Latur: At first glance, Latur looks like any other Indian town with its dusty congested streets and crowded bazaars. But looks can be deceptive. The town is the epicentre of a process of deindustrialisation and economic deprivation that has spread across the whole district. Reason: The worst drought in the last 45 years has led to acute water scarcity.
Marathwada, which has received deficient rains for the last three years, is reeling under a severe drought and Latur is one of the worst-affected regions. The water crisis has led to a contraction in agricultural, industry and services, forcing skilled and unskilled workers from Latur and Marathwada to migrate to other parts of the state in search of jobs. The demand for water has skyrocketed, according to interviews that Firstpost conducted with farmers, businessmen and journalists in Latur.
“The economy of Latur is in the doldrums,” Atul Deulgaonkar, an environmental journalist based here told Firstpost. “Industries, hospitals, hostels and cloth markets are shutting down as the economy craters and people migrate out.”
Economic statistics bear this out. The per capita income of Marathwada, at Rs 40,824, is the lowest of any region in Maharashtra, according to the Kelkar committee report. The figure for Vidarbha is Rs 52,282. The eight districts of Marathwada are home to only 7.7 percent of the total number of micro, small and medium enterprises in the state.
Unseasonal weather has taken as much of a toll on agriculture as drought. Shivaji Sonawane, a grape farmer and the president of the Latur Grape Growers Association, has 24 acres of land, which qualify him as a large farmer. The average land holding in Maharashtra is 0.5 hectares, according to India’s Economic Survey for 2015-16 released in February.
On 5 March, 2014, a hailstorm wrecked Sonawane’s grape fields. “In 12 seconds, my losses totalled Rs 50 lakh,” he said in an interview. “Climate change has resulted in water scarcity and we are cutting down all trees,” he laments. The crop insurance wasn’t enough to cover the losses.
The area under grape cultivation in Latur district has shrunk from 2,200 acres in 2010 to 600 acres currently due to the drought. The district used to export 250 containers of grapes processed in 14 units, each container containing 12-15 tons of the fruit. Today, all but two units have shut down and exports have declined to 50 containers. The grape industry used to provide direct and indirect employment to 10,000 people, now down to 1,000 or 2,000 hands.
Gajraj Steel industry, a steel factory, shut down two months ago rendering 300 people jobless. Small and medium industries and fabrication units have closed as well. Agro processing units are also facing a tough time because of the decline in farm yields. Buying water cuts into the profitability of firms making them uncompetitive. They would rather operate in a place with cheap and assured water supply since water is an important component in the industrial process.
Kedar Abhimanyu Rasure is the promoter of Siddhi Associates, a local firm that does maintenance work for sugar factories and water filter plants. The turnover has plummeted nearly 70 per cent in two years - from Rs 6 crore to Rs 2 crore.
Of the 12 sugar factories in the district, only four are currently functional as the water shortage has led to a decrease in cane production. Of the 42 water filter plants in the district, only four or five are in working condition. There is not enough business for Rasure in Latur. “I have managed to survive because of some railway contracts the firm bagged,” he said.
Mundhra Foods Ltd, a Latur-based maker of bottled mineral water, is planning to relocate to Ahmednagar district. The in-house polymer fabrication unit, which makes the caps and water bottles is following suit. Pramod Mundhra, the promoter of Mundhra Foods, in an interview claimed that Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) has not been supplying water for the last five years. Mundhra Foods is located in the MIDC industrial area in Latur. He said they will accommodate workers who shift with the plant and let go of those that don’t.
The lack of economic opportunities across Marathwada is leading to migration to other parts of Maharashtra and outside in search of employment. Both blue collar workers and educated, middle class white collar professionals are leaving in droves.
Dhairyasheel Sonavane, a 29-year-old software developer who works for Tata Consultancy Services in Pune, is from Latur. He doesn’t see any viable career options back home. He says most of his school and college mates have left Latur.
Every year, five to six lakh people from Beed district migrate to Karnataka, Telangana and western Maharashtra to work on sugarcane fields there. Kamala Mhaske, a farmer from Bhavthane village says, “Usually, people leave around Dussehra or Diwali and return only at the time of the next kharif sowing season.”
Even construction activity, that normally absorbs farm labour in the non-agricultural season, has been banned on
the orders of the local administration to conserve water.
With inputs from Neerad Pandharipande
This is the third segment of a 13-part series on Marathwada’s drought.
Part 4: The effect of the drought on Marathwada's social fabric
Read the previous parts of the series here: