Amartya Sen showed in his seminal work on famines that mass starvation is not necessarily the result of inadequate food supply. He opened up new areas of inquiry that focussed on what have come to be known as entitlement failures. Sen has famously argued that human mistakes forced people into starvation in Bengal in 1943 even though food production in that year was higher than it was in 1941. A combination of rampant inflation, a relatively slower growth in rural wages, hoarding, dislocations during the war and hasty restrictions on trade had done most of the damage.

Many parts of India are now battling severe drought. There is no doubt that the water crisis in these areas is because of a monsoon failure. Yet, the main insight from Sen’s work on famines applies to drought as well. Villages are parched not only because of erratic rains. The political economy of water use in the region also deserves more public attention.

One of the best examples of this right now is to be found in the parched Marathwada region of Maharashtra. The rains have failed for the second year in a row but water availability has also deteriorated because of the rapid spread of water-intensive sugarcane cultivation, promoted by local political elites.

Sugar dominates the political economy of rural Maharashtra. The successful spread of sugar cooperatives in the western districts of the state over the past six decades has many explanations, especially the easy availability of water as well as the high social capital that helped the cooperative movement. But the cooperatives have now been captured by powerful politicians who then use their heft to get subsidies for sugarcane farming.

The politicians of the Marathwada region chose to play the same game even though there are clearly not enough water resources to support a sugar economy in their area. There are now 61 sugar mills in Marathwada to service 237,000 hectares of land under sugarcane. The region accounts for around two-thirds of the total sugar production in Maharashtra, if the dry district of Solapur is also taken into account.

Parineeta Dandekar, a researcher with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, who provided the data for this editorial, estimates that the total water required for sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada is 4,300 million cubic metres (mcm), or double the storage capacity of the largest dam on the Godavari in the region. Just crushing this year’s standing crop will need 17 mcm, enough to provide drinking water to 15.85 lakh people till the next monsoon.

The political capture of water for sugarcane cultivation in a dry region is nothing short of shocking. Maharashtra politicians have now begun the usual charade of asking for bailout packages rather than asking the tougher questions. There is no doubt that the government needs to provide relief to ease the human distress in Marathwada. But the longer-term issues also need to be honestly debated, from figuring out ways to price water so that water-intensive crops do not get implicit subsidies in dry regions to helping farmers shift out of sugarcane to creating a public culture that privileges water conservation. An interim solution suggested by former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan is eminently sensible: no more sugar factories should be allowed to be set up in Marathwada.

The water crisis in Marathwada highlights three overlapping issues—the structural problems in Indian agriculture, the inability to frame adequate policies to avoid a tragedy of the commons and how local political elites capture resources. The dominant narrative about a monsoon failure is the most important one, but it also allows the political class to pretend that entire villages have no water for reasons beyond the control of mere human beings such as themselves. The way water resources have been captured for sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada shows that there is another parallel narrative that does not absolve local political elites.

It is an important lesson for the rest of the country as well.

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