By Vidyadhar Date

There have been serious protests in Brazil against the use of millions of litres of water for a golf course in Rio for the forthcoming Olympics amidst a severe drought in the area. U.S. President Obama was met with strong protests when he played golf and holidayed in the midst of a severe water scarcity in California last year.

Water shortage is a much more serious issue in Maharashtra this year than in the U.S. or Brazil. But look at the infantile reaction in a section of the media to the suggestion that the IPL cricket matches be shifted from the state because of the unprecedented drought. Some journalists in extreme servility have bent before the powerful and rich cricket lobby to ridicule the demand. One journalist even mocked suicides of farmers and poured scorn on devoted activists.

It is true that cancellation of IPL matches at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai would not solve the grim problem of water scarcity in Maharashtra. But what the hacks rushing to defend the cricket establishment forget is that the Mumbai high court observations focus on an issue that affects millions of people and the issue simply cannot be brushed aside because the criminally insensitive sections of the society do not want to be reminded of the harsh reality. They themselves must share the blame for the shameful crisis.

The issue is mainly of unequal distribution of water in Mumbai and elsewhere but that does not disturb the hacks. In fact, they want to suppress such issues. The question is of priorities. It is pertinent to note that the worst affected town in Maharashtra is Latur, the home town of the former Maharashtra chief minister, the late Mr Vilas Deshmukh. After he ceased to be the chief minister he was twice elected as president of the Mumbai Cricket Association which controls the Wankhede stadium. Mr Sharad Pawar backed Mr Deshmukh for this election though he was his bitter rival in state politics.

The first water tanker train reached Latur in the early hours this morning, April 12, amidst bursting of crackers and distribution of pedhas, sweets. As if it was some great achievement of the state government when in fact it is disgraceful that this had to be done in the first place. Latur is also the home town of the former union home minister Shivraj Patil. It is always possible to make a clever argument that one should not mix the issue of cricket and water. But it would not be an honest one and the issue again is of priorities. I have visited Latur quite a few times in the past. It must have been a well planned town earlier, I particularly remember the town market where eight roads converge, something unique in town planning in India. Obviously, the town with its population of over 400,000 people would not have suffered had good planning been taken further.

And here are the double standards. There has been widespread and justified condemnation of politicians heading sports bodies in the past especially following the Commonwealth games corruption scandal in Delhi. One does not hear any smart alec these days questioning the continued dominating of cricket in Mumbai and elsewhere in India by politicians for decades.

Wankhede stadium itself is a symbol of wrong priorities and it was created by a politician, former state finance minister S.K. Wankhede in 1974. It is just a few feet away from the Braboune stadium which had come up in 1937 and was considered one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world, while others were mere cricket grounds, here was a cricket stadium. In contrast, Wankhede stadium always came to be considered shoddy in its construction.

Even now, both these stadiums have very little regular usage. Wankhede was built only because of petty politics and such issues as getting more passes for cricket matches at the Brabourne stadium. The Cricket club of India, which runs the Brabourne, too has come in for criticism for very little devotion to cricket and is known in some quarters as Card Club of India where the main activity is playing cards by the rich, some would say the idle rich.

Besides, the question is of people with wide experience in public administration, running the affairs of the State heading the stadium and the cricket administration.Should they not have had the vision to create independent water resources for the stadium ?. Are they aware that the Melbourne cricket authorities have won an award for recycling water. The politicians have also miserable failed to implement the directive that new buildings in Mumbai should harvest rain water. There is a criminal failure on the part of politicians and bureaucrats in these matters. Now, Mr Sharad Pawar, the Mumbai cricket boss, is being hailed for his so-called master stroke of arranging to get water from the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai for the Wankhede stadium. The race course authorities at least had the vision of recycling water and using it for the sprawling area. Why could not the Mumbai Cricket Association, flush with funds, not think of some measure like recycling of water ?Cricket has become a useful tool for land grabbing for the rich in Mumbai. The MCA has built a posh club on a huge area in the priciest Bandra Kurla Compelx in Mumbai. In these days of Right to Information it would be good to know how the institutions of the rich and powerful use water and how much. While the rich consume a predominant share of water even while paying a pittance for it in comparison to the poor, the poor get very little water and have to contend with the water mafia. BJP MP Kirit Somaiya himself said clearly on a television channel today that the water mafia is having a heyday in Mumbai with the blessings of the Shiv Sena. Journalists on the payroll of the rich and powerful never even refer to such rackets even while they dutifully attack radical activists.

The scandal that is Wankhede was well exposed by Mr K.N. Prabhu, former sports editor in the Times of India and my senior colleague in the paper in the seventies. He was perhaps the only major journalist at the time to oppose the white elephant. Fortunately, the management did not oppose his campaign against the needless stadium. It is extremely unlikely that the management would be as enlightened today. The scandalous state is revealed to some extent in recent books like a Stadium Odyssey by Simon Inglis, A Maidan View by Mihir Bose, both eminent writes on cricket. Inglis draws heavily on K.N. Prabhu for the information apart from his detailed visit to the stadium. Khalid Ansari also makes a critical reference to the stadium in his book saying he was critical even though he was a good friend of Mr Wankhede.

Mr Wankhede was a cricket lover and a decent man whom I saw at work in the legislature as a journalist. But the project was clearly ill-conceived, there was criticism that the funds came from dubious sources, there was unaccounted money hidden from the tax authorities, at least that was the charge leveled by people with old money who managed the CCI.

As a politician Mr Wankhede held the trump card as the government controlled cement allocation and there were allegations that cement meant for public projects of the World Bank was diverted for this stadium. On the whole the stadium was considered morally indefensible. It is extremely naïve to ignore such harsh reality.

India won its famous first Test victory on English soil at the Oval in 1971 and I had reported the jubilation in Mumbai on the front page of Times of India . I clearly remember the day in Shivaji Park and the point I made was that the victory was in good measure due to the early lessons cricketers like Wadekar got in the lanes and bylanes of Shivaji Park to play the game. Wankhede stadium had not come up then. What we need now are more open spaces, grounds to play, not fancy stadiums. This is a universally accepted fact if you consider the rise of sports under neoliberalism. Yet, the very politicians going out of their way to build fancy stadiums are robbing people of open spaces and robbing them most brazenly and literally.

Mr S.B. Chavan, former chief minister of Maharashtra, was one of the few, sincere, honest Congress leaders. He demanded a more equitable water policy, a shift away from the water guzzling sugarcane crop and he tried to check the sugar lobby. His campaign was directed mainly against Vasantdada Patil, then the dominant figure in the sugar lobby in the seventies and eighties. Mr Sharad Pawar later became the rallying figure for the sugar lobby.

There used to be some serious debates in the Congress organizations till the seventies. This whole process was systematically subverted by vested interests and ideological bankruptcy took over. Yeshwantrao Mohite, a former minister, swore by Marxism but he was often ridiculed by a liberal and influential editor of a leading Marathi daily even while he was always soft on capitalists. Some of the corrupt elements in the sugar lobby are now supporting the struggle against communalism for their own dubious politics and one needs to see through this.

The political class has not only miserably failed to tackle the water crisis, some leaders have resorted to enormous corruption in the construction of irrigation projects, some of these are only on paper. And who can forget the infamously insensitive question posed by Mr Ajit Pawar, former irrigation minister and nephew of Mr Sharad Pawar ?. When some villagers complained to him about lack of water, he taunted them by asking `Should I piss in the dam so that you get water ?

The water crisis is now being felt even in the prestigious Asiatic library in Mumbai. In this time of the stifling of dissent, is this a new way of weaning people away from knowledge, critical thinking, scholarship ? This is what is happening in the Town Hall in Mumbai. For the past several days and for several hours you cannot access a drop of water in this seat of the Asiatic Society, the revered instituting of learning. The office of the directorate of libraries of the state government is also is here.

The governor of the state holds the reception here on August 15. And the Town Hall everywhere is one of the most important symbols of democracy, a place where citizens can come together and discuss issues, hold functions.

And the president of the Asiatic Society is the former municipal commissioner, Mr Sharad Kale. And he is also the CEO of the Y.B. Chavan Centre. Incidentally, it is controlled, set up, financed by Mr Sharad Pawar. So if the place does not get water even then and in the most prestigious part of Mumbai, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. It also shows how utterly hollow is this talk of smart cities and Make in India .

There is a criminal neglect of learning by the Congress and other parties in the state over the years. For decades their governments have failed to build buildings for the Central library and the State government archives. The archives are in an old building and in an urgent need of better preservation. The Central library does not even have its own building, its books are scattered in different buildings. This is nothing short of a crime because what this means is that citizens are deprived of their right, given by law, to access books and free of cost.

So here we have a State that fails to provide basic intellectual or physical nourishment to the people and cleverly manages to divert their attention through a massive spectacle of cricket. I have been a cricket lover for decades, I have met greats like C.K.Nayudu and Lala Amarnath, chatted with them. But the present commercialisation of the game is simply intolereable, unacceptable.

Mr Sharad Pawar is a shrewd, intelligent politician. He has supported progressive causes in Maharashtra in the past. But he also backs environmentally questionable causes. Golf is universally condemned in enlightened sections in the West because golf courses are environmentally destructive though they look pleasant and green. Mr Sharad Pawar himself inaugurated a golf course in Kharghar in Navi Mumbai some years ago and he has been supporting golf for a long time.

Unfortunately, there is pitiful awareness about these issues even in Left and liberal circles in India. They have failed to provide an alternative view of sports, their thinking appears to be little different from that of the capitalists.

(Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling and Public Transport Need Priority).