A resident of Pune, Maharashtra’s second-most developed city, uses five times as much water as his or her counterpart in Latur, the district worst affected by drought in the south-central Marathwada region.
That’s the extent of water inequality in Maharashtra, one of India’s most developed states, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of statewide water use, characterised by disproportionate availability and consumption of water across regions, crops and consumers.
The coastal region of Konkan – occupying a tenth of the state’s landmass and home to 14% of its population (excluding Mumbai) – contains more than half of Maharashtra’s water, according to government data.
The populous, dry and rain-shadow regions of western, central Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha retain the other half, clashing with each other and neighbouring states for water.
But its not the natural imbalance of water that makes drought inevitable. That happens because water has been deliberately routed to areas where it is already plentiful and to farmers who are politically powerful.
Sugarcane – which is grown on 4% of the state’s farms – consumes 70% of water available for irrigation, IndiaSpend had reported earlier, although no more than 1.1 million farmers grow the lucrative cash crop. In contrast, about 10 million farmers sowing jowar (sorghum), pulses and oilseeds get no more than 10% of irrigation water.
“The earlier Congress-Nationalist Congress Party-led government was entrenched in sugar politics, with 13 of the 30 cabinet ministers owning or controlling sugar factories,” Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator of South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People, wrote in her analysis of the sugarcane situation in Maharashtra.
Water inequality is a natural phenomenon
There are five river basins in Maharashtra – Krishna, Godavari, Tapi, Narmada – and a combined basin of westward-flowing rivers in the coastal Konkan region.
Of these, three are agriculturally important – Krishna, Godavari and Tapi. They cover 89% of the state’s area; 0.4% of the state falls under the Narmada river basin.
The Konkan basin drains 10.9% of the land while containing 55% of the state’s water.
The Krishna basin drains most parts of Western Maharashtra, the prosperous districts of Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Sangli and Solapur, and some perennially drought-plagued areas such as eastern swathes of Sangli, Satara and Solapur districts.
The Godavari basin covers the drought-hit regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha, which is nearly half the state.
Of the 125 billion cubic metres surface water available in Maharashtra’s river basins, most of the 69 billion cubic metres in the Konkan region goes unutilised, according to this 2012 Maharashtra government white paper on irrigation.
In contrast, the 17 billion cubic metres in the Krishna and 34 billion cubic metres in the Godavari basins are insufficient for the regions they feed.
“In Maharashtra, sugarcane cultivation, which is on (sic) less than 4% of the total cropped area of the state, takes away almost 70% of irrigation water in the state, leading to massive inequity in the use of water within the state,” said the sugarcane price policy report, 2014-15, issued by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices.
The commission tabulates the share of irrigation water used by major crops in Maharashtra.
How sugarcane corners irrigation water
Sugarcane is the only crop in Maharashtra that is wholly irrigated. Irrigation water is available for no more than 9% of pulses and 4% of oilseeds.
About 10 million farmers grow jowar, pulses and oilseeds – no more than a tenth of these farms are irrigated – and these crops use about 2.2 million litres of water per hectare, about 2,000 million cubic metres of water through the year.
Sugarcane’s 1.1 million farmers use 18.7 million litres per hectare and consume 18,000 million cubic metres – nine times that of jowar, oilseeds and pulses – annually across the state.
Developed cities use more water
Urban water consumption patterns are heavily tilted towards developed cities.
The city of Latur in Marathwada consumes 60 litres per person daily, while an average Mumbai resident uses around 260 litres a day. The average daily use of water per person in Pune is 352 litres, according to IndiaSpend's calculations, based on daily water requirements of these cities and the latest available population figures.
The rural-urban imbalance
A village with less than 20,000 people should get 40 litres of water per person per day, five litres less than the amount prescribed to flush a toilet in a city such as Mumbai – these are the standards set in 1993 by the Bureau of Indian Standards in its Code of Basic Requirements.
The standards also recommend reduced water supply to poorer localities in urban areas.
In 2015, the Kelkar Committee on balanced regional development in Maharashtra recommended 140 litres per capita per day across rural and urban Maharashtra.
The recommendation has not yet been included in the state’s water policy.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.