NEW DELHI: Between November of last year when Sharad Markad opened a cattle relief camp in drought-hit Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra and now, the price of a 5,000-litre water tanker has gone up from 700 to 1,000. In these six months, the number of cattle in the camp swelled from 200 to over 500. For 19-year-old Markad and his fellow villagers, it is now a daily challenge to feed the cattle and keep the camp running. The water and fodder cost a staggering 25,000 per day. The annual south-west monsoon is at least two months away. And, the local administration is busy with the general elections.

“Every day, two water tankers come to our village to supply drinking water but that is barely enough. My family buys at least one tanker a week for drinking and other household needs," says Markad.

Ahmednagar is among the 26 districts in the state which have been hit by a drought that is ravaging parts of India. After the June to September south-west monsoon recorded a deficit of 9.4% compared to 50-year average, eight states, including Maharashtra, declared a drought. Since the end of the monsoon, the situation has only worsened. According to the drought early warning system at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, as on 6 April, 41% of India’s landmass is experiencing “abnormally dry" conditions.

The affected regions span across at least 13 states—parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, and West Bengal. For the drought-hit in these regions, the elections could not have come at a worse time.

“We are getting water supply once in 15 days; farmers have resorted to distress sale of cattle; crops like cotton and soybean have failed... yet local officials are unwilling to take note of our grievances using the election (model) code of conduct as an excuse," said Manik Kadam, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Parbhani and member of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, the largest farmer organization in the state.

Photograph By AFP; graphic By Vipul Sharma/Mint
Photograph By AFP; graphic By Vipul Sharma/Mint


The situation in Maharashtra is fast approaching the bizarre episode of 2016, when consecutive years of crippling drought forced the state government to enlist the services of the Indian Railways to supply drinking water to parched Latur. That year, the train called “Jaldoot" made 111 trips between April and August.

Last week, a campaign rally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Jalna, Marathwada emptied out in a matter of minutes as a boy ran in to announce paani aaya, paani aaya (the water tanker has arrived), The Times of India reported.

But in Maharashtra, where 180 out of the 350 blocks have been officially declared as drought-hit, the issue has failed to set the tone of the election campaign. “At the local level, opposition leaders from the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have failed to make the agrarian crisis and drought into a major issue in these elections," said Vijay Jawandhia, a veteran farm activist from Wardha.

“With its stress on national security following the Pulwama terror attack, the BJP has successfully projected itself as the party which can deliver a stable government under an able leader, and people are buying that story," he added.

A CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey reported in The Hindu in April confirms how critical issues have largely fallen by the wayside. As many as 47% of the farmers who held the centre responsible for their woes also said Prime Minister Narendra Modi should get another chance. Ironically, when asked about the most important issue for them while voting, just 6% cited problems related to farming.

No rains in sight

Not only was the June to September south-west monsoon deficient by over 9% in 2018, the October to December north-east monsoon, which is critical to southern states, recorded a deficit of 44%, the sixth-highest shortfall since 1901. Overall, in 2018, the annual rainfall was deficient by 15% compared to the 1951-2000 average. In 2019 too, between 1 March and 10 April rainfall has been deficient by 34%, shows data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

Worryingly, not so favourable El Nino conditions—characterized by a warming of surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean—have clouded the prospects of south-west monsoon that is set to make landfall in early June, a week after election results are announced on 23 May. On 3 April, private forecaster Skymet said monsoon rains are likely to be deficient at 93% of normal, and pegged the probability of normal showers—rainfall between 96% to 104% of the long-period average—at just 30%. If the forecast turns out to be accurate, 2019 will mark the fourth year of sub-par rains since 2014.

“The water crisis is likely to worsen as monsoon showers are expected to be deficient in June and July and because reservoir levels in central and western India are already poor," said Jatin Singh, managing director of Skymet.

Importantly, said Singh, IMD should have announced 2018 as a drought year instead of leaving it to the states to take a call. “The ground reality needs to be acknowledged and it would have helped in better management of rural distress and insurance payouts. Besides, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh which are not well equipped with a wide network of weather stations may not be in a position to assess the ground situation correctly."

Villagers in Karjat village in Maharashtra’s Jalna city use the well to store the water supplied by government through tankers.
Villagers in Karjat village in Maharashtra’s Jalna city use the well to store the water supplied by government through tankers.


Missing in manifesto

Political parties have largely ignored the drought whose geographical spread has been increasing since October. The election manifesto of the ruling BJP and the opposition Indian National Congress does not fully acknowledge the acute water stress in many parts of rural India. In its manifesto, the BJP pats itself on the back for completing 31 long-pending irrigation projects while promising that as many as 68 projects will be completed by December 2019, a target unlikely to be met due to unfinished canal and command area development. It also promises 100% irrigation “within a defined time frame". The catch is that the manifesto does not mention the year by which this will be achieved.

Even when political parties act, they tend to focus largely on big dams and irrigation projects which are avenues to siphon money, said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an NGO.

The irony of multi-crore irrigation projects in the vicinity of dry fields is in full view yet again this election season. On 1 April, while addressing an election rally in Andhra Pradesh, Modi said the state’s chief minister Chandrababu Naidu is using the Polavaram irrigation project, on which the centre has already spent 7,000 crore, like an ATM machine at the cost of farmers.

Denying the charges of corruption, the state water resources minister, Devineni Uma Maheswara Rao, retorted that the Polavaram project is clean, and “the Narmada project (Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat) was used as an ATM by Modi".

“Large irrigation projects have failed to deliver. Net area irrigated by these projects have fallen by over 1.5 million hectares in the last 25 years and governments have failed to acknowledge that the use of groundwater in agriculture is increasing at an alarming pace," Thakkar said.

About 600 million Indians are facing high to extreme water stress with 200,000 dying every year for want of safe water, NITI Aayog said in a report in June last year. Groundwater resources are being used up at an alarming rate, and up to 70% of India’s water supply is contaminated, the report said.

According to Thakkar, the solution lies in understanding how scarce groundwater can be recharged. “But the political class is more interested in making money out of mega projects... the BJP government in Maharashtra which came to power on the back of a 70,000 crore irrigation scam in 2013 fell prey to the same contractor lobby when it began using machines to deepen and widen rivers," he said.

Scanty relief

Between October 2018 and March 2019, eight states have declared a drought. Except for Tamil Nadu, which declared a drought in March, the seven states sought central assistance of 22,242 crore. However, till February-end, assistance of 8,171 crore was approved by the centre, over half of it going to ( 4,714 crore) Maharashtra alone. That still leaves out states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which did not even declare a drought despite the deficit rains.

More importantly, the fact that seven states sought a central assistance of 22,242 crore in drought relief despite having a heavily funded crop insurance programme in place shows that the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana is unable to deliver timely payouts, though federal and state governments have foot a premium subsidy bill of over 20,000 crore.

BJP’s election manifesto, which promises to make enrolment under crop insurance voluntary (currently it is mandatory for farmers availing crop credit) is a tacit admission that the scheme is not working.

2014 and 2015, the first two years of the Modi government, were marked by a crippling drought which gave way to consecutive years of record harvests and a subsequent plunge in wholesale crop prices. On 9 April, as campaigning for the first phase of the election came to a close, Modi spoke to residents of Latur. Future wars will be fought over water, Modi told the crowd, pledging a new water ministry which will initiate interlinking of rivers and ensure water to every field. But more than the promised water ministry, the crowd lapped Modi’s nationalism pitch with loud cheers.

“This is the worst drought since I started farming in 1974. Not a single seed was planted during the rabi season and Modi is fooling us with more lies," said Sattar Patel, a farmer from Latur.

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