The water crisis in Maharashtra is a “policy-induced failure”, according to economists and water academics who have specifically warned of the ‘desertification’ of the parched Marathwada region in the near future.“It is the ecological illiteracy of policy-makers and the selfishness of the power elite in inducing farmers across Marathwada to adopt a crop pattern that is not congruent with the agro-climatic characteristics of this region,” said Prof. H.M. Desarda, economist and former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board. Mismanagement of water resources by successive governments, coupled with four decades of incessant ‘water mining’, had led the groundwater table across the Marathwada region to decline precipitously to the point where rejuvenating it had become impossible, he said.“Of the 76 talukas in eight districts that comprise Marathwada, 50 received around 300 mm rainfall last year. This translates to three million litres of water per hectare. Given that the average population density in Marathwada is 300 per sq. km., this is more than enough to meet the basic drinking water and household needs of the populace besides leaving enough water for one crop. So, while there is a rainfall deficit in this region, it certainly does not warrant a grave water scarcity situation currently prevalent,” he said.According to data by the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency, the water table had dropped alarmingly in 70 of the 76 talukas, with more than 25 reporting a drop of more than two metres.Arid climateProf. Desarda said the crop pattern in the region had drastically changed over the past decades. “Earlier, the main crops cultivated here used to be cereal and oilseeds. These crops were not only conducive to Marathwada’s arid climate, but were drought-resistant and led to moisture harvesting,” he said. But now, the predominant crops here are soybean and Bt Cotton, which dominate more than 80% of Marathwada’s 50 lakh hectares of cultivable land.“These crops, coupled with the lure of easy profits from sugarcane, have led the farmers and the citizens to the edge of the current hydrological disaster. Sugarcane, which is only grown in 4% of the total cultivable land, guzzles 80% of the water resources. As a result, today, a slight change in the meteorological cycle is enough to cause a full-blown water crisis here,” he said.Water expert Pradeep Purandare painted a grim scenario for Marathwada in the near future, stating the process of desertification had already begun here. “The only way out of this ecological mess is to prohibit the cultivation of sugarcane,” said Mr. Purandare, a former associate professor at the Aurangabad-based Water and Land Management Institute. He said there are provisions within the Maharashtra Irrigation Act of 1976 wherein the government can notify people in the command area not to go in for water-intensive crops like sugarcane in the case of acute water scarcity.“However, there is no effort on the government’s part to wean farmers away from cultivating sugarcane and switching to drought-resistant ones like oilseeds and pulses. Despite the water position being clear in October, the powers-that-be made no move to curtail water supply to industries,” he said.In October 2014, Mr. Puranadare filed a public interest litigation before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court about the integrated State water plan and operationalisation of the legal framework of the Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority Act, in an attempt to make the government accountable to the people over water resources. “Yet, the authorities have not taken any concrete steps to strengthen the law. Moreover, there has been no significant effort at harvesting water nor any thought of replenishment of the groundwater table,” he said.Political cropAccording to Prof. Desarda, sugarcane was a ‘political crop’ and was a tried-and-tested method of becoming a politician in Maharashtra. “The political elite, from Yashwantrao Chavan to Sharad Pawar, has used the crop as a powerful instrument for building and retaining its voter base. Of the 200-odd sugar factories in the State, nearly 50 are located in Marathwada,” he said.Mr. Purandare said the 46 sugar factories in Marathwada were operational despite the mounting water crisis. “To produce 1 kg of sugar, 2,500 litres of water are required. This is tantamount to diverting water for human beings and livestock to maintain the sugar factories of the political elite. These mills have sucked the dams dry,” said Mr. Purandare.An acute water scarcity had drained several parts of Latur district in January itself. Today, this has snowballed into a catastrophe with Latur receiving water supply once in 12 days. “To slake Latur’s thirst, you [authorities and government] bring water from other areas while diverting resources from the Manjara dam — the district’s chief water source — to the district’s sugar mills. What kind of a cruel joke is this?” asked Mr. Purandare. While there was seething discontent among the people in the region, it was only a matter of time before the anger was organised, he said.