No other State has had the distinction of celebrating May 1 as both labour day and as its birth anniversary. Maharashtra does.In the past, its capital — as a symbol of the greatest working-class movements in the country and of regional aspirations — has witnessed a festive air for both reasons. Somehow, the dual symbolism, one international and the other sub-national, seemed to co-exist quite peacefully among an indifferent middle-class wedged between officialdom and the labour unions celebrating their respective history and memories.

Like elsewhere, Mumbai too has seen the decline of its working class, its unions and parties that goaded the most commercial city in India to remember its toiling masses. If nothing else, May Day will be remembered as nostalgia. Today, the absence of a vehicle for airing social and economic grievances would be deeply felt.

Collective action in the past kept policymakers on their toes; with street demonstrations that cleaved Mumbai city in the hottest months, May 1 imparted to the nation and its flag bearers — the middle classes — a consciousness of how the other half lived or died. For Maharashtra, the absence of a collective bargaining mechanism that can hold up the mirror to the dark underbelly of our ragged modernisation will be all the more felt this year with a drought many recognise as a man-made disaster and the worst in four decades.

Media reports and some experts claim this drought, visited almost uncannily upon the same districts that suffered the severest rain scarcity in 1972, to be the worst hydrological crises so far. The rain shadow districts of the State, parts of Pune, Ahmednagar, Solapur and further east, parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha have always been drought-prone.

Historically, the State has always been prone to water scarcity; following late 19th nineteenth century famines and droughts, some of which led to the Famine Commissions and the subsequent Famine Code, egged the British towards augmenting “protective “ irrigation in parts of the former Bombay Presidency.

By the 1920s, such efforts had ground to a virtual halt, to be picked up again only in the 1950s. The State irrigation Commission of 1960 that inquired into the ways and means of building up capacities for water storage was confident that by the 1980s the entire surface water potential of the State could be harnessed to prevent large-scale drought and drinking water shortages.

Commercial instincts

But as early as the mid-thirties, sugarcane cultivation possibilities had begun to be explored, and by the time of the Irrigation Commission, the politics of water had already begun to define both the new distribution and uses of that scarce resource. A rising class of commercial farmers, who in the aftermath of the birth of Maharashtra on May 1, 1960, had begun to wield political power in the distribution of water. But the new State remained victim to natural deficits created by geography and exacerbated by the negligence of political economy.

In 1972-73, the same parts of the State that are now facing severe water shortage had almost no water then too, for cattle, crops and drinking.

More than the fact of shortage, it was the disparities that stood out. Sulabha Brahme, then an economist at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, chronicled the defects of the drought in her work “Drought in Maharashtra 1972: A Case for irrigation Planning.”

There is a huge difference 40 years after the 1972-73 drought. That difference is measured by the faulty, indifferent water conservation policies — large dams built by the State since then, the ill-thought-through conversion of irrigation departments into regional irrigation corporations that became employment generating models for burgeoning bureaucracies and more perniciously, “ATMs” for local politicians across party lines.

Behind the din created over the involvement of prominent politicians in the irrigation scandals was the dismal record of surface water conservation as borne out by the state’s Economic Survey in 2011-12.

Sugarcane’s political economy

But even more dangerous than this were the underlying economic premises that since the mid-eighties had begun to inform policymaking in the State and at the Centre.

At the core was the idea that India could no longer remain a rural-based economy; that at the very least, commercial crops must replace food crops as the fastest way to agricultural productivity and profit. In the State, sugarcane had to be accompanied by other commercial crops; food output slowly declined. The latest State Economic Survey for 2012-13 released three months ago expected a decline of 18 per cent in foodgrains production. Forty years after the 1972 drought, more than 70 per cent of the irrigated water was feeding sugarcane grown on just 16 per cent of the arable land.

Sectoral decline

In Maharashtra agriculture’s growth rate is contracting annually, but who cares? Advance estimates of State Domestic Product at constant (2004-05) prices suggest a growth of 7 per cent, with industry at the same rate and Services at 8.5 per cent for 2012-13.

This pattern of growth segues in with the national picture. It defines policy attitude to agriculture and the problems that afflict the more vulnerable sections. If the growth path is to bypass agriculture, then its resource base, water, forests and land is up for grabs.

Systemic dispossession

The current hydrological crisis is explained by a systemic appropriation of water and forests for monopoly use — as in the case of sugarcane — and for non-agricultural purposes. The latter is borne out by the speed with which land is being acquired for townships in green belts and Special Economic Zones.

Resource appropriation through dispossession — of tribal lands for instance or sacred groves, of diversion of water for more “lucrative” use — is legitimised by the principles of efficiency and profitability. Underlying these is the urge to urbanise the farm sector, society at large, a process that involves not just the dispossession of natural assets enjoyed for generations in the “public trust”, but a de-peasantisation of Indian society as well.

Faulty or negligent policymaking and corruption are just the most obvious causes of the recurrence of droughts in Maharashtra. The happy embrace of the urban sprawl underlie the voracious appetite for water for industrial use, sand from river beds for cement and the decimation of forests for mining or more urbanisation.

If surface water isn’t enough, ground water is also being depleted by digging deeper. The growth of borewells is multiplying and policymakers are unable to prevent the ravages in a State with precarious storage capacity.

Droughts make for good business. Private contractors supply water tankers and relief works, and the State can ask for more money for masterly inactivity or misappropriation.

But most of all, a good drought ensures unlimited supply of cheap, subsistence labour for the advanced “services” economy, for the rapid urbanisation of the economy. A good drought will ensure that the “Lewisian turning point”, when wages begin rising, remains a long way off.