23 March 2014

Documentation of Maharashtra Drought in India © Greenpeace / Sudhanshu Malhotra


Farming is increasingly becoming a risky profession to do. Farming and livelihoods of millions of farmers in the country are always at the mercy of something that is beyond their control, either markets, government policies or extreme weather. This World Water Day, let me take the example of Maharashtra's farmers.

Last year, the farmers in Maharashtra faced a severe drought. As per the records, it was the worst in the last 40 years. Please read blogs about the drought here. As the drought got worse, water tankers became serious business and scarce water was sold for domestic and agricultural needs. Needless to say, agriculture collapsed. Lakhs of Farmers migrated taking their cattle along with them to cities. It is estimated that about 11,800 villages in 12 districts were facing acute water shortage. The 1,800 odd large dams of Maharashtra reached dead storage levels and there were protests in many places by farmers for water from the remaining dams for saving their precious crop. Prabhakar Bhaiyaa Deshmukh, a farmer from Solapur protested for more than 100 days asking for water from Ujani dam to be given to the farmers along with the Solapur city for their domestic needs. He did not get water, instead he helped our politicians set a new record for the most insulting and insensitive statements ever made by triggering the anger of Ajit Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

What is more shocking is that even during the middle of the drought which was widely regarded by experts as a disaster caused by mismanagement, water was dedicated from the dams that still had water to run coal power plants. To understand why coal power needs so much water we need to understand that for every 1 MW produced out of a coal power plant in India, 5,000 litres is consumed every hour. Multiply this by the 1,36,000 MW of installed coal power we have in the country (most of them are using river water) and the 7,00,000 MW of coal power plants planned for the future (mostly coal and most of them will depend on river water), that it can consume a significant percentage of an entire river. In fact by choosing a future of electricity predominantly based on coal, we are driving the country to water scarcity and the most deprived of this future will be farmers who will lose their water for irrigation and hence their livelihood.

The real relief to the severe drought arrived with the monsoon rains which were near normal in most parts of the state last year. However, being a normal monsoon year, the dams in the state could not get full and there were many instances of intra-state water disputes between the regions in the upper reaches of rivers and those in the lower end of the rivers.

This month, another unexpected disaster happened. Due to unexplained and unpredictable climate phenomena, hail stones rained across the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. About 28 districts and close to 1.7 million hectares are understood to be affected by this freak unexplainable weather event in Maharashtra. Reports have indicated that horticulture crops like banana, grapes, pomegranate, papaya, mangoes, sweet lime and oranges, agriculture crops like wheat, jowar and rice, onions, sugar cane, maize and ground nuts have been damaged across the state.

The relief to this disaster was as usual caught between the politics in the state and indecisiveness by the government was aggravated by the code of conduct in place for the Lok Sabha elections next month. This delay in relief has already caused a serious debt situation amongst the affected farmers and with no support from the government many have already taken an extreme step of committing suicide.

The water-farmers-energy nexus:

The UN has declared the theme of this water day as water and energy. For most of the time, the only way we usually link water and energy is by hydel power. But things are changing fast. With increasing energy needs, more governments are choosing coal power as the primary share of electricity generation, the nexus between coal power generation and water is being perceived as a risk that has to be managed. The enormous quantity of fresh water that vanishes into water vapour and the rest of the water which gets severely polluted by fly ash for every MW of power produced eventually affects the most vulnerable section of the population, which is farmers.

Farmers of this country have always been left in the lurch by the governments of this country. Maharashtra for example, has witnessed the largest number of suicides by farmers in the past decade but it's also the state which had a water policy to prioritise industrial needs of water over irrigation needs of farmers for nearly 8 years (2003 to 2011) resulting in allocation of more than 72 Tmcft of water to coal power plants. With the 70,000-crore irrigation scam, many dams will take even longer to complete and farmers waiting for decades now will have to wait even longer. Eventually, after the dams are complete, a lot of them will helplessly witness their water diverted to private coal power plants.

Providing access to water is one of the key areas which can mitigate the distress of farmers in this country. Industrial priorities of water should always be a lower priority to the needs of farming. This World Water Day, lets resolve to ensure that water does not become a commodity that can be sold and snatched but a basic right of every citizen of this country.

Jai Krishna is a campaigner with Greenpeace India.