After two consecutive years of below par monsoons, India is now reeling under severe drought conditions, which have hit several states. What is worrying for the government and affected people is that drought conditions have set in early this year and situation in many parts of the country has turned critical due to severe water shortage.
Maharashtra is experiencing the maximum impact of water shortage, especially in regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha. In places like Latur and Parbhani, the situation is most critical. Almost all water conservation bodies like wells, ponds, lakes and catch dams are running dry or are in the process of completely drying out.
Due to excess drawing of ground water through bore wells, water table has been falling dramatically and what is now available is increasingly polluted.
People are suffering from the impact; there is no water for personal use and hygiene, thereby increasing the risk of an outbreak of a disease epidemic, domestic cattle have almost no water left and critical water shortage means there is no fodder available.
Hospitals have run dry and have been forced to stop all surgical procedures. They are now making arrangements for patients to be shifted to other less affected areas. Student hostels are being shut as they cannot be managed without water. Prisons are now preparing to shift prisoners out of the affected regions.
Where limited water supply is available through tankers, they come at a premium which means they are out of reach for most. And there is a long summer ahead before the first drops of rain provide any relief.
Union Minister Uma Bharti has announced that a team from the Central Water Commission has left for a tour of affected regions in Maharashtra and will soon be submitting its report to the concerned states for further action. She, however, clarified that water conservation, supply and distribution, were state subjects and the centre could only support through advice and guidelines. But has the central government response come too late?
The affected state governments too must take responsibility for the present conditions as they have done little to mitigate the resulting impact from acute water shortage that was inevitable given past experience of two consecutive poor monsoons.
State apathy has forced the Supreme Court to intervene which put pressure on the central government to release Rs 12,230 crore under MGNREGS as part of relief measures to alleviate rural distress.
While this is only financial support, little action has been taken to make available the much needed water to distressed areas. A fairly prosperous state like Maharashtra has been impacted by repeated drought years but has done little to fight it despite thousands of crores invested.
Between 2000 and 2010, irrigated land in the state grew by just 0.1%! Corruption, nepotism, along with sheer mismanagement of resources, has resulted in the present crisis and there seems to be no measures being announced that demonstrates clarity and purpose on part of the state government to fight the problem.
Due to pressure from an active media highlighting the issue, the Government of Maharashtra has just sent one train of water tankers carrying 5 lakh litres of water to Latur. But that just isn’t enough, as it translates to only 1.5 litres of water per person for one day only, and that too assuming it is fairly distributed and not cornered by those in power.
The state government is facing further flak for allowing water to be made available for IPL cricket matches in Maharashtra at a time when the state is facing acute water shortage.
History of drought in India
For centuries, India has suffered from fluctuating weather. From severe drought resulting in widespread famine to excess flooding resulting in major loss of life and property, India has been facing it all.
The first recorded response from the ruling authority is by Muhammad Tughlaq, who was the first Sultan to respond to famine by distributing grains amongst the affected people in 1343 A.D. Ever since, various rulers from the Mughals to the British, have taken action to respond to each emerging crisis but have had limited impact, given the widespread nature of resulting famine.
Post-independence, the central government did take several measures that had long standing impact in collection and distribution of water and thus reducing the dependence on rain water for agriculture.
Rajasthan was a state that suffered from deficient rainfall in most years, with certain parts excessively affected. The Indira Gandhi Canal project went a long way in reducing the dependency on rain water and also increasing food production, in areas where water was available from the canal.
Punjab has been another state that used to suffer from fluctuating monsoons. The Bhakra Nangal Dam along, with various other water conservation and distribution measures, contributed mainly towards the Green Revolution witnessed in late 60s and 70s.
States like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, U.P, former A.P, Odisha, Northern Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Bihar have all experienced frequent drought or drought like conditions on account of deficient rainfall.
Here are some of the worst years of famine in India:
- 1630-32: The great famine in Gujarat and the then Deccan region.
- 1770: The great Bengal famine.
- 1783-84: The Chalisa famine affecting parts of present day Rajasthan, J&K, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and U.P.
- 1791-92: The Doji Bara or skull famine that hit Southern Maharashtra and the then greater Hyderabad region.
- 1876-78: The Great famine. In 1876 most of south and south western India was affected and by 1877, it spread to parts of north, northwest and central India. The death toll from this famine alone was estimated to be over 5.5 million.
- 1943: The great Bengal famine.
And in more recent years,
- 1966: Odisha and Bihar. Over 50 million were affected.
- 1969: Gujarat, Rajasthan, U.P. Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, A.P, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Over 15 million affected.
- 1970: Rajasthan and Bihar. Over 17 million affected.
- 1972: Rajasthan, U.P and Himachal Pradesh. Over 50 million affected.
- 1979: Punjab, Eastern Rajasthan, U.P and Himachal Pradesh. Over 200 million affected.
- 1982: Punjab, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. Over 100 million affected.
- 1983: West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Over 100 million affected.
- 1987: This was one of the worst droughts with almost all parts of West, North and East India affected. Over 300 million suffered its impact.
Other years of deficient rain were seen in 1992, 2000, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
It is time the central government sat down with all state governments to formulate a medium to long term strategy for water conservation, usage, and distribution that will optimise collection and fair distribution of this precious natural resource.