Mumbai: Successive droughts in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra has led to crop failures, creating acute rural distress. Farmer suicides in the region, comprising eight districts, have been rising—more than 1,100 farmer suicides were reported in 2015, according to the figures compiled by district collectorates. In the first two months of 2016 itself, 139 farmers have ended their lives.
Though both the state and the central governments have announced relief measures, the situation has not changed much. The entire state cabinet has now decided to camp in the region from 4 to 6 March.
The government outreach is aimed at getting first-hand experience of the intensity of the calamity and see if the measures announced so far were actually making an impact, said a spokesperson for chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
“Marathwada has been a drought-prone region for long and it has seen three successive droughts beginning 2013. But never before has the entire state cabinet organized a response on this scale as we will see now," the spokesperson said.
State water resources minister Girish Mahajan said the situation in Marathwada, North Maharashtra and Khandesh regions was “very grave".
“The drought situation merits inspection by all ministers because the intensity has to be measured on multiple fronts such as availability of water in dams, reordering of priorities in allocation of available water stock, impact on rabi crops, and water supply scenario in towns and cities," said Mahajan, a legislator from Khandesh region.
A senior bureaucrat said the objective behind virtually moving the entire cabinet to Marathwada for three days was to facilitate “a real-time understanding of drought and facilitate delivery of relief measures on site." The ministers would be accompanied by officials from various relevant departments such as agriculture, water resources, revenue, disaster management, health and education, said the bureaucrat who did not want to be named.
In October 2015, the state government declared drought in more than 14,700 villages across Maharashtra. More than 10,000 of these villages are in Marathwada, North Maharashtra and Khandesh. The worst-affected districts are Latur, Beed, Nanded and Osmanabad in Marathwada.
The state has allocated more than ₹ 8,000 crore and the centre has sanctioned drought relief of a little more than ₹ 3,000 crore, though the state had sought ₹ 4,000 crore.
Latur-based environmentalist and social activist Atul Deulgaonkar, however, scoffed at the proposed visit.
“It is an out-and-out a political exercise that will hardly serve any purpose. Chief minister Fadnavis visited Marathwada last in September 2015 and he has not taken stock since then, which itself speaks volumes about the government’s seriousness," Deulgaonkar said.
Deulgaonkar, a member of the State Disaster Management Authority since 2006, feels the drought in Marathwada is a bigger catastrophe than the earthquake in 1993.
“The earthquake impacted 40 villages but the impact of drought spans entire Marathwada. Yet, the Disaster Managament Authority under Fadnavis has not met even once ever since he became the chief minister. Getting all the ministers to visit Marathwada is a political and media exercise which means little on the ground," Deulgaonkar said.
The environmentalist said the drought demanded a response on three fronts—economic, scientific and technological, and social-political. “On the economic front, this government should have accepted the recommendations made by the Swaminathan committee which called for higher minimum support prices, among other things. The MSP (minimum support price) increase under the Modi government has only been 4% when it was at least 15% under the previous government. On the scientific front, the government should have used technology such as satellite imagery to map and measure the impact of drought instead of wasting money on this political visit. There has not been any scientific effort to recycle water so that we could use the scarce water that is available here. On the social and political front, the government does not seem to have learned that such a catastrophe could lead to severe social tensions like unemployment, rise in crime and suicides," Deulgaonkar said.
The intensity of drought and rural distress in Maharashtra reflect in official statistics. According to the figures compiled by district collectorates, the state has reported 2,639 farm suicides since the beginning of 2015.
The nearby Vidarbha region, where the intensity of drought is relatively mild, reported 1,328 suicides in 2015 and the aggregate number has already crossed 1,400 if two months of 2016 are included.