New Delhi: The acute water shortage in several parts of India has moved on, after denuding farmland and sparking a drinking water crisis, to threatening the much-loved game of cricket. The Bombay high court on Wednesday heard a public interest litigation questioning whether Indian Premier League (IPL) matches should be held in Mumbai at a time when the state is going through a prolonged period of drought for the second year in a row.

The petitioner, non-profit Loksatta Movement, contended that nearly 6 million litres of water will be used for maintaining cricket pitches in the three venues for IPL matches in Maharashtra at a time when “the state is reeling from the worst kind of drought in a century and is facing acute shortage of water as the level of water in dams and lakes in the state has gone down".

The court chided state authorities and asked: “Are people more important or the IPL? Who wastes water like this? This is a criminal wastage."

About 500 km from Mumbai, Latur district is the epicentre of the drought in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Latur town is receiving water once a month and the state government last month imposed Section 144 of the CrPC—that bars gatherings of more than 5 persons—on the town as a precautionary measure to prevent water riots. On Tuesday, in the adjoining district headquarters of Parbhani too, these prohibitory orders were imposed near water supply spots.

“We are getting water supply once in 20 days and taking a bath even once a week is a luxury," said Manik Kadam, a resident of Parbhani town and a farm activist with the Shetkari Sanghatana.

“On rare days, we use half a bucket of water to take a bath and then use that (remaining) water to wash clothes or clean homes. The last drop from that is used to water plants," Sattar Patel, a farm activist from Latur district, said.

The convoy of water tankers going to get water for Latur (from nearby sources) with an armed policeman on guard is a sight to behold, he said.

A few days back, the Maharashtra government enlisted Indian Railways to supply water by trains to parched Latur. The first of the two trains will be ready on 8 April, after steam cleaning, to transport 27 million litres of water every day to Latur.

In response to a demand from the Rajasthan government, Indian Railways has also been sending potable water to parched areas in Ajmer since January.

Maharashtra and nine other states, including Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, declared a drought in 2015, the second year of a deficit south-west monsoon in India. This has led to depleting water levels in reservoirs, and the situation is set to worsen as the monsoon is at least two months away.

What’s worse, temperatures across India will likely soar higher than normal between April and June, with the north-west set to experience a particularly hot summer, India Meteorological Department said in its maiden summer forecast last week.

Data from the ministry of water resources show that in end March, water levels in 91 major reservoirs in the country was at just 25% of capacity—30% lower than last year, and 25% less than the average storage in a decade.

The situation is acute in the western parts of the country. Water stored in reservoirs in Maharashtra and Gujarat was at 21% of their capacity, compared to the usual decadal average of 44%. In southern India, covering drought-hit states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, water levels were at 17% of reservoir capacity, compared to decadal average storage levels of 29% of capacity.

Experts said the situation this time around is worse than the last country-wide drought in 2009. “The crisis that is manifest in Maharashtra is symbolic of what is wrong with India’s water priorities," said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

The state is home to 1,845 large dams, or 36% of all large dams in India, yet only 15.5% of its crop area is irrigated, Thakkar said, adding, “this signifies both the mindset of our water policy establishment and its failure."

“India has failed to recognize that groundwater resources form the lifeline of water supply in villages, cities and for farming and there is little effort to enhance recharge and harvest rainwater," Thakkar said.

He added that the next two months will be the most difficult phase of the water crisis. “In July last year the situation was clear as six states faced deficit rains. Both the centre and state government have failed to reduce non-essential water use and prioritize drinking water for humans and livestock."

Jyotika Sood and PTI contributed to this story.

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