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West India drought fuels migration to cities

by Darryl D'Monte | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 June 2012 09:31 GMT

Rural men can't find brides, as government work and irrigation schemes fall short and life gets tougher in villages

MUMBAI (AlertNet) - Worsening drought in western India is making it harder for men to find brides and pushing poor rural families to seek work in cities, as government policies to help them deal with crop failure and financial pressures fall short.

More than a dozen young men in a village in Khatav sub-district in Satara, in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, have been waiting in vain for brides for more than two years, since the dry spell began, the Daily New and Analysis (DNA) newspaper reported in May.

“No families in and around our village are ready to give their daughters to our boys,” farmer’s wife Sakubai Yadav, 45, told the DNA. Two other 26-year-old men have been biding their time for four years and have started drinking out of frustration, the paper said.

As well as doing household chores, young brides are expected to fetch water from wells up to 3 km away in the searing heat – a burden some don’t want to take on. And in order to get by after poor harvests, some wives have had to join the federal government’s rural employment guarantee scheme, which provides villagers with up to 100 days’ work a year.

Other families have left their villages, along with their cattle, to look for work in cities including Mumbai, the state capital, less than 300 km away. Once there, many become slum dwellers.

Some 6,000 people out of Maan sub-district’s population of 200,000 have permanently migrated to urban areas in the past year, according to Yogendra Katiyare, the top local government official. Last year’s census shows that the inhabitants of Aundh village, for example, dropped to 7,500 from 9,000 a decade ago.

Climate factors appear to be playing a growing part in this migration. The increasingly erratic nature of rainfall in the Khatav and Maan areas of Satara can be linked to climate change, according to Ramachandra Sable, former head of the meteorology department at Rahuri Agricultural University in eastern Maharashtra.

Sable told AlertNet that monsoon patterns are changing, leading to depletion of groundwater levels.  Valsa Nair Singh, Maharashtra’s environment secretary, confirmed that the water level in Satara’s aquifers has dropped.

Khatav and Maan are located in the shadow of the Mahabaleshwar hills, which receive annual rainfall of around 6,000 mm - but the water does not flow eastwards. Analysing the last three decades of rain in these areas, Sable found that 60 percent of years were deficient, 20 percent normal and only 20 percent above average.

Rakesh Kumar of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in Mumbai, who is reviewing data for the next assessment report of the U.N. climate panel, told AlertNet that the severity and frequency of drought in the area is increasing due to climate change. A rise in the summer temperature is reducing moisture retention in the soil, he observed.


The impacts of climate shifts have been compounded by political corruption and bureaucratic indifference, according to Delhi-based Sunita Narain, the editor of Down to Earth magazine. She says funds earmarked for drought relief have not been used efficiently and irrigation schemes are being mismanaged.

“Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India speak about scandalous ways in which dams are built but canals are not, and about cost escalations so high that projects become unviable and are never completed,” Narain wrote in a May 31 editorial.

The opposition Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in Maharashtra says the state has spent close to Rs. 66,000 crores ($12 billion) on irrigation schemes in the last 10 years. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan admitted last month that, despite this expenditure, only a 0.1 percent increase in land under irrigation was achieved in the decade, according to Infrawindow.com, a construction news website.  

Yet 40 percent of the state’s irrigation capacity – the potential of projects to deliver water - lies unused, according to Maharashtra’s annual economic survey.  

Maharashtra is the only state in India that provides water to industry in preference to agriculture, Narain asserts, with the economic survey noting that only half of storage capacity is used for farming.

And Maharashtra grows two-thirds of India’s sugar cane - a crop that guzzles water in a region where some women spend three hours a day fetching pails of water for family needs.

Sugar is big politics in the region, with leaders heading co-operatives that get bank loans at reduced rates, as well as other favours. The Economic Times reported last month that the state BJP leader, Gopinath Munde, is now the region’s main sugar baron, with his company believed to own some 25 mills.


Home to the huge cities of Mumbai and Pune, Maharashtra is more urbanised than most other Indian states, and the demand of big residential areas for water is huge and growing.

The Mumbai Municipal Corporation has just announced the completion of a new dam in the hinterland, which will deliver 455 million litres of water per day to 12.5 million inhabitants. Some of the water was previously being used by farmers and other rural dwellers.

The current state of affairs seems ironic, given that Maharashtra was the first Indian state to initiate drought relief back in 1972.

It started an employment guarantee scheme providing cash and food to people in affected areas. The initiative won international accolades, including from the World Bank, but later languished due to official apathy, according to Mick Moore and Vishal Jadhav, writing in the Journal of Development Studies in 2006.

In the early days, work was carried out on big irrigation projects with politicians’ backing. But when the focus shifted to smaller schemes, politicians lost interest, the researchers said.

A prize-winning investigative journalist, P. Sainath, published a best-seller in the early 1990s, entitled Everybody Loves a Good Drought, based on his visits to India’s 10 poorest districts. The title chapter explored how bureaucrats and politicians used disaster situations to clamour for more funds from the federal government, only to siphon off some of the money for themselves - a situation that Sainath maintains continues today.


Some villagers are also bitter that local wind farm operators are reaping profits while they are struggling to cope with drought. Satara district has 1,100 wind turbines, accounting for 1,600 megawatts (MW) of power capacity.

Activist Bharat Patankar has led a movement since 2003 which has forced the government to pay land owners a fee of Rs 15,000 ($81) per year for every MW of capacity installed on their land. 

But rural folk say government initiatives intended to help them get through drought periods are simply not enough. Young men from Khatav and Maan are finding the guaranteed employment daily wage of Rs 131 ($2.40) too little, and are heading to the cities.

People in eastern Maharashtra are also suffering, as the region suffers from near-perennial drought. The cotton fields of Vidarbha, for example, have witnessed a spate of farmer suicides due to the pressure of large loans they can’t repay.

The Hindu newspaper reported last October that farm suicides in Maharashtra had topped 50,000 between 1995 and 2010, with the yearly average increasing this century, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Darryl D’Monte, former editor of the Times of India in Mumbai, heads the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India and is the founding president of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists. He is based in Mumbai.



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