Maharashtra needs to take a long-term view of drought

Published on 27 May 2016

Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Over the last two months, the media -both in India and beyond – have reported widely on the drought situation in India. By the end of April, India was in the grip of severe drought, which at that point had affected nearly 330 million people across the country. Schools have been closed, trains carting gallons of water are being sent to the drought-struck regions, and emergency and relief measures have been put in place. Whilst these are clearly very important measures, it is time that Indian states takes a long term perspective on water regulation and its allocation.

The spectre of this drought has brought back memories from 2012 when I was in Maharashtra doing fieldwork on water entitlements and regulation. Based on my research, there seems to be two ‘absences’ in the current debate around drought in Maharashtra.

Why understanding the political economy of sugarcane cultivation is important

2012 too was a year of drought perhaps not as severe as this one. Amidst soaring temperatures, while I was waiting to follow the summer water rotation in one of the canal systems in Maharashtra, people would tell me that ‘it was the worst drought after 1972’. There were anxieties over failed crops, lack of water for cattle and household purposes, but yet another hope that monsoons will set things right. I was not only surprised by the resilience of farmers but also their willingness to undertake the risk of growing sugarcane in the next season, and wondered whether it was a conscious choice, dependency or a lack of options?

As drought becomes an every year episode in Maharashtra, the blame is squarely passed onto sugarcane, the water guzzling crop. The area under sugarcane cultivation has grown significantly. Sugarcane is a water thirsty and expensive crop. While these facts are hard to dispute, efforts such as the introduction of drip irrigation fail to find support with farmers. Over the years, sugarcane has become the pivot that holds the rural economy and society together.

In much of the western Maharashtra, from water user associations, cooperative sugar factories, dairy cooperatives to the panchayats, important positions of power are dominated by people who are local sugar barons, and have interests in maintaining sugarcane cultivation. There is a demand economy that supports the cultivation of sugarcane in contrast to crops such as jowar (sorghum) or oilseeds.

These sugarcane barons who actually have large acres of land under sugarcane cultivation are also the same farmers who have access to diverse sources of water such as canal, lift and groundwater irrigation. They rarely feel the heat of water scarcity given their dominant position in the canal network; they are the first ones to receive the benefits of canal irrigation and water recharge in the command area. This is one among the many reasons that despite the incentives offered in several water reform projects, majority of farmers are unwilling to opt in for drip irrigation measures. Their income sources are also diversified as many of them have jobs (real estate business or contractors) in the cities.

The effects of drought are not equally distributed and it is usually the resource poor farmers- who bear the consequences of water rationing- that opt out of agriculture or migrate. Not many farmers in the tail-end village where I worked had the capacity to invest in drip irrigation. Therefore, the current solution to ‘ban’ or ‘blame’ sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra must stake stock of the fact that farmers have unequal access to power and resource structures.

Tinkering with sugarcane also requires the political as well as bureaucratic will to take on this rural elite. Given that the society and economy in western Maharashtra is shaped on and around sugarcane, it is imperative to offer pathways such as flexible loans, targeted subsidies and crop to ensure that the livelihoods of farmers are protected when policy decisions are made.

Where is the transparency in water allocation and regulation?

Agrarian distress and water scarcity have been part of the rural fabric in Maharashtra for over a decade. Since a substantial area of Maharashtra falls in the rain shadow belt of the Western Ghats, droughts have been a recurring phenomenon in this area. However what has intensified the nature of drought and severity of the crises in the last few years is the competition over water resources in a rapidly urbanising and industrialising state. In most instances, it is the agricultural water that is first to be rationed. This competition over water is a battle of trade-offs: Should we have an IPL cricket series or should we provide water to the starved regions? Should we ration water to the farmers or to the industry?

Very few people seem to take note of the fact that Maharashtra has a water regulator, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority, which was originally supposed to be body to regulate water across uses. Its mandate was amended in 2011 on the pretext that to have non-elected body to decide over allocations, which are political decisions is un-democratic.

However, many of the decisions that involve water allocation are still opaque, and rarely there has been any political accountability when water is diverted from agriculture to industrial uses. Moreover, groundwater, where the scale of extraction is immense- is usually left out of the purview of water resource regulation efforts, which focuses on surface or sub-surface irrigation. The administrative silos between departments and jurisdictions, further add to the complicated picture of perverse incentives, which leads to over extraction of the resource, with often socially unequal outcomes.

Maharashtra (and India) need radical shifts in addressing its water problems and thinking about solutions. Regulating a resource such as water needs a broader strategy which encompass all its uses (irrigation, domestic, industrial, and ecosystem) and sources (groundwater, canal water, lift, wells, etc). More fundamentally, there is an urgent need to avoid short-term technical fixes to issues that have social, political and economic dimensions- such as sugarcane cultivation, and make water allocations much more transparent and accountable.


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