The Sweet Stench Of Drought

In one of the driest regions of the country, water-hungry cash crops deplete dams while citizens are left high and dry

In a scene straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel, a train carrying half a million litres of water arrived in the Indian city of Latur this week, greeted by people carrying garlands and bouquets. The ‘water express’ is part of a series of measures designed to provide emergency relief to the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra state. Dams that supply water to several districts in the area have run completely dry in recent weeks, prompting the complete shut down of public water supply, closure of hospitals, commandeering of borewells and even water-related deaths.

The district collector denies that the current situation constitutes a crisis, but it hasn’t prevented the administration from enforcing Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the area, preventing the assembly of more than five people near water distribution points.

However, the drought in Marathwada is hardly a surprise. After a less than stellar monsoon last year, it has been clear for months that water supply in the three major dams that supply Latur would not last until the next spell of showers. With climate change increasing the frequency of erratic weather patterns, the state of Maharashtra has lurched blindly from one disaster to another.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, a drought in 2003 and a flood in 2005 together absorbed more of the state’s budget than the entire planned expenditure on irrigation, agriculture and rural development over the previous six years.

Research indicates that the occurrence of such extreme climatic events is expected to rise and yet the current situation in Latur is clear evidence that monetary imperatives, rather than environmental concerns are driving the state’s water usage policy. Despite 73 per cent of its land area being classified as semi-arid, Maharashtra is among the largest producers in the country of two water intensive cash crops — sugarcane and cotton. By the government’s own statistics, 2,450 litres of water is required to produce 1 kg of sugar in the state against 990 litres in Uttar Pradesh. Cotton has an even higher cost — 1kg consumes on average 22,500 litres of water, according to the Water Footprint Network.

Sugarcane in particular is closely tied to politics in Maharashtra. Some of the most prominent leaders in the state, including former Chief Ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan, deputy CMs Ajit Pawar and Vijaysingh Patil and a number of other ministers, MLAs and MPs all either own or indirectly control sugar mills and co-operatives. This not only makes it impossible to reduce the cultivation of this water-hungry crop, but allows for unchecked expansion through state sponsored procurement programs and aid.

The chronically loss-making sugar industry received an interest-free loan package of Rs 6000 crore last year — the latest in a long line of similar bailouts offered by governments cutting across party lines. The Centre is also currently looking to increase the amount of ethanol blended in petrol to 10%. This has led the food department to order the major sugar-producing states, including Maharashtra, to nearly double their current production of ethanol, which is produced from sugarcane. The panel which originally proposed the idea was headed by Sharad Pawar, another politician with close ties to the sugar lobby who has been accused of involvement in multiple scams relating to the sugar industry.

With politicians fanning powerful headwinds in the direction of the sugar industry, plummeting water tables have taken the back seat as the six major sugar producing districts of Maharashtra added 38 new sugar mills between 2009–10 and 2014–15, with production going from 710 lakh metric tonnes to 1051 lakh metric tonnes. Cotton production has also grown significantly — output is 35 per cent higher now than it was in 2004–05.

The Maharashtra State Action Plan on Climate Change acknowledges the deleterious effect of cash crops on the state’s water resources, but stops short of suggesting the reduction of their cultivation. This is resulting in a situation where one of the driest regions of India exports billions of litres of water every year in the form of cash crops to other parts of India and even several countries around the world.

Meanwhile, its citizens continue to wait for another miracle to arrive on rails to quench their thirst.


Originally published at www.thehindubusinessline.com on April 19, 2016.