The drought of 1972 is often referred to as “the worst drought in memory” of Maharashtra.
In 1971 and 1972, there was deficient rainfall all over Maharashtra, which lead to an acute water and fodder shortage.
The situation turned so grim that the drought took shape of famine, as food grains were scarce.
Both kharif and rabi crops registered a sharp decline and even the rich farmers were forced to undertake scarcity works.
It is estimated that the drought years of 1970-73 affected almost 80 per cent villages in Maharashtra.
The drought of 2016 is similar to the drought of 1972 in many ways.
Marathwada has received less than 50 per cent annual average rainfall in the last three consecutive years.
More than 60 per cent of the villages in the state are drought-hit. There is an acute water and fodder shortage.
Farmers are selling their cattle and migrating to cities. Agricultural produce is also on a decline.
However, old villagers in Marathwada region, who have witnessed both 1972 and 2016 droughts, claim that latter has surpassed the agrarian distress of former.
“The drought of 1972 was terrible. We had no foodgrains. There was no fodder for the cattle. But, we had enough groundwater.
By just digging 10-20 feet, we would get water. Now, even 800 feet deep borewells have gone dry,” says Kachru Hadwale, who owns four-acre land in Madapuri village of Beed district.
Since January this year, Hadwale is living in a cattle camp with his five cattle.
He is also looking after 24 cattle of his ‘maalik’, which are also at the camp due to water and fodder shortage.
Water and fodder scarcity has forced 81-year old Ramvithal Valse of Sonwati village in Latur district to sell off 10 cattle in the last five years.
He is now left with only a cow and its calf. “In 1972, we had no electricity in our village.
Hence, there were no agricultural borewells to extract groundwater.
In 1975, our village got electrified and the plunder of groundwater began. Three of my four borewells have gone dry this year,” he laments.
According to Mohan Bhise, agriculture officer of Latur, fast depleting groundwater is one of the major factors contributing towards the drought in Marathwada.
“Lack of irrigation facilities and switching over to water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane forced the farmers to look for water.
Groundwater is not regulated, so farmers dug borewells to meet their irrigation needs,” says Bhise.
He claims that some farmers in Marathwada have 60 borewells.
“Digging one borewell requires about Rs one lakh for which farmers take loan.
When that water source goes dry, they take another loan to drill one more borewell and get caught in the vicious circle of mounting debt, water scarcity and failing crops,” adds Bhise.
Latur district has 80,000 agricultural borewells, of which 50,000 function perennially.
There are another 6,000 government-owned borewells meant to supply drinking water to rural areas.
In some talukas of Latur there is no water till 800-1,000 feet below ground.
“Eight watersheds in Latur district are overexploited, whereas six are in semi-critical condition. Only one watershed is safe. Three years ago, not even a single watershed was in critical category,” informs Bhise.
Over-exploited watershed is one where groundwater extraction is more than 100 per cent of the recharge. In semi-critical watershed groundwater extraction is between 70 and 90 per cent of the recharge.
Pandurang Pole, district collector of Latur, too, blames the unregulated borewells.
“The GSDA [Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency] has assessed that in the last one year, the groundwater table in Latur has declined by 3.5-4 metres,” says Pole.
Borewells are not limited to irrigation alone.
Latur city, whose only water source Manjara dam went bone-dry on February 22, is pockmarked with borewells.
Whereas Pole claims there are 8,000 to 10,000 borewells in Latur city, Anil Paulkar, bureau chief of Dainik Divya Marathi pegs this figure at 25,000 borewells.
“Residents of Latur do not depend on civic agency for water supply. Majority of the households have their own private borewell. The foundation of several houses in Latur is 6,000-10,000 litres capacity underground water tanks attached to the private borewell,” says Paulkar.
This year several borewells in Latur city have gone dry leading to public outcry.
The corporation is supplying 200 litres water per household every 12 days, which is not enough, hence, private water tankers are ruling the roost.
“A 6,000 litre private water tanker that used to cost Rs 400 in December last year now costs Rs 900,” informs Paulkar.
Pole claims that the district administration has taken over several private borewells in and around Latur city. Water from these sources is being filtered and supplied to the residents.
Water is also being lifted from Dongergaon barrage, Bhandarwadi barrage and Lower Terna barrage to meet water needs of Latur residents.
Predictably, this has irked villagers living around these barrages who have launched several protests.
Situation is no better in other districts of Maharashtra.
According to the ‘Report on the Dynamic Ground Water Resources of Maharashtra (2011-12)’, out of the total 1,531 watersheds in the state, 76 watersheds are categorized as overexploited.
Four watersheds are categorized as critical and 100 watersheds as semi-critical. The report goes on to warn that the areas which have emerged as overexploited, critical or semi-critical are predominantly from the drought prone areas, where there is highest percentage of water intensive commercial crops as well as low rainfall.
Groundwater Act: A Paper Tiger
Groundwater regulations are extremely weak in India. And, the case of Maharashtra is no different. According to GSDA, almost 71 per cent cultivated area in the state is irrigated using groundwater.
The Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2009 was gazetted only in 2013, but no rules were framed till four-five months ago, hence the Act could never be implemented.
The Act bans borewells below 200 feet (60 metre) depth. No digging of borewell is allowed within 500 metres radius of a possible water source.
If anyone flouts the law, the first time fine is Rs 10,000 with provision of six months jail.
“We have started implementing this Act only in the last four-five months, after its Rules were notified.
But majority of the borewells are already more than 200 feet deep.
In some pockets there is no groundwater till 800-1,000 feet depth,” informs Pole.
He also admits that no permission is required before digging a borewell, but “it is expected that the person will not go beyond 200 feet depth”.
There is no monitoring mechanism to check implementation of the 2009 Act, which has remained only on paper.
Mindless extraction of groundwater is self-invitation to an ecological disaster, says Vijay Diwan, former member of the Marathwada Development Board.
He explains: “Marathwada sits on basalt rocks. Just below the top layer of black cotton soil, is the fractured layer of basalt rock which is till 2-3 m depth.
The next layer, till 10 m, is jointed layer of basalt rock and thereafter is compact layer of basalt rock.”
Recharge of groundwater happens in the fractured layer and jointed layer of basalt rocks, where rainwater can percolate down.
There is very little chance of recharge in the compacted layer of basalt rock.
“At 1,000 feet below the ground, Latur is already drawing water from the aquifers that will take hundreds of years to recharge,” warns Diwan.
Bhise remembered that in 2012 the GSDA had recommended banning of all agricultural borewells.
“But, till date, this recommendation has not been implemented.
We will never be able to drought-proof the villages till we do not ban agricultural borewells,” says Bhise.
Is the Maharashtra government listening?