Sunday, September 30, 2012

Everybody loves a good drought in Maharashtra

When Kevalram Kale urged the Maharashtra chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan to declare wet-drought in his constituency August 22, his plea stood in contrast with the story in rest of the state.

The same afternoon, Chavan had chaired a cabinet meeting to declare drought in 123 tehsils (blocks); with rains eluding large swathes of the central western parts for the second year in succession.

Now here was a legislator complaining about too much rain, not the lack of it. Melghat, a hilly forested area infamous for high incidence of child malnutrition deaths, was reeling under unabated rains.

Standing crops were inundated, roads snapped and people hungry as ration couldn’t reach the scattered hamlets, he pleaded with the CM, and submitted a memorandum demanding Rs 30 crore: to lay new roads, repair bridges and public buildings. No mention of work or ration or healthcare for the tribals.

Since drought was a reigning political issue, Kale like all other legislators fancied his chances to get funds as special assistance from the state bosses. After all, the state itself was vying for a central aid.

The tribal MLA’s bid to get projects under the garb of drought is in keeping with the trend in the state and perhaps other states too where rains have been poor.

While the ground situation remains distressing, the push is for big ticket projects rather than immediate relief. “Drought is being used by the states to make huge demands from the Centre,” Jairam Ramesh, the union rural development minister, told reporters in New Delhi early last month.

Kale’s demands now await the nod of Mantralaya where drought is the season’s theme. Marathwada, the central region of the state, and parts in western Maharashtra in the union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s home turf are suffering from acute water-fodder scarcity.

All reservoirs without exception have tanked to dead-storage-level in Marathwada region with a year to go until next monsoon. Tough times lie ahead if it doesn’t rain in the remaining season.

Over 2000 tankers are supplying water to about 1500 villages and 6000 hamlets. Food crop acreage has dropped by 25-lakh-hectare, according to the agriculture commissioner’s office in Pune, crops in many other places are wilting, big reservoirs have tanked to dead-storage levels and distress cattle sales have begun. Rains revived partially in August but it was a case of too little too late too. The farmers are now looking toward the state to provide compensation that could offset some of their crop losses. In many areas, brisk migrations of people from drought-hit areas toward the nearest town or cities have begun.

With the Kharif crop hit, agriculture officials are pinning their hopes on Rabi (winter) crop, prospects of which will solely depend on these areas getting rains from a receding monsoon in September.

Yet the way in which Chavan-government declared drought was quite strange. This was the first time in decades that a drought was declared even before monsoon officially ended and crop surveys done.

“Technically, the declaration means nothing,” says a senior bureaucrat in Mantralaya; “it has only added to confusion.” First with the connotation: do we call it drought or scarcity? The cabinet calls it drought in its August 22 decision when the state has long banished its use. With food shortages long removed, the government uses the description, ‘conditions akin to scarcity’.

And here’s the statutory procedure: The state government’s three separate departments – the revenue, the agriculture, and the relief and rehabilitation – get preliminary crop surveys done after September 15. By December 15, the actual crop cutting surveys of Kharif and winter Rabi crop arrive, and the government knows the actual crop-water scenario to make an assessment of the scarcity, if any, of drinking water and fodder, at village-level.

The government then classifies a village (not the entire block) as scarcity-hit if a) the rainfall and b) sowing or yields drop below 50 per cent of annual average. The help – in terms of per-hectare compensation or ex-gratia or any other – to an individual farmer is extended the following year. Last year’s relief aid to farmers is still being disbursed.

By declaring drought, the government binds itself to a drought code and huge cost burden (it must forgo land revenue, among many other things); scarcity means lesser responsibility and burden on the kitty.

How did the government arrive on the list of drought-affected blocks this year? A cabinet minister told The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity that it was a political decision to address the home constituencies, based on the rainfall data that day.

The 123rd block – on that list which actually started with 115, soared to 122, before settling on it – was that of Laxman Dhobale, Maharashtra’s water supply minister. The list throws up blocks of powerful ministers: Baramati of deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar; Shrigonda of tribal welfare minister Baban Pachpute; Sangamner of agriculture minister Balasaheb Thorat; Tasgaon of home minister RR Patil; Kadegaon-Palus of forest minister Patangrao Kadam; even Madha in Solapur, union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s new Lok Sabha constituency finds a mention in that list.

In a sense the cabinet declared drought in its own constituencies, many of them with no scarcity.

Between August 22, when the cabinet announced drought, and now, rains have made up some deficit. Rainfall data from June 1 to September 1, 2012, shows 42 blocks mostly in Marathwada had registered below 50 per cent of their long-term average annual rainfall, two of them below 25 per cent; 105 blocks received 50-75 per cent rains; 135 blocks 75-100, and 73 blocks recorded above average. Even if rainfall has improved, the damage done to crops by lack of rains in June and July is irreparable, officials say.

Just as it seemed this would be a bad drought year, rains have revived in central western Maharashtra to put the government in a fix. The met department today issued a warning of heavy rains in these parts. So, if the actual village-level scenario wasn’t known, what made the government pronounce a drought?

Two days after declaring drought in 123 blocks, the CM on August 24 led a delegation of his ministers to New Delhi, seeking special assistance to mitigate drought in the state, for short and long term projects.

This was the second time in three months that Maharashtra was seeking aid for drought-relief; in June, the Centre had released Rs 578 crore to mitigate acute water and fodder shortages in parts of western Maharashtra that fall in the rain-shadow area, and where rainfall had been abysmal last season.

The latest demand followed a visit by three-member central ministerial team headed by Sharad Pawar early August that toured Gujarat, Karnataka, and Rajasthan as well to assess the drought-situation.

In its latest demand, Maharashtra pitched for about Rs 3750 crore for drought-mitigation measures that includes of spending on local sector irrigation and Rs 2200 crore to complete big pending projects, this – when the DF government’s track record with the irrigation projects has been mired in controversy.

In the last decade, Mahrashtra spent Rs 42,000 crore and could bring only 0.01 per cent of land under irrigation, according to the state economic survey of 2011-12. The money sought for projects are to be used on last mile works of lift irrigation schemes in western Maharashtra in the NCP’s citadel.

Similarly, in the name of drought-mitigation, Karnataka has sought an assistance of Rs 11,488.96 crore, Rajasthan Rs 7,424.13 crore, and Gujarat Rs 18,673.37 crore, according to the agriculture ministry.

Not convinced by Maharashtra proposal, which suffered from a major deficiency to fit the criteria for the national disaster relief fund, the Centre asked the CM to come back with a reworked proposal once a clearer picture of the situation emerges after the end of monsoon. In short, it asked the state to come after its own surveys are done and submit a sector-wise concrete proposal to the planning commission.

The centre would then send its own teams to do a swat analysis before taking a final decision on the aid as part of its routine procedure. This usually takes time, Chavan said after returning from New Delhi, but the state government will continue to fund drought relief measures from its own kitty.

A reworked proposal would be submitted to the Centre after September 15. A village, not block, will be the providing with relief doles after September 15, he told reporters on August 26.

The state’s hurriedly-taken political decision lay exposed. The opposition BJP called the ministerial delegation’s visit to Delhi a farce. The NCP joined the BJP in criticizing the government with its guns trained on the CM in particular for presenting a proposal with technical deficiency.

Maharashtra is among the four states to have declared drought, together in 390 blocks. Central teams will visit Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan to assess the situation.

Both Chavan and Pawar realize that the crisis in rural areas must be managed now; or the government should at least be seen managing the crisis. For, its effects will spill over in 2013, a year before elections. The CM-led delegation’s visit to Delhi is being seen by the political circles in that light.

Pawar has been constantly reviewing drought situation in his home ground. In September, at least five times, he assured the people that the central government would extend best possible help to the people affected by drought.

Sr. Pawar's concern is understandable: Milk and sugar sectors will be hit hard this year and its ripples can be heard now. With the cane yield estimated to be down at least 40 per cent, sugar crushing season which usually commences September 1 has been pushed to mid-November and may end by March. That will affect the production and naturally the revenue of sugar factories. And fodder shortage, which has hit the dairy sector, has seen a drop in milk production by over three million litres a day ringing big and long-term losses for dairy farmers. The massive corruption in irrigation sector coupled with the prevailing distress may fuel resentment in the electorate against the ruling alliance.

Pawar has asked the state government – in which his own party holds the water resources portfolio – to prepare a list of ongoing irrigation projects, which could be completed within a year.

Such projects may come up for discussion in the forthcoming meeting of Empowered Group of Ministers chaired by him, he told the state government. The NCP leadership is desperate to generate funds to complete some projects in the Krishna river valley, projects that have consumed Rs 28,000 crore in the last decades and still need as much for completion.

More than Rs 600 crore of last year’s central drought relief assistance to Maharashtra is lying unspent, according to the government’s own admission. So it’s not relief that the political leadership covets but money for big ticket items; drought is just incidental.

(This was the situation early September; by now, rains have given some respite to western Maharashtra, reservoirs have been replenished, but situation in Marathwada remains grim. Across the state, as people bid good bye to lord Ganesha, drought is a forgotten story.)

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