As severe drought looms large over Maharashtra, the near-empty dams tell a tale of unpardonable greed of state politicians

Voices Monday, July 07, 2014 - 05:30
Vinita Deshmukh | The News Minute | July 7, 2014 | 09:13 am IST It is important to note the following points, to understand why most of Maharashtra’s dams including the mighty Koyna which has never ever gone dry, have exposed their beds, with postponement of this year’s monsoons by only one month and why the public of Maharashtra may have to enormously suffer an unprecedented water shortage due to the greed and might of the sugar co-operative lobby: • Maharashtra has 165 sugar co-operative and private sugar factories. • Sugarcane is cultivated on 10 lakh odd hectares of land in Maharashtra, many of them in drought prone areas. Hence, the entire irrigation pattern in Maharashtra is built to suit water supply to sugarcane farming – an intensive water devouring crop. • Most of the sugar factories are owned or controlled by state politicians – as per news reports, out of the 30 cabinet ministers, 10 of them either own or control sugar factories. • In 2012-2013 itself, the rainfall was far below average in Marathwada, where one-third of the sugarcane factories are located – drought was declared, worse than the 1972 one. However, new sugar factories, four of them in Solapur which already has 28 sugar factories, sprouted. Five of them were in the pipeline. • Reports by the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission to ban water intensive crops like sugarcane and opt only for less water intensive crops in drought-prone area; cries of the farmers who cultivate other crops and have had to burn down their crops due to shortage of water; and orders issued by bureaucrats to stall supply of heavy quantum water to sugarcane fields are thrown out of the window, as herein lies the vested interest of top notch politicians who own/control sugar factories. • Maharashtra produces about 35% of India’s sugar production and one-third of the 30 state cabinet ministers own sugar factories or control them and hence water from practically all dams is diverted to sugarcane farming. • Nearly half a crore farmers dependent on sugarcane cultivation are a sizeable vote bank and so netas have shown time and again that water for sugarcane is more important than water for drinking. • Last but not the least, the Rs.73,000 crore irrigation scam wherein most of the money was looted in the name of high escalating costs of construction material, delay in starting projects has ended in not even 1% improvement in water channelization for systematic irrigation. That the sugarcane lobby is destroying Maharashtra in terms of equitable water distribution and crushing the growth of pulses, jowar and soyabean which flourish in rain-fed water is aptly described by Parineeta Dandekar in her report for the South Asia on Dams, Network and People (SADNP): ``For crushing 126.25 lakh tonnes of cane, the sugar factories used a minimum of 18.93 Million Cubic Meters of water between October 2012 and March 2013, when drought was already severe. The live water storage of Ujani reservoir, at its highest was in October 2012 at 14% and it rapidly receded to zero in January and sub-zero levels from January to March[10] (as on 21st April, 2013, it is -32.91%).This is a very conservative estimate as per guidelines of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), considering 1500 litres water required to crush and process one tonne of cane.’’ Dandekar also highlights the vicious circle that the entire farming and state machinery gets into, because of sugarcane farming. She states in her report: With a growth cycle of 11-17 months, sugarcane cultivation locks up the farmers, the state and the system in a vicious cycle of irrigation at any cost. On an average, sugarcane requires irrigation twice a month. Once planted, the farmers have no choice but to look for all options to irrigate it. And the sugar mills have no options but to crush the sugarcane and the downstream water consumption lock in only grows. Since the whole product cycle is so long, once the crop is in place, everyone tries to get the necessary water to run the system, irrespective of drought, water scarcity, irrespective of impact on other sections of society or on long term sustainability. The whole state machinery is a slave to the survival of the sugar manufacturing process, it seems. Full report here: Why Solapur, Sugarcane and Sustainability do not rhyme? Maharashtra has water committees in every district which recommend distribution of water. However, politicians owning sugar factories are often the members of these committees. For example, Pune district’s water committee comprises Ajit Pawar and Harshavardhan Patil – both ministers in the Cong-NCP ruled state government. In October 2013, they recommended that Pune’s water supply should receive only one time water supply. This, despite the fact that, Western Maharashtra had received bountiful rains in 2013 monsoon season and all the four dams upstream of Pune were 100% full. The reason was obvious – in the name of farmers needing water for irrigation, the motive was to channelize it to the eight sugar factories owned by Pawar and Patil in the ratio of 6:2. This writer invoked RTI to procure minutes of the meeting; citizen organizations and other political parties raised hue and cry. This compelled Pawar to announce that he has withdrawn the recommendation. However, reliable sources in the irrigation department told this writer that water was indeed let out for the purpose and the announcement was mere hog wash. Herein lies the dangerous tale of water scarcity in Maharashtra with postponement of rains by just one month. The calculation of these mean-minded politicians has unfortunately gone totally wrong with drought looming large on Maharashra, because of their greed. The worst sufferers are women – already many are trudging over 30 kms to fetch a pale of water. Real shame.
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