A Drought Foretold

by Gae Emilio Leanza

Maharashtra, like the rest of “rising” India, is full of contradictions. Home to 111 million, it ranks second only to Uttar Pradesh as India’s most populous state. Maharashtra has two very different symbolic capitals within its borders. One is the bustling, seaside megacity of Mumbai, where India’s richest family resides in a personal skyscraper. The other is the eastern inland region of Vidarbha, known for its exceptionally high rate of debt-ridden farmers who kill themselves.

Out of more than 270,000 farmer suicides reported in India since 1995, 54,000 have taken place in Maharashtra alone. The most common method: ingesting the costly pesticides that drove them to debt in the first place. Now, after two consecutive years of failed monsoon rains (defined as receiving less than 90 percent of average rainfall over a period of four months) Maharashtra is experiencing its worst drought in four decades. With increased crop failure and 20 million people lacking stable access to drinking water, experts predict a dramatic rise in farmers so desperate that they would opt to end their lives.

Yet Maharashtra’s drought is not strictly a natural phenomenon. It has less to do with the absence of rain and more to do with a severe misallocation of water resources favoring private industries over the needs of the rural poor. In fact, there is a common thread connecting Mumbai’s rising nouveau riche, farmer suicides and the 16 of Maharashtra’s 35 districts that have completely run out of water. Unraveling this web of causality demands examining the roots of Maharashtra’s agrarian crisis. What is driving mass numbers of farmers to commit suicide?

The story began when then-Finance Minister (now Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh enacted a wave of neoliberal reforms in the early 1990s. The Indian economy, for the first time since gaining independence in 1947, was opened to massive flows of foreign direct investment (FDI). Soon enough, global chains such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut set up shop across the country. Colossal, air-conditioned shopping malls became the haunts of an expanding Indian middle class, increasingly characterized by conspicuous consumption. But for farmers in drought-prone Vidarbha, the new economy meant the introduction of water-intensive, genetically-modified (GM) cotton strains, courtesy of the multinational seed conglomerate Monsanto.

Initially profitable, Indian GM cotton suffered a rapid loss in competitiveness after cheap, heavily subsidized U.S. cotton flooded the international market around 1995. Maharashtra’s cotton growers are now left with a crop that requires substantial investment in water, fertilizer and expensive GM seeds, but yields little monetary gain as a result. The price of Monsanto’s GM product ($38 per packet), for example, costs nearly eight times what a farmer used to pay for conventional seeds.

Thus, many cotton farmers in Vidarbha — the first links in a global supply chain that ends in a Levi’s jeans retailer — are trapped in a livelihood that has become the source of egregious debt and dire stress. The suicides of Maharashtra’s farmers, who have fallen through the cracks of neoliberalism, exposed an economic policy that makes the poor poorer while a select few, concentrated in cities like Mumbai, prosper immensely.

In addition to triggering the circumstances that led to these farmer suicides and doubling income inequality over the past 20 years, India’s neoliberal regime controls who does and does not have access to water. The rural poor, for instance, experience the side effects of Maharashtra’s drought disproportionately. While millions in central and eastern Maharashtra are dying of thirst, large landholders and factory owners can afford to dig deeper borewells and illegally tap into what is left of a dwindling supply of ground water without compromising their business operations or quality of life. Luxury hotels, golf courses and high-end residential complexes, recently constructed on the periphery of Maharashtra’s urban centers, are also unscrupulously hoarding water.

A fitting example is “independent India’s first planned hill city,” Lavasa. Located on the outskirts of Pune (Maharashtra’s Internet technology hub and second-largest city), Lavasa stores 24.6 billion liters of water in private reservoirs, offers extravagant suites with private swimming pools and thrives largely unabated by the surrounding scarcity of water. Its infrastructure, which is modeled after an Italian canal city, also includes large fountains and a lake for water sports. Meanwhile in Vidarbha, one of Maharashtra’s driest regions, this year’s farmer suicide toll was already at 16 by January 26, India’s Republic Day.

Although the government of Maharashtra has publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the drought, its efforts at alleviation have so far been lackluster at best. Relief plans are limited to the occasional shipment of water trucks to areas in need and the construction of cattle camps to provide water and fodder to famished livestock.

Neither measure has proven satisfactory. In light of the state’s shortcomings, villagers are increasingly turning to private “water tanker mafias” that take advantage of the crisis by jacking up prices. The underfunded cattle camps are few and far between and cannot make a significant impact. And the paltry wages provided by the 2005 National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a large-scale public works program, have failed to stem a steady migration of villagers to Maharashtra’s cities in search of work. Most migrants, forced to eke out a precarious existence in tightly packed urban slums, end up working for low wages at dangerous construction jobs.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Maharashtra’s crippling drought, though, is its preventability. Water is in ample supply, but is diverted away from drought-affected areas through an intricate network of dams. In the 1950s India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared dams to be the “temples of modern India.” The large-scale construction of dams became the cornerstone of Nehru’s centrally planned economy, the predecessor of today’s neoliberal regime. The outcome: irreparable environmental degradation and massive displacement, while industrial growth failed to meet expectations.

Nonetheless, thousands of dams scattered across Maharashtra exist today as relics of the Nehruvian era — and for the past 15 years, they have been diverting water from the Krishna river basin to industrial projects and companies in the lifestyle business. Private interests, in other words, are consuming potable water that could be used to relieve seriously parched districts. At a moment of such dire need, activists argue that the government should be willing to divert flows from these private interests, even if it means reducing hydroelectricity production.

But the resource claims of villagers matter significantly less in the eyes of the state than the “needs” of businesses such as Lavasa. In spite of a policy decision in the Pune district to prioritize water from dams for drinking purposes, the water ended up in the hands of sugarcane barons who are associated with the Pawars, a leading political family from the area.  Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who approved the diversion of drinking water to sugar and beer factories in the Pune district, recently ridiculed a drought-affected farmer on a 55-day hunger strike to protest government inaction. “From where should we get him water?” Pawar asked. “Should we urinate in dams?”

Pawar’s statement epitomizes the indifference — if not outright disdain — toward the poor that characterizes the Indian state today. A dripping flow of corruption runs through the policy decisions of Maharashtra, benefiting Monsanto’s GMOs at the expense of farmers and perpetuating the drought that shouldn’t be.

Gae Emilio Leanza ’15 is a History concentrator.

Art by Olivia Watson