Water scarcity has become one of the most complex conflicts in Maharashtra, where three individual stressors interact together to shape the conflict. The stressors can be understood as vertically-arranged layers.
The upper-most layer is ‘climate change‘, often perceived as an immediate cause. It plays a prominent role in the creation of water shortage. But, one needs to understand the other two layers as well—social stressors and gaps in policy—to understand the full extent of why water-based conflicts are becoming common.
Understanding the complex relationship of the layers is a must because today, authorities have a tendency to cite climate change as a soft ‘excuse’ for acute or chronic environmental hazards. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar blaming “nature’s fury” for the floods in Bihar is a recent example.
This stressor forms the more hidden and rigid layer. Caste boundaries continue to form a very saddening reality in India and are more visible in rural areas. People belonging to historically marginalised castes have a separate neighborhood in villages, known as Harijan or Dalit vasti (settlement).
During environmental stress, water sources for people from Dalit communities are more unreliable and subject to unavailability. Their difficulties intensify relatively more. To avoid fetching water from distant sources, polluted water is often consumed in such situations.
Drought affects everyone, but, the so-called lower-caste families are worst affected. This is so because they are the ones who mostly don’t own land, have limited water storage capacity, and lack resources to ‘purchase’ water from tanker suppliers or transport it from distant sources. They are the ones who are forced to stand last in the queue for tanker water supply.
There are multiple registered atrocities agains Dalit communities in the name of ‘water-based conflicts’. Water sources are ‘owned‘ public structures by Savarnas, and people from Dalit communities are threatened in different ways if they try to access water or demand rights for water.
For example, Paranjpe et, al. (2007) who studied this conflict in the Konkan region of Maharashtra wrote about how sources of water used by people from Dalit communities are contaminated by putting human excreta.
Threats, torture, and violence faced by people from Dalit communities for accessing water have been a common occurrence. In villages like Vantakli, Kusumba, and Ghodka Rajauri, Dalit women were targetted, abused and assaulted badly while accessing water.
Cases show how Dalit people have been tortured through verbal abuse, blaming them, jealousy for the schemes they can avail, a ‘conspiracy’ within the village against them and brutal violence-all around water conflicts.
Not only at the village and micro-level, but caste also drives private-sector lobbying and political connections. From the beginning, when Yashvantrao Chavan started the Maharashtra Sugar Cooperative movement, only 96-clan Maratha caste persons ruled the sugar lobby of Maharashtra.
Others were selectively not allowed to be part of this lobby. The lobby has a large network of cooperative banks, societies, farms, traders, police, and politicians. This lobby has played a major role in unequal water distribution at the macro-regional levels.
Climate change has been altering monsoon patterns and generating acute weather events (like flooding) and chronic weather conditions (like drought) in nearby geographic areas at the same time. The state of Maharashtra has witnessed both events this year parallelly.
One the one side, the Western Maharashtra region including Kolhapur, Satara, Sangli, and Pune have faced flash floods. While on the other side, districts like Beed, in the Marathwada region has been reeling under drought conditions.
Water scarcity has become a chronic condition for Maharashtra due to increasing air temperatures, delayed and irregular rainfall, and depletion of groundwater.
The story of the globalised Indian society today tells us how the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
The story repeats itself in case of the water policy too where unequal distribution of water has led to a shortage for economically vulnerable sections of society.
Several reasons cause this unequal distribution. Lobbying by sugar factories often helps them ‘steal’ the water resource.
The word ‘stealing’ here, is self-explanatory about the state of sugarcane production in Maharashtra. Sugar and sugarcane industries are owned or controlled by politicians and political representatives and have always received privileges.
Urgent action to resolve water conflicts must consider the extent of the three stressors. Action must range from structural measures like systematic rainwater harvesting in the rainy season, water management at the regional level, to non-structural measures like identifying economic, social inequities as the root of the problem and also raising collective voice through pressure groups.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.