Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik.

Farmers and farm labour organisations have consistently raised these issues during every drought year. Ajit Nawale, the General Secretary of All India Kisan Sabha Maharashtra, has urged the state government to promptly assess the fodder needs in all drought-affected tehsils. He stressed that failing to provide sufficient fodder could force farmers to sell their animals, creating additional challenges in the next kharif season. “Therefore, the State government must map the exact possible need of the fodder, and start planning accordingly,” he said.

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Sushila Morale, a leader of sugarcane-cutting labourers from Marathwada, specifically Beed, called on the State government to initiate MGNREGA employment opportunities for labourers as soon as possible. She pointed out that the migration of labourers often results in complications such as disruptions to their children’s education, making timely action crucial.” With migration, several issues such as the education of labourers’ children start. That’s why the government must start MGNREGA works, which would hold them back,” said Morale.

The upcoming summer will coincide with the general election, and the impact of the drought will influence the electoral outcome in various ways. In 2016, during a water scarcity crisis in Latur city, the BJP-Shiv Sena government arranged water trains (Jaldoot Express) to Latur, supplying lakhs of litres of potable water to the parched region. This greatly bolstered the BJP’s performance in the subsequent 2017 local body elections. Consequently, the actions and messaging surrounding drought management are of paramount importance during these times. Managing drought will be a challenging task, and how the State’s tri-party government handles it will significantly impact the election results.

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