Endangered Waters of Vidarbha

In the eastern Maharashtra region of Vidarbha, farmers continue to lose lives. 

In 2014, more than 1142 farmers ended their lives. A particularly disturbing tale comes from Akola district where a 75-year-old farmer, Kashiram B. Indare allegedly ended his life by lighting his own funeral pyre. Delayed and scanty rains that season had made his soya-bean crop repeatedly fail.

A concerned farmer at a gathering in Guikhed village, Amravati district. Guikhed is a beneficiary at the tail end of the irrigation system of the Upper Wardha Dam and will be worst hit if the waters reaching its 600-acres are diverted to the nearby RattanIndia Amravati Thermal Power Project (formerly Indiabulls Power Ltd.).

A concerned farmer at a gathering in Guikhed village, Amravati district. Guikhed is a beneficiary at the tail end of the irrigation system of the Upper Wardha Dam and will be worst hit if the waters reaching its 600-acres are diverted to the nearby RattanIndia Amravati Thermal Power Project (formerly Indiabulls Power Ltd.).

The reasons for this unrelenting agrarian crisis are complex and multifold – uncertain rainfall, inadequate irrigation, inefficient government functionaries and rising cost of farming is turning agriculture increasingly unsustainable in the region. In March 2012, I accompanied a team that was investigating a significant reason that was contributing to the farmers’ woes in the region – the inequitable distribution of water between the farmers and coal-based thermal power plants in the region.

A map of the thermal power plants in Vidarbha. (Source: Tehelka, Sept 2012)
 

Vidarbha seems to be an ideal place to set up a thermal power plant because of cheap land prices, a favourable state water policy and proximity to the coal blocks of Chhattisgarh. As of December 2010, 71 thermal power plants were in various stages of approval in the Vidarbha region alone, collectively representing 55 GW of power.

Coal-fired thermal power plants require enormous quantities of water to run, highest consumption across any industrial sector. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) observes that an average coal-fired plant in India requires about 5-7 cubic metres of water per MW/hour, and is far less efficient than those in other countries. The newer plants are slightly better, utilizing 3.5-4 cubic metres of water per MW/hour.

Inland thermal power plants are dependent on fresh water from rivers and irrigation reservoirs and thus deprive farmers of water meant for irrigation. Between 2008-2009, the Maharashtra government diverted 41% of irrigation water from the Upper Wardha dam for the use of thermal power plants.

A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, assessed the present and future implications on the Wardha River placed on it by the thermal power plants in the region. The study observed that the proposed thermal plants would require 1.7 billion cubic metres of water per year – enough to irrigate more than 410,000 hectares of farmland. Subsequently the water level in the Wardha River basin would drop by 40 percent and by 16 percent in the Wainganga River basin.

The Vidarbha farmers grow cotton, oranges and soya along with traditional crops such as rice, sorghum and bajra. However about 80% of the farming is dependent on rainfall, which is often uncertain and ill-timed.

In May 2012, Rohana village in Bhandara district was denotified from the command area of the Bawanthadi interstate irrigation project to benefit the upcoming project of the Bhandara Thermal Power Corporation. Agriculture and dairy are the main occupation of the approximately 2,200 residents here. The entire agricultural land of the village is under irrigation and the village has never been affected by droughts. The acquisition for the project has now been stopped because of more and more farmers resolving not to part with their land for the project.

My death will be like untimely rain
My death will probably be termed foolish
I have left here hanging myself as an exhibit

Shrikrishna Kalamb
(Vidarbha’s farmer-poet, two days before he took his life)