Millions of people in western India are suffering their worst drought in more than four decades, with critics blaming official ineptitude and corruption for exacerbating the natural water shortage.
Central areas of Maharashtra State, of which Mumbai is the capital, are facing a water shortage worse than the severe drought in 1972, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan told reporters.
“In recorded history, the reservoirs have never been so low in central Maharashtra,” he said.
Chavan blamed the crisis on two successive poor monsoons, though others say a public policy failure is also responsible.
Nearly 2,000 tanker trucks are being used to transport drinking water to the needy, while hundreds of cattle camps have been set up to keep livestock alive until the monsoon, which usually arrives in June.
Chavan’s office could not put an exact figure on the population in the 10,000 villages affected, but said it ran into the millions.
Christopher Moses, who runs a charitable hospital in Jalna, one of the worst-hit districts, said many had lost their livelihoods as companies shut down and crops withered.
“This is a famine. Villagers have nothing to eat, they are scraping literally the bottom of their pot,” Moses told reporters. “Water-related diseases are on the up, starvation will start coming up, malnutrition will start coming up now.”
He said the crisis may force him to shut down parts of his Jalna Mission Hospital for the first time in its 117-year history. It has not yet seen any emergency water supplies from the government.
With nearly three-quarters of Indians dependent on rural incomes, the yearly monsoon is a lifeline — especially given that about two-thirds of farmland is not irrigated.
The 1972 drought led to a massive shortage of food grains and the prices of all commodities skyrocketed, forcing New Delhi to increase imports.
While last year’s monsoon picked up late in western parts of India, low rainfall in the key month of June led to water deficiency for the season, said Medha Khole from the India Meteorological Department.
An alleged irrigation scam has been blamed for worsening Maharashtra’s crisis, with politicians and bureaucrats accused of wasting vast public funds on unfinished projects in the state through corruption and nepotism.
Maharashtra’s proportion of irrigated land grew by just 0.1 percentage points between 2000 and 2010, an official economic survey said, despite billions being spent on it.
A controversial Indian government white paper has disputed the statistics and Chavan declined to comment on graft allegations involving other ministers because the courts are investigating the claims.
He said that the government “could have planned better” irrigation schemes and was now trying to complete projects to provide drinking water in deficient areas.
Economist H.M. Desarda said corruption was a “very significant part of the problem,” but a lack of understanding of how best to harvest rainwater was also to blame.