Water cuts in the city of Mumbai or for that matter in Maharashtra, are not a new phenomenon at all. It is that time of the year, when residents scramble to ration water and the tanker mafia find streets to operate on. But fortunately, cities like Mumbai, or for that matter most places in the Konkan and Western Maharashtra have always had prominent faces and voices to come to their rescue. Baramati has Sharad Pawar, Latur had Vilasrao Deshmukh, Nashik has Chhagan Bhujbal and Konkan has Narayan Rane. Regardless of the constant allegations of corruption leveled against these leaders, the fact of the matter is that they have been known to take care of their constituencies. Perhaps not in a wholesome way, but these areas, including those which fall in the Solapur and Satara belts receiving much less rainfall than Vidarbha, don’t face the kind of acute water shortage that Vidarbha does.
Vidarbha’s story is the exact opposite. A region which was once at the realm of the nation’s political affairs, with Congress strongmen Vasant Sathe and N K P Salve as advisors and ministers in former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, is now struggling to find both a face and voice for its ongoing water shortage problem which never seems to end. A simple analysis of the region's acute water shortage reveals the lack of even simple planning or development and rampant corruption, which has forced hundreds of farmers to take extreme steps. In fact, a farmer suicide isn’t even a big news item in this part anymore. A quick look at the reports that emerged out of the recent irrigation scam points out to the fact that Vidarbha has a sizable pie of the number of incomplete projects in the state. Add to the fact that faces like Jamwantrao Dhote, Shankarrao Gedam and B T Deshmukh, who were once considered to be the voices of Vidarbha, have become a distant memory and heavyweights like Nitin Gadkari (Union Minister), Devendra Phadnavis (BJP’s State Unit President) or Ranjit Kamble (Water Resources Minister of Maharashtra) have not been able to live up to their potential as far as effectively addressing the issues of the region are concerned. When needed most, Vidarbha is lacking any political tone.
The irony of the situation is that even the Prime Minister’s office has repeatedly agreed that lack of irrigation is a major reason for suicides in the region, yet the situation is allowed to continue painting a woeful picture. Another irony is that a state that claims to be the top destination for foreign investments, has its own people travelling miles just for a glass of water. This was evident during the 2012-13 drought when scores of farmers from across the state, migrated to smaller towns and big cities for survival. Those less fortunate, mostly farmers, simply end their life. Contrary to the belief that it is a traditionally parched region, Vidarbha actually receives 700-850 mm rainfall every year. But what follows the rain is actually a domino effect gone horribly wrong. Firstly, there is no will or money to get a smooth mechanism in place to make use of this water. Add to it the fact that water is controversially allocated in advance to incomplete projects and coal-fired power plants, thanks to open corruption. All this leaves no way out for the farmer to move a limb and ultimately affects the overall irrigation potential of the region. Needless to say, most of these industries have political affiliations which manage to crush any opposition the locals would have against these projects. The Lower Wardha project is an excellent example, which was supposed to be the source of irrigation water for farmers in the Wardha region and a little beyond. But now it’s in the middle of a controversial water allocation to an unfinished thermal power plant in the region, managed by Lanco Power Ltd.
Another interesting fact is the mystery as to why the state government would sanction as many as 71 thermal power plants in Vidarbha. These plants operate on coal for power production and are notorious for huge levels of water consumption. Data from Greenpeace India suggests that these coal-powered plants gobble as much as 5000 litres per hour to produce a single MW of power. A study released in 2012, “Endangered Waters” by the same organisation, points out to this fact and also mentions how the region’s requirement for power is not in sync with the number of plants that the state has decided to base here. How wise would it be to commission coal-based power plants in high numbers in a region already grappling with water woes?
Even as the new government at the Centre has blown the trumpet of achhe din, one hopes that they don’t forget the farmers of Vidarbha, who have been in need of the promised glory days for a very long time. The modern leadership from the region has not quite lived up to the expectations, has not succeeded in bringing about an impact or help stage the region’s issues in the state or at the national level. Till this happens, each day promises to be a struggle for the farmers here. The next time you have a glass of iced water from your fridge or sit under a hot shower in the comfort of your city homes, spare a thought for the farmers in Vidarbha, who even as we speak, continue to struggle to acquire and fight for every drop of water.
The writer is a media consultant with Greenpeace and the views expressed are personal