Mumbai: Farmers having to buy drinking water. City residents wading through waist-deep waters to get back home. Drought in rural districts in the same year that cities see flooding. These weather-related catastrophes have become so common in Maharashtra that citizens have nearly got inured. So inured, in fact, that analysts say mishandled floods and droughts are "not an election issue".

About 90 million people in the state are set to vote on October 21, 2019, and the results are scheduled for October 24.

In a year of good rainfall--Maharashtra received 32% above long-period average (the average monsoon rains received in the 50 years leading to 2010)--extreme weather-related events such as droughts and floods will not be an issue in the upcoming Maharashtra state elections, political experts say. However, problems like falling agricultural production and unemployment, that feature prominently in the elections, are aggravated by such events related to changing weather conditions.

Maharashtra has declared drought in three of the past five years. Agriculture contributes 12% of the state’s economy (gross state value added), and this is endangered by repeated drought and floods. Maharashtra reported the most number (3,030 or 39%) of farmer suicides in 2015--the last year for which the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has released such data.

Just this monsoon, Mumbai has witnessed five extreme rainfall events (rainfall above 244.5 mm in a 24-hour period). Many parts of the state saw heavy rainfall leading to flooding during the southwest monsoon, resulting in 377 deaths.

Climate experts warn that weather events such as erratic and delayed rains, floods and hail storms will continue to occur in the future. Yet, political parties and governments over the years have chosen to treat only the symptoms (giving loan waivers, transfers to farmers for buying water tankers) and not address the root cause of problems (by setting up risk assessment plans, early warning systems or climate-proof infrastructure), according to experts.

Maharashtra Elections 2009 & 2014

In 2009, the Congress and its ally the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had won 82 (28%) and 62 (22%) seats, respectively, in the 288-member Assembly, forming the government.

Hit by irrigation scams worth nearly Rs 70,000 crore, the Congress-NCP lost the elections in 2014 because they failed to provide water to Maharashtra’s drought-hit districts. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 122 (42%) seats and its ally the Shiv Sena won 63 seats (22%). The Congress won 42 (15%) and the NCP won 41 (14%).

Other factors that worked in the 2014 assembly elections were: the ‘Modi wave’, which propelled even during the state elections (from the 2014 general elections) with slogans such as ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ and ‘Upar Narendra, Niche Devendra’ (referring to prime minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis), helping BJP make inroads into the state. The BJP was also able to capitalise on the dreams and ambitions of the electorate, as IndiaSpend reported in October 2014.

The twin issues of drought and flooding

The state has witnessed, as we said, extreme climate conditions--such as heavy rains, floods, drought--over the years, which has affected the livelihoods of people, taking a toll on the state’s economy.

“This critical issue is unlikely to have political traction during the elections,” Suhas Palshikar, political expert and analyst, told IndiaSpend in an interview. “The way the state's policies have shaped up over time, the state is waiting for natural disasters to turn into man-made calamities. However, this is common to all parties and the middle and upper classes, in particular, are oblivious to [the] effects of such calamities,” he said.

The 2019 southwest monsoon also saw heavy rains and floods in many parts of Maharashtra. Mumbai, Pune and western regions of Maharashtra such as Kolhapur and Sangli saw severe flooding in 2019, which are likely to have a long-term impact on the economy.

Poor drainage, rising urban population and changing land-use formats lead to higher risk of floods in cities in case of heavy rainfall events, experts had told IndiaSpend. Even rural areas faced the brunt of heavy rains and floods.

Crops over 400,000 hectares were damaged due to floods in Maharashtra during the 2019 monsoon, The Hindu reported on August 23, 2019. “Sugarcane, cotton, rice, soyabean, tur dal, groundnut are among the worst hit,” the report said.

The dairy sector has been badly hit due to floods in Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara districts, with 7,847 cattle including cows, bulls and buffaloes and 1,065 goats, sheep and 160 calves or donkeys either killed or gone missing.

In Mahabaleshwar, hail and gusty winds have destroyed 60% of the mulberry crop in April 2019. Likewise, in April and May 2018, about 6,835 hectares were affected by untimely rain and hailstorm, across the state.

“Our observations and other publications have shown that the frequency of extreme climate events has increased,” Arjuna Srinidhi, senior researcher, climate policy and head of communications at Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune-based NGO and research centre, told IndiaSpend. WOTR has weather stations in villages around the region that helps the India Meteorological Department with tracking weather and climate change.

There is a trend of excessive rain in short durations which has resulted in dry spells and excessive runoff, Srinidhi said. The water must be slowed down so it has enough time to seep into the ground. “Make running water walk,” he said.

“The high-intensity rainfall that we are witnessing--a part of it--is because climate change is influencing our weather patterns,” Hem Dholakia, senior research associate at Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based think-tank, had told IndiaSpend. “Science has not reached that point yet (of establishing or associating a single event/incident to climate change) but what we can definitely say [is] that climate change influences the frequency and intensity of such extreme events,” he had said.

“Climate change has resulted in new problems, like shifts in the cultivation calendar, new pest attacks and longer pest infestations,” S G Salunke, regional manager, Ahmednagar, Action for Food Production (AFPRO), a non-profit organisation working with the rural poor on the management of natural resources, said.

Agriculture at the mercy of unpredictable weather

Maharashtra’s economy, as we said, is primarily agrarian, despite being one of the most industrialised states in the country. With 70% of Maharashtra’s geographical area falling under semi-arid region, the state has “prominently observed” droughts from 2011-12 onwards, according to the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2018-19. In the year 2013, the state witnessed one of the worst droughts in 40 years.

Crop production is expected to reduce, due to drought situation in the state, resulting in an estimated 8% decline in real gross state value added of the ‘crops’ sector, Maharashtra Economic Survey 2018-19 said.

Water scarcity during the kharif season (June to October) of 2018-19 in 26 districts affected 151 talukas (sub-district administrative units). Of these, 112 talukas saw severe drought while 39 saw moderate drought. About 8.6 million hectare was affected.

The area under rabi crops (sown in winter and harvested in spring) was 50% less in 2018-19 compared to the previous year mainly due to deficient rainfall in September and October 2018, according to the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2018-19. The area under cereals, pulses and oilseeds decreased by 56%, 40% and 58%, respectively, as compared to the previous year.

“Variability of rainfall has a significant effect on crop production and there will be more variable rainfall events in the future,” Salunke said. “Farmers will require training, and cannot solely rely on historical, traditional knowledge to combat new problems.” There is a need to focus on adaptation measures which will be important in the long-term, Salunke added.

Marathwada and Vidarbha are drought-prone regions in the state that fall in the rain-shadow area. These two regions accounted for nearly 70% of 611 farmer suicides in Maharashtra in the first three months of 2019, Mirror Now reported on May 10, 2019. Amravati in Vidarbha reported the most suicides (227) followed by Aurangabad (198) in Marathwada.

Between 2015-18, as many as 12,021 farmers died by suicide in the state, as per the details provided in the state legislative assembly, India Today reported on June 21, 2019. On average, these figures indicate that seven to eight farmers die of suicide every day in Maharashtra. About 43% of suicides in Maharashtra (1,293 of 3,030 suicides) were due to ‘bankruptcy or indebtedness’, NCRB data for 2015 revealed.

“The government must develop a long-term, holistic and comprehensive treatment to adapt to situations like drought,” Srinidhi said. While a focus on relief measures would also be required during drought situations, the government should consider who these relief measures are benefitting and who is missing out, he said. Often the landless, those working on leased farm lands, do not benefit from relief measures. There is also distress sale of livestock during droughts that lead to irrecoverable losses, he added.

Drought and failed crops lead to distress migration

“People have moved out from drought-hit districts to urban areas, as they do not want to practise agriculture anymore,” Nitin Birmal, state coordinator at Lokniti, and associate professor at the Dr Ambedkar Art & Commerce College, Yerwada, Pune, told IndiaSpend. “They are earning more as UBER, Ola drivers in cities. Districts like Osmanabad are empty.”

Farmers are receiving money to buy water, Birmal said. “The government is not solving the water supply problem through irrigation. Instead it is providing money to the farmers to buy their own water. Disaster management is not considered as a state issue, but a local issue which will come up only during local elections.”

Large-scale migration from Marathwada to cities such as Pune and other parts of the country have been reported due to three droughts in the last seven years and water depletion in the past five years.

Farm lands are being sold to build factories and for non-agriculture use, which in turn leads to loss of labouring jobs in the agriculture sector, IndiaSpend reported on April 17, 2019. Earlier, villagers were assured of at least two months of work during the monsoon season, now this has decreased and become irregular, Kamal Gangrude from Pimplad, a village in Nashik district of Maharashtra, had said. “The population is growing but the number of jobs is reducing each year. Last year some people got just three weeks of work in the whole season. With more machinery around too, the work is done faster.”

“As more people are marginalised, they move to urban areas (in search of employment opportunities),” Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert told IndiaSpend. A simple dry spell becomes a drought in Maharashtra due to lack of water management. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says dry spell to drought is going up by 1% every year, he added.

“We are following the textbooks,” Sharma said, “which say you must move people out of agriculture and into the cities for cheap labour. There are no jobs but the economists want people to move out of agriculture to become daily wage workers in the cities. Overall agriculture policy must be changed, we have deliberately kept agriculture impoverished.”

BJP promises ‘drought-free Maharashtra’, Congress-NCP promise ‘disaster-free Maharashtra’

The BJP talks of a drought-free Maharashtra in its manifesto. Further, it promises to set up a disaster management plan to deal with droughts and flooding. Its ally, the Shiv Sena, calls for a drought-free, unemployment-free and pollution-free Maharashtra, in addition to deploying trained groups in every district for disaster response.

The Congress-NCP alliance also promise a district-level action plan for climate change, in addition to strengthening the disaster-prevention mechanism.

The BJP is “not quite aware of the existing institutional structure that brings out comprehensive disaster management plan”, Kavi Kumar, professor, Madras School of Economics, told IndiaSpend. The Shiv Sena manifesto makes the right noises about effective water resource management in the state, but, like the BJP, there is very little to suggest any plan to address climate change issues in the medium- and long-run, Kumar added.

The Congress-NCP manifesto “at least acknowledges criticality of climate change problem and that seems like a big step forward,” Kumar said. “I would have liked to see some specific focus on greenhouse gas emission mitigation (say, through enhancing renewable energy share) also along with steps suggested towards improving climate resilience of Maharashtra.”

Promises such as assured income guarantee, 100% subsidy on drips and sprinklers or taps in every house will certainly help, WOTR said referring to the manifestos. Engaging the civil society in the prioritisation, planning and implementation of such long-term transformative plans will be crucial to ensure they are inclusive, they added.

(Mallapur is a senior analyst with IndiaSpend. Ahmed and Salve are IndiaSpend contributors.)

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