Even as Maharashtra faces one of the worst droughts in its history, the lack of attention towards all crops grown in the state, as well as numerous project delays, shows poor long-term planning by the government contributed to the current state of affairs.
Though sugarcane accounts for only about a million hectares of Maharashtra’s crop cultivation area of 17.3 million hectares, it consumes a whopping 70 per cent of the total water towards crops.
There are 202 cooperative sugar factories and 68 private mills in the state, most of which were set up by leaders of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. All these factories together have a daily crushing capacity of 2,500-10,000 tonnes. The total investment in sugar, its by-products and co-generation stands at about Rs 30,000 crore and the industry’s annual turnover is Rs 20,000 crore, solely through the sale of sugar.
During the crushing season, these factories consume about 1.5-3 lakh litres of water a day. According to government estimates, from the plantation stage to production, water requirement is 3,500 litres a kg. About 17 per cent of the water from an irrigation project’s command area is consumed by sugarcane, compared with two per cent by oilseeds and 4.5 per cent by pulses.
At a time when 11,000 villages are facing water crisis and 3,905 villages have recorded a fall of 50 per cent in crop output, these numbers assume immense significance.
The availability of water for about 2,000 irrigation projects in Maharashtra has fallen to 8,399 million cubic metres, against the total capacity of 27,821 million cubic metres. The situation is worse in the underdeveloped Marathwada region, where water availability has fallen to a paltry 376 million cubic metres, against a capacity of 5,142 million cubic metres.
The irrigation scam in the state (in which Rs 70,000 crore was spent during 1999-2000 and 2010-11) has aggravated the problem. Of the 170 sugar factories that carried out crushing this season, so far, 125 have been shut for want of cane.
The drought-affected regions of Solapur, Pune, Ahmednagar, Sangli, Satara, Osmanabad, Beed, Latur, Nashik, Jalna, Parbhani and Aurangabad together account for about 80 per cent of the state’s sugar production.
According to Maharashtra Economic Survey 2012-13, “As on December 31, 2012, of the total sugar production in the country, the share of the state was 35.3 per cent.” Experts believe the drought-prone districts have contributed more than a quarter to India’s sugar production.
Amid all this, few sugar factories have opted for water-conserving measures, including drip irrigation, sub surface, sprinklers and rain gun; most depend on traditional irrigated water supply.
All, however, isn’t well on the foodgrain front. It is estimated production in the state in 2012-13 fell 18 per cent to 10.43 million tonnes (mt) from 12.73 mt in 2011-12, as a deficit monsoon in parts of western Maharashtra, Aurangabad and Nashik led to a delay in sowing major kharif crops. The agriculture sector is expected to contract 1.4 per cent, resulting in a 2.1 per cent contraction in the agriculture and allied activities sector.
Access to drinking water is one of the most serious challenges. So far, the state government has provided only Rs 513 crore towards this. About 3,000 tankers have been deployed in drought-hit areas. Amid all this, however, mineral water suppliers are making a fortune -- a one-litre bottle of drinking water is being sold at Rs 30-60, instead of the maximum retail price of Rs 15; a 500-litre barrel is being sold at Rs 300.
Though various district authorities are responsible for water supply through tankers in their respective areas, most tankers are managed by societies formed with the backing of Congress and NCP ministers.
Besides, a powerful tanker lobby is also at work, charging Rs 700-1,000 for a 10,000-litre tanker in drought-hit areas.
According to South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, this year’s drought isn’t worse than the one in 1972, from a meteorological and agricultural point of view.
However, “it is possible that hydrologically, this year’s drought may prove to be worse than 1972 for some districts. The blame for this lies entirely on wrong decisions to build unviable and undesirable large dams, wrong cropping patterns, diversion of water for non-priority uses, neglect of local water systems and unaccountable water management by the Maharashtra government, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority and the central government”, say Parineeta Dandekar and Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, in their latest study.
The much-debated Jayakwadi dam in Marathwada has total storage capacity of 2,909 million cubic metres and effective live storage capacity of 2,171 million cubic metres.
About 30 per cent of the dam is filled with silt, reducing its storage capacity. Currently, the dam’s very existence is in jeopardy, as water flowing to the reservoir has been diverted by constructing small and medium dams and embankments.
According to the state agriculture department, in the last 10 years, about Rs 70,000 crore has been invested in major and medium irrigation projects in the state, only to achieve a 0.1 per cent rise in irrigation potential! The NCP-led water resources ministry, however, says the rise in irrigation potential is 5.17 per cent, adding most of the rise was recorded in 1999-2000 and 2010-11.
Maharashtra Governor K Shankarnarayanan has expressed concern at the fact that Rs 78,451 crore would be required to complete the 670 irrigation projects underway in the state. On his part, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan admits only 12 per cent of the state’s gross cropped area is under surface irrigation, compared with the national average of 40 per cent.
And, of the total created irrigation potential of 4.7 million hectares, only 2.9 million are being irrigated (canal & well irrigation). Besides, Maharashtra tops the list of states with most un-irrigated agricultural land.
Rajya Sabha member and former Planning Commission member Bhalchandra Mungekar says the state suffers from distorted water usage. “According to my simple guess, nearly 60 per cent of the total irrigation water is used for sugarcane alone, starving the other crops of adequate water. Again, a large number of small and marginal farmers do not have much access to irrigation water, one of the reasons for more poverty in rural areas, which is inconsistent with its growth profile. As a result, there is a crisis of drinking water not only in Marathwada and Vidarbha, but also in some districts of western Maharashtra, the heart-belt of irrigation water,” he says.
Mungekar warns mono agriculture may result in some tracts of land in western Maharashtra suffering from water salinity; in the long run, these areas would be unfit for agriculture.
R P Kurulkar, former chairman, Marathwada Statutory Development Board, attributes the sorry state of affairs to excessive use of water for sugarcane cultivation, wrong selection of sites for irrigation dams, especially in the Marathwada region, and the lack of adequate attention to watershed development programmes.
“In 2001, the state government took a decision to bring in Krishna water to Marathwada, with an investment of Rs 4,500 crore. Though the cost has risen to about Rs 7,000 crore, the decision remains on paper, thanks to the politics involved. In my opinion, this should be taken up on a priority basis, apart from digging 1.5 lakh wells in the Marathwada region alone,” he says.