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How caste shapes water conflicts in drought-ridden Maharashtra

Anuj Ghanekar writes: Drought affects everyone, but the Dalits are the worst affected. They often become targets of threats and violence in different ways if they try to access water or demand rights for water, with several atrocities on record. One study noted several instances where water sources used by Dalits were deliberately contaminated with human excreta.

Anuj Ghanekar, Youth Ki Awaaz

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—gaps in policy and the implementation as well as social stressors—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.

But, on the other hand, renowned intellectuals have always pointed their fingers towards policy and implementation gaps responsible for hazards. Dr. P. Sainath, for example, in his editorial in the Hindu blamed the flawed water allocation policy of Maharashtra government for the water crisis.

Let’s try to understand how these layers work in the case of Maharashtra.

1. The Climate Change Layer

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. In the preceding year, the government of Maharashtra had announced 151 out of 353 talukas in the state as being ‘drought-hit’.

Policy responses to drought conditions in the form of water tankers, relief packages, and cattle fodder camps have been implemented for years by the government. But, unfortunately, the problem and its solutions are not linear and cannot be solved in isolation. One needs to understand the other layers too.

2. Gaps In Water-Related Policies And Implementation

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 shortage for the economically vulnerable sections of society.

Several reasons cause this unequal distribution. Some key ones are:

    • Private dams have influenced the unequal distribution of water. For example, the High Court order of 2013, in the case of water conflicts in the state, specifically recommends the release of water from private dams for drinking water purposes. The historical judgment by the Supreme Court in 2016 also makes water a state commodity.
    • Political connections to help ‘hijack‘ drinking water has been happening for a long time. The much-discussed example would be the Maharashtra Irrigation Scam in 2012, and it’s connections with the National Congress Party politics.
    • 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.
      reveal – 4% farmed land of sugarcane consumes 71% of irrigated water. Two-thirds of sugarcane production in Maharashtra is done in drought-prone areas. Sugar and sugarcane industries are owned or controlled by politicians and political representatives and have always received privileges. Despite the promises of a ‘Drought-Free Maharashtra’ by the present government, water is still being utilised for sugarcane production over food crops.


3. Social Stressors

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 the rural areas. People belonging to historically marginalised castes have a separate neighborhood in villages, known as Harijan or Dalit vasti (settlement).

Water scarcity at the village level operates differentially for people from Dalit communities. The so-called upper-caste neighbourhoods are ‘prioritised’ for supplying piped water in the village. 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 targeted, 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.

Addressing The Problem

Actions must carve their path through this ‘stressor trilogy‘. 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.

As the stressors act simultaneously, structural and non-structural measures also must operate together in order to resolve the long-time water conflict that Maharashtra has been living through.


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