Mumbai: The Maharashtra government on Tuesday declared a ‘drought-like situation’ in 180 tehsils , more than half the 353 of these administrative units in the state, in an acknowledgement of looming agrarian distress.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said after a cabinet meeting that his government would soon issue a government resolution (GR) following which these tehsils would be entitled to relief measures, including water supply through tankers, waiver of land revenue, electricity bill for agricultural consumption and education fees.

“These tehsils were selected after we strictly followed the scientific norms set by the government of India. Various mitigation measures will be implemented in these villages now," Fadnavis said. A central government team would soon visit these tehsils to make its own assessment and declare assistance, he said.

Maharashtra, in particular Marathwada, Vidarbha and parts of western and southern Maharashtra, faced a severe and prolonged drought in 2014 and 2015.

The government’s decision follows a report submitted by the Maharashtra government’s water supply and sanitation department this month which pointed to an alarming situation with regard to groundwater levels. The report pointed out that nearly 11,500 of the state’s 40,000 villages face water scarcity due to a combination of less than normal rainfall and consequent exploitation of groundwater. The report said 11,487 villages spread over 167 tehsils face a “probable scarcity situation" in 2018-19 and that scarcity could hit 2,941 villages in 114 tehsils as early as in October. It said that as many as 13,984 villages in 252 tehsils had reported depletion in average groundwater levels by more than 1 metre by mid-October.

A further analysis of data reveals a grimmer picture. Villages reporting more than 1 metre’s depletion this year include 3,342 where the groundwater level has dropped by more than 3 metres and 3,340 villages where it has depleted by 2 to 3 metres.

The report says 197 tehsils in the state received less than normal rainfall in 2018. Of these, 27 recorded more than 50% deficit rainfall, 109 between 30-50%, and 61 between 20-30% deficit in rainfall. Another 86 tehsils recorded between 0-20% deficit in their average rainfall but this is considered normal by the India Meteorological Department.

The Vidarbha and Marathwada regions, which account for 19 districts of Maharashtra’s total 35, have the largest share of tehsils placed in the drought-like situation category. Vidarbha has 75 tehsils and Marathwada’s eight districts account for 64 tehsils. Farming in both these regions is largely rain-fed and much of the cultivable land has no access to irrigation. In Vidarbha, there are 17 tehsils that have recorded between 30-50% deficit in rain. Marathwada has 40 such tehsils. Marathwada also has seven tehsils which reported more than 50% deficit rain.

The opposition in Maharashtra has claimed that the data released by the government’s own department confirms the “total failure" of the Fadnavis government’s much-publicized Jalyukta Shivar (farms plentiful with water) programme.

“Though the government claims that crores have been spent on the Jalyukta Shivar programme, its own report shows that the groundwater level in 252 tehsils has depleted by more than 1 metre. This proves that the programme has been a failure and the government’s claim that 16,000 villages have become drought-free is a lie," said leader of the opposition in the state legislative council, Dhananjay Munde of the Nationalist Congress Party.

However, Maharashtra water resources minister Ram Shinde countered the opposition claim, saying that the Jalyukta Shivar programme has actually raised the level of groundwater and the villages where the groundwater level has depleted belong are in a region which has received more than 50% deficit in their average rainfall. “It is a well-known fact acknowledged by many water sector experts that whenever there is less than normal rainfall, there is a greater exploitation of groundwater which leads to depletion," Shinde said.

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