A Land Parched of Proper Ideas

As India scrambles to tackle a poor monsoon, it can learn from missteps of Maharashtra in its attempt to become drought-free

Firstpost print Edition

Little beads of dew formed under the searing sun dripped off the ice-cold bottles of water Vishnu Sonawane bought at a roadside kiosk near his house, one for each of the crisp Rs 20 notes he handed over. In Delhi or Mumbai, his purchase would have been everyday signified nothing but thirst. In the small village of Loni, though, bottled water is only bought for guests. Sonawane and his family of two depend on a 20-litre jug dropped home by a private water supplier who pumps it up from the bowels of the earth every two days.

This summer, Beed—the Maharashtra district where Sonawane’s village is located—has found itself facing one of the worst droughts the region has ever seen. In April, the state government reported that the 964 dams that feed the Marathwada region are holding just 5.68% of their live storage capacity. Even from 200 metres below the earth, borewells sometimes dredge up only brackish sludge, which even cattle won’t drink. Farmers have burned down fruit orchards after the trees withered, and driven their animals to distant fodder centres. Entire villages are emptied of young people, who have travelled to western Maharashtra in search of work.

In 2014, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had announced that Maharashtra would be drought-free in five years. In Beed alone, 16,701 works for water storage and conservation worth Rs 365.89 crore have been completed in a staggering 1,010 villages. But the plan has failed—and not for want of trying or money. Now, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government begins its second term, it’s receiving grim meteorological warnings of nationwide monsoon deficit. The story of what happened in Beed, though, perhaps, be its guide on how not to fight a drought.

Through its 145 years of recorded meteorological history, Marathwada has had 22 droughts—one, on average, every six years. In 1971-72, 1984-85 and 2014-15, the rains failed for two years running. There’s a difference, though, between the failure of the rains and the intensity of the hardship it causes.

In a 2015 paper, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology’s Ashwini Kulkarni pointed out that the 54% rainfall deficit of 1972 was far worse than in 2015. Yet, there was less hardship in 1972: villagers were able to tap groundwater to sustain resources like orchards and cattle. Put simply, poor rainfall doesn’t necessarily lead to a savage drought. “When a meteorological drought manifests into an agricultural drought, it means there is something wrong with your policies,” says HM Desarda, an economist and former member of Maharashtra’s state planning board.

In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government was elected in part on the back of rural rage against an Rs 35,000-crore corruption scandal in irrigation projects administered by the erstwhile Congress-Nationalist Congress Party regime. Farmers had been driven to suicide in large numbers even as politically well-connected contractors siphoned off funds meant for public works. Fadnavis’ response was the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (JSA)—an ambitious initiative tying together 14 existing programmes with the aim of recharging underground aquifers by storing as much rainfall as possible. The JSA involved, among other things, constructing cement embankments, or check-dams, across streams, digging ponds around farmland, desilting and deepening local rivers.

The target was to make 5,000 villages drought-free every year—perhaps, the most ambitious of its kind anywhere in the country. And, with the wisdom hindsight always brings, that was perhaps the genesis of the problems. In essence, the JSA sought to multiply the scale of established—but unsuccessful—practice to fight drought. In Maharashtra, successive governments have invested in building storage structures, hoping they ensure droughts do not cripple water-scarce areas.

Governments have always responded to public anger by creating highly-visible—and therefore capital-intensive—structures. “The focus has always been on what is visible,” explains Himanshu Kulkarni, secretary, Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management.

KJ Joy, a senior fellow at the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, notes that Marathwada—home to half of all of Maharashtra’s dams—already has more storage capacity than the best-case run-off from the rains. That, he explains, is the reason why many dams, canals and wells aren’t filled even when there is rainfall. “But,” he explains, “because the situation is so grim, people still feel that building new structures is the answer.” In spite of the good intentions, though, the JSA would end up pouring much cash down the drain—again.

Three years after the JSA was launched, Sonawane and other Loni villagers saw excavators and earth-moving machines roll across their barren land. Inside two months, the contractors had punched deep pits in the flat, rocky land. Trenches were dug, and earth check dams built to ensure any rain that fell would be stored instead of running down the watershed into Bindusara, Purna, Sindhphana, and Shivna—the small, season rivers that drain into the Godavari watershed.

Last summer, from June to September, Marathwada received 534.6 mm of rainfall against its normal year average of 682.9 mm. Forty talukas of 76 did even worse, experiencing 30%-50% rainfall deficit. Government data shows the new storage created did little: in 1,200 villages, groundwater levels had depleted by 203 metres by October, 2018; by 1-2 metres in another 1,948 villages.

“The land the government did all the work on never holds water,” Sonawane claims despairingly. “Besides, it’s 3 km away from our farmland, and so it wouldn’t help us even if it did.” Astik Kumar Pandey, Beed’s district collector, has a different explanation: “There hasn’t been any rain,” he argues, “which is why there’s no water in the storages.” Earlier this year, state revenue minister Chandrakant Patil claimed that the government had seen the problem coming, and put in place emergency measures like enhanced fodder stock and new drinking-water pipelines. Loni village, though, demonstrates there’s a larger issue at play: in the absence of careful planning, the mindless digging of earth achieves little. For groundwater recharge projects to work, careful planning is needed based on detailed mapping of run-off patterns and soil characteristics across the entire watershed.

Farmers are often the best source of knowledge about soil and water—so successful projects are often those which marry engineering skills with local knowledge. In Beed, that has rarely been the case. “No one in the village ever discussed the JSA work plan in a Gram Sabha,” says Sudhakar Satpute, a farmer from Selu village, where four cement embankments were made on a local canal—all to little effect.

It isn’t the case that JSA work is of uniformly poor quality. In 2018, the Aurangabad High Court directed the state government to submit a report on the impact of the JSA An expert committee led by former bureaucrat Johny Joseph found that groundwater had risen in the six villages it studied statewide. They added that this was because works were of good quality and done scientifically. The need for speed, however, means that hasn’t always been the outcome. In many villages, structures have proved to be of poor quality, breaking after a single, severe rain. In some places, check dams have been built without levelling or deepening the streams on which they stand; in others, they have been filled with rock instead of concrete. Far too often, contractors have been left to get on with the work without scientific or engineering supervision—let alone local involvement.

Perhaps, the JSA’s biggest limitation was that it fought shy of confronting the elephant in the fields: sugarcane. Even though sugarcane is grown on just 6% of Marathwada’s farmland, it consumes over 70% of the region’s water. Experts agree that switching cropping patterns to less water-intensive crops would have a dramatic impact.

In Kanerwadi and Palaskheda villages, dialogue led by non-governmental organisation Manav Lok sparked gram sabhas and unanimously decided not to grow sugarcane. Pits were made in every house to ensure percolation of wastewater underground. As a result, the village wells remain recharged unlike most others in the region. “The big success happened because people were involved in decision-making,” says Chavan Govindras, a village schoolteacher. But this is a rare success story. Sugarcane farmers benefit from an organised system which guarantees them a market with fixed prices—a legacy of the long pre-eminence of sugar barons in the state’s political system. Till that system is fixed, sugarcane will continue to seduce—and bleed Marathwada’s aquifers

There’s one flower that blooms on Beed’s parched, suffering land: corruption. Loni resident Geetaram Sonawane, Vishnu’s brother, moved Right to Information Act requests on the JSA works in their village. He discovered that 40 works worth Rs 1.07 crore had been built—but only 27 actually materialised on ground. Even a government elected to stamp out corruption has had to face up to the grim reality that monitoring thousands of small projects is almost impossible.

The patterns of corruption in JSA came out clearly from Parli block in Beed last year after a first information report (FIR) was filed over the alleged nexus between contractors and district agriculture department officials. An enquiry by the vigilance committee inspected 883 works worth Rs 8.64 crore. Out of this, they found that works worth Rs 4.83 crore didn’t happen at all. They added that for 26 works, total recovery of funds is needed. Out of these 26 works, 17 simply don’t exist on ground.

Incredibly, the economic wing department of the police, which is investigating the case, has not been able to find even one out of the 138 contractors named in the FIR. Four agriculture department officials out of 24 arrested received bail in May. The senior-most official named has been promoted, one has died, and five have retired. Lack of effective administrative oversight—which appears to vary widely by region—appears to lie at the heart of the problem. The Parli block investigation founded cases of works allocated without tendering. There were cases where the same project was granted to separate contractors; others where payments were made without work being done.

In neighbouring district Latur, a contractor filed a PIL in the Aurangabad High Court alleging large projects were being parcelled out between select contractors using an enabling provision that allows for projects worth less than Rs 3 lakh to be sanctioned without tenders.

This new year’s eve, Fadnavis wrote in a Marathi newspaper of the JSA’s success: Rs 8,000 crore spent on works in 16,500 villages, creating 24 lakh thousand cubic metres of potential storage capacity, enough to irrigate up to 34.1 lakh hectares. He has reason to be proud: there’s no state government in India which has achieved anything like as much in so little time. But in Loni village, the earthmovers have begun rolling again on the same land which was dug up three years ago. This time, the forest department is digging holes in the ground to plant trees.

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