Water Wars in Maharashtra



A pump house of a thermal power plant being built, near the Upper Wardha dam, in Amravati district, Maharashtra. Courtesy of Greenpeace India

In the state of Maharashtra, irrigation is sparking social unrest and political turmoil, and the battle for water is about to get worse.

Ajit Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party leader and former Maharashtra deputy chief minister, resigned in September after the release of a report, from a committee commissioned by the state government and headed by the retired Principle Secretary of the Water Resources Department, Nandkumar Vadnere, that alleged far-reaching improprieties in water allocation and the implementation of irrigation projects in the state. Mr. Pawar was the Water Resources Minister for Maharashtra between 1999 and 2009.

On Thursday, a “white paper on irrigation” prepared by Maharashtra’s Water Resources Department was presented in the Maharashtra cabinet.  The paper denies any wrongdoing by Mr. Pawar, saying that the state’s irrigation potential rose by 28 percent between 2001 and 2010. 

But the white paper was quickly criticized because it fails to account for allegations made by activists against Mr. Pawar. He has been accused of sanctioning 38 irrigation projects, worth 20 billion rupees, or $365 million, without clearance from the governing council of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation.

On Sunday, the anticorruption activist Arvind Kejriwal released a “black paper on irrigation” in response, which claims that the cost per hectare for irrigating land in Maharashtra is among the highest in India.


A canal in Wathoda, Maharashtra. Courtesy of Greenpeace India

A report released by Greenpeace India on Monday examines the future availability of water in the drought-prone Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. The study, conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, examines the impact that allocating water to thermal power plants will have on the livelihood of farmers in Vidarbha.

Thermal power plants, powered by fossil fuels like coal, use large quantities of water for cooling purposes. A study released in August by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a trade group, in partnership with HSBC Knowledge Initiative said the thermal power sector uses more water than any other industrial sector. According to the report, power generation will require 33 billion cubic meters of water in 2025 and about 70 billion cubic meters in 2050.

According to the Greenpeace study, as of December 2010, there were 71 power plants, with a total installed capacity of nearly 55 gigawatts, in various stages of approval in the Vidarbha region. This planned increase in power production could worsen water shortages, raise pollution levels, eliminate farmland and cause environmental damage, said the report, which analysed  present and future demands on the Wardha and Wainganga rivers.

According to the study, whose authors are Prof. A. K. Gosain, Dr. Rakesh Khosa and Jatin Anand from I.I.T. Delhi’s department of civil engineering, the proposed thermal plants will require 1.7 billion cubic metres of water per year, enough to irrigate more than 410,000 hectares of farmland. If the planned thermal power expansion is carried out, the water available in the Wardha River basin would drop by 40 percent, according to the report. In the Wainganga River basin, it would drop by 16 percent.

“There is clearly a crisis in water in the region, but that seems to have escaped the planners” when they decided where to put thermal power plants,  said Jai Krishna, campaigner for climate and energy at Greenpeace India. “If the expansion of thermal power plants goes unchecked, in a decade there will be a power plant in Vidarbha nearly every 15 kilometers, which will be using water and releasing ash and pollution,” he said.

Government policies that make water and land cheap in the area seem to be the reason for the location of the thermal plants, he said. None of the plants are expected to use coal from the region.

The Vidarbha region, in eastern Maharashtra, is among the state’s most underdeveloped areas.  It is largely inhabited by impoverished cotton farmers who are reliant on the region’s scant rainfall for their crop. Uncertain rainfall and the rising costs of farming have made agriculture less and less sustainable in the region, leading to an increase in farmer suicides.

“This year, in the period between January and December, there have been 824 farmer suicides in Vidarbha,” said Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ rights group working in the region. “The farmers are caught in a cycle of debt which is policy-driven,” he said. “The government needs to rethink its policies towards rural and agrarian economy to safeguard the interests of farmers.”

Vidarbha is not the only area where water allocation has become a flashpoint between farmers and the government. “This problem is becoming increasingly common wherever there is a large concentration of thermal plants coming up,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a research center that focuses on water and energy issues. “In many places, such as in Maharashtra, water is earmarked and dams are created for irrigation – promising the local people benefits from these facilities – but are now being used for industries that do not benefit the local population.”


Abandoned houses in Ghuikhed village in Amravati district, Maharashtra. Courtesy of Greenpeace India

Farmers across India are staging protests against plans to locate thermal plants in their region. Farmers from the region around the Hirakud reservoir in Orissa, where several thermal plants are planned, have rallied for access to the water from the Mahanadi River. Water from the Rihand Dam in Uttar Pradesh and the region around the Narmada River in central India has also been allocated to thermal plants. “It is not that we are saying the government must not create thermal plants, as these will also contribute to the economic development of the country,” said Mr. Dharmadhikary. However, he said, “some thought must be given to the local communities when allocating the country’s precious resources.”

Published on December 4, 2012, in The New York Times India Ink.