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Maharashtra's man-made water woes

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
May 25, 2012 15:05 IST
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Why are so many regions in the state facing water scarcity despite normal to excess rainfall? Mahesh Vijapurkar blames the government.

Maharashtra-based media are replete with despatches about the dire situation with regard to water scarcity but have failed to explain why, especially because it has followed a 'normal' monsoon with entire Konkan region receiving 'excess'. Of course this regional average does mask deficient precipitation in several taluks.

Such taluks, normally in rain shadow areas, do get under stress now and then but not as much as it has this time. Graphic stories of the struggle to get a pot of water are by now daily fare in our newspapers and yet, one conclusion cannot escape us: the distress is manmade and its management, despite the attractions of making money during others' distress remained.

Sadly, the request to Centre for up to Rs 13,000 crore -- only Rs 700 crore was cleared -- to mitigate the current water scarcity was prepared and sent much too late. As a Congress MLAs' delegation had wanted the chief minister to avoid the embarrassment of seeking such aid, since funds had only recently been sought and secured for crop damage due to excess rains. How could they then speak of scarcity? And elections to panchayati raj bodies in February distracted the politicians from the issue, politics superseding other concerns.

This apart, water conservation and management is utterly neglected in Maharashtra though, on paper, claims exist of conservation. During decades of spending on Employment Guarantee Scheme, forerunner to the MGNREGA, billions were spent on percolation tanks. Why have they not recharged local groundwater sources? Because, such tanks don't exist; they were scarcely built, to start with. If built, no one thought of ensuring their durability which is of essence in water management.

Several examples of water conservation initiated by NGOs but with government funds dot Maharashtra, foremost being the Adgaonkhurd example. This village, once dependent on manual labour outside, opted for water conservation by contour bunds, percolation tanks, planned use of the elixir of life and lo and behold, it had to start hiring labour from outside. It was announced three decades ago that it would replicated across Maharashtra but are there any signs of it save for scattered other examples like Hivre Bazaar?

Now, the official stand is that the Shirpur example, where a legislator has poured his profits from business -- rare example this, by Amrish Patel -- to green his area. This, the view from the top, is something that should be replicated in at least 11 taluks. But where are such 11 plus MLAs and MLCs? The novelty becomes the flavour of the season, especially a season of distress. This underlines the impoverished policy making and execution; neither do government efforts are focused, without waste and corruption and by seeking to replicate something else, just abdicates the responsibility.

Worse is the preoccupation with urban needs. Take the majority of water sources tapped in Thane district for serving the needs of Mumbai and cities adjacent to it. Built at huge costs, the reservoirs and the pipelines from there traverse thirsty villages. They have swallowed the discrimination, having lost their lands and their entitlement to their water from their watersheds but is the Mumbai person aware of the wasted water when luxuriating under the shower for long minutes?

Water as a shared resource has not been drilled into the people's consciousness. Take the insistence of farmers in Sangola, a rain shadow area in Sholapur, farmers benefiting from a canal want it not to be lined because it can also recharge their wells. Those ahead of it in Malshirash taluk want it to be lined with cement so some water can flow to them without being absorbed on the way. Those aspiring farmers describe the present situation as water loss.

In a state with poor spread of irrigation -- which also has a bearing apropos the earlier paragraph on drinking water -- which only 17 per cent of the cultivable area, most of the water is soaked up by sugarcane as a crop. It is possible to argue that such crops are not raised in drought prone area but that would be a falsehood.

Anyone who wants to aspire to better gain from agriculture seeks to grow sugarcane and that links him to politics and that is the biggest gain. Limiting water use by these farmers has never been countenanced. S B Chavan who sought to curb its perennial use had to bow out of office of the chief minister. Such is the power of sugarcane, never mind the water scarcity.

The issues get accentuated in their dimensions and intensity mainly because water management has been a low priority and each time scarcity occurs, it is treated as a one-off situation and politicians and bureaucrats go to the drawing boards. Though each of the crises can be devastating, the drawn up plans do not indicate that lessons from pervious events have been taken into account. It is as if the previous drought had not hit the spots now sought to be managed.

Since half of the irrigation and more than that share of drinking water is sourced from wells, it is all the more important that the aquifers are managed properly. The state sets aside about Rs 300 crore per year for water conservation which, according to a report prepared by the State's Planning Board's one sub-committee estimated would take 42 years to make a significant difference.

To halve this period, it suggested an annual outlay of Rs 2,500 crore. When this subject was sought to be taken up in the Cabinet meeting, it turned out that the concerned officials disclaimed any knowledge of such a report even existing though it was part of the exercise to prepare the 11th Plan.

The other is the water users' association which were required to be planned so that water was distrusted equitably on the basis of the total divided by the acreage in the command. Earlier, the quantum for each landholder depended on the type of crop, and the official's arrangement with the farmer. This programme of water users' association can never be said to be on a roll because the irrigation department which was told by the World Bank that such equity-ensuring mechanism was a requisite for securing any loans. But all that is now on paper.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs who takes the commoner's perspective seriously.

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