| A man walks on a parched lake bed in drought-hit Aatpadi village near Sangli on Saturday. More than 8,000 villages across 15 districts in the state are facing acute water shortage
Maharashtra may be staring at a serious drought situation this summer. More than 8,000 villages across 15 districts are facing acute water shortage. This shortage affects not just drinking water and crop irrigation, but also livestock. Starving cattle and water tankers are the early symptoms of a very grim situation.
Farmer suicides are in the news. The government has already sounded an alarm. Many bureaucrats reportedly have had their leaves cancelled, and a proposed European summer tour by legislators may also be shelved. One minister has compared this situation to 1972.
In 1972 the state was reeling under a multi-year drought, threatening to become a famine. But the state converted a grave crisis into an opportunity. Under the visionary leadership of V S Page, who chaired the state legislative council, and the CM V P Naik, the state started massive drought relief work across the state. This relief programme was funded by an urban tax, without any central aid.
The wage employment created purchasing power in the hands of the rural folk. That purchasing power acts like a magnet for the flow of food and other essentials into those distressed districts. Private traders can often move grain more efficiently than government agencies. The cash accumulation ends up being a magnet for flow of goods into distressed regions.
This ability of wage income to overcome the impact of droughts and famines is the logic behind the Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has become the much celebrated NREGA. (Ignore for the moment, the leakages and corruption.)
Of course in an emergency situation you have to rush water tankers, foodgrain trucks and fodder for the cattle. Otherwise the rural employment guarantee scheme works as insurance against seasonal distress.
But the long term solution is developing irrigation systems, preventing water runoffs into the ocean, watershed development and conservation. The governor recently said that Maharashtra needs to spend an additional Rs 75,000 crores to finish the incomplete projects in irrigation across the state.
This is an almost impossible fiscal challenge, since the state can afford to spend only a small fraction every year toward irrigation. That means these unfinished projects will languish for several decades, and droughts may recur every year.
To compound matters there is annual cost escalation. In Vidarbha a project whose initial estimates were about Rs 400 crore now will cost Rs 13,000 crore. An enterprising columnist suggested why not just give the money to farmers? Per hectare irrigation project spending of about Rs 2 lakhs increases yield and income by about Rs 10,000 for the farmer.
But that cost estimate of 2 lakhs has gone up to Rs 10 lakhs, whereas the expected benefits remain the same. So this columnist suggested, just give Rs 10 lakhs to farmers, who can put that amount in a fixed deposit and earn Rs 1 lakh annually. This is a tempting proposition, but you can’t irrigate fields with cash. The depletion of top soil, sinking of water table, deforestation are all phenomena which cannot be solved by simply dropping cash from a helicopter.
Tackling the drought requires imagination and an all party cooperation (as was seen in 1972). It will not help making the issue a political football. The leader of the opposition in the legislative council recently went on a motorcycle tour of drought-hit areas. He warned that villagers have become very cynical, since they are not seeing any improvement.
It is as if there is political mileage in a permanent drought affliction. There also seems to be commercial mileage to the tanker industry, which will earn handsomely in emergency water supply to these afflicted villages. His warning “beware of the drought mafia”, is a message for all political parties, to bury all differences and bring back the spirit of 1972.
• Can Pak SC take on its army?
This is with reference to Ajit Ranade’s last week column ‘Pakistan’s judicial silver lining,’ (PM, April 28). In a country where the government goes soft on extremist and supports terrorists like Hafeez Saeed, it is always a good sign that Pakistan’s judiciary has shown the courage to convict its prime minister.
I hope it also takes cognisance of India’s long pending demands to hand over the perpetrators of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. But, for that, can the Supreme Court of Pakistan take on the powerful generals who call the shots as far as the country’s foreign policy is concerned.
- Saquib Raza