Above: A huge protest march against water release to Marathwada Photo: Zee 24 Taas
In 2015, with the change in the ruling party after 15 long years, Maharashtra had a massive opportunity to break free from the crisis-ridden and scam-ridden image of its water sector. Water and dams have been central behind the embarrassing loss of Congress-NCP government in the 2014 Loksabha elections. But could the ruling BJP government actually deliver such a “Paradigm Shift” as it likes to call it? Is there light at the end of the tunnel for the state that is facing not only management scams, but repeated droughts and extreme weather events?
We try to review happenings around water, dams and rivers in Maharashtra for the past year 2015 and to look for a possible direction where the sector is heading, trying to fathom what it holds for the rivers and the people of the state.
2015 cannot be looked at in isolation, it is but one year in the series of natural and management challenges faced by the state. 2012 marked a failed monsoon and the surfacing of the infamous dam scam. Rather than tackle these issue sincerely, administration and ruling collation tried to whitewash the scam itself, while glorifying the drought. White Paper on Irrigation Projects nonchalantly justified the most outlandish cost and time escalations of dams. Water Resource establishment and ruling party controlling WRD for nearly 15 years was not bothered that more than Rs 70,000 Crores of public money led to no increase in irrigated area in a decade. March 2013 saw severe unseasonal hailstorms in Marathwada and Vidarbha. Special Investigation Team report headed by Dr. Madhav Chitale constituted to look into the problems of WRD and offer suggestions was also published. But SIT report turned out to be too soft on mistakes and corrupt practices for which common people were paying the price. Although the state waited desperately for a normal monsoon, 2014 turned out to be a drought year again, punctuated by unprecedented hailstorms when they were least expected.
All the unrest and turmoil had evident political ramifications for NCP-Congress. As BJP won the 2014 Loksabha elections NCP, it was rightly said that water and dams played the deciding role in this political tussle. Not only was NCP deeply entrenched in the dam scam with Ajit Pawar named in most major irregularities, his crass remarks and poking fun at the plight of thirsty farmers were the last straw for the Marathi populace. In November 2014, BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as the 18th Chief Minister of the State. Change in ruling government has meant several changes in water governance. But are these real and deep-rooted changes or temporary & superficial reactions to the past incumbency and public outrage?
The turmoil in water sector has affected farming community intimately. Although 52.7% of the state’s population depends on agriculture and allied activities, the sector contributed to just 11% of the state’s income in 2014. Adding to that, 2015 monsoon proved to be disastrous again: 3rd drought year in past 4 years. Agriculture Department recorded just 59.9% average rainfall, with regions like Marathwada, Solapur and Kolhapur clocking historically low rains. Kharif foodgrain production is down by 34%. More than 1000 farmers committed suicide in 2015, and we saw the painful emergence of Marathwada as a place where farmers gave up hope.
While there is no dearth of bad news on the water front, that is not the complete picture of Maharashtra. Resilience is seen not only in farmers and rural communities but in administration as well.
Unexpectedly, the Chief Minister has become a Poster Boy for soil and water conservation and never loses an opportunity to speak about Jalyukta Shivar Yojana (Water rich farms Scheme) which, with all its drawbacks and limitations, has become a remarkable movement in Maharashtra. Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) has taken action against at least one business house and several engineers embroiled in the dam scam. Irrigation Projects are funded based on their completion status, avoiding spreading the meager state funds thin. Government is at least making noises about instilling some water discipline in the kingdom of sugarcane. Local communities have pitched in enthusiastically in JalYukta Shivar, in cleaning rivers, in protests against unjustified projects, in legal battles etc. Activists and experts continue in their quest of understanding and addressing the inherent problems of Water Resource establishment in the state and suggest measures. Maharashtra’s water sector still remains one of the most vibrant arenas for experiments and challenges in the country.
The year 2015 began with Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Sushri Uma Bharti seeking a special meeting with the new CM about Par Tapi Narmada and Damanganga Pinjal Link Projects. While Gujarat is pushing for Par Tapi Narmada link which will give it 1350 Million Cubic Meters (MCM) of water partly from Maharshtra, Maharashtra is strongly against diversion of any water to Gujarat. From the Meetings of the Special Committee on ILR (Interlinking of Rivers), it is clear that water sharing issue is still not settled between the two states. In this din, Gujarat or Maharashtra are not even considering thousands of tribals who will be displaced and whose livelihoods would be destroyed by this proposed project.
In January 2015, the Anti Corruption Bureau announced that it will probe 12 projects against which allegations had been raised by activists of the Aam Aadmi Party. August saw the ACB finally booking criminal offences against 11 persons, including six officials of Maharashtra Irrigation Department, in connection with irregularities of Rs 93 crore in execution of Balganga Dam in Raigad. Three more people were arrested in September. This has been the strongest action taken so far in the dam scam. However, ACB’s reluctance in taking any strict action against the political masters behind the scam points to political negotiations..The enquiry will possibly conclude in 2016.
January also marked the first meeting of the State Water Council (SWC), under the Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority (MWRRA), headed by the Chief Minister. Although the council is supposed to meet every 6 months, this has been its first meeting in 13 years! The CM has pushed for work as per the Integrated State Water Plan, however, the WRD does not have the will or the expertise to work on any such plan. We expect a lot of turmoil around MWRRA in the coming year. This holds lessons for all the states in India which have established WRRA under pressure from World Bank or the Centre.
In February 2015, the Fadnavis government took a disastrous step by scrapping the 15 year old River Regulation Zone Policy. RRZ policy divided river in zones and regulated setting up of industry and infrastructure activities along the river bed & flood plain. Scrapping of the policy is essentially pandering to the industry, while compromising the health of already weakened river systems in Maharashtra. The move has been widely criticized and has been challenged in court. This move, along with actions like denotification of Forest land in Vidarbha, zero action against dams which have flouted Environment Laws, reduction in Ecologically Sensitive Areas in Western Ghats, etc underlines that the current government is not supporting environmental protection. This points to several conflicts in the coming year.
Month of March was like a bad déjà vu for the state. March 2014 saw agriculture over 10 lakh hectares destroyed, mainly in Marathwada and Vidarbha. In 2015 too, February and March unseasonal rains and hailstorms battered farmers in Vidarbha, Konkan, Marathwada and Uttar Maharashtra (Nashik, Jalgaon and Dhule Districts) impacting over 8.5 lakh hectares of crops, thousands of farmers and landless laborers. Despite an alarming rise in extreme weather events, Maharashtra still does not have a State Climate Change Action Plan in place. It has been more than 8 years that the plan is under preparation even as lakhs of farmers continue to suffer. Irony is that Union Environment Minister of India comes from Maharashtra and while he gave a speech in Paris Climate Change Convention about need to protect the environment and vulnerable groups, his own state does not have the rudimentary measure in place to understand and address climate change.
March 2015 saw the publication of the Economic Survey Report of Maharashtra for the year 2014-15. Although the CM and his select media earlier reported about how this Report will be different than others as a new methodology for assessing irrigated area will be adopted, all this turned out to be misleading. The report still does not have figures either for the Gross Irrigated Area, or for the ratio between Gross cropped area to Gross irrigated area, which were the most contentious issues in the past. This is in addition to the fact that the state has not been publishing Irrigation Status Report, Water Audit Report or Irrigation Benchmarking report since the past 5 years. Will 2015-16 see true data?
April and May saw water crisis darkening over the state. In April itself the state had only 28% storages with Marathwada dams holding only 13% water and 4 of its dams at 0% Live Storage. Manjara and Lower Terna Dams of Marathwada have been at 0 Live Storage for more than two years now!
In the meanwhile, repeated droughts and heavy dependence on groundwater meant that 2331 villages in the state now fall in critical or over exploited areas, many concentrated in Vidarbha and Marathwada. The MWRRA, acting as the State Groundwater Authority under the Groundwater Management Act 2009, suddenly “notified” 76 overexploited and 7 critical watersheds in Districts of Ahmednagar, Amravati, Aurangabad, Buldana, Jalgaon, Jalna, Latur, Nashik, Osmanabad, Pune, Nashik, Satara and Solapur, to prohibit sinking wells deeper than 60 meters. While it cannot be doubted that the state needs effective regulation of groundwater use, this step was knee-jerk, without any support of institutions or personnel to ensure its implementation. However, it rekindled a strong discussion on groundwater and MWRRA is now working on a White Paper on Groundwater in Maharashtra.
In June we witnessed a possible political compromise led to softening of ACB action against Ajit Pawar. He was issued no summons and could answer queries from his home!
Starting from July 2015, Nashik on the banks of Godavari hosted the World famous Kumbh Mela. Although Kumbh, intimately related with the river and water, raised many questions about the pollution of Godavari in Nashik, it also saw the emergence of a strong people-led movement to clean the Godavari, supported with consistent court orders and follow up. However, the issue was not only pollution, it was also release of water for religious purposes when the downstream in Godavari (Marathwada) was facing an unprecedented drought. The case went to the High Court and is now being heard, along with other cases related to drought mitigation.
July also saw the Chief Minister make some points in his unprecedented speech in Monsoon session of the Maharasthra Legislative Assembly. Riled by the continuing demands of the opposition to declare full loan waiver for farmers, he stated farmers needed assured irrigation, reliable electricity supply and not continued loan waivers. He pointed out how 2008-09 loan waiver of upto Rs 7000 Crores has been largely ineffective. He stated: “Till the time you don’t give water to a farmer’s fields, you can’t save him from suicide.” He also took on the issue of large dams vs irrigated area frontally and stated, “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.” He then went on to talk about the Jalyukta Shivar Yojana. For a state entrenched in large dam politics for several decades, a CM saying that large dams is not the way to future is a huge thing. Jalyukta Shivar tells us that these are not empty words, but backed by a program full of positive energy. A good 2016 monsoon can be a game chager for the state.
July was also a milestone with reference to water pollution. In a historic judgment, the National Green Tribunal, acting on a case filed by environmental organistion Vanashakti, directed four civic bodies, along with the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), and operators of the Dombivli and Ambernath common effluent treatment plant to pay up over Rs 100 crore fine for the restitution and restoration of the polluted 122-km long Ulhas and Waldhuni river. This has been one of the biggest fines related to pollution and restoration. The order is a shame for MPCB as the NGT has not relied on MPCB even for oversight of the work. That the industries are failing their responsibility in treating their wastes is well known, but MPCB has consistently failed in ensuring pollution control, which is its main duty.
By August, the shadows of drought were becoming clearer. Ujani, the biggest dam on Bhima Basin in Solapur was at 0 % Live Storage. This was also at a time when upstream dams like Bhama Askhed were brimming with water, which could not be put to use. SANDRP wrote about the necessity of releasing this water for Ujani. But no step was taken. Water conflicts were simmering in Godavari and Bhima Basins, MWRRA was faced with appeals on releasing water from upstream dams. In the absence of institutional and legal mechanism to tackle the issue, “equitable water distribution” has proved to be a false promise.
Even as Bhima basin in Maharashtra and subsequent Krishna basin in Karnataka and Telangana faced terrible water scarcity, Tata Dams in the source region of Bhima Basin and Koyana Dam in the downstream, continued to transfer water outside the Bhima and Krishna Basins to the water rich Konkan Basin. Just in the period from July 1 to Aug 6, Maharashtra diverted more than 350 MCM water (conservative estimates). We wrote to the Chief Minister, to Tata Power, to Tata Sustainability Group, but received vacuous answers at best. Till date, when Tata Dams hold highest percentage of water in all Bhima basin dams, they have not released a drop for the parched downstream. Water from Tata dams could have helped parts of Marathwada too. Despite the State Water Policy of first priority to drinking water, second for agriculture and only after that for industry, (hydropower is an industry), no strong policy measure was taken to tackle this even in the most severe drought. This situation would have been scandalous in any other society. NCP tried to politicize the issue, but that did not work.
By the end of September, monsoon rainfall figures were locked and the extent of poor monsoon was out there to see. According to the State Agriculture department Nashik Solapur, Kolhapur, Beed, Jalna, Latur and Parbhani districts received less than 50% rainfall include. Most of the deficient blocks are concentrated in Solapur and Marathwada region .174 blocks have received between 50-75% rainfall.
However, strangely, the IMD rainfall figures told a different story, whereas the State figures said that Maharashtra got 59.9% of its normal rainfall, IMD pegged it at 73%! At district levels, these contradictions were starker. It is sad that for a state where nearly 85% farmers depend only on monsoon rains, we do not have a reliable forecast system, a reliable weather insurance system, no climate change action plan, and neither reliable rainfall data. We wrote about this, but received no response from IMD or State departments.
In September and October Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Eknath Kadse stated that sugarcane crushing may not be allowed this year due to scanty rains and low water in dams. Although needed, this was an empty statement without answers to question like what will happen to sugarcane standing on the field. Expectedly, the announcement fizzled out.
Then it was said that Collectors of respective districts will allow crushing on a case to case basis, after assessing water availability till July. SANDRP talked with collectors in Solapur and Marathwada where sugarcane is concentrated. No one had received any such notices. Crushing continues unhindered today, without any restriction, any regulations. During my trip to Marathwada recently, I witnessed water lifting by Lokmangal Sugar Factory in Osmanabad from Lower Terna Dam, which is at negative Live storage for the past three years (water level is below dead storage level), even as downstream areas and Latur protest for drinking water.
The government and administration has fallen woefully short in regulating any aspect of water use in sugar industry. The drought provided an excellent opportunity for the new government to set up a system for this sector, but that opportunity has been lost. This is also a political and strategic failure of the current government.
During this time and in November, water sharing issues in Godavari basin around Jayakwadi dam worsened. They were systematically politicized by the upstream. Massive protest marches against the water release were organized by the sugar lobby in Ahmednagar. MWRRA ordered release of 12.84 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) water from upstream dams to Jayakwadi, this has been the biggest and earliest such announcement so far. The upstream users went to Supreme Court to challenge this. Similar water conflict arose between Ujani dam and its upstream in Pune district. In dramatic happenings between MWRRA and Bombay High Court, Expert Member of MWRRA had to resign, faced with severe conflict of interest charges.
Finally, MWRRA ordered release of less than 2 TMC water for Ujani from upstream in its order in January 2016. MWRRA allowed Tata dams to go scot free in this order. The water release directed by MWRRA is so meager that hardly any of this will reach the dam. The new year dawns with the MWRRA facing a slew of appeals about equitable water distribution and without a strong Integrated State Water Plan, River Basin plans, WRD and a framework of water laws. MWRRA is woefully inadequate to take any of these decisions.
The year also saw an important PIL filed by Pradeep Purandare against the state clearing irrigation projects in the absence of Integrated State Water Plan, which was against MWRR Act. In a significant order, the Bombay High Court had asked the state to stop work on 191 such projects which flouted the ISWP. It is due to such pressure from outside the government that the work on ISWP is at least happening. The draft Godavari River Basin Plan was put up for comments, but it was severely criticized and is back at the drawing board now.
Although there is an enquiry instated to look at irregularities of just some projects, white elephant projects like Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Scheme are still being pushed by the government even when the project has no water availability. We have already spent Rs 500 Crores on the scheme which ultimately will cost more than Rs 5000 Crores, but without any guarantee of water! Government has refused to take strong steps to scrap projects like Krishna Marathwada, Kal Kumbhe Hydropower Project, Pranhita Chevella Project, Lower Tapi Lift Irrigation Scheme, Shirapur Lift Irrigation Scheme, etc. The WRD Minister has said so much. He needs to realize that proposing unviable projects was also at the heart of dam scam, not only later corruption.
On the environment front, the state rejected Gadgil report (Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report) and it has been reported ESA (Ecologically Sensitive Area) area of the state even as per the diluted HLWG (High Level Working Group) has been drastically from about 17,000 sq kms to about 6,000 sq kms. This will be remarkably short sighted and will witness a number of immediate and long term impacts.
2016 opens with a somber note as about 15,000 villages are grappling with drought and serious crop losses. Maharashtra’s journey in the past few years indicates that conflicts are on a rise, institutions are not able to cope up with the challenges, nature is playing truant with changing climate. Times like these are challenging. In these times of these multifarious stressors, large dams are again being questioned as a new water movement builds up. At the same time, this movement will need to think on multiple aspects, including need for a democratic institutions, clearly defined and open water sharing rules, appropriate cropping pattern, push for methods like System of Rice Intensification, effective and equitable groundwater legislation and its implementation, etc. Only setting up small scale structures will not help and they will not survive in shadow of large and misconceived projects. As Solapur’s dynamic Collector Tukaram Mundhe puts it, “The problem is not so much about availability of water. It lies in managing the available water.”
Maharashtra needs to work with nature, rather than against it. Let us hope the new year brings in new promises and new opportunities.
Parineeta Dandekar, email@example.com
 White Paper on Finances, Government of Maharashtra, 2015
 These projects include Kondhane, Chanrea, Balganga, Kalu, Shai, Susari, Gadnadi, Shill, Jamda, Shirshinge, Kal Kumbhe and Gadgadi