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Memories of Drought: Bharat Patankar

August 28, 2012

Guest post by BHARAT PATANKAR

English translation of Marathi article published in Sakal

Some years had passed since the completion of the Koyna dam which was the basis for the all-round development of Maharashtra.   Electricity had begun to be produced from the water stored in the dam.   The campaign to bring electricity to the villages had begun.  An increase in industrial development also began to be felt; however the situation of agriculture was as shown in the film, “Mother Krishna is flowing calmly”.   The situation is described in the song, “Mother Krishna is flowing calmly, unaware of happiness or sorrow on her banks/ Limitless water flows without a break; nobody diverts it for irrigating the land/ how can this Ganges become fruitful to the lazy people?”   Such was the situation.  It was not only true for the Krishna.  It was also the case for the Godavari and Tapi.  Agriculture was still dependent on wells and rainfall for irrigation.  Aside from Mulshi, Rajewadi, Bhatghar and other dams of the British period and a few dams after independence, all of Maharashtra was like this.

The 1972-3 drought was general.  That is, it was not simply in the traditionally drought-prone talukas.   It was not only in the rain-shadow areas.  It was not only in the talukas with 300-500mm of average rainfall.  It spread to all the talukas of Maharashtra.  It was in the traditionally heavy rainfall talukas, and in the assured rainfall talukas.   In that period even big landholders came with their families onto the roads in 1972-3.   Only those in occupations not dependent on agriculture were saved from this.   Tractors were not in existence then.  Farmers came onto the roads with their bullocks and implements for doing employment guarantee work.

This was a drought that fell because no crops were harvested and no grain for food was produced.  But, uniquely, there was no great problem of a shortage of drinking water.  In one way or another water for drinking and household use was available.  Maharashtra’s Water Supply and Sanitation Minister Laxman Dhoble compared this year’s drought to that of 1972-3, saying that the shortage of drinking water was greater then;  but the reality was different.  At that time the machinery was not available for people to sink deep wells and borewells to finish off the ground water, and because of this the store of water underground was available with some small effort.   Since it is not possible to live only by drinking water, this was a drought of crop failure.

At that time the concept of fodder camps for domestic animals had not emerged.   Since grain was not produced, fodder was also not produced.  Only if there was some remaining old fodder could the animals survive.  There was a big process of bringing animals from the traditionally drought-prone talukas to the high rainfall areas of the Sahyadris.   Today the memory of those times is there in both places.  Under the name of “tagai,” there was a custom from British times of giving fodder for animals and putting the price of the loan for this on their land records and recovering this with interest afterwards.  It was only In 1985 that we organized a huge struggle of drought affected people in Sangli district refusing this system of “tagai” and forced the government to begin free fodder camps.  Along with this the cooperative sugar factories were also forced to open such camps.   Those who have been given assured water for irrigation have, not as a favor but as a responsibility, the duty of caring for animals; this was the principle.   Today after 26 years the Maharashtra government has taken up even a worse policy than the British government and is taking 10% (for people below poverty line) to 25% (for others) of the fodder price prior to the delivery.  It’s as if they want to finish off domestic animals.  They have refused to understand the calamity of drought.

The 1972-73-74 drought proved to be one that gave birth to the powerful and Maharashtra-wide movement of toilers.  The urban workers and employees also gave all their support to the movement.  At that time in Islampur (district Sangli) and Vairag (dist. Solapur) there was firing on the movement which testifies to the cruel heedlessness of the government.  Still the movement of the drought-affected didn’t stop but kept growing.  The times were tumultuous.   It was a time when highly educated youth also ignored their own future and came into the movement.  This was the drought of those times.  A strong unity of urban and rural workers took shape from that time.

Because of the overall situation of severe drought and the process of the young generation hurling themselves into the movement, a special strength came to the movement.  “Drought is not a natural calamity but is human-made and those people responsible for creating the drought are in the ruling class” was a theme first put forward at that time.  It is not sufficient to relieve drought, but rather we must search for the means to eradicate drought and put into position a program for permanently ending it.  This was the scientific outlook taken by the fighting movement in Maharashtra.   From this the Dushkal Nivaran Nirmulan Mandal was established.  The movement should be done with a policy based on economics, agricultural science, irrigation science and a scientific viewpoint towards the water-land relationship.   The movement was brought to a new stage.   Men such as Comrade Datta Deshmukh, V.M. Dandekar, V.R. Deuskar and others began to work in that Mandal.  The first scientific discussion of water distribution and management began for the first time in the country due to the 1972-3 drought and the conscious fighting movement organized by the people.   It developed into  a process of framing an equalitarian “water policy” and “irrigation policy.”

Due to the drought and the movement arising from it the first “employment guarantee scheme” began in the country.   Maharashtra became to first state to implement such a scheme.  The government of the time didn’t have the capacity to implement such a scheme; rather it was the movement of urban and rural workers which did.  It was financed by contributions from organized sector workers and employees.   If 50 people demanded work, they should be given it or else given unemployment compensation; this was provision of the law.  Of all the work began, 75% should be “productive” work or work that served to dam and store water.   Such provisions that were directed at eradicating drought were also in the law.  Due to this the majority of tanks,  nalas, bands and small dams etc. were constructed during that drought and after in the drought of 1983-84.  The knowledge of Mahatma Phule’s stragegy regarding water conservation and distribution started trickling to the various departments of the government by 1983-4.  However, today, some governments of changed the Maharashtra employment guarantee scheme.  This “employment guarantee”, (the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee) got caught in the factionalism of the gram panchayats,  and fell under their control.  Not enough work was created under this scheme to allow people to live!  This proved to be a scheme for starving the drought-affected.

On the other hand the 1972-73 drought, and the movement during that period triggered another movement which was for building new dams for creating facilities for assured irrigation.   From that the dam-affected problems began in a large way.   Their movement began and that movement gave birth to the first rehabilitation law in India and in Maharashtra.  This was a precursor of the united and unique movement of the drought affected and dam-affected in the country.

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