330 Million Without Water, But for India's Corporate Media, Drought Is Still Not a Headline
NEW DELHI: 330 million Indians are living under serious drought conditions, with little to no access to drinking water. In several big towns of Maharashtra, let alone remote villages, water has become a scarce commodity with the government now running a few water trains that have not been able to answer even a fraction of the need and the demand. And yet, this news remains off the headlines for India’s corporate television with prime time being devoted by the celebrated anchors to heated, and meaningless discussions, such as the AgustaWestland defence deal that carries no significance for the millions of parched Indians.
Distressed farmers continue to take their lives, with over 200 suicides reported already this year. Maharashtra heads the list, as it did in 2015 reporting 1841 farmer suicides as per the data placed in Parliament by the government. As experts have often said, the numbers are probably far more than the official statistics suggest, with over 2000 suicides reported from all over India last year.
Drought has paralysed life in Maharashtra, Punjab, Telengana,Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand. The international media has taken more note of the severe drought than the Indian mainstream media. The Guardian reported recently, “In the western state of Maharashtra, one of the worst-hit regions, 9 million farmers have little or no access to water. This year, at least 216 farmers have committed suicide in the state.The government’s response has been slow and inefficient. After weeks of waiting, trains carrying thousands of litres of water reached the region of Marathwada this week, where rivers have dried up and dams are holding about 3% of their capacity. Many other drought-hit regions are still waiting for deliveries.”
The political apathy to the drought is evident from piecemeal reactions, that usually stop with rhetoric and short term measures that constitute little more than a drop in the vast desert like conditions that have triggered off what could become huge migration to the cities with more water, leading to major displacement of life and livelihood. This is not reflected in the media, or in Parliament for that matter with thinly attended desultory debate on an issue that is becoming more severe as the days become hotter.
The government position remains , “it is a natural phenomenon.” This has been strongly contradicted over the years by experts who have pointed out that drought is largely manmade following governments refusal to take long term measures and protect the farmer from this crippling scarcity of water. P.Sainath a senior journalist pointed out in 2013, "21 golf courses have been added in Maharashtra in the last few years. Pune is cultivating rose. Crops like sugar cane are being grown in places without proper irrigation facilities. All this requires huge quantities of water for their upkeep. Hence, the drought is not a natural phenomena. Rather Maharashtra has worked very hard to create this drought due to its illogical policies and thoughtless privatisation.”
The same issues remain today with drought in Maharashtra and other states following incomplete irrigation projects, over utilisation of irrigation resources for water guzzling crops like sugarcane the cultivation of which has increased by at least 10 per cent if not more in drought prone Marathwada, and of course the unequal distribution of water as pointed out by Sainath.
Farmers continue to commit suicide, with the stories now not even being reported at any length. Television has virtually blacked out this human disaster from its TRP driven bulletins and discussions; while the mainstream newspapers have not spent even a fraction of their income from advertisements to organise sustained and in-depth coverage of the drought conditions. One particular tragic incident crossed the barriers of apathy to make it in some of the newspapers: “A farmer named Shivanappa, 45, killed himself last weekend after the failure of his chilli crop put him $6000 in debt. He hanged himself in the pump house that had failed to deliver the groundwater needed for his crop in the village of Honahalli in rural Karnataka. When his wife, Kanya, 37, found him she ran screaming into her house and doused her two daughters, Priya, 8, and Preethi, 6, and herself with kerosene and then lit a match, killing them all.”
The incident highlights the desperation behind the suicides, as the drought has robbed the cash strapped farmers of all hope. Experts are predicting large scale migration unless the government moves to deal with the situation with emergency measures. But this concern is not reflected in Parliament. The Australian reports: “The Australian travelled to a village called Channarapura in Karnataka, in the middle of southern India, where the well had run dry. For the past six months water has been piped in from a farmer’s bore 2km away, but that, too, has run empty and the village relies on trucks to bring in potable water several times a week.
Mr MVN Rao, a scientist who has worked in the district since the 1970s, said when he first arrived farmers would dig wells up to 15m deep by hand and would find ample groundwater. Now, he says, they may drill down to more than 350m and still not find moisture.
Karnataka, he explained, is a vast, dry highland plateau with more than 40,000 lakes and lagoons, which fill up during the monsoon. These lakes are vital, not only as a water resource, but also to replenish the underground water table. Now many have silted up “and are in a very bad shape”, according to Mr Rao.
The problem has been exacerbated by massive sand mining operations across the plateau — sand being a natural soak for groundwater — to feed the building boom in the state capital, Bengaluru, which has grown from a city of less than 6.5 million in 2001 to 9.6 million by 2011, according to the census. Bengaluru is facing its own water supply problems.
In Channarapura, we met subsistence farmer M. Srivinas, 38, who showed us his parched two hectares, where he grows mainly ragi, a finger millet, and some vegetables to feed his family. He’s had no crop for two years and has survived by labouring on the nearby farms that have access to groundwater.
A few years ago he sunk four bore holes down to 243m, searching for water, and found none; this year he got a $1000 government grant to dig a deep dam, lined with plastic, to hopefully catch this year’s monsoon. He has only one child, a son who is 16, who he discourages from staying on the land, saying: “This life is just too hard.”
(Photo credit: Zacharie Rabehi)