Maharashtra is facing one of the biggest water crisis in recent decades. In Latur, where the traditional sources of water have run dry, Section 144 has had to be imposed to prevent into a water riot. Trains carrying water are now being despatched to Latur. Even, the high court intervened in the case of IPL matches and asked these to be shifted out of the state to save about 60 lakh litres of water.
Back-to-back drought has exposed the vulnerable water situation not just in Latur but in more than 250 districts (out of 678) in India.
Reasons behind the crisis:
- Maharashtra has only 18% of its cropped area under irrigation cover compared to an all-India average of 47% and states like Punjab with 97%. Maharashtra is also hugely under-investing in developing its irrigation cover, just Rs 7,000 crore compared to Rs 25,000 crore in Telangana.
- Sugarcane cultivation is also to be blamed. Sugarcane occupies about 4% of gross cropped area in Maharashtra’s agriculture but takes away almost two-thirds of the state’s irrigation water. Such a huge inequity doesn’t exist in any other state.
- Also, water and power for agriculture in the state are highly subsidized and it artificially creates excess demand, triggering a scramble for these scarce resources.
What needs to be done?
The first thing needed is removing the elitist biases in public policymaking and resource allocation.
- But, just pouring more money will not have the desired results. Maharashtra needs a white paper scrutinising its irrigation expenditures and irrigation potential, created and utilised, in comparison with similar states to find out why huge investments in the past haven’t yielded results.
- The government has already decided that in the next five years, no new sugar factories can come up in Marathwada. It’s a welcome step, but care should also be taken to monitor the existing 20 sugar factories.
- Also, when water is scarce, the only way to manage its demand is either by raising its price progressively with use, or by rationing quantity.
- The government should also consider making drip irrigation almost compulsory for sugarcane. Drip will save almost 40-50% water.
It’s not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that trains had to ferry drinking water in water-stressed areas. Their frequency and coverage may increase, unless some major corrective actions are taken. This crisis should be seen as an opportunity for change that can benefit the masses. The deepening crisis has also inspired a section of opinion-makers to intensify their demands for a nationwide river-linking project — touted to be a long-term solution. But, without assessing the environmental impact and human displacement such a mammoth initiative will trigger, any attempt at linking rivers can result in an even bigger catastrophe. For Maharashtra government, the situation is so dire that it will have to find an immediate solution to prevent a law-and-order problem spiralling out of control.