Sangli (Maharashtra): The sign at the cash counter of Garden Hotel in Atpadi, a village in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, is blunt: “No water, no vote.”
The hotel is owned by 37-year-old Nitin Kulkarni, a member of Atpadi panchayat. Villagers have had to wait eight to 12 days for drinking water supplied by tankers, a crisis that has forced the elected official to back an electoral boycott.
Other parts of Sangli district don’t face the same woes because they are represented in the state assembly by powerful politicians. Those areas have grabbed available water resources for their constituencies and left Atpadi dry, said Kulkarni.
73-year old Dhonduram Hazare of Bhengiwadi (check) village, in wait of rains, at Atpadi’s water tank. The tank has dried up completely. Hemant Mishra/ Mint
The battle in Sangli offers a microcosmic view of a wider issue that’s becoming endemic not just in Maharashtra, but across India and elsewhere in the world. Water resources are dwindling rapidly because of wastage, negligence and wholly inadequate attempts at conservation. Water is largely looked upon as a resource that should be free and freely available, which makes the disputes regarding its sharing nearly impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all parties.
The riparian disputes that have broken out all across the country, some of them violent, are testament to the potential of water scarcity to lead to fractures along local, national and international fault lines.
In some cases, what little water there actually is, is being usurped by powerful interests. That’s the perception in Atpadi and other areas in Maharashtra—water is being monopolized by powerful politicians who are often part of the sugar lobby that dominates state politics.
“Atpadi is neither on the main highway, nor is it connected to a railway line,” said Kulkarni, while discussing the sign he has put up at the hotel counter. “We can’t attempt a blockade, so an election boycott is one of the few means left for us to get our voices heard in Delhi and Mumbai.”
Atpadi lies in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, and does not get heavy rains even at the best of times—it’s currently the June-September monsoon season. The rains failed in 2011, and ponds and wells ran dry. Even as the government machinery took time to wake up to the crisis, Kulkarni sprung into action. He decided to sacrifice his crop and use the water in his well as drinking water for the other villagers. “Being a panchayat member, I felt one must bear greater responsibility,” he said. “Besides, sugar cane is a water-intensive crop and who knows how long the water in the well would have lasted.” Five acres of withered sugar cane tell the story of his sacrifice.
Sangli is part of the sugar belt in western Maharashtra, a region that is considered a bastion of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has ruled the state in alliance with the Congress since 1999. The district boasts three influential ministers in the state cabinet. Two are from the NCP—home minister R.R. Patil and rural development minister Jayant Patil. The third, relief and rehabilitation minister Patangrao Kadam, is from the Congress.
There are several irrigation and drinking water schemes across the district, but such schemes have largely bypassed Atpadi. Farmers point out how the Tembhu irrigation project, sanctioned with the promise of delivering water from the Krishna river to the Atpadi taluk 15 years ago, lies comatose even as newer projects have been completed in neighbouring blocks. Atpadi is not alone in feeling left out. The other taluk in Sangli severely affected by drought, Jat, saw 40 villages demand a merger with neighbouring Karnataka earlier this year, hoping to get better access to water in the southern state.
Atpadi is dominated by the NCP, but the winds of dissent have gathered strength even as rain winds have played truant.
The big leaders have turned a blind eye towards Atpadi, said Anandrao Patil, a local NCP activist, whose 16-hectare pomegranate orchard has been ravaged by the drought. Pomegranate cultivation picked up in Atpadi over the past decade, as it needed less water. But, this year, even the drip-irrigation pipes have run dry.
The drought has been a great leveller, ravaging big and small farms alike. But it has hit the landless labourers the hardest, as two main sources of livelihoods in Atpadi—agriculture and construction—have been destroyed. Milk is the only source of income for many families, and arranging fodder has never been more essential, and so difficult. The difficulty in procuring fodder prompted relief camps for cattle, initially organized through voluntary action, and later by the government.
Atpadi exhibits the usual signs of inept governance that impair most relief work in the country: delayed water tankers that serve suspiciously yellowish water, fodder promised for free by the government that seems to find a way to the black market, and a cattle camp that has no shelter for the human beings who accompany the cattle.
The drought has also opened older and deeper wounds. Atpadi has a long history of droughts, with a dry spell every three to four years, and a major drought in every decade. The taluk also has a long history of struggle for water rights. Through the 1990s and the early part of the last decade, Atpadi played host to a campaign for just distribution of water, led by freedom fighter and activist Nagnath Anna Nayakwadi. The movement helped undermine the legitimacy of the state government led by Pawar.
In 1995, when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine came to power, they were able to secure the support of newly elected independent legislators from Sangli, only after assuring an irrigation scheme for the drought-prone areas, and the Tembhu project was born. The alliance got voted out before the project could be completed and progress on the project has slowed since then even as Nayakwadi’s movement lost steam.
In stark contrast to the parched farmlands of Atpadi, neighbouring Tasgaon is resplendent with rose orchards and vineyards.
Tasgaon is R.R. Patil’s constituency, and has benefited from irrigation schemes launched in the taluk over the past few years. One such scheme, the Mhaisal lift irrigation scheme, was extended to Tasgaon despite reservations expressed by farmers from the neighbouring taluk of Kavathe Mahankal. Farmers in Tasgaon have now built huge water tanks in their plots to store water, which they receive once in two months through the irrigation network.
Patil said it was unfair to say Tasgaon had gained at the expense of others because of his influence. “It is natural for areas closer to the river to get water first. Many villages in Tasgaon have begun receiving water recently, and water projects will be launched in Atpadi as well,” said Patil. In three years, the state government will complete all ongoing irrigation projects in drought-prone areas, he added.
People in Atpadi are unwilling to take such promises seriously. Every year, leaders make such promises, said Patil of Atpadi.
Atpadi’s water crisis is unlikely to end under the NCP rule, said Kulkarni, himself elected on an NCP ticket to the panchayat. Since the opposition is virtually toothless, the party can get away with it despite slowing the implementation of the Tembhu project and allocating water to other areas, Kulkarni said.
The conflict over water in Sangli partly reflects a generic problem, said Pratap Asbe, a veteran Marathi journalist and a prolific writer on the water crisis in Maharashtra. There is a collapse of law and governance, when it comes to sharing water, he said.
“Areas which are irrigated first are reluctant to help neighbouring regions that struggle to find even drinking water,” said Asbe. Unless the government prioritizes drinking water, and implements norms strictly, water-related conflicts will rise, he added.
The lack of irrigation projects in Atpadi is only part of its problem. Another key reason is the absence of systematic water conservation efforts in the drought-prone region. Poor groundwater management is an attribute Atpadi shares with large parts of India that are witnessing a sharp depletion in aquifer levels.
“We could have at least saved water for drinking needs, if the government had designed norms to control water usage last year itself,” said Kulkarni. “Instead, big farmers in connivance with government officials extracted as much water as they could from ponds and lakes.”
“The Tembhu project may never materialize,” said water activist Sampatrao Pawar. “Atpadi should focus on conservation and changes in the cropping pattern,” he adds. Pawar has made his village Balawadi, an hour away from Atpadi, self-reliant in water through such efforts.
Nobody seems to be interested in a permanent solution to the water crisis, said Satish Bhinge, who heads Atpadi’s local journalists’ association. “While villagers in Atpadi are anxiously waiting for the rains to end their distress, the government too lies in wait, but with a different motive,” said Bhinge. “The government expects the rains to douse the discontent so that they do not have to face tough questions that people here are asking.”