Climate Change · Dams · Maharashtra

We pushed large dams, not irrigation, this has to change: CM Fadnavis’ Assembly Speech

“Maharashtra has the country’s 40% large dams, but 82% area of the state is rain fed. We have moved away from our vision of watershed and conservation…We did not think about hydrology, geology and topography of a region before pushing large dams everywhere. But this has to change”

These are not the words of an activist or water researcher. This was said by Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, during Monsoon Assembly Session of Maharashtra on 21st July 2015.

With remarkable clarity and panache he talked about how Debt Waiver, the moot point, was not a silver bullet for farmers and how long term solutions coupled with better governance and swift administration, were far more important.  Although Maharashtra is the most urbanized state in the country, nearly 50% people depend on farming and farm-related activities. The state has been shaken by recurring crop failures, increasing farmer suicides and nothing seems to stem this. When debt was identified as one of the major reasons behind farmer suicides, attempts were made to address this, including a full debt waiver of nearly Rs 7000 Crores in 2008-9 by the UPA govt in Centre and Congress-NCP govt State. But just in 6 years, we are staring at the same abyss. Like Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, there is a Suicide Epidemic in Vidarbha, now spread to Marathwada. This year, just between January to May, more than 1000 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra.(SANDRP’s report on Vidarbha Suicides)

The issue encompasses very local money lending problems to national and even global food pricing issues. One of the important keystones, which has a significant influence on all other factors, is availability of water in the farmers’ field. Most of the soybean and cotton grown in Vidarbha and Marathwada on nearly 60,00,000 hectares is rain fed, so are pulses and oilseeds. Spurts of suicides are concentrated after drought, failing rains and extreme weather events like hailstorms. We have lost significant areas of pulses already this year due to paltry July rains. Irrigation, at this point, not only means spectacular increases in productivity but also the difference between a crop, and perhaps a life, lost and saved.

“Till the time you don’t give water to a farmer’s fields, you can’t save him from suicide,” said the CM in his speech. This has been underlined by about 5 committees which investigated Debt and suicides in Vidarbha.

Mehekari Dam in Beed, Marathwada. The reservoir has been dry for 3 years and we are working now on increasing its height. Photo: Author
Mehekari Dam in Beed, Marathwada. The reservoir has been dry for 3 years and we are working now on increasing its height. Photo: Author

On this front Maharashtra has been experience tough challenges since the last decade. After a dismal monsoon of 2014-15, this year again we have scanty July rains. According to Maharashtra Government, on the 24th July, the state has received only 26.3% of the average rains. Marathwada region has received a mere 21 mm rain in July, which is 13.9% of the average for July. This was 38.2 % last year, despite being a drought year. Kharif sowing all over the state is about to wilt. Add to this distressing load shedding, which does not allow farmers especially in Vidarbha and Marathwada to irrigate their fields using groundwater, and we have a very serious problem at hand.

What are the possible solutions CM that suggested? Some of the long term solutions discussed by the CM around water include:

  • Increased budget for water conservation: It is great to see CM’s focus on water conservation. Indeed the Jalyukta Shivar (Water-rich farm) scheme (started by Prithviraj Chavan, before the elections) of watershed conservation with peoples participation has been doing good work. The CM said that he will not allow it to become contractor-driven, which is welcome. Budget of Water Conservation has been raised substantially from Rs 800 Crores to Rs 2200 Crores.
  • Sinking 100,000 Wells in the coming 3 years: Assuming on an average 2.5 hectares irrigated area per well, this will mean 2.5 Lakh hectares irrigation. Of course, this is not just a matter of simple multiplication, water levels all over Maharashtra are falling sharply and the practicability of the scheme will need to be studied, but conjunctive groundwater use, especially in Vidarbha region is a good initiative, provided it is accompanied by a) groundwater recharge schemes b) ensuring that unsustainable crops are not allowed c) groundwater regulation is given to communities with clearly defined norms of equity and sustainability.

    Well in a cotton field, Vidarbha Photo:
    Well in a cotton field, Vidarbha Photo:

The announcement was accompanied by an account of how wells have not been dug in the past 7 years even in the most vulnerable farming zones with highest suicide rates. “The wells declared to be sunk under the Prime Ministers package for Vidarbha region have not been sunk till now. In the past 7 years more than 18000 wells are pending. Who are these 18000 people? These were the most vulnerable farmers. We kept them away from assured irrigation and expected them to manage.”

  • Setting up 50,000 farm ponds every year for the next 3 years to bring “500,000 acres of land under irrigation.”

Now, Farm ponds are not necessarily a shot-in-the-arm. In parched Ahmednagar and Nashik regions, Farm ponds do not harvest rainwater but store pumped groundwater from borewells, leading to immense evaporation losses. Rich farmers buy bore wells from weaker farmers, only to fill their ponds and grow water intensive crops, drying the weaker farmer’s dug well along the way. On the other hand, harvesting rainwater, stream water, even well water during monsoons has proved to be a great idea in some parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha, even Konkan. So, some regulation is needed here to bring in equity and sustainability.

Famr pond in Nagar filled with groundwater from a neighboring field Photo: Author
Farm pond in Nagar filled with groundwater from a neighboring field Photo: Author
  • Repair and maintenance: In an important announcement, CM said that for repairing and maintenance of older structures, 10% costs (10% of what is unclear, perhaps 10% of the program budget?) will be secured this year. In the coming 5 years, districts will undertake resource mapping and about 25% funds will be secured and kept aside only for repair and rejuvenation of older structures.

This is a great announcement. Indeed, Maharashtra has over 60,000 smaller structures which are with ZP, Local Sector of WRD, Minor Irrigation and Water Conservation Department etc., which are entirely ungoverned and without maintenance. Even Chitale Committee SIT Report pointed out that there is no realistic assessment of the irrigation potential created by these projects. Last drought saw many inspiring community initiatives reviving these structures. Some support and focus for this work will go a long way in achieving local water security.

  • Farm Pump connections: The CM said that “200,000 farmers kept away from farm pumps without electricity connections. 20,000 cases have been pending for 3 years. These are most vulnerable groups. We plan to expedite this process.” Not having electricity connections for pumps and staring at groundwater without being able to irrigate fields is pathetic. A farmer couple who were consistently denied connection set themselves on fire in the officials’ chambers some months back. At this point, when Thermal Power Plants are working at barely 51% Plant Load Factors and no new Power Purchase Agreements have been signed by the discoms with the  new thermal projects for over three years now, securing electricity is constrained more by political and economic issues than capacity issues. The CM should have gone slightly deeper in this, discussing how secure, reliable power can be supplied to farmers. I have talked with many farmers who say that they do not need free or heavily subsidised power, but only reliable power at optimal rates. But for us, free power is more of a political issue than farmer’s issue, they say.
  • He also announced Rs. 1500 per hectare help for double sowing, in case rains fail till 27th July etc.

All in all, good announcements. They will need more groundwork, more realistic targets and also reconnaissance of existing problems, like the non-implementation of Groundwater Act for past 6 years and MWRRA being the Ground Water Authority, when it has failed to complete its own duties so far. Also, Jal Yukta Shivar, Watershed Management, etc., are supply side measures. Unless demand side management of cropping patterns, efficient irrigation techniques and equitable water distribution are not adopted, we end up with Jalyukta Shivars supporting sugarcane in Marathwada, which is unacceptable.

This brings us to Sugarcane: Maharashtra politicians’ favorite topic of discussion. Here too, the opposition is rallying for the Sugar factories, supporting factory owners in their demand that they cannot pay FRP (Fair Remunerative Price) to farmers, that FRPs are calculated unfairly and that center and state should heavily support the industry. Let’s keep the issue of corruption and power politics in sugar factories aside for a while. The major issue of Maharashtra’s sugarcane is not FRP, but water. 2/3rd of our sugarcane is grown in the worst drought affected areas of Solapur and Marathwada. Every year, we keep adding factories in this very region, which use more water and pollute even more water. If we consider cost of water (THE most valuable farming input) then Maharashtra’s sugarcane is 1000 times less efficient than UP’s cane. Sugarcane grown in “pockets of prosperity” of Marathwada have meant distress for a huge area. Most of the dams and groundwater sources are appropriated by powerful sugar lobby and marginal farmers are left to eke out their living on the mercy of the truant monsoon. These lobbies eat into subsides: be it for agriculture or farm pumps, meant for weaker sections. Last year when Marathwada received less than 44% rainfall, but it grew sugarcane over 2.5 lakh hectares, concentrated around dams and rivers and to cultivate this cane, it emptied nearly two Jayakwadi Dams. This water, from dams or groundwater, if used equitably could have supported 2.1 million pulse farmers, increasing their productivity robustly.

But the CM did not even mention water when he discussed sugarcane. The discussion was as if sugarcane is a factory manufactured synthetic product, with no links to natural resources. This sort of compartmentalization is entirely political and the issue of sugarcane cannot be delinked from the issue of water it uses. The CM and the government needs to take very strong position on this: unlike NCP Congress, half of the Cabinet Ministers of the current government are not sugar factory owners. We urge the CM to declare that there is no point in continuing the burden of past mistakes, and drought prone areas cannot afford to grow sugarcane. Protective irrigation for pulses, oilseed and cereals will help more farmers, more industries as well as the nation by saving foreign exchange that’s now leaking for import of pulse and oilseeds.

Although the BJP in its election manifesto had promised 50% profit over production costs as returns to farmers, this has been a mirage. In Maharashtra, state’s oilseed and pulses MSP (Minimum Support Price) recommendations have been consistently rejected by the Centre and growing crops like groundnut and sesame is like a loss making venture now.  Although we import pulses at a huge cost to out exchequer, we do not ensure even production cost prices to the farmers who grow these crops, at a huge risk, without irrigation and without any market support, unlike the case of sugarcane. This is something we need to fix urgently, but the CM did not allude to this, while scoring empty political points over Bali negotiations and UPA-NDA tussle.

Then we come to large dams. CM’s statements about large dams, given at the outset, are great. But when do we see the action? At this point, Maharashtra has several white elephants of large projects which are causing crores of Rs. loss to the public exchequer every day by lying idle and not providing the promised benefits. Some such projects are highlighted below:

Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Project which plans to lift 24 TMC water from Ujani dam, just does not have the water! There is no easy way for it to get water in the near future, as the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal has (very rightly) DSC02971quashed any large distance inter-sub basin water transfer way back in 2013 November.We still hankered after this project and spent more than Rs 400 Crores of public money on this. This has been waste and any more money will be further waste: the cost of this project stands at more than 5000 Crores. Krishna Marathwada LIS needs to be scrapped immediately, at least till there is no credible assurance of water for the project.

Same is the case with Lower Penganga Project, coming up in vulnerable Yavatmal District. It will displace more than 35,000 people, take them away from their lands and irrigated agriculture, submerge nearly 1000 hectares of forests.The command area itself had to be changed, based on the convenience of Western Coal Fields (not the farmers). We have already spent more than Rs 600 cores on this project, which is also undergoing Anti-corruption Bureau inquiry and we will have to spend more than Rs 4,500 crores on this more for several years to complete it!

Mr. CM Sir, You yourself had denounced this project, stating that its water availability itself is fraudulent. How can we continue with this scheme now?

Lower Tapi Lift Irrigation Project Project in Dhule: this project will submerge more than 51 villages and displace more than 20,000 people from their lands. It has already spent more than Rs 200 Crores, it is mainly a lift irrigation project. Whistle blowers like Vijay Pandhare have said, 80-90% lift irrigation schemes are lying unused all over the state. We are not able to secure electricity even for pump connections, where shall we get hundreds of MW power for the Lift Irrigation Schemes? The additional expense is nearly Rs 1000 Crores. The project has also violated Environmental Laws.

In the case of Pranhita Chevella Link project between Telangana and Maharashtra, we stand not to benefit, but are likely to lose more than 2000 hectares of forest and land inhabited by tribals in Gadchiroli. How can the government support this?

We request the CM to take strong action against these projects and stop spending more of public money on these. Such actions alone will provide credibility to CM’s statements.

What about interbasin transfers of water from drought prone area to surplus area?

Through Koyana and Tata Hydel Projects, every year we are transferring more than 3000 Million Cubic Meters of water AWAY from the drought prone Krishna Basin into water surplus Konkan for electricity generation. When are we going to stop this?

There are several ways to keep the projects running and still stop transfer of water from Krishna Basin. Why are they not being explored? For the Krishna Marathwada Project of Marathwada, we are ready to spend thousands of crores only to get 23.66 TMC water to Ujani,  but we are not asking the TATA Dams to transfer the 50 TMC water they transfer to Konkan, and when this water belongs to Bhima basin! How long will this go on?

What about Climate change?

The most striking part of the CM’s speech was actually his omission. Although Maharashtra is facing extreme weather events in form of hailstorms, unseasonal rainfall, recurring droughts interspersed with extreme rainfall events: all classic footprints of a changing climate, the CM did not choose to speak a word about Climate Change, its impact on the agro-economy and farmers. This is especially worrisome as Vidarbha and Marathwada have been singled out to be more vulnerable to climate change impacts. Increasingly unpredictable Western Disturbances which have been held responsible for unseasonal hailstorms in Maharashtra (mainly Marathwada) have been strongly linked to warming over Tibet Plateau. When all this is clear, Maharashtra does not even have a Climate Change Action Plan in place, forget a more sophisticated weather based insurance, compensation scheme or evolved adaptation and mitigation measures. This is a huge policy gap. When governments across the world are acknowledging the role played by Climate change and trying to mold policy to respond to these changes, we cannot afford to deny the existence of Climate Change and only talk about sugarcane, cooperative banks and dam scams. We urge the CM to urgently put in place a credible Climate Change Action Plan, put it out for public discussions at panchayat level and above and take robust measures to implement it.

Hail in Nagpur in March 2015 Photo: Nagpur Tips
Hail in Nagpur in March 2015 Photo: Nagpur Tips

It looked as if the CM, at the risk of being unpopular with Congress, NCP and contractors, is looking for long term measures to tackle the recurring drought issues. This is a welcome change for Maharashtra which was trapped in contractor-driven politics around water for many years now. It’s now 8 months since the Fadnavis government was formed and time to take some strong decisions.

Just before working on this piece, I talked with my friend Dr. Nilesh Heda from Washim, Vidarbha. Nilesh had planted soybean in his field for the first time. He had used specialized heirloom seeds, innovative planting techniques and for his Producer Company, this was a demonstration of sorts. When I talked him now, he told me he had just ploughed back all the soybean saplings back in the soil. There was no rain for over a month and no means to save his crop. “Only one round of irrigation could have saved the crop” he said. The Adan dam in the vicinity has never helped farmers like him.

The links between dams, debt, disparity, distress and irrigation are very strong, that I saw for myself.

– Parineeta Dandekar,

2 thoughts on “We pushed large dams, not irrigation, this has to change: CM Fadnavis’ Assembly Speech

  1. Promote sharing of water from wells in every Panchayath and promote micro-irrigation. Root zone wetting should be the objective of all irrigation techniques to manage available water efficiently. Ensuring MSP for millets and pulses and distribution of millets and pulses through PDS are a must. Eggs in mid-day meals – a nutritious idea!


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