India File

The withered lives of Latur

Prince Mathews Thomas | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 25, 2016

Some relief: Blue tanks line the road in Balaji Nagar as the water tanker supplies 200 litres of water to each family. It would be another eight days before the tanker comes again.

The wait: It is 4 pm and Swaroopa has been looking out for the municipality water tanker since early monrning. Her family, with no means to buy water, has little choice but to wait. The scene is played out in several parts of Latur. Photo: Prince Mathews Thomas

Helpless: As people are dependent on hard water from borewells, kidney stone patients have doubled in a year, in urologist Hansraj Baheti's clinic. "People avoid operation as they don't have money," he says

Alwar, Rajasthan

South and East Australia

Life in the city has become drudgery as people wilt under the worst water crisis. Can they survive till the rains? Prince Mathews Thomas reports

“Tanker aalah aahe kaa (Has the tanker come)?”

Tanker aalah aahe (The tanker has come)!”

These two sentences define life in Latur since February, when water stopped flowing from the taps of its nearly five lakh homes.

The first is a question that people ask in despair, as they wait for the tractor-drawn tanker to bring water. Like Swaroopa asks her husband as she comes to check on their pots, among hundreds, that are lined along one of the neighbourhoods on Sai Road. They have been waiting since early morning.

Now it is 4pm, but there is no sign of the tanker. With no means to buy water, Swaroopa has little choice but to wait for the municipality’s supply.

The second is the exclamation that follows the arrival of a tanker, often after a gap of eight days. In Balaji Nagar, a middle-class locality in Latur, the sound of the chugging tractor brings women out of their houses. Blue tanks, each with a capacity of 200 litres, are already lined along the houses. As the municipality employee fills each of the tanks, some women try their luck and bring additional pots to fill. It doesn’t work; the municipality man has strict instruction to adhere to the 200 litre-per family quota of the portable water. Unperturbed, the women manage to collect the water that is leaking from the tanker’s pipe.

Since trains started bringing water to Latur from April 11, locals also queue up at the large overheard tanks that store the transported resource.

Razia B, is at the tank near Gandhi Chowk. Next to her are four pots of water filled to the brim. She is waiting for one of her sons to come and transport the pots on his bike. Earlier, she used to carry them, one by one, to her house a kilometre away. But last week, she collapsed midway and had to be hospitalised and put on saline. “Sometimes I used to make four rounds each in the morning and in the evening,” she says.

Day or night, the scenes are similar around the clock. It is 10.30 pm and Sheikh Nihal, a clerk in a local school, has come to a tank near Shivaji Chowk with five pots.

“I had my dinner and saw the first innings of the IPL match before coming. It will take about two hours for my turn to come,” says Nihal who is suffering from kidney stones. The ailment is common in Latur, the after-effect of consuming borewell’s hard water. But now, most of the borewells have turned dry.

Different this time

A first-time visitor would struggle to see this angst that seems to be consuming Latur. Also a district with about 1,000 villages, the city is part of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. Latur is not new to a crisis. “First it was the earthquake in 1993 (in which about 10,000 lives were lost), and now it is the drought and the water crisis,” says Ajay Khandelwal, a manager at an electronics store.

But if the earthquake’s devastation made for a heart-breaking sight; for the present day visitor, the city doesn’t show any obvious signs of its parched state.

As one moves around in the morning, remnants of the last day’s celebrations (April 14 is the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar) are visible in tents and decorations that are yet to be taken down. Shops are getting filled up; and those selling mobile phones are as crowded here as in any other city.

But even as people go about their business in the dry, summer sun, a water tanker chugs by; piercing the veil of normalcy. After five minutes, another one passes by and through the day the frequency is matched with consistency.

Everything is not normal in Latur.

Close to 1,000 tankers now ply the roads here, half of them contracted by the local administration. The rest are privately owned or funded by charities, and get water from borewells and wells in villages as far as 50 km away.

“For two months now, we haven’t got water from the taps. Before that, it used to come once in a week or so,” says Sunil Goykar, who owns a showroom for water filters. This is the probably the worst time for his business. “How will people buy a filter when there is no water? I’m surviving on maintenance contracts,” says Goykar who set up the shop in 2010, after coming back from a six-year stint in Dubai.

His family of six is now dependent on water from private tankers. “We pay ₹600-700 for 5,000 litres of water (in other parts of Latur, residents complain of tankers charging up to ₹1,100 for 5,000 litres). Earlier, I used to use at least one bucket full of water to take bath, now I use half of it. I wear a shirt for three days before washing it,” adds the businessman. For drinking, Goykar buys 20-litre jars that cost anything from ₹25 to ₹40.

Next to Goykar’s shop is Venkatesh Enterprises that sells white goods such as TV and refrigerators. “My business is down by over 40 per cent. Sales have never been so low,” says Ajay Khandelwal, the shop’s manager.

He is joined by Giri Datta, who works in a financing company that helps customers buy TVs and fridges in instalments. “I never thought I will have to pay for the water that I pour over my head while bathing,” says Datta.

He adds: “Today I have a target of 50 transactions, but have got just three. If people have to spend ₹4,000-₹5,000 every month on water, how will they buy TVs and washing machines,” says Datta. Khandelwal nods his head and adds, “Today I haven’t sold anything. Now people just come to enquire.”

Whom to blame

Vijay Diwan remembers his growing up years in Latur, when taps would often turn dry in the summer. “We would go to the nearby villages, about 5km away, to get water from the wells,” says the 70-year-old former zoology professor at Aurangabad’s SB Science College. “Latur’s scarce water resource is not new. At the same time, the present crisis is not completely a natural phenomenon. It is a part nature, and a part manmade disaster,” adds Diwan who is now the President of nature conservation NGO Nisarga Mitra Mandal.

Latur lies on India’s Deccan plateau that is low on water resources. Rainfall in the city, like the rest of the Marathwada region, is lower than the state and national average.

Surface water availability in Marathwada is 309 TMC ft, the lowest among the five regions in Maharashtra. Konkan, one of the regions, has a surface water availability of 2,800 TMC ft. To make matters worse, the green cover in Latur is the second lowest among Maharashtra’s 36 districts and ranks just above the city of skyscrapers, Mumbai. With fewer trees, water retention is low.

The city gets water from three sources – barrages in Sai and Nagzari, and the Dhanegaon reservoir, all built on the Manjara river.

As the population in the city and its adjoining villages grew (by nearly 25 per cent between 1991 and 2001 and by over 17 per cent between 2001 and 2011), pressure on the meagre water resources increased. The unchecked mushrooming of sugarcane plantation and mills to process the cane (from 1 in 1984 to 15 in 2003, and many more at present) worsened the situation. Experts claim that even though only 4 per cent of Maharashtra’s fertile land grows sugarcane, the crop consumes over 70 per cent of its water resources.

But Manjara is bare now, and the three water reserves have gone dry. They couldn’t survive three consecutive years of deficit monsoon.

After an above normal monsoon in 2012, the Marathwada region’s share of rain nosedived from 2013 (by 35 per cent), through 2014 (41 per cent) and 2015 (49 per cent).

“But despite the scanty rain, reports say that land under sugarcane cultivation increased in 2015,” says Diwan. “The Madhavrao Chitale Committee, appointed in 2012, suggested that the sugarcane plantation should be shifted to regions with abundant water,” adds the academician and activist.

While there has been no move to check sugarcane plantations, the Maharashtra government has now put a freeze on new sugar mills in Marathwada for five years. While one doesn’t know if the move will impact the sugarcane market, some farmers have already changed their business model.

Water economy

Rishikesh Shelke has just finished writing an exam at Latur’s Rajarshi Shahu College. Immediately the BSc student checks his phone. There are many missed calls; some from his customers, but most are from potential clients. In the last two months, Shelke has been spending most of his time, apart from studying, in coordinating three water tankers owned by his father. “Two of the tankers take private orders and one is contracted to the local municipality,” he says. He takes orders and directs the drivers to the customers. “Each tractor makes six trips a day, getting water from a borewell in our fields in Mamadapur, a village 16 km away from the city,” adds Shelke. With the rate for a 7,000-litre tanker almost tripling to ₹900 within three months, the business is good; perhaps even better than growing sugarcane.

Shelke’s father owns 12 acres of farmland in Mamadapur, growing pulses and sugarcane. But the scanty rain in the last three years forced him to stop farming. “Last year we cultivated only two acres,” says the son. So when the water economy in Latur turned on its head in February, the Shelkes grabbed the opportunity and turned paani-waala¸(water people). Shelke though doesn’t plan to continue, either in the water or farming business. “I want to prepare for the civil services,” says the teenager.

In Latur, the scarcity of water has given birth to a new economy; many businesses have sprouted, similar to the water tankers. It doesn’t matter that these businesses may not last the long run. One of them is Sri Krishna Borwell, owned by Amar Patil. He digs borewell for people desperate for water and willing to shell out at least ₹30,000. “Till 2014, the demand was such that you wouldn’t find a place in my shop to sit. The waiting period lasted over eight months,” says Patil. But those were the good days. “This month is about to end, and I have just got three orders,” adds the businessman.

According to the locals, Latur and its surrounding areas have about 30,000 borewells. Most of them have turned dry. “Now you have to dig at least 800 ft to strike water. But given the menace, the municipality has put restrictions on the digging,” says Umesh Hulgeri, a shopkeeper whose family survives on a 10-year-old borewell.

Next to Amar Patil’s shop is Satish Gungare who sells agriculture equipment. He has just started selling water tanks. “Each house in Latur will have at least two tanks. And the price of a tank has doubled in one year,” he says. While Gungare seems to have entered the segment after it has peaked, he points to a shop opposite his. “They would sell at least three truckloads of water tanks per day. Many have become millionaires,” he says.

The contradicting fortune prompts Hulgeri, the shopkeeper to say: “While many are praying for water, some would be wishing that the present situation continues as long as possible.”

Economy in distress

The select prosperity apart, the local economy of Latur has suffered. Nikesh Thakkar, a local industrialist, says that most of the businesses in the city are “down by 90 per cent.” With scarce water, his Maharashtra Bio Fertilisers will undergo a month-long shutdown from May 1. “Though this is an important time of the year for us, with the start of the kharif season, we are helpless,” he says.

While Thakkar predicts a 25 per cent loss for his company in the kharif season, he points out that most of the units in the local industrial area have shut down. “At least one lakh migrant population, many employed in the construction sector, has left Latur in the last few months,” he says. Among the closed units is Gajraj Steel, which shut shop in February, rendering almost 500 people jobless.

Traditionally an agriculture-based economy, Latur is a trading hub for pulses such as toor dal, and oilseeds like sunflower. Over the past few years, the city has also emerged as a coaching hub, similar to Rajasthan’s Kota. The local coaching style is popularly known as Latur Pattern in the rest of the state. “Because of the coaching centres, the city has a floating population of almost one lakh, which includes students and their parents,” says Rajendra Shirsat who runs the Dr Dhote-Shirsat’s Biology Classes, a coaching centre for high school students.

The water crisis has impacted this market too. Attendance in Shirsat’s classes is down by 25 per cent. “Children want to go back to their hometown. Many of them have delayed the payment of fees,” says Shirsat.

Even the city’s watering holes, and there are many, have suffered. “Latur’s economy depends on the farmers from the neighbouring villages. They often come here to shop, and also drop in for a drink. But crops have suffered. Few come now,” says Sathish, who mans the counter at Surya Bar and Restaurant. Even the city dwellers have kept away from their poison. One of them is Samir Pathan, an auto driver. “Earlier I used to have three quarters of McDowell whisky, spending ₹400 three times a week. Now I consume only one quarter,” he says.

And for families, the water scarcity has meant changing priorities. While some complain that the Latur boys are getting fewer marriage proposals from other cities, Thakkar, the industrialist, says that “more than 50 per cent of the weddings have been postponed to be held after Diwali.” The hope is that a normal monsoon in June will revive the local economy, and the prospects of the willing boys.

Shubhada Reddy, an advocate, is also hoping for rains in two months. “We even can’t even afford to have guests at home,” says Reddy, who is a member of Gyaneshwari Yelam Mahila Mandal. The women organisation has donated ₹50,000 to Jalyukt Latur, an initiative to deepen and widen the Manjara. Shelke, the paani waala has a grim reminder: “If it doesn’t rain in two months, Latur’s borewells will go completely dry.”

Lessons from Alwar and Australia

Alwar, Rajasthan

The district, earlier a grain bowl, was facing severe crisis by the 1980s, as it's dependence on bore-wells turned the water table dry. Led by Rajendra Singh, the people revived to the traditional system of johad, or earthen water tanks. It helped the Arvari river flow after 60, dry years.

South and East Australia

The worst drought since the 18th century forced the country to implement strict reforms that put restrictions on water use. Desalination and recycling plants were built across cities, and roof top tanks to harvest rainwater, were installed in almost every building

Published on April 25, 2016
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