Above: Dry Pravara River Bed, with sugarcane on one side and frantic well drilling in the riverbed on the other (Photo: Parineeta Dandekar)
Large parts of Maharashtra are facing possibly the worst droughts in the past 100 years, the third drought in the last 4 years. There are multiple components to this: poor rainfall in 2015 monsoon on the back of failed 2014 monsoon, relative dry winter, loss of four back to back crops, dangerously depleting groundwater levels and no restriction on water intensive crops, water use by urban areas and industry. Currently, the situation is unprecedented even for drinking water. Section 144 has been clamped in Latur, possibly first time in the history for safeguarding water sources, protect tanker water supply and avoid unrest.
However, the Policy response to these repeated droughts seem to start and end with Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan. Assembly announcements and drought relief measures have firmly focused on short term efforts, part credit waivers, cattle farms, tanker supply, paltry compensations for crop loss. None of these really try to adequately address enormity of the issue at hand.
There has been nearly NO long term policy solution that has emerged in this drought or neither any change in the way we have managed water for so long.
Sugarcane cultivation and sugar industry functioning in Maharashtra demonstrates this issue.
There has been no policy level change reagrding sugarcane cultivation nor an effort to understand water requirement and implications of functioning of sugar mills in this dry season. No serious discussion has taken place whether we will be able to afford their water needs this year or where will they get their water from and what will be the implications thereof. Most of Maharashtra’s sugarcane and sugar industries are concentrated in drought-prone area of Western Maharashtra (Solapur, Pune, Ahmednagar) and Marathwada (mainly Aurangabad, Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani and Latur).
Water conflicts soared immediately after the failed 2015 monsoon when upstream downstream water sharing between Nashik, Ahmednagar districts against Marathwada, represented by Jayakwadi Dam, on the flared. Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) considered the case, there was a committee set up to work out water releases from upstream dams in Nagar and Nashik for Jayakwadi. However as decided, full 12.44 TMC water is still not released for Jayakwadi after several months.[i] The case for Nashik and Nagar played out through the all-powerful sugar lobby in Ahmednagar District. The lobby went to the High Court against MWRRA’s decision and then even to Supreme Court where they hired Kapil Sibal (exposing the politics of Congress too) to argue against any water release to Marathwada. However, the Supreme Court dismissed this case.[ii]
As I write this, Bhandardara Dam in Ahmednagar now holds barely 20% water, Nilwande holds only 9% water and Mula Dam holds 13% water, while Jayakwadi has no water in live storage. If Marathwada’s and Ahmednagar’s water situation worsens in the coming months, and it is clear that it will, then this water in Ahmednagar can be a life saver.
7 of Marathwada’s 11 major dams have no water in Live Storage and total water in all dams is just 5%.
In the same Ahmednagar District, a Sugar Factory has been lifting drinking water released in the river for drought-hit areas.
This eminent sugar factory in Sangamner, Ahmednagar District has built a major pump house right on the bed and banks of the now bone dry Pravara River, tributary of Godavari. The factory is owned by a renowned politician, who had played an active role against water release to Marathwada.
The factory also has Jackwells in the middle of the river channel. The jackwell in the pump house, below the river bed level, collects water from the Pravara River (a tributary of Godavari). It also gets water from multiple holes dug in the dry river bed at this moment and from private wells and borewells. I witnessed this on 28th March 2016. Water from this jackwell is pumped to the factory.
In addition, the factory uses two major farm ponds, one 25 feet deep and the other about 18 feet deep to store water when it is released in the river. These ponds have huge evaporation losses too.
I was told by the factory officials, “The farm ponds will be filled when next drinking water rotation is released. We fill them at every rotation.” When I discussed this with Ahmednagar Collector Office, I was told that water is being released strictly for drinking water purposes.
This is extremely shocking and scandalous. In a situation where even drinking water is so scarce as to become a matter of privilege, a sugar industry is openly stealing, pumping and storing drinking water released from dam for crushing sugarcane. This has been going on throughout this drought.
Neither is this the only factory to lift drinking water for sugarcane crushing.
Everyone in the government must be knowing what is going on and they are refusing to take any action and yet no issues are being raised about this scandalous situation.
So is there any transparent, rule based water sharing and water governance system in place in possibly the worst drought that the state is experiencing?
Defunct Effluent Treatment Plant is creating more hazards.
Equally, if not more shockingly, Effluent Treatment plants of this Sugar Factory has been closed and defunct for more than 3 years now. I had photographed the defunct plant on 2013 and again on 28th March 2016, the plant is the same, even more derelict. I was told by the officials categorically that water is stored in storage lagoons or released in streams from here it is picked up by farmers.
Sugar Industry is categorised as critically polluting industry and its effluents with very high COD and BOD can wreck a havoc with quality even the available surface water and groundwater.
So right now, not only is drinking water being used for crushing, but effluents are being discharged illegally without treatment, polluting surface water and groundwater sources, further reducing availability of water.
How did we allow this to happen?
SIMILAR EXAMPLES IN MARATHWADA
This is not an isolated example alone. In Marathwada too, when Section 144 is clamped on Latur to protect water sources and water tankers which provide drinking water, something similar has happened. I was on the bank of Lower Terna Reservoir on the 15th January 2016, when we witnessed water being lifted from the Lower Terna Dam, which has been at DEAD STORAGE for the past 3 years, by Lokmangal Sugar Factory.
This is the same Lower Terna, just 30 kms from Latur, from where now tankers ply to supply water to Latur and on which many part of Osmanabad depend on drinking water. Who gave this permission to this sugar mill? Based on what studies? When did dam water become a private resource?
In Osmanabad, I visited Vitthal Sai Sugar Factory which was releasing effluents without any treatment in the surrounding soil. The Effluent Treatment plant has not worked this year, neither last year. All the pollution directly enters groundwater or is used by farmers.
NO REGULATION AROUND SUGAR AND WATER
Maharashtra Government has completely failed in regulating water needs, use, sources or effluents of the sugarcane and sugar industry. Though announced, no regulation of water used by Sugar industry was actually practiced on ground. The government had announced that District Collectors were to give crushing licenses to sugar factories, based on their water use and water plan for the district till the month of July 2016. [iii]
None of the Collectors did that (possible exception of Solapur) and NO SUCH ORDERS FROM THE GOVERNMENT REACHED THEM. SANDRP analyzed this in detail here: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/water-and-sugarcane-crushing-in-maharashtra-in-search-of-sustainability/
Only Collector Tukaram Mundhe from Solpaur has tried his best to respond to the water challenge of sugarcane and sugar industries and has also slapped a fine to Siddheshwar Sugar Industry for polluting and exploiting groundwater resources.
While the National and State Water Policy accords number 1 priority to drinking water, can we still permit Sugar Industry to systematically steal drinking water released for the drought-hit?
Can they be allowed to use drinking water for crushing sugarcane and polluting water sources?
Can we afford to do this in the current drought?
Can we afford to do this when there are still at least 2.5 more summer months to manage?
When lakhs of people are struggling daily for water for drinking and domestic needs?
We hope the government, media, political parties and civil society take immediate cognizance of this reality and take urgent necessary action to stop this criminal practice that seems to be prevailing with full knowledge the decision makers. This has all the seeds of major future conflicts.
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP