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Maharashtra’s water crisis: Lies, damned lies and statistics

People begin to think seriously about water only in an extreme situation such as drought and this is exactly what is happening in Maharashtra.

Questions have been raised on the excessive amounts of water drawn for sugarcane cultivation in the state as also on the amount of water being drawn by industries from the dams. Then there is the rising demand on water from rapidly growing urban conglomerates in parts of the state, leaving that much less for agriculture.

It was amid the all-round anxiety over the drought in Maharashtra that Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar thought of his juvenile wisecrack and asked whether he should urinate in the state’s parched dams to solve the water crisis. In a sense, Pawar has etched his name in stone in Maharashtra’s drought discourse with his unforgettable insult. Just as no one has forgotten the "lakshabhojan"—wedding feast for a lakh—hosted in the middle of the 1972 drought four decades ago by the then Maharashtra minister Shankarrao Mohite-Patil to celebrate his son’s wedding at Akluj in Solapur district.

Water scarcity. Reuters

Water scarcity. Reuters

Barely four months before the latest round of controversy around water in Maharashtra, was the spat between the Congress and the NCP over Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s statement that the state had achieved barely 0.1 percent irrigation potential after spending a whopping Rs 70,000 crore in the last 10 years. That led to a pitched battle between the Congress and the NCP as the NCP was controlling the irrigation department in that period with none other than Ajit Pawar at the helm of affairs.

The state then witnessed a self-righteous Pawar’s resignation drama till he was given a clean chit in a White Paper released by his own department which said that the state irrigation potential could be as high as 5.17 percent- and not 0.1 percent as claimed by the chief minister. Also, that Rs 42,000 crore—and not Rs. 72,000 crore—was spent on irrigation projects in the last 10 years.

This was also the period when former engineer in the water resources department, Vijay Pandhare, wrote to the chief minister alleging corruption of Rs 35,000 crore in irrigation projects.

An issue that is waiting to erupt full-scale is that of water from the dams diverted to industries by the Maharashtra government. Last month, activists from MNS attacked the Indiabulls office at Amravati and Mumbai after party chief Raj Thackeray alleged in a speech that water meant for farmers had been diverted from the Upper Wardha Irrigation Project to the company's thermal plant in Vidharbha.

Close on the heels came a report in The Times of India on 10 April that between 40 percent and 80 percent of water from 23 projects had been diverted to industries between 2003 and 2011. The report was based on a research by the highly credible Pune NGO, Prayas, that the diversion was allowed by a high-powered government committee headed by Ajit Pawar.

Quoting Prayas, the report said that 88 percent water was re-routed to industries from Hetwane dam in Raigad district, while from Amba and Pavna dams in Pune district, 81 percent water was diverted from irrigation to industries. According to Prayas, this water diversion was done "without consultations with the affected people – and as is mandated under the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority Act of 2005- with the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Act".

When asked about the Prayas report two days later, Sharad Pawar rejected the charge and presented the broad policy framework of the government to state that only 7 percent of water from the state's dams was alloted to industries. As he said at a press conference in Mumbai: "Some section of the media has reported that water meant for farmers was diverted to industry in some parts of the state but according to the government policy drawn in 2011-12 it was decided that 72 percent water will be given for agriculture, about 20 percent water for drinking purpose to cities and about 7 percent to industry, so this principle is being followed and only 7 percent water is being given to industry. No water is being diverted from one priority to another." This explanation was repeated by his daughter Supriya Sule a few days later in Pune to end the controversy.

Essentially, Pawar glossed over the issue without getting into the specifics of the Prayas study which related to diversion of water from 51 dams. He presented statistics that was misleading - it related to the state policy on allocation of water to industry and not to the specific case studies listed by Prayas.

Experts need to critically examine the Prayas report and also critique Pawar’s 7 percent explanation to get the correct picture of the extent of water diversion to industry.

The water crisis in Maharashtra has many facets to it: There’s the massive irrigation scam, diversion to industry, growing demand from urban conglomerates and unhealthy consumption of water for sugarcane cultivation.

As noted by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra on about 3 percent of the total cropped area in the state uses "close to 60 percent of the irrigation water leading to massive inequity in the use of water within the state." The Commission has also noted that Uttar Pradesh is 106 percent more efficient than Maharashtra if productivity is measured on the basis of water consumed...".

It is clear that Maharashtra has suffered water mismanagement and misgovernance for decades together. It is in this context that the facts need to open up before the public on the precise state of diversion of water to industry.

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