Beed, a town in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, is located on the banks of the Bindusara river. Ask the villagers about the river and they will tell you that it never goes dry...until the past few years, that is.
Wells dug into the dried river bed have also emptied, leaving villagers with no option but to dig pits to extract whatever water remains below the soil. But the amount available is so woefully inadequate that villagers block these pits with thorny bushes to stop dogs or pigs from getting at their water source.
The situation is so dire that last week, in the midst of all the election hoopla, the Centre issued an ‘advisory’ to six states across South and West India, warning them of depleting water levels and an impending shortage.
The drought advisory was sent out to Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by the Central Water Commission. But ask farmers in these states and they will tell you that the time for warnings is long past.
Forget farming, thousands of villages in these states are struggling to source water for their daily consumption.
“This river used to never go completely dry. While water might stop flowing, it could be found in pools. Over the past few years, it has been drying up by Diwali itself,” said Suryabhan Bidle, a farmer who was guarding mango trees on his few acres on the banks of the Bindusara.
The situation is equally depressing in other parts. Out of 141 major reservoirs in the state, 23 have gone completely dry, and only around 15 per cent of water stock is left in the rest.
In neighbouring Karnataka, farmers tell a similar tale.
“I have not seen such a drought in the last 35-40 years,” says Mahantesh, a farmer in Kadaganchi Village, Kalaburgi district. Unable to provide fodder or water for his cattle, Mahantesh, like many other farmers, sold the cattle instead.
As many as 156 of the 176 taluks in the state are declared ‘drought-hit’, with over 1,695 villages facing a severe shortage of drinking water. Government water tankers and fodder banks are their only hope.
For most villagers, work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) is the only source of livelihood, the other option being migration to big cities and the life of a daily wager.
Unwilling to bank entirely on the monsoon bestowing its favours voluntarily, the state has initiated the process to take up cloud-seeding operations from the second week of June. Desperate times also bring about a turn to divinity for help: over 30,000 temples under state control will conduct special poojas praying for rain. In the last 18 years, 15 have seen drought.
The water shortage is affecting large cities as well. Two days ago, water levels in Chennai’s primary reservoirs dropped to 1.3 per cent of its total capacity, a 70-year low for the metro, which is also witnessing one of its worst droughts.
Meanwhile, residents of Chennai shell out between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 every month to buy water. Naturally, people are trying to minimise their basic consumption of water even though each gets less than 60 litres per day against a requirement of 135 litres as per WHO standards.
The situation across Tamil Nadu is not dissimilar to what’s happening in its capital — indeed, it’s far worse in remote rural areas. So much so that water for irrigation has been stopped in the districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Trichy, which constitute the rice bowl of the state. As a result, the Kuruvai crops are languishing and affected farmers are in protest mode — crop failure looms large yet again. Recall the famous and extreme modes of protests adopted by Tamil Nadu farmers in Delhi in recent years.
In Andhra Pradesh, as in other states, water scarcity has led to mass-scale migration. In 2018, as many as 7 lakh farmers migrated from Anantapur and Kurnool districts and other parts of the arid Rayalaseema region. After nine consecutive years of drought, these districts, and the coastal district of Prakasam, expect no relief in 2019 as well.
The figures are stark. As on May 21, the groundwater level in the state on an average was 16.32 metres below ground level, which is 2.88 metres deeper than last year. The state has a deficit rainfall of 34.30 per cent.
Last December, the state had sought Rs 1,401.54 crore as immediate drought relief but received only Rs 900 crore in January from the Centre.
((Concluded)Avinash Bhat—With inputs from Ramu Patil in Karnataka, Abhijit Mulye in Maharashtra, S Guru Srikanth in Andhra Pradesh and Madhumitha Viswanath in Tamil Nadu)