The great dry

Back-to-back monsoon failures leave large swathes of rural India in the grip of a vicious drought, with scarcely enough food to eat and water to drink

No crops have grown in the past two years in Bundelkhand, where desperate farmers are abandoning their cattle because they can’t afford to feed the animals. Photo: Hindustan Times
No crops have grown in the past two years in Bundelkhand, where desperate farmers are abandoning their cattle because they can’t afford to feed the animals. Photo: Hindustan Times

Marathwada/Bundelkhand: It is half past noon on a sweltering day at Gandhi square in Latur, the epicentre of the worst drought to strike the state of Maharashtra in 44 years. People wait patiently for their turn in front of a tanker that’s distributing water, which these days is delivered to the parched town in the Marathwada region of south-east Maharashtra by a special train after a daily 342-km journey from Miraj in the south.

Nizamuddin Sattar returns to the queue after dropping four cans of water home, in the hope that there’s still some water left for him to fill the empty containers his eight-year-old son has been guarding.

“I am not sure if the tanker will be able to visit our neighbourhood or if there will be any water left in it. So, I am carrying the water myself,” says Nizamuddin, whose son Shaikh and daughter Jasmin are spending most of their summer vacation helping him in what has become a daily chore.

Some 1,000km away, in a tribal hamlet in the Bundelkhand region of northern Uttar Pradesh state, Anjana Sahariya is fretting about the next frugal meal she will feed her five children. She has to depend on the generosity of a relative after her husband left home to work in a brick kiln in a neighbouring state last year.

No crops have grown in the past two years in Bundelkhand, where desperate farmers are abandoning their cattle because they can’t afford to feed the animals.

“I don’t remember the last time my children had a glass of milk,” says Sahariya.

This is what two successive years of drought have done to large swathes of India. The country recorded a 14% rainfall deficit in the June-September south-west monsoon last year on top of a 12% shortfall in 2014. The last time India faced back-to-back droughts was in 1986.

Eleven of India’s 29 states last year declared themselves drought-hit. The meteorological drought gave way to an agricultural drought and has led to an acute water scarcity in a quarter of India’s rural habitations.

Grim reality

This year has already brought stories of children collapsing in the heat while fetching water home, of orders banning public assemblies for fear of water riots, and of armed men guarding a river in central Madhya Pradesh state to prevent farmers from stealing water. In Maharashtra, the Bombay high court ordered Indian Premier League matches to be shifted out of the state to save on the water that would have been spent in keeping the cricket grounds lush green.

In Bundelkhand, a sprawling region spread across 13 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the sight of dead cattle on bone-dry riverbeds is an ominous sign of a looming famine.

Public interest litigation filed by the non-profit Swaraj Abhiyan in the Supreme Court revealed some hard realities. The states of Jharkhand and Rajasthan admitted to being drought-stricken after a delay. Bihar and Haryana never admitted they were in the grip of a drought despite recording deficient rainfall; Gujarat declared a drought as late as in April, five months after the kharif crop had been harvested, and only after prodding by the apex court. Once states declare a drought, they subject themselves to public accountability for the work they do—or do not—in alleviating the hardships their people face in the aftermath, explaining the reluctance to admit that they are, officially, in the grip of a dry spell.

On 11 May, the Supreme Court ordered the preparation of a national plan to deal with drought and revision of the existing drought management manual.

The court was scathing, describing the attitude of states as “ostrich-like”.

“The sound of silence coming from these states subjects the vulnerable to further distress,” the court said.

In April, the central government informed Parliament that 266 districts (of the total 675 districts in the country) in 11 states are in the grip of drought. Exactly how many people are affected? The centre gave the apex court a figure of 330 million in 10 states. Swaraj Abhiyan contended that at least 430 million people live in these districts. And if one goes by districts that were not declared drought-hit but witnessed rainfall deficit, the number is a staggering 540 million, or 40% of India’s population.

In the apex court, the central government admitted that it had not created a mandatory mitigation fund under the country’s Disaster Management Act. Delays in releasing payments under a rural employment guarantee scheme, which promises 150 days of manual work a year to one member of every rural household in a drought-hit state, took an additional toll.

The drought has demonstrated administrative lethargy, says Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and founder member, Swaraj Abhiyan.

“Governments continued with their denial of the drought and have only woken up now after some urban centres started to feel the pinch of water scarcity and after IPL cricket matches were ordered to be shifted out of Maharashtra,” Yadav said.

Too little, too late

The centre did approve Rs.13,500 crore in financial assistance to states to compensate farmers for crop loss, but the money was released after months of delay. For instance, Uttar Pradesh declared a drought in November and the centre approved Rs.1,304 crore for relief work in January. But the state received the funds only at the end of March. So, farmers are yet to receive even the paltry relief of Rs.2,700 per acre for crop loss.

Ramcharan Kushwaha, 53, in Mahoba district of Bundelkhand, is still waiting for his compensation. For his three acres, Kushwaha is eligible to get Rs.8,100. Faced with repeated drought and crop damage, his son has migrated to Delhi in search of work. “I had to take a loan of Rs.70,000 to get my daughter married in addition to an unpaid debt of Rs.1 lakh from the local moneylender,” Kushwaha says.

A survey on the drought situation in Bundelkhand released by Swaraj Abhiyan this week found farmers from just 6% villages in Uttar Pradesh and 30% of villages in Madhya Pradesh received compensation for their lost crop. In about one-fifth of the 79 villages surveyed in Uttar Pradesh, more than 10 families (in each village) had to beg for a meal, and in 59% villages, more than 10 families didn’t get a single square meal.

Back in Latur and much of the Marathwada region, everyone is worried about the next fill of water. The region is spread over eight districts, all battling water scarcity. Elderly residents recall the 1972 drought and say the difference now is that even drinking water is scarce.

At a hotel in Latur, the first thing the receptionist informs a guest is that there’s no tap water. “We will give you water in buckets. Please save as much as you can,” the receptionist says.

Outside, tanker driver Anwar Patel is on his third trip of the day to fill water from a borewell. Patel will sell the water—6,000 litres—for Rs.1,400 to either a hotel or a neighbourhood where residents can pool together that much money.

Ironically, Maharashtra has the most number of large dams—1,845—among Indian states. Yet, only 18% of the state’s cultivable land is irrigated. Regional imbalances in the state in terms of access to water and agricultural productivity are partly to blame. Marathwada and Vidarbha, the regions most affected by drought, also have a history of incomplete irrigation projects despite large sums being spent on them.

The whipping boys

Parineeta Dandekar, an activist of the South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People, says the politics of big dams in Maharashtra has kept a large majority of farmers outside the irrigation coverage.

Dandekar also holds sugarcane cultivation—which accounts for nearly 1 million hectares or 5.7 % of Maharashtra’s total area under cultivation—responsible for the recurring drought in Marathwada and depletion of the state’s groundwater table.

Pradeep Purandare, a retired associate professor at the Aurangabad-based Water and Land Management Institute, says sugarcane growers, who make up just 5% of the state’s total farmers—13.7 million—are “hijacking” water that belongs to the remaining 95% of farmers. Purandare goes to the extent of demanding a stop to sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra.

Then there’s everyone’s favourite whipping boy—climate change.

“Marathwada has progressively been becoming a template case of climate change. This year is particularly bad but the drought has not emerged suddenly out of nothing,” says Latur-based climate change activist and author Atul Deulgaonkar. “There has been a mix of low rainfall and excess rainfall with hailstorms since 2009 which clearly tells us about the larger catastrophe beyond this year’s drought. I am afraid and worried that we are still not looking at the larger story.”

The activist has been prolific in his writings on the impact of climate change on India with specific reference to Marathwada.

“A rapid process of desertification has been happening in Marathwada which is a direct fallout of climate change. The immediate crisis is the outcome of our failure to read well in time the signals the climate change phenomenon has been giving,” Deulgaonkar says.

Silver lining

Meanwhile, the reservoirs are running low on water.

The Central Water Commission, a body under the Union ministry of water resources, monitors 91 large water reservoirs across the country which together have a storage capacity of 157.799 billion cu. m (bcm).

In the last update on 21 April, these 91 reservoirs had a live storage of 34.082 bcm, or 22% of the total capacity. The update says the available storage is just 65% of the storage recorded a year ago, and 76% of the average in the corresponding period of the past 10 years.

There’s one silver lining to the grim picture. The south-west monsoon that starts in June is forecast by the meteorological department to be bountiful, with rainfall at 106% of the long-period average. Ample rain will help revive rural incomes and demand, and the farm sector will be a key factor for higher economic growth in 2016-17, said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at rating company Crisil Ltd.

Farm growth will likely bounce back to 4% or even higher if the distribution of rainfall is well spread over time and geographies. In 2014-15, the farm sector contracted by 0.2% compared with a growth rate of 4.2% the year before.

Most importantly, generous rain will help alleviate the misery of those in the seemingly relentless grip of drought.

“A good monsoon will come as an immediate relief by solving the drinking water crisis and reducing the need to irrigate fields using groundwater,” Joshi said.

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