Firstpost Ground Report: Fadnavis’ bold gambit to tackle drought in Maharashtra is working

A complicated mixture of reasons contributed to the farmer suicides this year; of these, crop failure owing to drought accounted for close to 63 percent of the fatalities, according to a survey conducted by the state government.

Vishwas Waghmode December 29, 2015 07:23:38 IST

Last year, Maharashtra accounted for the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. A complicated thicket of reasons contributed to the deaths; crop failure owing to drought accounted for close to 63 per cent of the fatalities, according to a survey conducted by the state government. The region most blighted by failed rains was Marathwada, which includes eight districts. Of these, Latur and Beed were the worst affected:

The paucity of water in Marathwada, its scorched crops and the resultant indebtedness that impelled several of the farmers to end their lives are indicative of a decades-long pattern that has developed in the region — approximately 82 per cent of land in Maharashtra is rain-fed, of which 52 per cent is drought-prone.

Last year, Devendra Fadnavis’ government, which assumed charge of the state in October, veered off-script and adopted desperate means to extract Maharashtra from calamitous times. Rather than announce mammoth, topography-altering schemes, it launched a collection of small to medium-sized projects that was meant to cause a fundamental shift in Maharashtra’s irrigation infrastructure.

Early indications suggest that at least in Beed and Latur, the strategy is working. According to data compiled by the water conservation department, groundwater levels in 2014-15 were found to be depleted in 188 blocks across the state, and more than 23,000 villages reported severe water shortage. This year, despite continuing drought and inadequate rainfall, that number stands at 15,000.

Firstpost travelled to Latur and Beed in November and December to assess the efficacy of the project, gather anecdotal evidence from farmers, interview district administration officials and record documentary footage. Our findings bear out much of what Fadnavis’ government has claimed – while it will take the state several years to rectify certain distortions, especially those introduced by cropping patterns and dependence on traditional irrigation networks, some benefits have become apparent almost immediately, water storage systems and drinking water reserves in particular.

Firstpost Ground Report will carry a series of four articles — over as many days — that documents our evaluation of the situation in Latur and Beed and how the project has caused a systemic shift in the manner in which agriculture is practiced in certain parts of these districts.

The blueprint and its implementation

Jalayukta Shivar Abhiyan involves deepening and widening of streams, construction of cement and earthen stop dams, work on nullahs and digging of farm ponds to create water bodies in rain-fed areas and replenish groundwater. The departments involved in implementing the plan include agriculture, irrigation, water conservation, forest, water supply, sanitation and the zilla parishads. It includes in its ambit both state and Central agencies — government officials told Firstpost that this enmeshing of bureaucracies was critical to “how well it has worked”. The project also decouples decision-making at the policy phase from farm-level implementation; agriculturists and village elders define their needs and the means they need to adopt to fulfil them.

The stated mission of Jalayukta Shivar Abhiyan is to “make Maharashtra drought-free by 2019 and take up 5,000 villages every year” for inclusion in the scheme.



Before it was launched, officials from state agricultural and minor irrigation departments visited those villages that had been chosen to serve as test beds for the project. Water budgeting surveys were carried out with assistance from villagers. This included estimates of supply required for drinking, animal husbandry and agriculture based on cropping pattern specific to that village.

Next, farmers prepared an action plan and launched fundraisers – the state has built flexibility into the funding pattern; its contribution to each project is in keeping with the needs of that particular undertaking. The rest of the money is raised by farmers; they make a pitch to corporate houses and non-governmental organisations.

“We felt the need for two things. One, rejuvenation and repair of old structures, deepening and de-silting of reservoirs, streams, rivers, and two, the creation of new structures,” Prabhakar Deshmukh, secretary of the Maharashtra Water Conservation Department, told Firstpost. “In the first year, we selected 6,200 villages with declared water scarcity where groundwater levels had depleted. Since the villagers were part of the scheme from the planning stage, they also kept a close eye on the work.”

Deshmukh said the state had left it up to the village panchayat to determine when payments should be made out to contractors, quality of work being the determinant. “This has meant that we’ve received very few complaints from the villagers,” Deshmukh said.

Apart from the convergence of financial assistance from state and central governments, Maharashtra has allocated Rs 1,000 crore as ‘gap funding’ to carry out these tasks. So far, the total expenditure stands at Rs 1,500 crore, of which villagers have raised Rs 253 crore.

Jalayukt Shivar Abhiyan spans 156,000 projects. In the year that it has been in effect, 123,000 of these have been completed.

“This has helped us create a capacity of 24 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) between January and October. Since there was less rainfall this year we couldn't store enough water. But our focus would be to use this primarily for drinking and protective irrigation (a distributive method of agriculture that limits the amount of water a farmer may use during scarcity),” said Deshmukh.

A permanent solution, however, is an imperative, according to water conservation department officials.

“We have been carrying out temporary measures like sending out water tankers, setting up fodder camps, granting various concessions, all at huge cost. We aren’t spending enough on finding a permanent solution,” said an official, requesting that his name be withheld. Jalayukt Shivar Abhiyan, he said, was one such remedy.

According to agriculturists and water management experts, the undertaking now requires scaffolding by means of instructional programmes. “There is a need to educate the farmers on water budgeting,” said BB Bhosle, director of extension education, Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agriculture University, Parbhani. Bhosle is a votary of the project. He thinks it is the sort of creative interventionism that can address water scarcity in Maharashtra’s agrarian regions.

Some, however, are unconvinced.

Atul Deulgaonkar, joint secretary, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India, who is based in Latur, said a social audit of the scheme is required to ascertain its benefits. “Though it is a good scheme, it should be looked at from a scientific point of view. The government must carry out a social audit of the work including completion, methods used, rainfall, water storage, how much has been recharged, impact on groundwater levels etc. This is required because similar exercises were carried out after the 1972 drought in Maharashtra and crores were spent on it but nobody knows whether it was actually useful,” he told Firstpost.

He added, “That’s why it’s important for us to have a report card to analyse its benefits. Also, a team of experts including an agricultural scientist, irrigation expert and geologist should be formed. They may intervene and offer guidance about the methods to be used in each region. A single formula cannot be replicated everywhere. River deepening and widening work is fine. But, we must look at hilly areas and figure out methods for water storage.”

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