Indian farmers battle water crisis

Climate change and mismanagement hit crops in Maharashtra state
Ashruba Maruti Ranjawan on his farm in Maharashtra. His millet crop last season was one-seventh its normal size © Simon Mundy

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Shivanand Baswantpati’s pomegranate trees, once a steady source of income, lie withered and prone across his rocky field, fit for nothing but firewood.

The farmer recently uprooted them in desperation at a persistent lack of rain, hoping a hardier crop of soybeans will fare better in the apparently changed climate.

Mr Baswantpati strikes a gloomy tone as he leans on the defunct pump attached to his 170-metre-deep borehole near the western Indian town of Latur — dry for the past two years, like thousands of others across the region, with underground aquifers depleted.

“We have no water and we don’t expect any,” he says. “All the work we did in these fields has gone to waste.”

He is one of millions of farmers recoiling from two unusually dry monsoon seasons — the midyear period typically accounting for four-fifths of India’s annual rainfall. The problem has dragged down yields and rural consumption nationwide — a heavy economic drag on a nation where two-thirds of people live in the countryside.

But the scale of the problem in Marathwada, a region of 19m people east of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra, has captured national attention. Environmental campaigners say the crisis is exacerbated by corruption and water mismanagement.

Last month the state government began sending water by train to Latur and briefly banned gatherings of more than five people to prevent fights over water. National media have adopted a grim routine of tallying suicides by farmers in the region, with 320 in the first 110 days of this year, after an annual toll of 1,133 in 2015.

Farmers in Marathwada blame their plight on unprecedented shifts in weather patterns and say they are facing the worst climatic environment they have ever known.

“This is even worse than the drought in the 1970s,” says Bhagwan Baglane, 65, who has given up on his struggling cotton and millet crops to tend his 18 cows at an emergency camp set up by the state government. “It’s punishment for people’s bad behaviour.”

While the government forecasts a better monsoon this year, meteorological data point to a long-term change in climate conditions. Over the past six years, Marathwada’s average annual rainfall has been 717mm, 13 per cent lower than levels in the 1990s and 22 per cent below the 1950s. Meanwhile, freak hailstorms over the past three years have wreaked unprecedented damage on crops.

“Climate change has been making our lives very miserable,” says Atul Deulgaonkar, an engineer and environmental journalist in Latur. “The rain pattern is changing.”

However, travel through Marathwada yields ample evidence of man-made factors exacerbating the crisis, in the form of lush green sugarcane fields scattered across the arid landscape. Maharashtra is India’s second-biggest producer of this highly water-intensive crop, despite being one of the country’s drier states.

Such production requires massive irrigation: sugarcane uses about 70 per cent of Marathwada’s irrigation water, according to a state government report, despite accounting for 4 per cent of cultivated land.

That share, many times higher than provided for in government plans, is widely attributed to the sugar industry’s political clout.

Yet this is only one element of the bad practice that has contributed to Maharashtra’s water crisis, says Vijay Phandare, who spent three decades in the civil service but quit in 2012 after blowing the whistle on an alleged multibillion-dollar scam using irrigation projects to steal public funds.

“It’s been an open secret that 10-15 per cent of the tender cost has to be given to politicians and officers,” Mr Phandare says. “It is total havoc.”

He alleges that tenders for big projects have been given at grossly inflated prices, often to friends of officials authorising the schemes. He says that with a focus on self-enrichment rather than results, several major projects have never been completed, despite huge public expenditure. And even when large dams have been built, they often lack the distribution networks needed to carry water to farms.

Mr Phandare’s allegations forced the state government to launch an investigation, which made a damning assessment of water management in Maharashtra but stopped short of naming individuals. However, in recent weeks the state’s anti-corruption bureau has initiated action against 21 government officials and building contractors.

The drought has prompted drastic measures from the state government, which recently placed a five-year moratorium on new sugar factories and cut the supply of water to factories and breweries. Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister for Maharashtra, told the Financial Times his government had put more emphasis on targeted local irrigation schemes and that a new electronic tendering system had brought a sharp reduction in bid prices for irrigation projects.

But the system remains vulnerable to corruption, says Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an environmental group, who sees no end in sight for Maharashtra’s water problems.

“Despite suffering four droughts in the past five years, we have not seen a paradigm shift in the way water is managed in this state,” she says.

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