Is Maharashtra playing politics with drought?

People and cattle suffer as political expediency trumps relief efforts in the drought-stricken State.

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 12 MINS READ

In the villages of Man tehsil in Satara district of Maharashtra, it is common to see large plastic barrels outside homes that are filled up by water tankers.

In the villages of Man tehsil in Satara district of Maharashtra, it is common to see large plastic barrels outside homes that are filled up by water tankers. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The first thing you see on entering any village in Man tehsil of Satara district, Maharashtra, is women waiting for water tankers with pots and empty plastic barrels, children playing with utensils, and goats running in the direction of the sound of heavy vehicles hoping for a few drops of water. “We have water scarcity every year. It usually starts with Gudi Padwa [the first day of the Marathi new year, which falls in February-March]. But this time it’s during Diwali,” said Balubai Lokhande of Karkhel village. “I don’t know how to survive over the next six or seven months.”

Drought is officially declared when the average rainfall in an area is less than 50 per cent of the normal. The government has declared drought in 40 of the total 358 tehsils and a drought-like situation in 959 revenue circles in 178 tehsils. In all 218 tehsils, the government has waived fees for school and college students and the payment of land revenue bills, restructured crop loans, stayed the recovery of agricultural loans, sanctioned a 33.5 per cent discount on agricultural pumps, and instructed the electricity department not to disconnect power supply because of unpaid bills. Despite these measures, life has been a struggle for people and cattle in the parched lands.

Sindhu Lokhande’s house is by the roadside in Karkhel village. “We get water once in three days. My family of 11 has four children. We have two sheep as well. We get just two to three big barrels of water. How can we survive with so little,” she asked. The household gets only about 150 litres of water every three days, which is much lower than the government-stipulated 20 litres a person a day. “My children and my sheep drink the same water,” said Sindhu.

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Shashikant Gaikwad, the Sarpanch of Karkhel, had an unusual explanation for this meagre allotment. He said the village had received only a few hours of unseasonal rain in the second week of November. “That rain did not help increase the water level in the well or in the lake. But the government rules are such. Our BDO [Block Development Officer] asked us to resubmit the gram panchayat’s proposal for an additional water tanker,” said Gaikwad.

In Jath tehsil of Sangli district, the administration does not abide by its own norms. Umarani, a village of 6,101 residents (Census 2011) bordering Karnataka, gets only three or four tankers of water a day. That is just over half of the 1,20,000 litres it ought to get daily.

A dry waterbody in Umarani village in Jath tehsil in Sangli. Jath initially did not make it to the government’s list of drought-hit areas.

A dry waterbody in Umarani village in Jath tehsil in Sangli. Jath initially did not make it to the government’s list of drought-hit areas. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The Sarpanch Vijay Kumar Namad said: “We have been requesting the tehsildar and the District Collector to provide us more tankers. But they say that currently the administration can only allot these many tankers a day.”

When Frontline visited herbastiin Umarani, Shivleela Nilakanth Teli was washing utensils using water from a nearby lake whose water quality is considered so bad that even buffaloes do not drink it. “How long can I keep used utensils unwashed? We have no choice but to wash it with the available water,” she said. Her light is that of many others.

Low rainfall

Man and Jath are among the most arid areas of Maharashtra. Man has an average rainfall of 420 mm a year and Jath gets 416 mm. By October 2023, Man had received only 258 mm of rainfall (61 per cent of its average) and Jath 353 mm (84 per cent).

Despite its low rainfall, Jath did not make it to the government’s list of drought-hit areas on October 31 as Man did. This was said to be an act of political expediency: Man’s MLA represents the ruling BJP party and Jath’s belongs to the Congress.

The partisanship provoked a violent reaction. On November 1, members of a local organisation named Prahar vandalised the tehsildar’s vehicle. “Jath has been a drought-prone tehsil. Not having it on the list only shows that the government does not have a serious approach to dealing with the situation. They only want to do politics,” said Vikram Sawant, the MLA who represents Jath. On November 10, following much criticism, a Cabinet subcommittee declared 178 more tehsils as drought-hit, including Jath.

Hanumant Mohite, a senior journalist from Sangli, said that the confusion over the list of drought-hit tehsils signalled the unpreparedness of the State government. “If the ruling parties want to settle political scores over such a sensitive issue, the bureaucracy will take its work lightly. From drinking water to fodder for cattle and financial aid to farmers, drought is a multidimensional calamity. The unpreparedness will cost the political leadership dear,” he said.

The decision to deploy water tankers may have been taken, but the government is yet to wake up on the fodder front. As of now, there are no instructions from Mumbai regarding the establishment of fodder camps. Government- and private-run fodder camps offering water and fodder are intended to prevent farmers from making distress sales of cattle. The delay in establishing such camps is hurting the rural economy deeply. Appasaheb Namad, a resident of Umarani, has 20 Jersey cows yielding 200 litres of milk daily. He needs one bag of fodder a day for the cattle. “Cows have to be fed green fodder and at least 50-60 litres of water a day. The availability of green fodder is diminishing with acute water shortage. How will the farmer survive,” asked Appasaheb.

At Umarani village in Sangli. One waterbody caters to the needs of both humans and cattle. 

At Umarani village in Sangli. One waterbody caters to the needs of both humans and cattle.  | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The drought has increased the problems of milk producers like him. The State has set the sale price of milk at Rs.34 a litre. But since October end, this has plummeted to Rs.26 a litre.

Amol Khandagale, a mechanical engineering graduate, turned to dairy farming as he could not find a job. He started a farm with 40 Jersey cows at his village, Sangewadi, in Sangola tehsil of Solapur district, two years ago. He took a loan of Rs.20 lakh from the Solapur District Co-operative Bank. His daily expenses amount to Rs.11,500: Rs.6,000 for fodder, Rs.4,500 for other animal feed, and Rs 1,000 for labour. The 400 litres of milk he gets every day earns him only Rs.10,400 at the rate of Rs.26 a litre.

Khandagale said that if the government did not provide fodder, he would have no option but to sell his cows. “Business was good when I was getting Rs.36 a litre. I could repay my loan. But for the past two months, it has been difficult. If this continues, I will have to sell the cows or the piece of land I inherited,” he said.

No money for fodder camps

Significantly, in 10 districts the government has not paid the money for fodder camps since 2019. In Sangola tehsil, 149 fodder camps were held in 2019 at a cost of Rs.23 crore.

Balkrishna Narayan Jagtap runs the Adarsha Multi-Purpose Society at Manjari village in Sangola. A fodder camp the society organised in 2019 accommodated as many as 1,200 cattle. But it is yet to be reimbursed the Rs.37.5 lakh it spent on the camp. Asked whether he was ready to organise another camp this year, Jagtap said: “If the government pays my pending bills, I am okay with organising a camp. I do not have so much money to invest now.”

Instead of organising fodder camps, the Cabinet subcommittee on drought has decided to provide moor grass to one lakh farmers. The government has allocated Rs.30 crore to procure five lakh tonnes of moor grass. But small farmers are not happy with this. Suhas Babar of Hawaldarwadi village in Man tehsil said the government should consider restarting fodder camps. “When it comes to loan waivers or distribution of agricultural machinery or moor grass, small farmers are left behind. Fodder camp is an easily possible option for the farmer,” he said.

Maharashtra has seen recurring droughts every second or third year (2012, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2023) over the past 15 years. The current one has been the deadliest. At Umarani, Ameen Mestri, who runs a borewell repair unit, said borewells in Jath had reached a depth of 1,000 to 1,200 feet. “We repair up to 10 borewells a day. The average depth at which water is available in Jath’s drought-prone area is 1,000 feet. Even then there is no guarantee of finding water,” he said.

The situation is similar in Man, where the average borewell depth is 600 feet. In Hawaldarwadi village of Man, Ajit Sawant, a young farmer, had to dig up to 650 feet before finding water. But that well also dried up this season. At Patoda in Beed district, which was on the initial list of 40 tehsils that were declared drought-hit, the water level has fallen to 900 feet, according to the district hydrological department.

At a village in Man. Goats here run in the direction of the sound of heavy vehicles hoping for a few drops of water.

At a village in Man. Goats here run in the direction of the sound of heavy vehicles hoping for a few drops of water. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Experts believe the situation has come to such a pass because of people’s desperation and lack of public awareness regarding the usage of water. Pradeep Purandare, a retired professor at the Water and Land Management Institute, Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, said that people were digging borewells even if they could not afford to do so just to save their crops. “The crop is their only source of survival.” According to Purandare, the way ahead is to regulate water use with micro irrigation projects that use every inch of rainwater and to create public awareness about raising crops that require less water.

Farmers’ vulnerability

The current drought has increased the vulnerability of farmers. Reports from various districts suggest that only 25 to 30 per cent of the kharif crops (or monsoon crops, which are sown in June-July and harvested in September) have survived.

In Jath tehsil, where the average sown area is 78,210 hectares, only 43,505 hectares, that is 55 per cent, have been covered. Of this, only 20 per cent of the crop is expected to survive.

According to Dundappa Ramgonda Biradar, chairman of the Mallikarjun Co-Operative Service Society in Umarani, grape orchards have been destroyed in his village and only 20-30 per cent of the corn and sorghum crops remain. “The losses of the entire village are estimated to be more than Rs.150 crore this year. Right now, members owe the society Rs.40 crore in loans. New loans constitute 80 per cent of this. This demonstrates the gravity of the losses,” said Biradar.

Maharashtra ranks number one in pomegranate production in the country, with an average production of more than 550 tonnes in the last decade. With 31.74 per cent of its land under pomegranate cultivation, Sangola tehsil has the largest area under pomegranate cultivation in the State. But farmers have suffered great losses for the last two years because of a bacterial blight infection in the trees. With rainfall slipping to 334.7 mm this year, which is 55 per cent of the average rainfall, farmers have lost all hope of reviving their trees.

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Vijay Maruti Suryagan of Bhaire Chincholi village in Sangola grows pomegranate on two acres (0.8 ha). Bacterial blight infected his orchard in March. Until December he nursed hopes of reviving the trees by using pesticides and watering. But the drought has dried up his hopes. “My losses this year will be around Rs.25 lakh. Replanting will cost me another Rs.7 lakh. I think the government must come forward to help farmers now,” he said.

Maharashtra has 225.7 lakh hectares under cultivation of various crops, including horticulture. In the kharif season of 2023, sowing was done on 140.14 lakh hectares, which is 99 per cent of the average. The State’s Revenue Department and the Relief and Rehabilitation Department are assessing the loss this season. Sources in the Relief and Rehabilitation Department toldFrontlineon November 21 that crops on 65 lakh hectares, or 45 per cent of the total cultivable area, must have been affected due to drought.

In other words, half of the farmers in Maharashtra will be in need of direct financial aid this year. Maharashtra has earmarked Rs.7,000 crore for drought-related works, including financial aid to farmers. Under the State Disaster Relief Fund, farmers who own 3 hectares of land are eligible for State’s schemes. The upper limit was 2 hectares until last year. Farmers with arable crops will get Rs.8,500 a hectare and those with yearly horticulture crops (like banana) will get Rs.17,000 a hectare. Also, farmers who grow multi-year crops like pomegranate, guava, and mango will get Rs.22,500 a hectare.

But farmers’ unions are not satisfied with this. Ajit Nawale, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha’s Maharashtra unit, said the government should give Rs.15,000 a hectare for arable crops, Rs.30,000 for horticulture crops, and Rs.50,000 for multi-year crops. “The criteria for financial aid are outdated. The government should consider the cost of agriculture this year. One bag of fertilizer costs more than the declared amount now. What is the use of such half-hearted help if farmers do not get even half of what they have invested?” asked Nawale.

A shepherd in Sangola district. There is not enough water for goats and cattle.

A shepherd in Sangola district. There is not enough water for goats and cattle. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Pandurang Avatade of Bhalawani village in Pandharpur tehsil of Solapur district highlighted the problems farmers faced with regard to drought-related financial aid. “In 2015, I was in urgent need of money for my daughter’s marriage. I used to go to the tehsildar’s office every other day to check if money had come. I got the drought money but only at the end of 2016.” However, he said that 2024 being an election year, things could be different. “We hope the money will reach faster this time as ministers will have to come visiting us again,” he said sarcastically.

At a Cabinet meeting in February, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis alerted colleagues about the possibility of El Niño affecting the State’s monsoon. It was quite early for a politician to raise such concerns, but that it was not taken seriously is seen by the confusion surrounding even the declaration of drought. Apart from basic measures such as water tankers, government intervention on the ground is lacking. Any further delay in relief work, especially for farmers, labourers, and children, will only make their suffering worse.

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