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Failure of big dam model? 36% of India's big dams in Maharashtra are of "little help" in Marathwada drought

By Our Representative
Senior environmental activist and water expert Himanshu Thakkar has said that the current drought in India should clear the misconception that drams are a panacea for water scarcity. In an interview with a top business daily, Thakkar has insisted, “Big dams have proved to be a failed water resources development model.”
“The first thing that strikes you about Maharashtra is that it has, by far, the highest number of big dams in India. According to the National Register of Large Dams of the Central Water Commission, of the total number of 5,100 big dams 1,845 are in Maharashtra”, Thakkar, who with the South Asian Network on Rivers, Dams and People (SANDRP), said.
“So about 35 to 36 per cent of all big dams in India are in the state. Yet Maharashtra is in the headlines for drought and water scarcity today. While nationally, 46 per cent of cropped area is irrigated, in Maharashtra the figure is hardly 18 per cent”, he added.
Even Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in his Assembly speech on July 21, 2015, admitted that farmers need irrigation, not dams, and dams are not the only means to achieve irrigation, Thakkar said.
Suggesting that the Maharashtra government has failed to understand this reality, Thakkar said, “Parts of Maharashtra are facing multiple agrarian and hydrological crises this year. Rainfall deficits have been as high as 40 and 42 per cent in the last two years in Marathwada.”
“In some districts and blocks the figure is even higher. So rain-fed kharif crops in many parts have failed for the last two years. The rabi crops were also hit by unprecedented hailstorms in 2014 and 2015. The 2016 rabi season has been hit by unusually dry conditions”, he added.
Pointing out that during the 2015 monsoon, he and his Pune-based colleague Parineeta Dandekar realised in mid-July that this year was going to be a crisis for most of Maharashtra, in addition to some other adjoining areas, Thakkar said, “We wrote to the chief minister in August that the state needed to take certain measures urgently.”
The measures included “stopping the diversion of about three billion cubic metres of water from the Bhima and Krishna basins to the high-rainfall Konkan area, stopping non-essential water-use activities, taking stock of available water and deploying it for priority needs, and so on”, he said.
Yet, Thakkar noted, “The Maharashtra government did not wake up to this situation then or at the end of the monsoon or even now”, adding, the state government's Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan doing “deepening, widening and straightening of rivers”, cannot be a “fig leaf to hide its incompetence in handling this crisis.”
“In Marathwada and western Maharashtra (similarly, also northern Karnataka) sugar cane cultivation on about four to five per cent of cropped land takes up about 70 per cent of available irrigation water”, Thakkar said, adding, “We have been saying that considering the rainfall, weather situation and water availability, sugarcane is not a sustainable crop in these regions.”
Yet, he added, “Even when 2014 and 2015 monsoon had major deficits in Maharashtra, the area under sugarcane remained at record levels. This was after the 2012 drought in Maharashtra, when the same issues had cropped up and the government, including the then Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar promised intervention. We saw no implementation of those promises then. The situation is the same now.”

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Dams without proper water resources are meaningless.

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