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New cause for Vidarbha suicides?

33 power plants. 4,09,800 hectares of arable landaffected.

By Baba Umar, Tehelka

WHEN THE rest of India was busy celebrating the country’s 66th Independence Day, Suresh Ganpat Bhore, 40 was quietly contemplating his future inside his two-room hut in Sahur village of Wardha district in Maharashtra. Bhore’s sons Amul, 18, and Yogesh, 16, were away at the choupal, while his wife Mala Bai was milking the goats. As the evening set in, Bhore decided that he didn’t want to witness another dawn bereft of hope, and consumed monocrotophos, a toxic insecticide, to join the ranks of 8,200 farmers who have committed suicide in Vidarbha since 2002.

Bhore’s death was blamed on the Bt cotton seeds that required large inputs of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Since the crop on his 2.5-acre farm had failed for three consecutive years, Bhore was pushed into debt, and ultimately to suicide.

But farmers on the edge of bankruptcy, who have often tearfully beseeched the state and Central governments for help, fear another wave of suicides in Vidarbha. This time, the new crisis at hand isn’t droughts or debts but 71 coal-fired thermal power projects (33 have been approved, 38 are at various stages of clearance). Many of them belong to private firms and are seeking fresh water from dams (originally built for irrigation) and distressed rivers.

As the Centre looks to ramp up power production by 1 lakh MW in the Twelfth Plan, Maharashtra is planning to generate 55,000 MW from Vidarbha’s 11 districts, for which the state government has sanctioned the diversion of 2,049.20 million cubic metres (MCM) of irrigation water per year. This water, according to Greenpeace estimate, can be used to irrigate 4,09,800 hectares of single-cropped arable land.

A TEHELKA query on this to the water resources minister elicited no response.

Eighty percent work on Indiabulls’ 1,350 MW power project was complete before the Bombay High Court stayed it. The company has been directed to submit a plan by 25 September that looks at recycling water and drip irrigation in a bid to compensate for the shortage of water that may be caused by diversions. The rest of the approved projects are acquiring land or are in the initial phases of construction.

“Imagine, half of India’s new power will be produced in the parched areas of Vidarbha,” mocks Sanjay Kolhey, a farmer and member of the Kisan Ekta Manch, which is protesting against the allocation of 87.60 MCM water to Indiabulls’ power project and 35.92 MCM to Amravati Thermal’s 1,320 MW power project. The diversion would deprive 32,729 hectares of farmland of water in Amravati and Wardha districts from the Upper Wardha dam.
‘The water diversion will ruin Vidarbha. Many farmers will think about taking their own lives,’ says Kolhey, a farmer

“The move will ruin this region,” warns Kolhey. “Across wide swathes of rural Vidarbha, many farmers will once again think about taking their own lives.”

Kolhey’s assertion has many takers among the farmers’ community. In Hasnapur, an under-developed village in Amravati, farmlands are fed river water through a canal that is linked to the Upper Wardha Dam. This village is among those areas that are located at the tail-end of the canal.

“From November to March, we are fed canal water. If the water level goes down, we will be ruined,” says Gayanand Thackeray, whose father took his life in December 2002 after failing to repay a loan. The elder Thackeray’s 15 acres were inherited by his three sons who live with their wives and children in a dilapidated house.

“The productivity of Bt cotton is less, so is the market rate. We grow wheat in winters to meet the needs of our entire family of 12 members,” says Thackeray. “Diversion or decrease of the water level in the canal will force my family to follow our father’s footsteps. Is there a way out?”

Chenusta Sarpanch Pankaj Murlidhar, 40, echoes the sentiment. “The villagers are under the impression that water will be given for irrigation first and only then will the rest of it be diverted to industries. But that’s not the case,” he says. “That’s why I’m educating them about the pitfalls.”

Between 2003-11, diversion of irrigation water from dams for use by thermal power plants was already rampant. Existing power projects guzzled 398.87 MCM every year from six reservoirs — Upper Wardha, Gosikhurd, Dhapewada Stage 2, Lower Wardha, Lower Wunna/Wadgaon and Chargaon. The diverted water could have been used to irrigate 80,000 hectares.

In 2003, the Maharashtra Water Policy shifted the priority of water usage to industrial and commercial over irrigation. This remained the legislation until May 2011, when the state shifted agricultural use to second place after drinking and demoted industrial/commercial use to third priority. The resolution mentioned farmer suicides as the reason behind the change. But by then, the production of 55,000 MW by diverting 2,049.20 MCM/year of irrigation water had already been sanctioned.

It all happened when a high-powered committee (HPC) was created in 2003 to oversee the diversion of more than 25 percent of any water project. The group consisted of ministers of industry, agriculture, finance and water supply, and had the power to take decisions without further consultation. It also bypassed the Maharashtra Water Resources Authority Act of 2005, which laid down norms for intersectoral water diversions for which a public hearing was mandatory.

According to a 2011 report by the Pune-based Prayas ReLi Group, which examined the minutes of 17 of the 25 HPC meetings held from 2003 to January 2010, the committee diverted at least 1,500 MCM per year from irrigation to non-irrigation purposes. The committee continues to do so.

In a bid to check suicides among the distressed Vidarbha farmers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced a relief of Rs 2,177 crore in 2006. In the 2012-13 Budget, Rs 300 crore was allocated to the Vidarbha Intensified Irrigation Development Programme. But more pressure in terms of power generation and irrigation water diversion in an area, which already generates 29 percent of electricity in Maharashtra but consumes only 13 percent, is being seen as “catastrophic” by environment groups such as Greenpeace.

Seeking immediate moratorium on the environmental clearances granted to inland coal-based thermal power projects, Jai Krishna, one of the authors of a recent Greenpeace report that studied the impact of coal-fired power plants on water supply, says, “By approving these projects in a region where water is scarce, we are doubling risks — 1. Of water conflicts effected by diverting irrigation water to power plants; and 2. Of forced shutdown of an operating power plant as a result of water scarcity.”
71
Thermal power projects in the pipeline in Vidarbha; 33 have been approved so far

55,000 MW
Of electricity to be produced

2,049.20
Million cubic metres of irrigation water to be diverted every year

40%
Reduction of water level in Wardha river anticipated

8,200
Farmers have committed suicide in the region since 2002

Greenpeace, which had commissioned a team from IIT-Delhi to study the Wardha river basin for assessing the impact of coal-based power plants, has found that the annual mean flow in Wardha (one of the two rivers in Vidarbha, along with Weinganga) will be reduced from 1,419 MCM to 867 MCM, a loss of 40 percent if all the water requirements of the power plants are allowed.

THERE ARE 11 major dams and 58 medium dams in the region, controlled by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC), a key wing of the Water Resources Department. The VIDC, which is also in charge of developing irrigation projects, however, sees no major threat to Vidarbha’s farmers posed by the diversion.

“Some areas will be affected but part of the revenue generated by the Irrigation Department will be used to build new projects and improve existing irrigation projects,” says VIDC Executive Director Prafullchandra Zapke. Zapke says the department will immediately repair canals to stop seepages, and work on lining and drip irrigation projects will be expedited.

But VIDC’s past record has been dismal. Many of its mega projects have remained non-starters even as the project cost have sky-rocketed. For example, the VIDC recently acknowledged that it had approved a massive hike in the cost of 38 irrigation projects in Vidarbha, from Rs 6,672 crore to Rs 26,722 crore. In seven major irrigation projects that were supposed to irrigate 5,61,021 hectares, the target reached was 67,308 hectares, while the cost escalated from Rs 1,613.71 crore to Rs 16,795 crore.

Even in villages where the river is located just 4 km away, framers ridicule the poor irrigation facilities. For example, in Rajurvadi area of Amravati district, villager Ankush Devdas says they had asked the officials to construct sub-canals and minor canals “but they never heeded our pleas”.

“One of the Irrigation Department’s arguments is that farmers don’t utilise the water and that’s why they are diverting it to industries. It’s a blatant lie,” says Ankush, whose father Gopal ended his life in 2005 after failing to repay his loan. Ankush, who has a Rs 50,000 debt, says poor irrigation facilities are keeping his farmland dry during winters when wheat is grown across the region.

The water politics has become murkier with the BJP and the ruling NCP-Congress alliance lobbing allegations at each other. While the BJP says it opposes diverting irrigation water to power plants, there are counter-claims that BJP leaders, including party chief Nitin Gadkari, are direct or proxy stakeholders in the power business.

Some media reports claimed that Gadkari, BJP MLA Devendra Fadnavis and former BJP MLAs Uttam Ingle and Madan Yerawar had stakes in the 32 MW Chintamani Agrotech and the 540 MWJinbhuvish Power Generation projects. The reports had also said Gadkari’s son Nikhil was an independent director at the 270 MW power plant set up by Ideal Energy.

But Fadnavis rubbishes these claims. “Gadkari and I were directors at Chintamani Agrotech but we resigned long ago,” he says. “Nikhil was director at Ideal Energy but when the promoters decided that it won’t be a co-generation project, he also quit. We also oppose the construction of Jinbhuvish Power Generation’s plant.”

As if mounting debts and poor yields were not enough, the inevitability of losing precious irrigation water to power plants has left farmers and their families a worried lot. “The power will be generated by denying us water. And the same will be used by urban and industrial people,” laments farmer Kolhey. “There is nothing left for farmers in Vidarbha. So the number of suicides is only bound to increase.”

Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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