Maharashtra's Latur, recipient of train-delivered water, lives in fear of drought despite water surplus

Latur had a brush with disaster in the summer of 2016, but one chancy downpour delivered the town out of a water scarcity of Saharan proportions.

Published: 07th June 2017 10:03 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th June 2017 07:44 AM   |  A+A-

Colourful plastic pots kept in line for drinking water near ShahuChowk, Nanded road in Latur. Express Photo by A Radhakrishna

Express News Service

LATUR: Driving in Latur at dawn in the last week of May, you see women splashing water on their front yards, and you know that the frightening drought of the year before has been forgotten. Last summer, an aeon ago, this was a town of water queues kept in order by the instrument of Section 144.

As water scarcities go, it had been an extraordinary one. An entire train had been commandeered to ply water to these parts, 108 trips by what came to be called the Latur Water Special, each time carrying 25.95 lakh litres to three lakh people in the parched district. The train had opened up possibilities: yes indeed why can’t water be carried to deserts?

At dawn this summer, the town had gone back to being sleepy. The 360 water tankers that had rumbled about then have now been whittled down to six, operating only to uphill villages where the basalt bedrock allows no percolation to the water table beneath.

It could even be claimed as some sort of an achievement, as I was later to be told by the new collector and municipal commissioner of Latur, Sreekanth Sajjan. “This year we started using water tankers only in the third week of May,” he said.

The miracle occurred over a week in mid September last year. A downpour not seen in all of the monsoon months ensured that the annual precipitation figure soared to a record 1110.92 mm, against the 10-year average of 802.13 mm. It had dipped to 413.48 mm in the year of the Latur Water Special. It was some manna from heaven. The Manjara dam filled up and remains substantially turgid today. Ground water levels recorded an average of 1 m rise.

Predicatly, Latur was a happy place this summer, the opposite of what they had been in 2016 – all for the grace of one burst of the clouds. Anasuya Podare remembers the torrid months last year. She and her husband had moved to Latur after a tiff with their children and took up a servitor’s jobs at the local Mahalakshmi temple. The 65-year-old woman used to spent three to four hours in queues for one pot of water last year. Now she walks a few metres to the tap and fills up as much as she needs.

"I have no count of the money I spent last season to buy water,” she says.

But here in Marathwada, water shortage is an unforgettable mistress. It indulges you for no more than one season. Even in this summer of unanticipated surplus, there are localities in Latur that are served water once in eight days, plausibly because one of the nine water tanks in the city has gone on the blink.

But even in those localities, this year’s privations are leavened by the experience of last year. Anita Patil, a resident of water-short Revenue Colony, told me she still has to buy water. But it’s not as bad as last year, whe she had had to spend Rs 3000 per month all of 2016.

New to the job, collector Sajjan has to wrestle with the detritus of last year’s disaster, mainly illegal bore wells that had sprouted in the frenzy of near-famine conditions. "Illegal bore wells and lack of awareness among people are some of the reasons why we are unable to check water wastage,” he said.

During the high fever of 2016, bore wells had been dug by the hundreds. While no one kept count of the exact number of illegal ones, at least 2000 bore wells were dug in the town, some as deep as 700-800 feet. The groundwater department’s rules prescribe a dainty five per square km.

As anyone familiar with the hydrography of Marathwada knows, drought is never far away in Latur.  Even in this frolicsome summer, you only have to step out of town to meet it. About 11 km east of Latur, in Bhatkeda village, a habitation of 600 families where one branch of the Manjara flows by, there is not a drop of water to drink.

After the downpour of September, water had to be released from the Manjara dam and it flooded the village. By January, barely four months later, the Manjara had dried up as always. Marginal farmer Baba Shiekh said, “There’s water in this stream for four months a year. The rest of the year, it’s dry.”

A 60-year-old farmer, Madhukar Gurame said he’s not fooled by the surplus of September 2016.  He had never been able to fully irrigate his 14 acres for 15 years. He dug 15 bore wells during that time, some as deep as 650 ft.

A SUGARCANE ADDICTION

Latur knows it’s been lucky. Knowing drought’s frequent visitations, the state government launched what it called the Jalyukt-Shivar Abhiyaan (JYS) in 2014 with the bold aim of making the district drought-free by 2019. Some 13 different water conservation schemes were announced, involving broadening and deepening of river beds, afforestation, watershed management, rain water harvesting mechanisms, the works.

However, local conservaton experts Pradeep Purandare, a retired prof at the Water and Land Management Institute in Aurangabad, are sure they are missing the point as usual. “They are digging up river beds,” he complained. “A river is a discharge zone, not a recharge zone. They need to check the hydrography of the place and study the aquifer status, where it allows filtration and penetration of ground water. All that’s not being done.”

Typical of the thrashing about that a disaster always produces in India, none of the water conservation schemes is being implemented in a scientific manner, Prof Purandare said. “There is too much of widening and deepening of nalas and then are no watershed development systems in place either.”

And then there is the local farmers’ obsession with water-guzzling sugarcane. Take Kendriya Veerendra Sambhaji Rao, a 49-year-old farmer who owns 20 acres in a village called Patoda, 80 km from Latur. After three years of drought had parched his land and drained his pockets, he still stuck with sugarcane. After that copious September, he sowed 10 acres of sugarcane and 10 acres of soya bean and toor dal. “I earn a minimum of Rs 9 lakh from sugarcane, and less than Rs 2 lakh from any of the other crops. There are three sugarcane factories in this taluka and it is a lucrative option for me,” he said. So why not?

But Prof Purandare has a quarrel with that. Sugarcane is the main reason for the water scarcity endemic in Latur -- bar the odd lucky year. Of the 10 river basins that fall in Marathwada, seven are in deficit with available water less than 3000 cubic metres per hectare. The forest area is only 4 per cent. There are 11 major irrigation projects and all of them have water in a good year. But sugarcane plantations guzzle it all up, he says.

In fact, when the Manjara project was designed, it had been mandated that only 3 per cent of the water should be used for sugarcane. Now the actual usage is more like 77 per cent.

“The government does not want to address this issue. Instead, it comes up with ideas like JYS which would only make it worse,” he said.

STILL SLOW TO ADOPT RWH

Latur is no stranger to the idea of rain water harvesting (RWH). Activist Amol Ravindra Gowande has been advocating it for 15 years. In all of that time, only about 5000 people set up systems on their rooftops. But after last year's drought, 5000 chastened households rushed to sign up. So today, only 10,000 of the one lakh properties in Latur have RWH in place.

For a drought-prone city, there’s no good reason why the number should be so low. Oil merchant Mohan Pardesi is one of the few converts to RWH. His rooftop mechanism protected him from the Big Dry of 2016, generating 3000 litres of water per day even in the dreadful summer.

"We set this up in 2003 with an investment of Rs 6000. I harvest one lakh litres from the 2000 sq feet terrace every year. My bore well has not gone dry for 15 years," he said. It takes care of his household and the small-scale oil extraction industry he runs.

And his 200 ft bore well yielded enough to let him be charitable last summer. He shared 4000 litres of water with his neighbours.

Prof Purandare is skeptical that latur has come to its senses. “It is hard to believe that after years of slacking, the people of Latur have woken up to reality,” he says.

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