Rainfall has been scarce since the past few years and the plight of farmers cannot be worse. Everyday farmer suicides have become a norm and the measures taken by the government(s) have been half-hearted and haphazard. The crisis has spelt doom for the future of farmers who are driven to destitution and grave misery. The reasons are manifold, apart from erratic monsoons. 12 states have declared drought this year due to scarce rainfall for the second consecutive year. The ones majorly affected are Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. True, absence of rainfall is a major factor, leading to drought, but states like Rajasthan, an arid state with rainfall below 400 mm, has not been through a crisis as severe as that of the above-mentioned states. In Maharashtra, Marathwada received 882 mm, while another drought-prone region, Vidarbha, was blessed with 1,034 mm of rain. Yet Maharashtra is cursed with the worst drought in four decades ravaging crops, killing livestock, emptying reservoirs and slowing hydroelectric power output. The reason being, in many ways, the drought is unfortunately, man-made. In June, 2016, the Marathwada region received a good amount of rainfall in the first two weeks. But the dry weather in the last few days has meant that the region now has around 26% deficit in the amount of rainfall. The only positive development for the people of Marathwada is perhaps the prediction that rainfall is impending in the coming few weeks.
2015 saw the highest number of suicides by farmers in Maharashtra since 2001. Around 2,590 farmers ended their lives between January and October 2015 as reported by The Hindu. That Maharashtra would face a water crisis was clear when monsoons failed; yet the State took no action to curb supplies to water-guzzling industries like liquor and sugarcane. The State’s gross and criminal negligence in water management is rooted in its deep-seated alliance with sugar cooperatives and liquor factories. Maharashtra is the second-largest producer of sugar after Uttar Pradesh. But, unlike the northern state, which has a huge river network, including that of the Ganges, Maharashtra’s sugarcane cultivation is in zones where water is extremely scarce. Of the 202 sugar mills in Maharashtra, 40 per cent are in the Marathwada region. Sugarcane being a water-intensive crop, its cultivation consumes as much as 71.5 per cent of irrigated water, including that from wells. The scorching summers have dried up most of the canals in the districts of Maharashtra. Yet, the sugarcane factories continue to usurp water from these canals leading to the present acute crisis. Still it hasn’t stopped Ms Pankaja Munde, a BJP state minister, to quip that the liquor industry should get all the water allocated to it. The district of Beed, her home constituency, continues to report the highest number of cases, with 81 farmer suicides. Not surprisingly, the minister’s husband is a director of a distillery in Marathwada.
Farmers in these regions are overburdened with debt and are forced to seek other manual labour jobs. Some are reeling under debts taken from money-lenders at high interest rates. People don’t have water to drink, cook or perform their daily ablutions. The situation is more deplorable for Dalit communities amidst the farmers. In the village of Tikamgarh, due to absence of any facility for drinking water, Dalits who went to the nearby neighbourhood to draw water were driven away, because of the prevailing untouchability.
The Government has started sending relief measures to the affected regions. In a village like Latur, the government says it is bringing water by train every day, but people are getting water once a week, after queuing for hours in the scorching heat. Villages, which do not have access to railways, are worse off than other areas, as water cannot be transported there. Buying water has also become difficult for farmers, due to shortage of funds. In most of these villages, canal work or dam construction has remained unattended or incomplete for years, thanks to government apathy or maybe a smaller vote bank.
In Chhattisgarh, the farmers’ condition is equally pitiable. Here, a farmer who lost his four acre of crops was compensated with rupees 81. The farmers in the Sarora village of Jammu, where there was a crop loss to the amount of 5611 crores, by the 2014 floods were handed out cheques to the amount of rupees 47. Such blatant disregard for a farmer’s despair is a vivid example of the administration’s callousness to resolve the crisis.
Gujarat is also reeling under acute water scarcity. Already, 65 per cent of the 500 dams and reservoirs in the state are either empty or about to go empty. Ground water levels have dipped drastically. Earlier, water was available at 10 feet, which went down to 50, 100 and even 200 feet over years. In North Gujarat region, people are not getting water even at 1.000 or 1,200 feet. The Gujarat government has been counting on expanding the Narmada canal network. Of the 12,000 km of Narmada canal network, work on 5,000 km is yet to be completed.
The farmers in Bihar rue that the Government has forgotten the kisan in its vikas ki rajneeti. None of them have received any drought compensation. In spite of a bad monsoon, whatever crop the farmers have forced out of their barren land is because of their relentless hard work. The drought is forcing tens of thousands of people to migrate from rural areas in search of water, food and jobs, increasing the risk they may be trafficked or exploited. In Maharashtra’s Jalna district, scores of villages house only destitute women and children left in the care of older relatives who keep a weak eye on their homes and parched fields. Men and their wives have moved to cities in search of jobs on construction sites and as day labourers, sleeping under flyovers and on pavements. Some have been reduced to begging on the streets.
Experts have claimed that the drought is a disaster caused mainly by water management, accompanied by corruption, water-intensive cropping patterns and absence of a long-term view to manage water and drought. South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), in its analysis, says the blame lies squarely on building unviable large dams, wrong cropping patterns, water diversion for non-priority uses, neglect of local water systems and unaccountable water management by the Centre and the State governments.
In these critical times, Centre and the State along with NGOs should work together for sustainable solutions to address the problem of vulnerable regions in natural distress. The Maharashtra government is set to enforce a five-year ban on sanctioning new sugar mills in the drought-hit Marathwada region, in line with the recommendations of the Madhav Chitale committee, set up when the Congress-NCP government was in power. Several other measures have been taken up both at the ministerial and scientific level to augment rainfall and secure the livelihood of farmers in the coming years. The Maharashtra government has undertaken cloud-seeding programme at the start of this year’s monsoon Cloud-seeding is a process to encourage rainfall by spreading either dry ice (or more commonly silver iodide aerosols) into the upper part of clouds to try to stimulate the precipitation process and form rain.
Besides, the Central Government’s premier research institution – Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – has decided to join hands with the former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar-led Vasantdada Sugar Institute (VSI), Pune, to develop drought tolerant genetically modified (GM) sugarcane that will not need huge quantities of water. Scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) have come up with desalination plan. Using waste steam from the nuclear reactor, the plant is able to desalinate and purify seawater, making it fit for consumption. Several such plants have been installed in Punjab, West Bengal and Rajasthan.
True, the State, along with NGOs, is trying hard to resolve the crisis, yet the foresightedness and wisdom of a few could have helped prevent such a situation in many regions. In Rajasthan, where scorching summers, parched soil and little rainfall is normal, water scarcity does not pose a problem to many villages, where farmers can boast of multi-cropping and even animal husbandry. In 2000, when Rajasthan was hit by severe drought, social activist Amla Ruia started constructing check dams near villages which are cost effective and without any disadvantages of large dams such as displacement and rehabilitation of people. Today, dry villages in Rajasthan have seen a tremendous transformation. All the dry hand pumps and bore wells in the areas have been recharged. The women who had to earlier walk several kilometres to fetch water now get clean water at their doorsteps.
The tiny village of Patoda amidst the water-starved Aurangabad is equipped with water ATMs, a novelty that has breathed relief in these times of despair. The model, a brainchild of the village Sarpanch uses a water filtration plant that provides 20 litres of mineral water free to all the families that use ATM cards. Additional filtered water is available through metered water supply at Rs 5 per 1,000 litres. The machine operates 24×7 through the year. It has taken 10-12 years of rigorous labour of water conservation and strict discipline to attain success. Bunds were built to preserve rainwater, while stabilisation ponds were dug to treat waste water with various forms of bacteria and algae, to make suitable for farming. The villagers have taken extra care to preserve every single drop of water. Each household has a water meter to curb excess use and water audits in the village remain stringent. So effective is its water conservation model that Patoda has now become a model for the rest of Marathwada.
Another glowing example in the drought-ravaged Marathwada is the village of Kadwanchi in Jalana district. The village has seen a sharp decline in drought vulnerability since 1996, when the Kadwanchi watershed programme had been launched by the government. Initiated with a financial outlay of rupees 1.2 crore, the government officials constructed bunds and trenches, and planted trees in a piece of forestland in the village to showcase how effective these methods are in fighting drought. These steps slowed the flow of running water, increased seepage and recharged groundwater. They had an impact on the nearby areas as well. Within two years, the wells in surrounding areas started recharging and the soil gained moisture. Once the water scarcity was over, the farmers started constructing farm ponds for drip irrigation. These ponds store rainwater and provide water throughout the year. The farmers started growing grapes on their land instead of water-intensive crops, which led to an increase in income. It increased the credit-worthiness of farmers and institutional lending increased up to 87%.
In Latur, where drought has taken a toll on farmer’s lives, a certain Sandipan Badgire has adequate harvest from organic farming. Inter-cropping and crop rotation has kept his farmland healthy. In addition, usage of organic fertilisers using cow dung, cow urine, neem leaves, water, and gram flour, instead of costly chemical fertilizers have doubled the output. Organic farming has enabled some farmers to save Rs 5,000 to 7,000 every year, which they use for their children’s education. Since 2011, an advocacy group Harit Prayas funded by Caritas, a Rome-based non-profit, has been training small and marginal farmers in making fertiliser. The initiative has been catching up in many panchayats of Chhatarpur district. While many factors helped bring changes in these regions—involving voluntary organisations, committed individuals, and government grants and loans—the most important common factor was the key role played by local institutions like community groups and village panchayats.
Rohini Nilekani and Mala Subhramanium recommend innovative ground water management solutions like aquifers. People abstract ground water as if it were an infinite resource, because it is invisible. When provided with aquifers, the farmers understood water availability and developed protocols for water usage, which secured the community’s drinking water and agricultural needs. In Gujarat’s most arid district Kutch, deepening of talaabs, construction of new wells, reclaiming abandoned wells, constructing roof top rainwater harvesting or recharge structures have helped many communities become water secure.
In Karnataka’s Naikanhalli village, bore wells are used in recharging underground aquifers. The farmers have dug bore wells to pump water into the ground from a nearby seasonal canal. With a recharged water table, they could now extract water throughout the year.
Surface water is thus directed to an aquifer through a bore in the ground. The bore wells have helped farmers irrigate a larger area, diversify crops, and pay off debts. Although groundwater recharge can improve water security and agricultural productivity in dry and water-scarce regions, its affordability hampers its progress as a tool for drought mitigation. The cost of building the recharge structures amount to 30,000 which is hardly affordable for those in dire need. Though there are schemes to build public recharge systems, there are no subsidies for individual farmers.
In Kerala, a shallow aquifer recharge programme was initiated through which rain was directed from rooftops to ubiquitous wells with simple filtration. This campaign has now scaled across the state as the “Jalsuraksha” programme. In a few districts of Telangana, farmers arrived at water sharing norms to ensure critical irrigation for all. They pooled existing bore wells to extract groundwater equitably and efficiently. Groundwater increased by two metres in three years and the irrigated area doubled. This practice of bore well pooling is now actively supported in the state Indira Jala Pradha scheme. Public funds can enable rural communities to use good science to understand aquifers, and build their capacity to manage those aquifers as renewable resource.
In Andhra Pradesh, Ayyappa Massangi has taken the pledge to solve the nation’s water crisis, by capturing and storing rain water. 84 acres of barren land in a drought prone-region was converted into a “water bowl” with a network of 25,000 sand-filled pits and four new lakes to capture and store any rainwater that falls there. No drop is allowed to escape into rivers and run off to the sea. It stays on and in the land, keeping the subsoil charged with water which, when needed, is drawn from five shallow bore-wells. Through his Water Literacy Foundation, Ayyappa is training “water warriors” to spread his message. Another water crusader, Rajender Singh from Jharkhand appealed to the Chief Minister to introduce a Water Security Act that ensures water security to all its citizens. The Jharkhand Utilities Service Company has embarked on a mission to process grey water across the town and process one billion litres of water every day for reuse. The mission Kakatiya Project in Telengana has identified over 45,000 tanks and lakes to restore them so that as much as 250~270 TMC of water is available for agricultural, irrigational, livestock and drinking water needs.
The extreme water shortages have thus turned the focus on how to use water judiciously with the Prime Minister calling for all out efforts to implement drip irrigation on a massive scale through extending support to farmers by way of subsidy and other incentives. While the drip method yields excellent results as far as output goes, the cost factor is a deterrent especially in the wake of crop damage due to drought. The government is now seeking the Israel government’s expertise and trying to make drip irrigation a less expensive process. The Supreme Court had asked the Centre to cover all people under national food security system, appoint state food commissioners and district grievance redressal officer in drought-hit states. The apex court has also directed appointment of state food commissioners for effective implementation of the food law.
The MGNREGA programme can be made instrumental in drought management. The water structures created under MGNREGA are the best instruments to ensure that Indian villages become drought-proof. These structures harvest water and recharge the groundwater. Going by the types of water structures created, each of these structures can irrigate one hectare of land. In the last decade, MGNREGA has created around 12.3 million water conservation structures, yet due its poor implementation, success could not be reaped.
Although the prime minister has asked our agricultural scientists to set specific goals to ensure that lab research reaches farmers and helps raise their incomes, the government’s budget allocation for agricultural research has been despicably low. There are some indigenous drought-resistant varieties of crops, but Indian universities and institutions remain heavily underfunded and are unable to make any serious research interventions on that front. Moreover, to relieve the farmers of their plight, the government according to their poll promise, should have increased the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of crops to above 50% of costs. A few days, the MSP of rice was increased by a measly 4.5 %. The average farm income in this country hovers around a meagre Rs 6,000 per month. Such abysmal low returns from farming, is another reason for farmers driven to suicide. In times of natural calamity they have no savings to sustain themselves. Trapped in an unending debt-cycle, they find it easier to end their lives. In spite of the Supreme Court reminding the Centre that rural distress needs urgent attention, the Government’ assistance hasn’t gone beyond inflated rhetoric. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his economic advisors clearly need to bring back focused attention on agriculture and farm distress. A senior BJP leader like Uma Bharti saying advance preparations for drought eventualities are unnecessary doesn’t help.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)