Latur's Struggle for Water

The borewell-dependent agronomy in the district is under stress with the groundwater reserves depleting fast, largely because farmers have switched from cotton to water-intensive sugarcane. Many of the villages do not have drinking water, too, and the precarious situation calls for the adoption of better water management practices.

By Atul Deulgaonkar
June 6, 2003

On the morning of May 1, even as the State was celebrating Maharashtra Day to mark the 42nd year of its formation, in Latur district two-year-old Vaishnavi Ratnaparkhe was in a hurry. With a small pot in her hand she was rushing to fetch water. It was a week since the town had got any water and the issue was uppermost in everyone's mind. The arrival of a water tanker was enough to send people dashing for it hysterically. Every member of each family ran, collectively assuming the proportions of a mob, in an attempt to get as many pots of water as they could. Little Vaishnavi, too, was among them. But in the melee she came under the wheels of the tanker and was crushed to death. Within a span of one month two more children and an elderly person died in the same manner in the neighbouring districts.

In fact, the situation is so volatile that fights over water erupt with little provocation. Last year such fights claimed three lives. Forty-three of the 76 taluks (mandal) in the Marathwada region are facing drought, and Latur, Usmanabad and Beed are the worst-affected districts. As many as 1,200 villages in the seven districts of the region are facing severe water scarcity and this number may go up to 1,800 in the next three months.

Latur district, which was rocked by a massive earthquake in 1993, experiences an average rainfall of about 815 mm, with the number of rain-days varying between 45 and 70. In 2001, it received 727 mm of rain (89 per cent of the average figure) and last year 637mm (78 per cent), which was not at all bad. Yet, life remained miserable. Every year, between 450 and 600 of the total of 943 villages are declared water-scarce. This year all the villages face scarcity because of the depleting groundwater reserves. Groundwater is said to be over-exploited (graded to be in the dark zone) if 85 per cent of the total recharging of a well remains pumped out at a given point of time. It is said to be critical, or in the gray zone, if the extraction is between 65 and 85 per cent of the quantum of recharging.

According to a senior officer in the district collectorate, six watersheds out of a total of 39 are over-exploited and 15 are in a critical stage. The data are prepared and assessed by the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) with the permission of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Large-scale pumping out of groundwater and negligible recharging has created `water havoc' in this borewell-fed area. To arrest over-exploitation in the dark zone, drilling of borewells can be prohibited and NABARD can restrict the flow of funds. Drilling can be carried out in the white and gray zones.

The collection of drinking water takes on an average four hours daily and involves a trek of one to two km for the urban poor and three to four km for the rural people. This obviously means loss of daily wages for women (or education in the case of girls). Their average daily wage in a rural area is around Rs.25 and the total loss in a village of 500 houses is around Rs.12,500 a day. Moreover, frequently carrying pots of water on their head and hips exposes them to the risk of weakening of the vertebral column. Shobha Yadav in old Latur area fetches water every alternate day from a common borewell. "At the end of the day my neck pains so much that I cannot sleep," she says.

Vatsalabai Vijapure of Lamjana village complains that even boys, let alone men, do not help carry water, while girls take the load right from the time they are 4 or 5 years old. "Even if a boy wants to help his mother, he is not allowed to do so because of the misconception that carrying a load of 15 litres of water on the head can affect his masculinity." Leading orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Satish Deshmukh says that carrying water is the main cause for spondylosis and neck pain among women in the region. In fact, Latur has 24 orthopaedic surgeons for a population of three lakhs. Living in a rural area, being poor and being a women puts one at the bottom of all ladders, be they economic, social or political.

The other alternative to carrying water from distant places is buying it. Here small is not beautiful; the larger the quantity the cheaper it is. A ghagar of 15 litres costs Rs.5, a bullock cart of 500 litres Rs.60 and a tanker of 5,000 litres Rs.250. Cycles, auto-srickshaws, jeeps, trucks and other sorts of vehicles are used in Latur to sell water. Drilling rig suppliers, borewell specialists and water tanker operators do brisk business and water traders flourish.

Why is there no people's action against the water scarcity? Time was when the middle class initiated agitations from the local level to the State level for water. But with the arrival of packaged water in cans, the great Indian middle class does not seem to be bothered about the scarcity. People prefer to purchase their favourite brand of packaged water to drink, and for other purposes the water tanker is readily available.

As for the poor, they do not have the time even to give vent to their anger, and ensuring water supply does not find a place on the agenda of the political parties. Well-known environmentalist and Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh had this to say about the situation during a visit: "Arvali in Rajasthan receives hardly 200 mm of rainfall but because of watershed development the people have sufficient drinking water. Latur gets at least three times more rain than Rajasthan and water purchase is terrific. I have never seen such a huge water market."

The famine of 1972 crippled all the seven districts of Marathwada. Food, fodder and drinking water were in short supply. While the cattle were taken to the market, the people migrated to the cities. Around the 1980s the borewell boom began; with no big rivers or dams nearby, the borewell became the only source of irrigation water. Until 1980, no borewell was more than 150 feet deep. Now water is struck only at a depth of 300 feet and beyond, going even as deep as 1,000 feet. Now a rig that can drill up to a depth of 1,500 feet is available in the area. But with no attempt made to recharge borewells when it rains, the fate of the large number of borewells in the district is uncertain and the borewell-dependent agronomy is under stress.

Borewells brought changes in the crop pattern. Until 1970 the traditional crops in the region were groundnut, cotton, greengram, blackgram, pigeon pea and sesame in the rainy season (kharif), and wheat and sorghum in winter (rabi). Timely rain and irrigation from wells were sufficient to ensure good crops of groundnut and cotton, which require water at least once a fortnight. Cotton was so prominent a crop in this area that in 1901 Bal Gangadhar Tilak initiated a ginning and spinning mill in Latur. The mill was in operation up to 1950. In 1964, a huge cooperative oil mill started production of vanaspati ghee. The Jawahar spinning mill was the biggest cooperative mill in Asia at that time. Until 1970, twenty spinning mills used to procure cotton from the area and 80 oil mills were using oilseeds from the area. Now they have all vanished. Hardly anyone grows cotton.

Sugarcane is now the favoured cash crop, with a minimum yield of 40 tonnes an acre. The sugar factory pays at the rate of around Rs.800 a tonne, which works out to around Rs.30,000 an acre for the farmer. (Jaggery manufacturing fetches returns of about Rs.40,000 an acre.) So the farmer is bound to prefer sugarcane to other crops. Scattered rain throughout the year is harmful to other major crops but beneficial to sugarcane. Gone are the days when all sugarcane cultivators were landlords. Now marginal farmers too go for sugarcane. As a result, sugarcane production has increased by more than 300 per cent. While in 1984 Latur district had one sugar factory, now it has 15 sugar industries in a 50-km radius.

Against the present requirement of around 5 million tonnes for these units, cane production is down to almost 1.5 million tonnes because of the drying up of borewells. Two years ago sugarcane was grown on 60,000 hectares but last year it was grown only on half that area, and this year the area is bound to shrink further.

Shankar Swami of Nagarsoga village borrowed Rs.90,000 from a moneylender at the rate of interest of 4 per cent a month in 1998 (that is, 48 per cent per annum) to sink a borewell and buy a submersible pump to irrigate his four acres of land. In the first year he had a bumper crop of sugarcane. The second year was also good, but the borewell went dry in the third year. He could pay only the interest. This year because of poor rain the sugarcane output fell by half. Swami may be forced to sell at least one acre of land to clear a part of his debt.

Poor rainfall makes the marginal farmer a labourer even as the steady rise in commodity prices and labour charges make farmers' life miserable. Their only asset, which is land, remains pledged at any given time and in such a situation the latent tendency for suicide among farmers seems to be growing. The uncertain rains have put a strain on water resources, be they wells or borewells, and the rural economy as a whole. In fact, all festivals this year are in the shadow of a motionless economy. A barber who earned Rs.100 a day in a town now gets hardly Rs.50 a day. An auto-rickshaw driver who used to earn Rs.150 a day, now gets around Rs.70. Construction activity, which fetches Rs.80 to 100 a day for unskilled work, has come to a standstill because of shortage of water.

What is the government machinery doing about all this? The former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil, and former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh hail from Latur, and the Assembly member from the constituency has, more often than not, found a place in the State Ministry. According to a government press note on the district, from 1992-93 to 2001-02 it has spent Rs.629.15 million on water conservation works. Both the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have met their targets. But to what effect?

`Digging a well when one is thirsty' is not a long-term solution. Every year the government sinks 500 to 600 borewells. The government estimates that Latur district has 30,000 wells and 100,000 borewells. But despite two major, eight medium and 67 minor irrigation projects and an average rainfall of about 800 mm the whole district is dependent on water tankers. If in 2001 Latur district needed 48 tankers, in 2002 this number went up to 112. This year 200 tankers have been deployed to supply water.

The State government does have provisions in the law to regulate the exploitation of groundwater, but since 1996, when the government announced 54 dark watershed zones, nothing seems to have been done to prevent over-exploitation. Under the law, in a water scarce area the District Collector's permission is mandatory to sink a borewell within a kilometre of a public water source. The Collector has the power to punish violators. Latur District Collector Rajiv Jalota appealed to all gram panchayats to give details of such borewells, but not one gram panchayat has responded. "The Collector should have the power to dissolve a gram panchayat that helps people violate the law, otherwise the act is toothless," argues Rajiv Jalota.

In the Assembly, members are still debating whether restrictions should be placed on borewells. The GSDA favours a prohibition, but the agriculture and irrigation departments are against it. It is fashionable to talk against the over-exploitation of groundwater and shed tears for the have-nots, but the political will to initiate stringent action is lacking.

"The problem lies not in availability but in distribution," said a senior engineer who looks after water supply in the district. In the urban areas, because illegal connections are taken out all along the supply network, the tail-end areas do not get sufficient water. Also, some areas get water for eight hours at the expense of other areas and there is no knowing at what time of the day water will be available. Such uncertainty has forced the people to store water whenever it is available. In such a chaotic situation, the privatisation of water supply is probably waiting to happen. In a similar situation privatisation of electricity supply is also in prospect. But this is also the opportunity to go to the people and give them the whole picture about water. Let every village know its water audit: how much rain the village has received, the percolation, groundwater recharging, withdrawal of water and the like. This would encourage the people to take up rainwater harvesting and such other means of water conservation on their own.

Also, the impression that education, health, water and sanitation are the responsibility of the government and should come free of cost must change. If a person pays Re.1 a day towards water charges, that is, say Rs.350 a year, the amount so collected from a village of 500 houses can take care of the maintenance of water pumps, pipes, valves and so on. Those who cannot afford the amount can participate by donating labour (shram daan). Such measures will make rural water management viable and save it from collapse.

"Urban water management should be stricter than it is at present. Water supply should be metered and paid for in advance. This will stop wastage of water. Rain water harvesting is still not compulsory. If there exists a system of reward and punishment for the construction of rainwater harvesting structures, the message will be taken seriously," says water and agriculture expert Jayant Vaidya.

Collector Rajiv Jalota has instructed municipal councils to insist on rainwater harvesting structures for all new constructions and in public places. But even the Latur Municipal Council does not seem to be enthusiastic about implementing it. In the rural areas, besides desilting minor and major irrigation facilitites and reviving old wells, Jalota has targeted the creation of 1,000 farm ponds. "Change flow irrigation and go for mulching, which would reduce evaporation losses and thereby save water," advises Jalota. He points out that the number of villages with plenty of sugarcane under cultivation but no drinking water is on the rise. Soyabean, potato and ginger as mixed crops can increase incomes, he says. "Sugarcane requires 990 cubic metres of water annually. A mixed crop of soyabean, potato and ginger would need only about 450 cubic metres water," said Jalota.

Water scarcity has compelled experts and laymen alike to think seriously about watershed development. All watersheds in Latur district are taken care of, at least on paper. But the basic issue that seems to have been forgotten is that the soil is important to save water. What happens to the soil when it rains? A drop of rain is 3-5mm in diameter and falls on the ground at an average speed of 25-30 feet a second (that is 30-36km/hr). This magnitude of kinetic energy is enough for the soil to erupt. A slope as little as 0.2 per cent (2 metres over 1000 metres) is sufficient for water to flow away. We receive all the rain in just a hundred hours over a period of 30-40 rain-days, enough to render the hills naked and drain it of its natural resources.

According to a report of the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, every year rainwater carries about 200 million tonnes (mt) of soil to the ocean. About the same amount of soil increases water level in the various dams that have been built. The report further states that a calculation of national soil loss from erosion is estimated at around 500 mt. In the Deccan black soil area, top-soil loss in a single year is as high as 40-100 tonnes a hectare. That is, nearly 2,400 years of local ecological history disappears in just one year, since formation of one-cm soil in situ can take between 500 and 1,000 years. Some 200 years ago George Washington said: "A country that does not save its soil cannot save itself." That is one of the reasons India is far behind in agricultural productivity. The Ukraine produces 60-70 quintals of rice a hectare, whereas in India 25 quintals a hectare is a national record.

Many an effort at water conservation is going on at the grassroots level. The severe drought of 1972 brought forward people's initiatives in the drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. Anna Hazare made a small village, Ralegan Siddhi, self-sufficient through water efforts only. Vilasrao Salunke in Purandar taluk developed watersheds and then went ahead with the well-crystallised idea of equitable distribution of water. Simultaneously, Prof. B.K. Dhonde of Pune realised that the age-old continuous contour trenches are the best rainwater harvesting structures. He changed the method of marking contours by using a plastic tube filled with water (just like spirit level) supported by a wooden plate to plot the contour points. The Forest Department soon adopted this simple technique and it has performed `miracles' in severely drought-affected areas with continuous contours-trenches (CCT).

CCT is analogous to the steps of a building. Thus, water, which flows at its own level, accumulates in trenches. The CCT slows down running water so that it percolates. In any forest, rainwater does not directly attack the soil. Trees, bushes and grass absorb the speed of the falling rain and the water gently enters in the grassy earth. Grass also prevents evaporation losses. Plantation in trenches makes the CCT watershed complete. In just one district of Ahmednagar, the Forest Department has planted 20 million trees on 20,000 ha.

Father Bachar with the help of the Indo-German Society has solved the water problem of hundreds of villages by the CCT method. Even with half the average rainfall all wells below the marked CCT were charged with water. The litmus test of the watershed with CCT is when it rains. Excess water flowing down the CCT is clear and transparent, establishing that soil erosion has stopped.

The attractiveness of CCT lies in its low-cost and efficient design of rainwater harvesting. It does not require any steel or cement construction or structure. Studies have shown that about 60-80 per cent of the total rainwater is percolated on CCT. One mm of rain over one ha gives 10,000 litres of water. CCT would hold 6,000 litres. India has 100 million ha of barren land. If rainwater were harvested through CCT and tanks as per topography, India would once again have ample water, without any displacement of people or destruction of nature.

Forty per cent of our water sources come from a 70-mha-forest area. If soil and water are conserved properly, floods can be avoided. "Water is highly explosive. It should not be loosely shunted" - that is the message of the hour. Timely action can save us, but inaction could take us on the path of Ethiopia or Somalia.

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