Pan-seller Ali Pathan and his sons had left home at 5 pm to fetch water. It was late night when they began their long walk home, their six containers as empty as when they’d set out. A wasted trip.
Shop attendant Jagan Birajdar had more luck, but only briefly. He found water after queueing up for six hours. He was tying his four containers to his cycle when it tilted over, spilling the contents of one pitcher. Tears welled up as he stared at the liquid gold sinking into the gravel.
Latur, hit hardest by the drought in Marathwada, comes alive at night with its poor going from one municipal tank to the other, hauling containers. Of the eight tanks, only one has water. The remaining have been closed for over a week for “repairs”, a euphemism for plugging the illegal connections that both the rich and poor have made in the pipelines.
Below the only operational tank, those who cannot afford to buy water, line up for hours at the only tap. “Our exams are over, this is where we spend our vacation,” said 14-year-old Sailesh. Even here, the poorest, with their small pitchers, lose out to those who come in autos with huge barrels.
Water is no longer a right in Latur, it’s a commodity. And as with all commodities, available only to the highest bidder.
Waiting wearily with her sons at the end of a queue while those right in front scuffled, housewife Sita Chavan told Mirror she had cried all day after every private borewell owner she had approached for one matka of drinking water demanded money.
Outstation students at Latur’s famous coaching classes are leaving half-way through their courses either because crop failure has driven their fathers to suicide or bankruptcy, or because landlords are telling them to buy their own water, said Dr Rajendra Shirsat, who runs a class.
Auto driver Sawant spends Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a month on water from private tankers. Drinking water costs another Rs 300 with no guarantee that it’s safe. Pramod Mundada, owner of a well-known brand of bottled water, revealed there were 1,000 illegal manufacturers of “filtered water” in Latur.
In the past three months, the number of people suffering from kidney stone and urinary tract infection has shot up in the region, according to urologist Dr Hansraj Baheti.
Municipal tankers distribute 200 litres of water to each household, but it takes them 10 days to reach each home. Even the 700-bed government hospital in Latur, the biggest in the district, does not get municipality water every day. “We have to ring them up,” a hospital employee said.
NGOs send tankers, but the hospital’s daily requirement of 1.5 lakh litres is still not met. It has now started turning away all but the most in need, and relatives are strictly forbidden.
The intolerable conditions in Latur may have come under focus because of the prohibitory orders imposed around its municipal tanks, but the region has been grappling with acute water scarcity for the past four years following poor rains.
The current crisis had enough warning signs, but the local administration did nothing. Over Rs 30 crore sanctioned for water supply from Bhandarwadi Dam was not utilised after the contractor, who bid seven times for the tender, refused to pay a commission allegedly demanded by municipal officials.
While most Latur residents struggle for every drop, five sugar factories located near the city face no water problems. The units, owned by former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s family, had a production of 30 lakh quintals last season, according to professor Somnath Rode of the Marathwada Janata Vikas Parishad.
Social activist Shivaji Narhare, who recently joined the BJP, had written to the collector in January urging him to save available water in nearby check dams for summer months. That was not done and the stock was used up by the sugar units.
Collector Pandurang Pole told Mirror Latur’s topography and lack of forest cover predispose the city to water problems. Another major factor, he said, was the use of available water for only one crop — sugarcane.
Water management expert Madhav Chitale and economist HM Desarda have suggested that water-intensive sugarcane production in Marathwada should be replaced with traditional crops such as dal and oilseeds.
It’s a political decision, but Latur’s leaders are not going to take it. The water crisis didn’t even figure on the agenda of the last two general body meetings held by the municipal corporation, which is controlled by the Congress and the NCP.
Sitting and former corporators from the two parties have been caught summoning municipal tankers to their homes. MLA Amit Deshmukh, son of former CM Vilasrao, is currently abroad to celebrate his birthday, while his supporters waste water on sports events to mark the occasion.
Political wrangling between the Congress and the NCP had earlier derailed efforts to solve Latur’s water crisis. Extending a dam pipeline from nearby Osmanabad and giving Latur its share from the Krishna river basin are two simple solutions, still pending.
The BJP-led government in the state now appears uninterested in Latur, which has remained a Congress bastion.
“Despite being political rivals, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Gopinath Munde used to help each other out,” said CPI (M) trade unionist Vishwambhar Bhosale. “Their children don’t.”
Dr Baheti said the government’s response would have been different had a crisis of a similar scale hit the state’s urban centres. “Had the crisis happened in Pune, the government would have sweetened sea water for thirsty Punekars,” Dr Baheti said. “Maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi will wake up when one of his foreign friends calls to offer help. After all, Latur is now internationally infamous.”