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Good monsoon, yet people can't wait for tankers

May 09, 2012 18:55 IST

Mahesh Vijapurkar is not surprised that 41 villages in Sangli district want to be merged with Karnataka because of the perennial drinking water shortage in their villages.

Maharashtra went shopping for Rs 29,000 crore from the Centre's calamity assistance fund and returned without even an assurance apparently because there is a suspicion about the need for it as well as the ability to spend the money well. Instead, the delegation is said to have received an earful from the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for sloth in developing water resources, especially irrigation.

The prime minister may not be wrong. There has been a slanging match between the alliance partners, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party about the extent irrigation has been developed in the state -- Rs 70,000 spent in about a decade with only 0.1 per cent added to it -- and now, the issue of even support for mitigating drinking water crisis is in doubt. It is all well for chief minister to say this help is never off-the-shelf and they take time in being granted and received.

The scramble for help came now, almost mid-May which raises the following questions: Why the delay in seeking funds when the signs of impending drinking water shortage should have been noted much earlier and a contingency plan put in place and an inkling given to the Centre much earlier? Did it ignore the warning signs because of the ruling alliance's preoccupation with civic, zilla parishad and panchayat samiti elections? Is it embarrassment after having asked for help because during the monsoon, the surplus rains had damaged crops?

It never can be that a State can suddenly plunge into a water crisis, especially for drinking because the build-up is visible much earlier than it hits in the solar plexus. Now, suddenly, because the build-up was not noticed, and when noticed, was not acted upon, sees the people waiting for the tankers to quench their thirst. They are neither satisfied by the quantity nor the frequency of the tankers' trips.

Amid the crisis, with the authorities engaged in saying they were doing the best -- finding funds, water sources, tankers, and getting the act together -- no one seems to be bothered to explain the sudden gap between demand and supply of this elixir of life. Did it develop overnight for the government to be caught short? Why did the machinery move only when the situation became 'alarming'?

And yet women in Thane's northern rural areas spend Rs 20 on a bus trip to another village which has some water so their clothes could be washed.  In another elsewhere, people stand on the safety perimeter wall of the well and lower ropes with vessels pull out some elixir of life. Tired of this intermittent crisis in their lives, 41 villages in Sangli want to opt out of Maharashtra and merge with Karnataka.

Those villages see greener ground and water in the wells across the border and point to how despite periodic droughts and claimed expenditure on mitigating the crisis, their lives have not changed. In Konkan which hardly ever has a deficit rainfall, Marathi television news channels have shown visuals of the distress where people fatigued by recurring shortages saying they would rather leave the villages without water. These point to a serious crisis on hand and despair of the affected.  

Last year, the monsoon had arrived in on time, and it had rained well. The Indian Meteorological Department had recorded 'above normal' -- a surfeit of 20 per cent over normal -- and over rest of the state, 'normal' rainfall. Which meant a near normal agricultural production and adequate drinking water. But it masked the fact that of the 355 talukas, 46 had 'excess' rains, 209 had 'normal' and 100 reported 'deficient' -- a term for precipitation of less than 40 to 80 per cent.

It is the administration's call to identify the nuances of scarcity masked by the Indian Meteorological Department's 'averages' especially in a state where despite the normal is 1,000 mm of rainfall with wide variations therein. The precipitation is high at 6,000 mm on the Western Ghats and within 50 km to the east, a mere 500 mm, the ingredient for being drought prone. The spatial divergence in rainfall quantum ought to have kept the state prepared.

Simply because agrarian distress was missing does not mean drinking water would be abundant. Not in Maharashtra, with its 400-odd water sheds, not entirely developed to ensure best percolation, with about half the rural population depending on ground water. It also is dependent on wells as source of irrigation for half its irrigated lands. That is why the contingency plan ought to have efficiently kicked in by end-March.

The absence of such preparations is amazing because despite the average 95 days of rains in a season in Konkan,  it is 55 days in  Vidarbha, 51  days in Western Maharashtra and the minimum 46 in Marathwada, drought is common; the rains may water the fields but in summers that arrive later and leave parched throats. There is urgency about drinking water just as creating jobs to sustain purchasing power is; food grains can be transported in instalments.

The sense of urgency is missing, though, way back in 1999, the state had recognised that as many as 27,000 villages and 25,000 hamlets become dependent on tankers, out of the 40,000-odd villages in the state. A masterplan to develop rural water schemes, all costing Rs 7,300 crore was prepared, and yet, we have the horror of women marching several kilometres a day to fetch water -- a daily jugad -- foregoing their other productive activities. They called the plan 'tanker-free Maharashtra'.

Supplying water by tankers is the most expensive and inefficient way of meeting the needs, even if dire but when piped water supply systems depend on ground water, and all the oodles of money spent under the Employment Guarantee Schemes -- the precursor to the MGNREGA, which runs parallel to the EGS -- on building percolation tanks have gone waste; they were neither built, or built poorly and not sustained. In this background, tankers are the answer.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator, with a commoner's point of view.

Mahesh Vijapurkar