‘Even in the heat, there is some guilt if I drink the water…’

This story first appeared on PARI on 29 June 2017.

Kewalbai Rathod, 60, is operating a heavy handpump. Every forceful draw is accompanied by a grunt, the veins in her forearm standing out, the wrinkles on her face deepening. For all her effort, the water barely trickles into the pot. Several villagers await their turn. And the pump might run out of water at any time.

An hour later, at around 5 p.m., Kewalbai has managed to fill two pots. Her husband Ramu, 65, sits on a nearby rock, gazing into space. “Zaala re (It is done),” Kewalbai calls out in Marathi, and Ramu stands up, but does not move. She picks up one pot and walks up to him to hand it over. He parks it safely on his shoulder, while Kewalbai picks up the other. She then takes his hand and places it on her shoulder, and the two begin to walk towards their home. “He is blind,” she explains, looking at my puzzled face.

‘He is blind’,  Kewalbai explains as she leads her husband Ramu uphill to their home in Kashiram Somla. They ferry water she has painstakingly filled before they return for more

The handpump atop a borewell is at the foot of the hilly hamlet of Kashiram Somla in Udgir taluka of Maharashtra’s Latur district. Every trip entails a 15-minute walk up the hill. Each pot can hold around 12 litresof water and, when full, would weigh nearly 12 kilos. Kewalbai leads Ramu up and down the rocky pathway several times a day. “We are a family of seven,” she says, on reaching their house at the corner of the hill. “I have three sons, two are married. All of them go out in search of work [as agricultural labourers or at construction sites in Udgir town] early in the morning. Fetching water therefore falls upon the two of us.”

The family owns neither farmland nor livestock. The daily wages of their sons and daughters-in-law sustain the household. “Ten pots a day [each containing 12-15 litres] is what we target. The two of us make five such trips every day,” says Ramu. “We only need water for our basic needs like cooking, washing and bathing. Those who farmland and rear livestock have to work even harder.”

Left: Kewalbai, 60, washes her pots before filling them with water. Right: Her husband Ramu sits by as she works the handpump 

When I meet Shalubai Chavan, 40, at her home at 11.30 a.m., she has already spent five hours collecting water. She belongs to a Banjara (Scheduled Tribe) family of five, with two acres of farmland. “Our main source of income is milk products,” she says. “We rear two bulls, three cows and four buffaloes. Maintaining the livestock requires a lot of water.We need over 20 pots a day.”

Shalubai lives right along the curved road on the hill in Kashiram Somla, and has to walk a few minutes before descending towards the handpump. “There were two handpumps at the start of the summer,” she recollects, while washing clothes outside her home. “But one broke down. Now the entire hamlet of 400 people depends on a single handpump. Even in this heat [of May], there is a bit of guilt if I drink the water. The collector started supplying water through tankers, but they are irregular and we cannot rely on them.”

This is why pots are lined up at the handpump before dawn. “Fetching water after sunrise, with temperatures crossing 40 degrees [Celsius], is really exhausting,” says Shalubai, who is in the queue with four pots every morning at 4 a.m. “Still, the line is unending. I fill 12-15 pots in the morning and 5-8in the evening between 4 and 7. Waiting for my turn takes three hours, and the trips back and forth another two hours. It is 9 a.m. before I begin my household chores.”

Shalubai spends a third of the day filling water; the rest goes in household chores and taking care of her family

Five hours in the morning and three hours late-afternoon – Shalubai spends eight hours of her day fetching water for the family. This is not uncommon: a National Commission for Women report states that women in rural households often spend 6-9 hours a day on water duties. Eight hours of farm labour would earn Shalubai Rs. 200, the standard daily wage here. The three summer months, March to May, cost her around Rs. 18,000 every year.

Besides income and time, the losses due to this gruelling work, invariably done by women and girls in rural India, include the impact on health and on education for girls. While women do various farming-related tasks too, they remain the principal water collectors in the household.  Men and boys barely contribute to this arduous physical task. The National Sample Survey (NSSO; 69th round, 2012) notes that when drinking water had to be fetched from a distance, women did this work in 84.1 per cent of rural households, and men in 14.1 per cent.

Left: The scarcity of water and fodder affects the livestock in Shalibai’s household. Right: The  small tank in her courtyard that is running dry

Shalubai’s husband Rajaram too uses the water she has fetched to get ready and go to the farm. “This season at least I come back with water after eight hours,” Shalubai says. “Last year’s situation was so grim, I would walk for hours and come back empty-handed. I once walked 20 kilometres to get fodder for my livestock.”

Shalubai gets no respite between her two water-fetching sessions. “Two of my sons are in school,” she says. “I have to look after them, get them ready for school. Besides, I cook for the family, wash clothes and utensils, and manage the household.”

Around 150 kilometres from Udgir, in Takwiki village in Osmanabad district, Prayagbai Dolare has her own set of problems.

Nearly 70, Dolare is a Dalit who has faced discrimination for most of her life. “It has been better in the last few years,” she quips, on her way to fetch water through farmlands. “Several water sources used to be closed to me. I would often be the last in any queue.There is still one public well in the village where I am not allowed to go.”

In her family, Dolare is responsible for water as well as daily wages. “We do not have any kids,” she says, her saree wrapped around her head in an attempt to minimise the effect of the heat.The temperature is touching 45 degrees Celsius. “My husband is handicapped. He cannot walk, and can hardly work as a labourer.”

Three days a week, Dolare spends four to five hours storing enough water to last for seven days. “We manage with 30-35 pots a week,” she says. The water source, a private borewell, is about a kilometre from her home. “I cannot carry more than one pot at a time. At my age, it takes at least half-an-hour for every pot.”

The rest of the week, Dolare works as an agricultural labourer; because of her age, she earns only Rs.100  a day. “We are pulling along somehow, but what will we do once I am unable to work?” On the three days she spends fetching water, she forgoes her daily wages, cutting down her potential weekly income by half.

Takwiki, like most villages in the eight districts that constitute the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, has an acute water scarcity in summer, when the wells, ponds, lakes and dams usually run dry. This is also the period when panic-stricken farmers sink borewells everywhere, in the hope of  finding a private source of water. If a family is lucky enough to drill a borewell at the right spot, they become water-independent, and  can even start a lucrative trade.

Many in Marathwada milk the water crisis by selling water for Rs.2-4 for every12-15 litre pot. Dolare pays Rs.2 for a pot. “That is 70 rupees of water per week,” she says. A little less than a fourth of what she earns in seven days. If the scarcity deepens, she could end up paying much higher rates.

Around 250 kilometres north of Takwiki, however, roughly 3 million litres of water per day (mld) are available at just 4 paise per litre to the 16 beer factories and distilleries operating in Aurangabad. Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) officials insist  the beer companies are charged Rs.42, but don’t add that this is for every 1,000 litres.

Dolare would have to pay more than three times as much for 1,000 litres of water, and walk for 35 hours to collect that water.

Left: Many villagers gather at to fill water at the handpump at Kahiram Somala village every morning. Right: A young woman fills her bucket with dirty water fearing that the handpump might give in anytime

In April 2016, following a disastrous drought, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court ordered a 50 per cent water cut for the breweries, which were collectively guzzling 5.207 mld of water. “When people had not seen water for days, it was inhuman that breweries were guzzling the precious resource,” the bench said.

Back in Kashiram Somla, Kewalbai empties two pots of water into a drum. The farmlands around her are empty for now, but a crowd has gathered around the handpump, as always. She takes Ramu by the hand, picks up the two empty pots, and they begin another trip down the hill.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Wells of despair

This story first appeared on PARI on 16 June 2017.

A clanging of pots announces the dawn in Takwiki, as people surge towards the nearest water source in this village in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district. Soon, the narrow alleys are lined with water-seekers and their water containers. The oldest is 60-plus, the youngest, five.

Prithviraj Shirsath, 14, and Aadesh Shirsath, 13, are in the queue. A teacher who lives right across their home opens his borewell to the villagers twice or thrice a week. The summer vacations are on, and the Shirsath cousins don’t have the excuse of school to avoid spending their morning fetching water. “When we do not get water from the teacher’s house nearby, we travel a kilometre,” says Prithviraj, ribbing his cousin about taking two hours to fill 10 pots while he fills 15 pots in an hour-and-a-half. “You never let me take the bicycle,” Aadesh shoots back, smiling.

Some distance away, 40-year-old Chhaya Suryanvanshi is less sanguine about walking through the fields in the blistering heat. Her nearest source of water, another borewell, is around a kilometre from her house. Filling water is her responsibility, while her husband works on their farmland. “I need 15 pots a day for my family of six,” she says, a pot parked on her head, supported with her right hand. Another is resting on her hip, beneath her left arm. “I can carry two pots at a time. It still requires 7-8 eight trips a day. Each trip takes just under 30 minutes. And this year has been better than the previous ones [because of better rainfall in 2016].”

This is life for the 4,000 residents of Takwiki through the summers. Due to the daily struggle for water, and the time and effort involved in procuring it in these drought-prone areas of Maharashtra, the villagers have become hugely preoccupired with borewells.

Owning a private source of water not only makes life easier, it also bestows power and status. The teacher walks through Takwiki with his head held high. He is lauded for his magnanimity in opening up his borewell to others in need.

The less magnanimous, however, milk the water scarcity and run a prosperous trade. “I pay 2 rupees for every 15 litres,” says Chhaya, among the many who buy water from villagers fortunate enough to have drilled a borewell at the right spot.

A line of orange pots outside the house of a local teacher who opens up his private borewell to the public a few times each week in Takwiki village

Many farmers in the agrarian region of Marathwada have gone bankrupt in their quest to strike water. Sinking a borewell is a tricky business. It costs more than Rs. 1 lakh, with completely uncertain outcomes. If the spot at which a farmer drills turns out to be dry, the money is wasted. The dejection of a failed borewell, however, fades before the hope of drilling a successful one.

Dattusingh Bayas, 60, has drilled eight borewells on his 8-acre farmland over the last three years, of which only one is usable at present. It gives him around 100 litres of water per day. “I could think of no other way to maintain my livestock and farmland,” he says, standing in his fields of tur and soybean. “Last year, I had to give away three of my eight bulls because I did not have enough water.”

In his search for water, Bayas has run up a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs from private moneylenders. “The interest rates are rising by the day,” says Bayas, whose two sons work as labourers and two daughters are married. “But I also work as a carpenter in the village. I make 500 rupees a day on an average. It has kept me going amidst the crisis.”

‘When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,’ says Dattusingh Bayas about how he has accumulated a debt of over Rs. 3 lakhs sinking eight borewells 

Most of the borewells in Marathwada are drilled in the 3-4 months before June, when natural water bodies begin to run dry and it becomes difficult to maintain farmland and livestock. No river originates in Marathwada, and farmers have few options other than borewells. Adding to the scarcity are increasingly erratic weather patterns and government policies that promote water-intensive crops like sugarcane, Such is the extent of the water shortage now, that Marathwada’s farmers have started using borewell water for irrigation, though it is enough to only be used for drinking purposes.

The lax rules on groundwater extraction further push the proliferation of borewells. There are only two rules, and even these are routinely flouted: a farmer, the state administration tells reporters, cannot drill a borewell beyond 200 feet and within 500 metres of a public water source. However, farmers have often gone as deep as 1,000 feet. Four out of Bayas’ eight borewells go 400 feet deep. “When you are desperate for water, you keep digging,” he says. This tampers with the deep aquifer, which takes hundreds of years to refill. The process  is proving to be catastrophic for the region.

In spite of the 120 per cent rainfall last season, groundwater recharge in 55 out of 76 talukas in Marathwada has depleted, as compared to the average groundwater over the past five years, according to the state’s Groundwater Survey and Department Agency. Except Beed (2 of 11 talukas) and Latur (4 of 10 talukas), all six districts have thrown up alarming numbers: in 5 out of 8 in Osmanabad, all the 9 talukas of Aurangabad, and 16 of the 16 talukas in Nanded, groundwater has depleted.

People must travel long distances to collect water as the crisis deepens across the Marathwada region of Maharashtra

  

But there is still no limit to how many borewells a family can own. The administration in all the districts has no clue how many borewells exist. Sunil Yadav, the stand-in collector of Osmanabad [in April], says the gram panchayat is supposed to keep track of the depth of the borewells, but it does not. Ultimately though, the collector and the state are responsible for this monitoring.

The administration has no count of the number of agents working in the district either, suggesting that they are unregistered. Travelling through Osmanabad, you come across a borewell agent’s shop almost every three minutes. The agents help farmers sink a borewell.

Dayanand Dhage, one of the agents on the outskirts of Takwiki, says he helped  farmers sink over 30 borewells in the last week of April. “Farmers contact us, and it is our responsibility to arrange the apparatus and the truck-mounted borewell rig,” he says. “Farmers pay us in cash, and we settle accounts with the owners of the truck on a monthly basis.”

The rig owners are mostly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and operate in Maharashtra through these agents. The number of such trucks running through Marathwada remains unknown.

The entire economy is thus unregulated, and there is no question of service tax. When asked if the agents or owners require any prior permission or if they have to follow any norms to carry out this business, Sunil Yadav and an officer with the groundwater department have no clear answers.

By not making any law to regulate borewells, the state government aids the lobby that is operating in an open field. “Turning a blind eye to the issue, the government keeps the market for borewells booming,” says an official at the Osmanabad district board on condition of anonymity. “The absence of any policy benefits those milking the crisis.”

Desperate for water: children as young as five queue up with their pots in Takwiki village

Meanwhile, back in Takwiki, Bayas says he is working extra hours to save some money. He has a debt of Rs. 3 lakhs. Plus the cropping season is here, and he needs money to buy inputs. But that is not why he is saving up. “Another borewell?” I ask him. Turns out, it is not a wild guess.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Ground report: Drought-stricken Marathwada limps from bad to worse

This story first appeared on Catch News on 25 March 2016.

Jagannath Kokate nervously sits across his three robust bovines in the scorching heat around noon. Clad in a white dhoti and kurta, he is engaged in a tense conversation with his farmer friend at the cattle camp set up in the village of Wathoda in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district.

Dr. Harshavardhan Raut of the Raj Pratishthan NGO, who founded this cattle camp, has hinted about its closure if the Maharashtra state government does not reimburse the amount spent on the camp.

 

 

In the hushed village of Wathoda, the cattle camp spreads across a rugged four-acre land with more than 1,000 animals being fed and looked after since 12 January, this year. Animals rest under temporary sheds installed with bamboos and covered with a green cotton cloth. Fodder and water occupy the periphery of the animals. Their owners have virtually shifted from their respective villages to the camp to supervise the livestock. They go back home only to dine and sleep.

No money, no camp?

The cattle camp has been a great source of comfort and a significant burden off the chest of beleaguered farmers from villages within a 15-kilometer radius. “Water and fodder expenses amount to around 5,000 rupees a month behind one animal,” says 80-year old Kokate as his pink turban shines with the reflection of the sun beating down mercilessly. “The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn. Had it not been for the camp, we would have been even more miserable.”

“The drought has already ensured our income dwindles to a quarter of what we would earn,” syas 80-year-old farmer

However, this relief could be short-lived, for the state government has not lived up to its promise. The organizers have incurred in excess of 20 lakh rupees so far but the assured reimbursement has still not found its way.

“It is getting increasingly difficult to sustain,” says Raut. “The farmers are hugely depended on it but I will not be able to drag on post April.”

The government has fixed 70 rupees behind every grownup animal and 35 for a baby bovine, but the actual expenses cross 100 rupees, says Raut. “70 bucks merely cover for water and fodder,” he adds. “Who will account for the labor and transport costs?”

The paucity of fodder has compelled them to procure it 50 kilometers from the camp-site, increasing the transport cost. The water suppliers have doubled the tanker costs due to water scarcity. And the situation can only intensify with April and May ominously lurking around. “We would have to go as far as 150 kilometers for fodder,” predicts Raut, adding they require 10 tons of it every day.

Moreover, 2.5 lakh rupees spent on installing the cattle camp is not covered in government reimbursement, adds Satish Patil, manager of the camp.

After a lot of clamor, the administration informed camp owners that 60 lakh rupees have been released, which would be divided between seven camps located in the vicinity; meaning around 8 lakh would be the share of this particular camp at Wathoda. “It does not even cover our monthly expense,” says Patil.

Umakant Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad and the officer in charge of eight districts of Marathwada, admitted the bills were pending but assured the camps that they “would get the full payment by the end of this week”.

If and when the money is released, a section of the amount, around 20% as per Raut, would be reduced for cow dung, for the camp owners would be able to make money out of the dung produced at the camp. “Cow dung is rich organic manure, which is a revenue generator,” says Dangat. “Therefore, the government deducts a reasonable amount.” Patil, though, says it would be impossible to recover the trimmed amount.

The cattle camps across Marathwada have earned fair amount of credit to the state government but they are basically functioning because of well-intentioned moneyed people, believes Latur-based Author and Environmental Journalist Atul Deulgaonkar.

While traveling through Beed and Osmanabad, along with parched riverbeds, one also comes across cattle camps at fairly regular intervals. Farmers from Latur, though, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three in the whole district, which consists of more than 6 lakh animals.

Farmers from Latur, have been less fortunate, where there are merely three cattle camps in the whole district

“The response of local NGOs has been better in Beed and Osmanabad compared to Latur,” says Dangat. “But the collector has been asked to address the issue and we will make sure there are enough camps set up in Latur.”

Setting up a cattle camp

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis. It includes a mandatory deposit of 10 lakh rupees and an assurance letter of 30 lakh rupees among other things. As a result, many of the camps have called it quits.

“The experience with relaxed norms was terrible,” clarifies Dangat. “The guidelines are to ensure financially sound NGOs, who would be able to tend to the animals, are given a go ahead and there is no corruption.”

The pre-requisites to set up a cattle camp have been made more stringent in the new regime led by Devendra Fadnavis

The agrarian crisis in Marathwada has steadily deteriorated with every passing year. The water situation has emerged as a prime headache. Dams have dried up. The administration seems to be floundering. The suicide toll has already crossed 200 in 2016.

The scarcity of water and the failure to raise capital from last season’s Kharif crops has meant many of the farmers have not been able to sow for the Rabi season. Kokate, 80, who has been a farmer all his life, says he remembers only two such precedents: Way back during the infamous drought of 1972 and then directly in 2014.

The others who managed to raise funds for the Rabi season met with tantalizing fate. Shirish Girwalkar from Latur’s Bhatangali village was one of them.

“The experience with relaxed norms for cattle camps was terrible,” clarifies Dangat, divisional commissioner of Aurangabad

Loans, mortgages; the plight of farmers

In November last year, Girwalkar started preparing for the Rabi season by sowing Jowar and Gram in his 6-acre farmland. From November to February, he spent 20,000 rupees per acre, including all the requirements like seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and labor. He approached a registered moneylender and borrowed some amount, hoping to repay the loan in April since the crop was expected by March end. The script seemed to be working for Girwalkar until unseasonal rains in March first week devoured his investment and efforts of the past four months.

“70% of the crop wasted, significant amount of the fodder rendered inedible,” he says as his wife picks up two huge utensils and heads out to fill water. “If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses.”

“If the rains had been delayed by 15-20 days, I would have incurred zero losses,” says Latur’s Girwalkar

Girwalkar has admirably not thrown in the towel and has now pinned his hopes on a decent monsoon season. However, his debts are likely to pile up. The pre-sowing process, which would start in April, has already begun. His farmland has abruptly come back to square one with brown soil once again plowed in the hope it would one day glitter with potential crop yield, like it did merely 20 days ago until the untimely rains washed it off.

With an unpaid loan palpably hanging around his neck, Girwalkar believes he may have to mortgage his land or house. “It is a risk I will have to take,” he says. “What other option do I have?”

Fourth year of unseasonal rains

For the consecutive fourth year, unseasonal rains have ruptured an almost procured crop, and shattered the hopes of many. It is a clear consequence of climate change, which has not been taken seriously by our administration, says Deulgaonkar, who was an invitee at the recently held high-profile climate change conference in Paris.

“It is high time we take proactive steps and use advance technology to adapt to climate change,” he says, adding that even Bangladesh, which has developed a sort of rice that would endure excessive flooding, seemed better prepared to tackle climate change. “Swaminathan Commission has many such suggestions but it is languishing with the centre for almost a decade.”

In the last few months, journalists and politicians have visited Marathwada to gauge the gravity of the crisis, which has given a ray of hope to farmers, only to wither away. “Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says Girwalkar. “But it hardly makes any tangible difference to our daily agony.”

The budget of the state government had rural Maharashtra as its focal point. The tax on sugarcane purchase has been waived off. Weather centers in every district have been promised, which seems to be the first step in eventually countering natural disasters.

“Media asks us about our quagmire, politicians promise better days,” says farmer Girwalkar

Government alloted money a joke

The government has allotted 3,360 crores, a significant amount, to the farmers who have suffered from natural disasters. But the moot question is how much a household would receive behind every hectare. After last monsoons failed the Kharif crop, the amount allotted by the government translated into 6,800 rupees per hectare.

Girwalkar says even a mediocre soil throws up 20 quintals of food crop in one hectare, eventually amounting to the yield worth rupees 60,000 if we go by a conservative rate of 3000 per quintal. “Therefore, 6.800 rupees is a joke,” he says.

The overall agrarian crisis has caused remarkable reduction of the farm activity in Marathwada, as a result of which we have seen a huge influx of farmers and agriculture laborers to cities like Mumbai and Pune. From Latur alone, more than 50,000 people have migrated. Observers note that they would hardly come across a spectacle where farmers sit under a tree in the afternoon and spend hours chatting with each other, something that has now become usual.

Multiple groups working for the poor

The unemployment and lack of avenues, experts say, has endangered the social fabric of the region. In Latur, there are more than 250 registered groups, which claim to work for the rights of the poor. In reality, they engage in extortion, chanting unnecessary slogans and bullying. Locals say the members of all such groups travel in SUVs.

One of the most respected builders in Latur, Vaijnath Kore, says several groups have barged into his office at odd hours for money. “It is increasing by the day,” he says. “Identity crisis drives people towards mob mentality.”

Randhir Surwase, 31, of Lashkar-e-Bhima, founded in 2011, says they self-finance their activities. The group has many cases registered against it but Surwase says all the social activists have been charged with those sections in the past.

The groups may have been registered 15 years back but their numbers have mushroomed in the last 2-3 years. Many of its members hail from farm families. The groups keep engaging in constant one upmanship, intensifying the civil strife.

The recent attack in Latur where a Muslim policeman was paraded with a saffron flag was just one of many instances. A week ago, one of the groups attacked an inter-caste couple hanging out in Latur.

“All of them seem to be following the footsteps of Shivsena,” says Deulgaonkar. “The riots in Mumbai did not recur after 1992-93 because many got work after the economic liberalization. The increasing unemployment in Marathwada does not augur well for us.”

Nonetheless, the drought has had a trickle down impact and the buying capacity of farmers, which makes up almost all of Marathwada, has been substantially encumbered. Farmers have started sidelining critical medical expenses, kids’ education and marriages.

Number of patients on the rise

Doctor Ajit Jagtap of the Apex Hospital in Latur city says except for the emergency ward, the OPD patients have decreased by 40% in the last two months. “Even when I offer to treat them at 60% of the cost, they are reluctant,” he says. “After realizing the importance of the procedure, they mortgage their jewelry or borrow money.”

Nilkanth Kale from Samsapur village in Latur had been putting off a medical checkup for more than a year before he was finally admitted to the hospital last week. “He kept enduring the pain thinking of the bill amount after a check up,” says his brother Suresh. “Last week, his situation scared us all and I admitted him to the hospital.”

He is scheduled to have a hernia surgery this week. The cost of the operation would amount to around 10,000 rupees after concession.

Both Suresh and Nilkanth work as agriculture laborers. The recent recession in work has compelled them to borrow money from an unregistered moneylender at an interest rate of 4% per month. “I get 250 rupees per day and a good week is a three-day working week these days,” says Suresh. “We have also borrowed 3,000 rupees from our relatives.”

Students plight

Not even a kilometer’s distance from the Apex Hospital, lies a local Agriculture Produce Market, where, even during the droughts of previous years, around 25,000 kilograms of Gram would be deposited per day. After steady decline since the conclusion of the last few monsoon rains, it has dwindled to 3,000 today. Other crops have met similar fate. Around 2,500 coolies sit idle in the yard or spend the day watching the television.

The market committee also runs a hostel where around 200 students across Latur district live at a subsidized rate, for many of the educational institutes are located in Latur city.

The students here, however, are a little fidgety these days. The paucity of water has forced the collector to issue a summons to all educational institutes to be done with the impending exams quickly and pack the students off to their respective villages, in order to reduce the water load of the city.

Many of the students, though, would be preparing for their GMATs and other such exams that transpire after the college exams. Going back to their village would not allow them to concentrate on their studies, they say.

Sheikh Sattar from Bhoyra says since the family has not been able to make much due to the drought, parents expect kids to earn instead of “wasting time on studies”. “All of us are doing odd-jobs and funding our living in the city,” he says. “But we cannot earn enough to save for the family.”

And these are still the ones who have managed to get into a senior college or a post-graduation program. Many have shelved their education after studying till the 12th standard in their village school.

Mohini’s story

One such girl, Mohini Bhise from Latur’s remote village of Bhise Wagholi, secured 70% in her 12th standard board exams. She wanted to become a nurse but her parents could not afford to send her to a medical program. A year went by, and she turned 18, an age where parents start looking for a groom to suit their daughter.

Bright, beautiful and talented. Even so, families turned Mohini down, for her father, Pandurang, could not afford a dowry of 4 lakh rupees. Pandurang’s 1-acre farmland had not thrown up a crop good enough to raise an amount as high as that. He also works as a pygmy agent, earning a salary of 1,100 rupees. His wife, Kantabai, lost her job two years back when the company she worked for had closed down.

Eventually, Pandurang mooted the idea of selling the land off. He along with Kantabai, pondered upon it. Mohini overheard the conversation.

On 20 January, when Kantabai stepped out to visit the neighbour, Mohini hanged herself in the house with a dupatta.

Before committing suicide, Kantabai says, Mohini tended to her during her illness and was a pillar of support during the wretched drought.

“She did say she felt a bit uneasy but we never thought she would take the extreme step,” says an inconsolable Kantabai, as she sits in her mildly lit house against the wall with a beautiful painting by Mohini. “Poverty cost me my daughter.”

Mohini’s elder sister, Ashwini, is married. Aniket, 14, and Nikita, 11, are her younger siblings. Aniket wants to be a policeman and Nikita a teacher. Their faces clearly indicate they have grown up too soon.

The police recovered a suicide note in which Mohini questioned the dowry system and implored her father not to sell off the land. “Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” she asked.

“Why should only a daughter’s father have to suffer?” said Mohini in her suicide note talking about dowry

“Please do not waste money on the customary function conducted to ensure the departed soul rests in peace. I am already at peace, knowing I have saved you the money you would have otherwise spent on my wedding.”

Read more

 

Had a dip at the Kumbh? That water could have helped 305 villages

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 18 September 2015.

There’s a city that receives water every 15 days and that may soon become once a month. It has water to sustain itself for a mere month-and-a-half. The two dams on which the district survives have dried up. For the first time, water theft has been reported and it’s now common to see padlocked water tankers.

Travel 130 kilometers northwest and you come across parched riverbeds. Miles of cotton and soya bean fields lie desolate with crops barely as high as one’s ankle. The administration has had to set up cattle camps as people have little water to drink, let alone look after their livestock.

Drive north a little more than 100 kilometers and you will see people climbing down scorched wells, digging at their base until a muddy puddle forms. They scoop the water for hours, separating the mire and stones, to fill their pots.

But 100 kilometres away from this district, you will find millions getting drenched in massive reservoirs, and river ghats, supposedly washing off their sins.

The unfairness of things

Imagine being a resident of Latur, waiting 15 days to get water, or being a farmer in Beed, who has been forced to renounce his livestock, or that man in Jalna, who is digging the bottom of the well in the hope of espying some drinking water. And then imagine watching sants and sadhus enjoying a dip at the Kumbh Mela in Nashik.

Monsoons usually bring 780 millimetres of rainfall to Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. This year that has come down to 259 mm. The met department’s figures indicate an ominous 51% deficit and district officials say more than 70% Kharif crops have failed.

The 11 major reservoirs of the region have less than 10% water left and more than 600 farmers here have committed suicide this year. Official records show 80% of the state is staring at a drought.

At a time like this the Maharashtra government released two TMC (thousand million cubic) water from the Gangapur dam for the Kumbh’s second Shahi Snan (Royal Dip) on 13 September. One TMC was released on 29 August for the first Snan and one TMC more is expected to be released on 18 September.

What was the government thinking?

At least there is no ambiguity about the priorities of this government.

The Snan is a ritual valued by a large section. The Kumbh takes place once in three years in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, by rotation. Nashik has waited for this occasion for 12 years. The government has budgeted over Rs 2,000 crore for the event.

At the same time, it has not waived off farm loans. Given the intensity of the drought in Marathwada, it was not too much to expect.

The Gangapur dam, from which water was generously bestowed to the Kumbh, is upstream of the Jayakwadi dam, on which most of the irrigation projects and 305 villages in Marathwada depend. Had the water been released through that dam, it would have helped significantly.

The Mumbai High Court, has asked the government to “reconsider” its decision (though it has come after two of the three Snans are over). “The government has a policy, which categorizes its priorities as far as supply of water is concerned. As per the policy, supply of water for drinking purposes comes first and supply of water for such Shahi Snans comes in the last category,” the court said.

The judgment comes on the back of a public interest litigation filed by HM Desarda, an economics professor from Pune. The petition said the released water would be a “sheer waste, given the drought situation in the state and the grave danger it posed to human survival.”

According to the National Water Policy, preference should be given to drinking needs, followed by agriculture and then commercial purposes. The petitioner argued the government’s decision violated the policy.

“The petitioner pointed out to apex court orders, which states that access to drinking water is a fundamental right and it is State’s duty to provide drinking water under Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution,” the Bench pointed out.

Astonishingly, the government pleader said such a move would lead to a “law-and-order situation” as lakhs of devotees throng Nashik. Irrespective of whether it was just a precautionary warning or a threat, this indicates the sensitivities of the society. Seems we worry more about religious sentiments than farmers’ lives.

One million people took the first Royal Dip and four million the second. Did the dire situation in Marathwada not even occur to the sadhus while practicing their religious ritual?

Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board, says even if the water is released, it should not be given away free of cost. “The water is valuable,” he says. “When you give it away free of cost, people consuming it do not realize its value.”

If Sahi Snan continues, it would do irreparable damage to Godavari – Marathwada’s life line

The water audit of 2010 shows that 30% of the total water usage falls under the “other” category. While the remaining 70% is used for drinking, commercial and agricultural purposes, the “other” category is not defined.

Studies show that there is hardly anything royal about the Godavari river, in which millions take the Royal Dip: Industrial discharge and domestic waste has severely polluted the river, making it grossly unfit to bathe in.

Experts believe if the Shahi Snan continues this way, it would irreparably damage the Godavari, also known as the lifeline of Marathwada since it fills up the critical Jayakwadi dam.

Rajesh Pandit and Nishikant Pagare, environmental activists from Nashik, had filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court in 2012 urging the government to clean the river up.

But nobody seems bothered. On the other contrary, it was reported on 13 September that a high-level delegation, including the Chief Minister’s wife, would soon fly to China to import ‘holy’ water from Kailas Manas Sarovar to pour it in the Godavari to appease the Sadhus.

The abuse of Godavari or the endemic suicides of farmers should surmount religious sentiments. But they don’t.

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Warning notes from Marathwada: how water wars can consume India

This story first appeared on Catch News on 13 July 2015

The intense water crisis in parts of Maharashtra is not someone else’s problem. It is a warning note for India. The apocalyptic idea of water wars is barely one turn away.

As the monsoon beats down on the country, it seems hard to heed warnings about water crises, droughts, desertification and emergency water trains being despatched to despairing citizens.

 

But water management in many parts of India is so poor, the monsoon is only an illusion: it is not effectively recharging groundwater.

Vidharbha has become a short code for despair in India. This story from Marathwada is a reminder why this is not an isolated story.

One man’s story: parable for the country

Farmer Ejaz Khan’s borewell dried up eight months ago. In mid-June, when pre-monsoon rain showered his Nagzari village in Jalna district, he hastened out of his tin-roofed house to bail out the collected water from his 400-foot-deep borewell before it was soaked up. He managed just a bucketful.

It wasn’t much for his family of five, but it brought hope: the monsoon was on its way to fill up his well. It would be in use for the next four months, if only for half an hour a day, and Khan would be able to irrigate his 3-acre farmland, the sole means of subsistence.

“This is the way it has been for the last few years,” says Khan, “useful for half an hour a day during the monsoon and absolutely useless for the remaining eight months.”

Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. “I did not know how else to overcome the paucity of water,” he explains.

The investment hasn’t yielded much.

Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. He still does not have access to water

Even the little water the borewells have isn’t fit for consumption, Khan says, as he flings a pail into the well that he shares with fellow villagers. He lifts out a bucketful of brownish water with an odd worm squirming in it.

“This is what we have been consuming,” he says, emptying the bucket into a 250-litre drum. It takes him nearly two hours to fill one drum up. He has two.

“This is my family’s quota for the next week,” says Khan, who has a wife and three sons. “Whether we are bathing, cleaning or cooking, we have have one eye on the backyard where the drums are.”

To tide over the crisis, the state has deployed over over 1,400 tankers to supply drinking water to the region, which comprises the four districts of Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed and Parabhani.

This is only a short-term bandaid though, and it solves only the problem of drinking water. Not irrigation.

Even the monsoons only bring a brief respite, not a solution. The land will go back to being parched.

Disaster in the making

So much so, in fact, that experts warn the region could be headed towards desertification. “Marathwada’s water management and governance is so poor, it appears an environmental disaster is in the making,” says Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board.

The per capita availability of surface water in Marathwada is 438 cubic metres, as against 1,700 cubic metres deemed ideal by hydrologists, and, with the population increasing, it’s only going down.

Most of Marathwada’s rivers originate in the drought-prone region itself, so the riverbeds are dried up almost all the time. Its only lifeline, thus, is the Godavari, which fills up the Jayakwadi dam, on which are dependent most of region’s 305 villages, industries and irrigation projects.

But even this lifeline has been choked with dams coming up in Jayakwadi’s catchment area in Nasik and Nagar.

As a result, almost all the water in Jayakwadi in the past few years has been consumed by industries and for drinking, leaving virtually nothing for irrigation. Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery, each guzzling one lakh litres of water every day.

Given its poor water management and governance, experts say Marathwada could be headed towards desertification

Aurangabad, the beer capital of India, devours six crore litres of water daily to keep the beer flowing. The district had long ago caught the eye of the global brewer Fosters, which realised the region’s silted water was conducive for making beer and erected a factory; others soon followed.

Ill-conceived rescue plan

In the past few years, the state has come up with several projects to mitigate Marathwada’s crisis, but they are either languishing or, like Jayakwadi, being choking by upstream dams.

Governments across the board are loath to mandate comprehensive assessment impacts for development projects. The situation in Marathwada is a textbook example of what happens when this is not done.

The Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project was envisioned to divert excess water from Kolhapur to Ujjani and Marathwada. But it has been derailed, to the harm of Osmanabad and Beed.

The Pentakali project, similarly, has diminished the Upper Painganga Project, severely affecting Nanded and Parbhani.

Apart from worsening the water crisis, these ill-conceived plans have triggered regional feuds as well.

In February this year, 11 villages from Jalna’s Mantha taluka went on a hunger strike to protest Vidarbha’s appropriation of water from the Purna river. And Marathwada has long been at loggerheads with western Maharashtra over Godavari.

Marathwada has struggled to win these battles because its politicians “do not have the same clout” as those from Western Maharashtra, says Purandare. “Politics in Maharashtra flows through the canals.”

Purandare insists the drought is “man-made”, brought on by urbanisation and a mushrooming of sugarcane factories, which require substantial amount of water.

“Urbanisation ensures the use of concrete,” he explains. “It kills tiny water bodies, adversely affecting the ground water recharge.”

If this continues, Purandare warns, there will be “no water left for farming”.

Nowhere to go, but down

The signs are already visible, and glaringly. Of Marathwada’s 76 talukas, 61 have seen a critical drop in ground water levels, the trend coinciding with a spree of digging wells and borewells in the farmland.

“In a state of unawareness and panic, farmers go on digging deep,” says Sanjeev Unhale, a senior journalist from Aurangabad. “But they do not realise that the deep aquifer takes a thousand years to be refilled. It can’t be disturbed. To dig up to 20-25 meters is understandable, but farmers are going a thousand feet down.”

Yet, in non-monsoon months, even the deepest wells come up dry, forcing Marathwada’s residents to forage elsewhere. It’s a torturous quest.

Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery: each guzzles one lakh litres of water every day

“We dig up the parched riverbed or the bottom of a well until a muddy puddle of water comes to the fore,” says Pralhad Magar, 65, from Jalna’s Kharpudi village. “We scoop it up into our pots and then physically strain the mire and stones out.”

It obviously takes hours to collect enough water this way, so everone in the family, men, women, young and old, pitch in. “I can’t carry on doing it for hours. My body doesn’t allow me now,” says Magar.

It’s only when monsoon arrives that they get some relief. Afterwards, it’s back to square one, until the next monsoon and the next.

It’s a cruel cycle Marathwada’s farmers are stuck in. To free them, the state needs to come up with a long-term solution.

Purandare has one. There was a dispute in the past between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over water from Babhali Bandhara, he explains, “and it was resolved after the Supreme Court intervened and said Maharashtra can’t use more than 2.74 TMC of water from the Bandhara.”

“It’s necessary to arrive at a similar solution for the release of water for Jayakwadi from dams upstream,” says Purandare, adding the upper Godavari basin should be “spared of any new construction”.

Until that happens, thousands of Marathwada’s farmers are at nature’s mercy. “The only time we spend less time storing water is during the monsoons,” says Khan, and abruptly ends the conversation.

He has noticed dark clouds gathering over Nagzari. He hysterically collects his empty pots and utensils and arranges them outside his dimly-lit room to catch the flow from the roof.

Soon, it’s pouring down. And as his pots start filing up, a grin appears on Khan’s face. When the solution is missing, dangerously, the respite seems enough.

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