In the summer of 2016, consecutive scanty rainfall in the western Indian State of Maharashtra over the last few years has worsened the water crisis. According to the Indian government, around 330 million people – almost a quarter of Indian population – are affected by drought. The state government of Maharashtra has declared 15,747 villages of 12,183 Gram Panchayats in 21 districts as drought affected. Among them the worst-hit region is Marathwada (400 km away from Mumbai – the financial capital of India), spread across of 64590 km2 in Maharashtra and had a population of 18,731,872 at the 2011 census of India. As the 2015 monsoon with an average deficit rainfall of 50% in the region for the third time in a row, has intensified the situation. Some parts received even less: a meagre 35% of normal rainfall. “This year’s drought is exceptional. It has exceeded the drought of 1972 when the state witnessed one of its worst droughts ever. The shortage was of food grains and not water. Groundwater was available within six metres, but now even 244-metre-deep bore wells have gone dry.” – states an elderly sugarcane farmer standing on his farmland at Massa village in Osmanabad district.
Primarily due to a vicious circle of poor rainfall, crop failure and rising debts, farmer suicides in Marathwada region have become a common incident. According to a government official, in 2015 more than 1,100 suicides among farmers were reported in Marathwada and 339 more took this extreme step between January and March, 2016 in the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada. Maharashtra also recorded the number of farmer suicides in 2015 and 2016 at 3228 and 3661 respectively, highest in last 14 years. “We always have a problem with water. However, this year is even worse in our area,” said Arjun Kashinath Kumbad (75) from Borda village, Kalamb taluka in Osmanabad district. “People are not even getting water for drinking and bathing. Forget about water for crops. All our crops have been destroyed. How will we survive? No wonder farmers are killing themselves. It is impossible to repay loans.”
As much as 84% of Maharashtra’s agriculture is rain-fed, but the rainfall varies widely in different regions. Maharashtra has only 49% of the water it should have stored in its dams. In Marathwada’s dams, those levels are as low as 8%. With as many as 10,000 borewells being sunk every month here in Marathwada region, water withdrawal has exceeded recharge, and aquifers—veins of underground water—have gone dry in many Marathwada villages. People are facing water crisis as groundwater level in 61 talukas out of 76 takukas across the all eight districts of Marathwada (Aurangabad, Jalna, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Osmanabad, Latur, and Beed) has dropped severely as compared to the average level during the past five years. The more alarming news is the continuing dip in water tables in the region over the last five years, alongside a huge surge in digging of wells and bore wells in drought-hit areas.
Depleting Groundwater levels in Marathwada: Comparing levels during 2012 – 2013 drought year with present levels and change from five – year average. (Data from Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA), Maharashtra government.)
As a part of the drought relief measures, the State government of Maharashtra has started fodder camps for cattle in the drought affected districts. The camps offer free fodder, water and shelter for the cattle. It is usually the farmer’s responsibility to feed their cows / buffaloes and therefore, at least one person from the family lives in the cattle camps along with his livestock as long as the camps are open. Required water for the cattle is provided from bore wells and supply from water tankers as well. The government provides INR 70 per day for cows/ bulls/ buffaloes and INR 35 per day for calves. The farmers are allowed to take their cattle out for work and can sell the milk. As the drought-hit village economy is facing crisis due to severe scarcity of water, accumulated debt, deteriorating crop yields, mass migration in desperate search of employment and water is more acute this year than ever before. Mostly the young people from villages migrate to as far as Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune to work as daily-wagers. The drought migrants have no homes in the city; some have made makeshift shelters on construction sites, footpaths and park benches. Weddings in most of the families were cancelled, either because there’s no money or because girls don’t want to marry into drought-hit villages.
In almost every village in drought-hit Marathwada, people specially women and children can be seen walking miles to fetch a single pot of water. Due to depletion of groundwater level, most of the villagers have to depend on tanker water to the villages once in a week or once a fortnight. To give relief to the people of parched Latur district and some adjoining areas, Indian Railways started service of a water train named ‘Jaldoot Express’ between Miraj in Osmanabad district to Latur city carrying its precious cargo of fresh drinking water over a distance of 343 km. On 11th April, 2016, the train first started with 10 tanker wagons carrying 50,000 litres of water. Later, the number of wagons was increased to 50. Till 30th July, 2016, the train has supplied nearly 24 crore litres of drinking water. To avoid any law-and-order situation during water distribution, local administration has imposed section 144 of the IPC for the first-time during drought.