LATUR (MAHARASHTRA): In the best of years, summer is a grim time in Latur and this threatens to be the cruellest yet. The town is scraping the barrel just to cope with the severest water scarcity possible: pulling children out of school to fetch water, braving Section 144 to get close to the water tanker, and turning up at 3 am to be first to queue up plastic pots.
But it’s spring yet, and nothing will stop the people of Latur from celebrating Holi, which in this part of Maharashtra is celebrated two days after the rest of the country. So despite their 12-hour vigils for once-in-eight-days water supply, the hardy people of this town are preparing for their Holi on Saturday. It will be a brief riot of colour, a day of heady bhang and good cheer before life gets back to the queue.
Between June and October last year, Latur received 398 mm of rainfall, the normal range being 455-755 mm, making it the fourth straight year of deficit precipitation. Groundwater statistics show that the water table has fallen from 63 ft in 1974-75 to 800-900 ft now. Small reservoirs and barrages, including the Dhanegaon, Nazari and Sai, which used to supply Latur have long gone dry.
Omkar Umakant Honrao, a second-generation entrepreneur, says the town has about 50,000 borewells across 6-7 sq km, most of which have dried up. Latur’s Big Dry is ravaging the society, he says. “If people of Latur are seeking water, it is not for agriculture or industry. Forget that. This is for survival. There are no workers here. They’ve all moved out,” he says.
One of the mainstays of the town’s economy is the influx of a lakh or so students who come here to be prepped for the IIT-JEE and other competitive examinations every summer. If they stop coming, the economy would be crippled.
Filmmaker Abhishek Shival has been working on a documentary on Latur’s Big Dry for four years. He’s seen an ecological disaster unfold as he went about filming. “You know what’s Latur’s forest cover? 0.5 per cent,” he spits out the words.
That apart, factories planted on the Tavarja and Rena riversides are busily polluting the water, he says. “All the effluent and sewage of Latur goes to the Tavarja and pours into the Manjra, which is our main water source.”
With water so precious, the people living adjacent to the shrinking sources are lately agitating against supplying water to Latur.
Conversations turn bitter when the water crisis is mentioned. Says Vinod Ransubhe, corporator of Latur’s ward six, “We are famous for our sugar factories, many of which are run by our MLA himself. There is at present a stay on their operations owing to the water crisis. But I want to ask where were the authorities when these factories were exploiting water all these years?” Adds Sayed Tajuddin Baba, founder of a charitable trust, “Vilasrao Deshmukh was CM for eight years. And he was from Latur. Was he not aware of the drought situation?”