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Dr Bharat Patankar

As Maharashtra stares at a drought again, the author, a Left leader and people’s rights activist in South Maharashtra, remembers the last great drought in the state

Dr Bharat Patankar. Photo: seekingbegumpura.wordpress.com

Some years had passed since the completion of the Koyna dam which was touted as the foundation for the future, all-round development of Maharashtra. Electricity had begun to be produced from the water stored in the dam, and the effort to take electricity to the villages had commenced. Increase in industrial activity also began to be felt; however the situation of agriculture in the Krishna-Koyna bank areas was not as if ‘gently flows mother Krishna’ as in the 1967 Marathi film “Santha Vahate Krishna Mai”. The situation rather was, ‘gently flows mother Krishna, oblivious to the happiness or sorrow on her banks.’

Limitless water flows without a break; nobody diverts it for irrigating the land; how can this Ganges become fruitful to the lazy people? Such was the situation.

It was not only true for the Krishna. It was also the case with the Godavari and Tapi. Agriculture was still dependent on the wells and rainfall for irrigation. Aside from Mulshi, Rajewadi, Bhatghar and other dams of the British period and a few dams built after independence, all of Maharashtra was like this.

The 1972-3 drought was not confined to the traditionally drought-prone, rain shadow areas, or in the talukas with a mere 300-500mm of average rainfall. It was spread across all talukas of Maharashtra. It hit the traditionally heavy rainfall and assured rainfall talukas as well. Even big landholders came with their families on the roads in 1972-3. Tractors were not in existence then, farmers came out on the roads with their bullocks and implements. Only those in occupations not dependent on agriculture were saved the humiliation.

This was the worst drought in memory, because no crops came into harvest and no grain for food was produced. One special feature was that there was no shortage of drinking water. Water for household use was available too, though it required some labour to procure it. Technology was not available for people to sink deep for bore wells to finish off the ground water.

The concept of fodder camps for domestic animals had not emerged yet. Since grain was not produced, fodder was also not produced. Only those animals with some fodder from the previous year could hope to survive. So a huge task was undertaken to shift the animals from the traditionally drought-prone talukas to the high rainfall areas of the Sahyadris. The memories of it are still alive in both the drought-prone and high rainfall areas.

There was a custom from British times called “tagai,” under which fodder for animals was given as a loan, the cost of which was entered on their land records and recovered with interest later.

In 1975 we organized a huge struggle of drought affected people in Sangli district against this system of “tagai” and forced the government to open free fodder camps. The cooperative sugar factories too were compelled to open such camps.

Those who have been given assured water for irrigation should care for animals, not as a favor but as a responsibility; this was the principle behind our struggle.

The 1972-3 drought gave birth to a powerful struggle of toilers that spread across the state. The urban workers and employees also gave all their support to the struggle. The state government ordered police firing on protesting toilers at Islampur in Sangli and Vairag in Solapur district. Still the struggle of the drought-affected kept growing.

Those were tumultuous years. Educated youth gave up promising futures and caste themselves into the struggles. A strong unity of urban and rural workers took shape.

Drought is not always a result of natural causes, and if often man-made. People responsible for this man-made crisis are in the ruling class. It is not sufficient to relieve ourselves of drought, but we must search for the means to end it permanently. This outlook was adopted by the people’s struggles in Maharashtra, and the Dushkal Nivaran Nirmulan Mandal was established.

The movement’s policy was based on the principles of economics, agriculture, irrigation and a scientific approach to the water-land relationship. Comrade Datta Deshmukh, V.M. Dandekar, V.R. Deuskar and others began to work in the Mandal.

The 1972-3 drought compelled various departments of the Maharashtra government to dust off and relook at the water policy propagated by Mahatma Jotiba Phule.

The first scientific discussion on water distribution in the country was due to the 1972-3 drought and the conscious struggles organised by the people. It advanced to take shape as the ‘water’ and ‘irrigation’ policies in the country.

Due to the drought and the movement arising from it, the first ‘employment guarantee scheme’ was launched in the country. Maharashtra became the first state to implement such a scheme. The government of the time didn’t have the capacity to implement such a scheme; rather it was the movement of urban and rural workers which did it.

If 50 people demanded work, they should be given work or else paid unemployment allowance; this was the provision introduced in the law. Of all the works, 75% should be ‘productive’ in some ways, or serve to dam and store water. Such provisions directed at eradicating drought were also introduced in the law. Due to this, many tanks, nalas, bunds and small dams were constructed during the drought, and later during the drought of 1983-84.

The Maharashtra employment guarantee scheme was adopted at the national level, and renamed as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. It got mired in the petty factionalism of the gram panchayats. Not enough work was created under the national scheme to allow people to live! It proved to be a scheme for starving the drought-affected.

On the other hand the 1972-3 drought and the people’s struggles triggered another movement, which was for building new dams for assured irrigation. The problem of the dam-affected peoples came to the fore in a big way, leading to their struggles and an organised movement that gave birth to the country’s first rehabilitation law, in Maharashtra.

Any which way you look at it, 1972-3 was a precursor to the united and unique movement of the drought affected and dam affected in the country.