Irrigation could quell the Maratha unrest

The silent marches by Marathas are now being seen more as a manifestation of agrarian distress, and that perception is closer to the crux of the real problem

People from the Maratha community participate in a ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ in Thane, Maharashtra on 16 October. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
People from the Maratha community participate in a ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ in Thane, Maharashtra on 16 October. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

What options does the Devendra Fadanvis government have to quell the disquiet among the Marathas? After a period of rising intensity and frequency, the unprecedented phenomenon of silent Maratha marches is finally showing signs of a decline. But the groundswell of resentment remains. The decline in frequency can be attributed to the tensions that these marches triggered between the Dalits and Marathas. If these marches are part of a political strategy, then the unleashing of the anti-Dalit mood is the last thing the organizers will want as it will then take the pressure off the government.

Thus, this scaling down of marches should be seen as a calibration. The final march is supposed to take place in Mumbai. The Fadanvis government has every reason to worry. After all, Marathas have historically decided who rules the state, and the consolidation of these votes portends danger for this government.

What steps has Fadnavis taken so far?

First, he has endorsed the demand for reservations for Marathas in government jobs. But the matter is in court. Fadanvis has vowed to convince the court about the social and economic backwardness of the Marathas. But this is a daunting task. Earlier attempts at achieving the same have failed.

Second, giving in to political pressure, Fadanvis announced a fee waiver scheme for admissions to professional colleges. Now, all students, irrespective of caste, with an annual income of not more than Rs6 lakh (from the Rs2.5 lakh earlier) will have to pay only about 50% of the prescribed tuition fees. The remainder will be borne by the government.

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The government believes that this will benefit nearly 150,000 students every year. This provision will make many more students, regardless of their caste, eligible for the subsidized fees, thus intensifying competition with Maratha applicants. Hence, the fee waiver scheme is unlikely to quell the Maratha disquiet.

While the silent marches continue, there is a noticeable change in the discourse around them. They are now being seen more as a manifestation of agrarian distress, and that perception is closer to the crux of the real problem.

What is the typical profile of a poor Maratha? He or she is tied to agriculture. The majority of Marathas are small land-holders and many are landless labourers. In fact, a majority of small farmers are also part-time labourers. The productivity of their land is very low. This is because more than 80% of the agriculture in the state is dependent only on monsoon. This limits them to a single agricultural season. Any variation in the monsoon drastically affects yield.

The post-monsoon rabi crop that depends on the moisture in the soil needs supplementary irrigation for better yield. So, availability of water, albeit only for supplementary (known as protective) irrigation, will significantly raise the productivity of the land and labour.

Cotton, for example, is not an irrigation-intensive crop, but yields five to six times more when provided a little water as compared to a monsoon-dependent crop.

Studies also show that the level of education among Marathas is low. It is lower than even the other backward classes. Thus, they lack the skills needed in the non-farm organized sector.

Productivity enhancement through protective irrigation is thus the low-hanging fruit for the Fadanvis government. But how can irrigation be low-hanging fruit? Doesn’t it require a long time to build big reservoirs and canals?

Also Read: Why caste-based protests have gone mute in Maharashtra

Let us recognize the fact that most of the irrigation in the state depends upon groundwater. Well irrigation is thus the only source of protective irrigation. And it is a widely accepted fact now that the state has huge untapped potential to recharge the groundwater through scientific watershed-based development that doesn’t require time-consuming construction of big reservoirs.

In fact, Maharashtra was the first state to demonstrate the success of this approach. Fadanvis’s predecessor Prithviraj Chavan tried to shift the focus from big irrigation projects to small water-harvesting structures. His efforts had started showing results. Fadanvis has made this his government’s flagship programme, titled Jalyukt Shivar, literally meaning ‘farm with water’.

The programme has created ripples. But it has also been criticized by experts. The main criticism is that it is contractor-oriented at the cost of losing its scientific focus. The emphasis seems to be on deepening and widening of streams and rivers with the help of machinery rather than measures for groundwater recharging through small bunds, etc. This latter aspect is the core of watershed development, but contractors are not interested as the profit margins are low.

The Fadanvis government should be quick to address these grave concerns. Several NGOs working in this area have demonstrated that if done scientifically, this technique can result in a quick increase in groundwater tables, transforming the lives of the people.

Protective irrigation through watershed development seems to be the only response to instill confidence among the poor Marathas.

Milind Murugkar writes about contemporary economic and political issues.