On the main road leading into Peddadarpally village (in Hanwada Mandal, Mahbubnagar district), there colourful commotion. Women crowd around a borewell surrounded by brightly coloured plastic pots and fill them up as fast as they can. In a few minutes there is disappointment, the pump has overheated and the owner of the well who runs a small hotel, has to shut it down.

Budamma and other women cry out, “There is no water, what are we supposed to do.” The next water source is about half a kilometre away from the village, again a private borewell, and that is where they will go next. Drinking water is premium in Mahbubnagar district, with tankers supplying water in summer months.

The rush to fill water at Peddadarpally village from a single borewell that works. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

There are whispers of corruption and how the pipelines were not allowed to enter the Peddadarpally village under the Rs 437.91 billion Mission Bhagiratha. There are two borewells with water for a population of 3800, the remaining have dried up, said D Chenniah from the village. In the last five years, the crisis has deepened. People grow maize and millets and in the scheduled caste colony at the beginning of the village, Venkataiah points to a handpump that is dry. The 125 households have to run around for water, says Venkatamma. The dug wells have dried and ground water levels are at 300 to 400 feet.

With 10 guntas of land (a quarter of an acre), Venkataiah, like many others, earns a living as an agricultural labourer. There is little rain and the large tank in the village spread over 11 acres, has been bone dry for a decade, Chennaiah said. For drinking water they have to go to Anwada where there is bottled filtered water for Rs 10 (for 20 litres). But many cannot even afford to make the journey or pay for the water.

“The Mission Bhagiratha project aimed at providing adequate, safe, sustainable and potable drinking water to all households in the state is at an advanced stage of completion. About 95% of physical works under the project have been completed, ahead of the schedule. Under the Mission, about 5,500 rural habitations and 12 urban local bodies are provided with bulk water supply and about 2,500 habitations provided with household water,” proclaims the Socio- Economic Outlook 2018 of the Telangana Government. The water is sourced from the Krishna and Godavari rivers through a network of pipelines.

The dry water tank at Peddarpally which suffers from acute scarcity. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

Piped water a pipe dream?

In the election campaign for the Telangana Assembly, the opposition Congress party accused the Telangana Rashtra Samiti government led by Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao for implementing gargantuan projects without proper public discussion and understanding of the ground situation. With elections notified for December 7, political parties have already criticised the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s manifesto promising more sops to the people including a Rs 100,000 loan waiver, an unemployment allowance and doubling pension amounts under the Aasara scheme while ignoring real issues. In the first two years of the new state, 2014 and 2015 (the last year for which National Crime Records Bureau data is available), 2,747 farmers committed suicide (unofficially, the figure crosses 4,000 till now), while government posts lie vacant and unemployment is rising.

Biksham Gujja, a water resources expert, points out that such schemes are too expensive and that no one is going to drink water from a tap. Mission Bhagiratha is another megalomaniac idea and waste of money, he said. For drinking water, already more than 70% villages have RO (reverse osmosis) purified water, which is cheaper and safe.

One of the water tanks built as part of Mission Bhagiratha. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

However, water is the chief worry as the rains have been decreasing, and with little irrigation and plummeting groundwater levels, agriculture has become a burden. In the Telangana Social Development Report 2017, the late scientist Pushpa Bhargava in his foreword, said that 18% of the state depends on bottled drinking water, that too of poor quality. There are 9,834 inhabited villages as per the 2011 census. Water on tap in each home, a promise of the Telangana government’s flagship Mission Bhagiratha, remains a pipe dream in places like Peddadarpally. The Mission website boasts of a total pipeline network for drinking water – 169,700 kilometres i.e. three times the circumference of the earth.

A few kilometres ahead in the Hanwada Mandal headquarters, a freshly painted blue water tank heralds better tidings. Anjaneyulu, a Mandal Parishad member said parts of Hanwada have a water pipeline and some sections have pipes outside their homes, but the entire area is yet to be linked with water supply. Devamma lives in a row with four houses and there is one tap for four families. Earlier they used to get water from tankers and even now, the piped water comes for an hour on alternate days since a year. She and her neighbour Buchamma fill about 20 pots each time they get water.

Devamma and Buchamma at Hanwada with the water tap outside their homes. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

With less rainfall, the situation in 20 gram panchayats of Hanwada Mandal is grim with 30% crop losses, says Anjaneyulu. There is little groundwater and the existing water “cheruvus” or tanks (the focus of another major government project Mission Kakatiya) are not used for irrigation. The tank in Hanwada has water but the sluice gates are closed. The villagers took a decision 20 years ago not to use it for irrigation. This is an area with a lot of landless people and agricultural labour.

The situation is dramatically different in the chief minster’s constituency, Siddipet. The Siddipet district already had a tap water network in 1996 when he was the MLA there. Now under Mission Bhagiratha, rural households have taps in front of their houses with piped water and the tanks in the area are infused with water through pipelines from the Sri Ram Sagar project under Mission Kakatiya. In Bhumpally village, Mididodda Mandal, Balawwa is proud of a water tap, which occupies pride of place in all homes in this village.

No crops this year

The old tank at Jagannathpur village (in Warangal Urban district, Elkaturthi Mandal) has been repainted and will store 120,000 litres for supply to 15 nearby villages. This village had very low groundwater levels some years ago but now it has increased somewhat. This year however, there are no crops planted as the rainfall was less.

Adil Pasha who owns one acre, supplements his income by giving out his tractor on hire. Some have dairy farms and while the gram panchayat network already supplies water to homes, people buy filtered drinking water for Rs 2 for 20 litres, where the water is cleaned of fluorides. You can see blue pipelines criss-crossing homes under Mission Bhagiratha, but the connections are yet to be operational.

Adil Pasha and other farmers at Jagannathpur village. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

Even before Mission Bhagiratha, the gram panchayat had connected pipes from wells to taps in front of houses and women here did not have to walk long distances to fetch water, said Samakka.

Nearby, in the scheduled caste portion of Jilugula village, Arepaly Rajaiah, the sarpanch said that the gram panchayat dug open wells 20 years ago and reached piped water to all the houses in the village, including the 60 families in this section. One of the open wells is in his own compound.

Repairing tanks has not always helped irrigation

In another grandiose plan, Mission Kakatiya, named after the rulers who built many water tanks, the government has taken up desilting and beautifying tanks and bringing more areas under irrigation. In Jagannathpur, under Mission Kakatiya, the tank was desilted and the farmers had the silt spread on their fields. The tank extends over 22 acres and can irrigate about a 100 acres, which is one fourth of the total land in the village.

Repairing tanks has not always helped irrigation. The “Pedda Cheruvu” or large tank in Bhumpally village has some water. There is a wide bund running along the tank, with new concrete steps leading down to the water, two newly built sluice gates, and a waste weir. Rajaiah, the neerati or the person responsible traditionally for distributing water, earns a salary from the revenue department. With poor rains, this year no one grew paddy. On the other side of the tank, 400 acres lies barren, and cattle and sheep graze on it. Usually the water stretches over 200 acres but this year parts of the tank are dry and some people have sunk borewells and are growing crops.

Yada Gaudu owns one acre and also runs a small hotel and sells toddy in the village. Since there was little rain, he didn’t plant anything this year. Renuka, a landless woman, washes clothes for a living. It costs over Rs one lakh to dig a borewell, often it is borrowed and water levels are at 300 feet or more and you may not hit water each time. In 2016, the tank was full but last year, it was half and this year even lower, said Rajaiah. The village has no crop since two years and people have to look for work elsewhere. Rajaiah worked as a head-load carrier in Hyderabad for 30 years.

The lake has fish and the fisherfolk cooperative has 86 members who live off the fishing which can be quite good at times, fetching upto three tonnes in a day. They have been breeding fish and with the increased catch they can access bigger markets in the city, said Swami from the Mudiraj community.

Seventy percent of the 2,000 farmers in Bhumpally have borewells to grow cotton and maize but many wells are drying up. People work in Hyderabad or other cities and over 450 women augment their income by making beedis. Lata is thrilled that the government has announced a pension for beedi workers. People are looking forward to the Kaleshwaram project which will bring them water, even as there is local resistance to this big- ticket lift irrigation scheme.

Lata, rolling bidis for a living like many other women in Bhumpally. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

The village of Pechkalpet claims that the government did nothing for them, and despite all the sops and projects, there is unhappiness. There is no irrigation here and people rely on wells, some 500 of them and 25 borewells. Suresh Reddy spent Rs one lakh to dig a borewell and even at 400 feet there was no water. The main tank was full only once in the last five years. Another crib is that the landless have not been given the promised three acres each. Mission Bhagiratha is still a work in progress here, the people said.

In Thotapally village (Siddipet district) the tank is being beautified with a concrete embankment. When full, with water infused from the Sri Ram Sagar and Maneir projects, it can irrigate about 10,000 acres. Tirupati, a farmer said rainfall is erratic but for the first time there is water in the tank and he can grow rice on his two acres. Most people go for work to Kuwait or Muscat or take up daily wage labour and the many government schemes haven’t got to this village. And, under Mission Bhagiratha the taps are ready but water is yet to be piped.

In places like Manakondur, Karimnagar district, good rains have filled the 400-acre tank which can irrigate upto 600 acres in three villages, says the neerati, Veeraswamy. A walkway and a park are to come up soon. This village has canal water too, and expects to get drinking water very soon. Earlier the silt was not removed and water was hardly used, but now things have changed, he said. Malliah, a fisherman spoke of Rs 4 lakh worth of fish in a year which are sent to Kolkata and other cities.

A tank renovated with embankments and spillway. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

Missions delivered erratically

The Missions seem to have delivered erratically and Congress party spokesperson Dr Sravan Dasoju and convenor of the campaign committee, is critical of the grand plans and the huge corruption in the Mission Bhagiratha project. “What the people of Telangana want is water for irrigation, instead you have this Rs 46,000 crore project in which one single contractor with powerful connections to the ruling party has benefitted,” he alleged.

Mission Bhagiratha does not take into account older projects and it is not as if the earlier governments did not provide for drinking water- there are many existing schemes including the Rajiv Gandhi Mission for drinking water, he pointed out. About 20% to 30% of the funds have been swindled, he said adding that there are better ways than Mission Bhagiratha – it would be cheaper for instance to install reverse osmosis plants in each village which would not cost more than Rs 1,000 crore. The government avoided simpler ways of providing drinking and went in for this costly scheme piping river water – it’s a mockery, he added.

Official figures obtained for this story indicate that the first two phases of Mission Kakatiya have been completed and Phases three and four are under progress. A total of 19, 530 tanks have been restored so far at a cost Rs 36.10 billion. Work for 26,598 tanks have been sanctioned at a cost of Rs 91.69 billion and will be implemented soon. The irrigation expected to be generated is for 2.11 million acres. The aim, according to an official, is to increase the groundwater table as the tanks were not cleaned since the last 50 years. Works for the remaining 400 odd tanks have to be re-tendered due to some issues.

However, a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on the economic sector for the year ended March 2017 (Government of Telangana report no 6 of 2018) has criticised Mission Kakatiya. The CAG report said the Mission was launched in 2014 to restore 46,531 tanks in a phased manner, ie 20% per year and bring back one million acres that can be irrigated but which were not, under tank irrigation.

The report sampled 145 tanks in the three phases and found several irregularities. One of the main components to be taken up under the Mission was desilting of tanks. While Government orders (March 2015) directed the Panchayat Raj and Rural Development Department to converge activities under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and District Water Management Agency with Mission Kakatiya, the report did not find this convergence. Technical sanctions of the sampled tanks revealed that excavation works were proposed using machinery.

No comprehensive policy for the agriculture sector

Political analyst Katari Srinivasa Rao questioned the decision to go for early elections and said the government had failed in executing its schemes and had also not encouraged local leadership. Its Raythu Bandhu scheme didn’t understand that 90% are tenant farmers in Telangana and it has become a scheme for landowners. Also, corruption has increased and the government cannot control it. The people who took part in the Telangana movement were not encouraged. There is little local government participation in projects for instance in Mission Kakatiya, he added.

Critics feel that the state government did not have a comprehensive agriculture policy. Photo Credit: Meena Menon

The marginalised Telangana Joint Action Committee, which was in the forefront to fight for the state of Telangana, released a manifesto which focused on 15 major points for the elections. Ravi Kanneganthi of Telangana Joint Action Committee and editor of the magazine Tolakari said major acts for food security, employment, right to education, forest rights, land acquisition and against atrocities were not enforced properly. There is no comprehensive policy for the agriculture sector, only schemes.

With water scarcity in the villages, a strong perception is that the incumbent government has focused on mega projects, but paid scant attention to the agrarian crisis, farm suicides, the rule of law, unemployment or land issues. It has launched mega projects with huge investments which seem unsustainable.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.