Behind the government's back, a searing drought scorches Jharkhand

With half the state declared drought-hit, people in rural areas are the worst affected with no provision for drinking water. Both kharif and rabi crops are affected. But ministers and officials have been busy only with the elections, ground-based workers say.

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   4 Jun 2019 6:03 AM GMT

In the remote village in northern Jharkhand, Basanti Devi wakes up with the same nightmare every night — she has reached late at the only functioning well in her hamlet and has got no water.

"For 55 households in our tola (village), there are four handpumps and three dugwells. All the handpumps have dried up and two dugwells are totally dry," said Basanti Devi, who lives in the of Kusmai tola (hamlet) in the Domchach block of the northern district of Koderma.

"Only one dugwell has a little water. Only those women who reach early in the morning get water there," she said. "Others have no choice but to walk to the Laxmipur to fetch water." Laxmipur is a neighbouring village.

Basanti Devi herself makes three trips a day to Laxmipur, about a kilometre away from Kusmai tola, to fetch water for her family. "In each trip, I carry two pots of water on my head and one small bucket of water in my hand," she said.

It is drought season in Kusmai Tola, and bathing and washing are a luxury for residents of Kusmai tola.

Jamnalal Kisku, a Santhal tribe member, lives in Katiyo village in Markaccho block of Koderma.Pics: Nidhi Jamwal

Jamnalal Kisku, a Santhal tribe member, who lives in Katiyo village in Markaccho block of Koderma, has lost his Kharif crop of paddy last year due to poor monsoon rains. His land remained fallow during the rabi season. He is making both ends meet by doing daily wage works"It is an extremely hot summer, but we don't take a bath for a week to 10 days. There isn't even sufficient water for drinking and cooking," said Savitri Devi, who has an infant whom she has to leave behind to fetch water from Laxmipur. "The baby cries for feed, but what can I do. We need water to survive and fetching water is a woman's job only. No man helps us with it."

The entire Domchach block of Koderma district in Jharkhand is facing extreme drought, locally known as sookhad. Last November, it was officially declared drought-hit. Around the same time, the state government declared 126 blocks, including Domchach, in 18 districts drought-hit and sought a relief package of Rs 8.16 billion from the Centre.

Jharkhand has a total of 260 blocks in its 24 districts -- thus half the state is in the grip of drought.

"Last year, there was very little rainfall during the monsoon. Most farmers in the district practice rainfed subsistence farming and are completely dependent on the rains," said Ashok Kumar, secretary of Savera Foundation, a non-profit based in Tisri block of Koderma district. "And a lack of rains means no crops, challenge of food and high migration."

According to him, in spite of an acute drought in the state, sookhad did not become a Lok Sabha election issue.

"Politicians and government officials were too busy with elections to address the basic water needs of the people," added Kumar, whose organisation works with local tribal population of Koderma and Giridih districts. The state assembly elections are due end of the year.

Kisku has lost his Kharif crop of paddy last year due to poor monsoon rains. His land remained fallow during the rabi season. He is making both ends meet by doing daily wage works

Truant rains

According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), in the last southwest monsoon season (June to September), as against a normal rainfall of 887.5 millimeter (mm) the country received 804 mm rainfall, thus registering a rainfall departure of minus 9 percent, which is considered below normal monsoon rainfall. Jharkhand received deficient monsoon rainfall as well; a sharp state-level fall in rainfall of minus 28 percent (see map 1: Statewise rainfall map June to September 2018).

At the district level, the rainfall scenario looks even more bleak. Seventeen of the total 24 districts in the state witnessed deficient rainfall last monsoon. Districts like Khunti, Garhwa, Koderma registered a rainfall departure of minus 59 percent, minus 53 percent and minus 48 percent, respectively (see map 2: Districtwise rainfall map of Jharkhand, June to September 2018). Simply put, they received less than half of their normal monsoon rainfall. Predictably, people in the state are complaining of facing the worst drought in last few decades.

"What Jharkhand is facing right now is a cumulative drought which has built up due to last three to four years of declining and erratic rainfall. People are poor and have no capacity to deal with it, and the state machinery is unable to respond," said Kumar.

Even during this year's pre-monsoon season (March 1 to May 31), some districts of the state have received deficient and large deficient rainfall. Kodarma has had minus 79% pre-monsoon rainfall deficit. Garhwa, Palamu, Chatra, Latehar and Hazaribagh have registered deficient pre-monsoon rains as well.

India's Met department had declared six years ago that the rainfall pattern is changing in Jharkhand, in a 2013 monograph on 'State Level Climate Change Trends in India', which is based on comprehensive and long-term assessment of climate change in all the states of the country from 1951 to 2010.

In the months of January to March and July to September, the rainfall is decreasing. On the other hand, rainfall is increasing in the months of April, June, November and December. The same monograph points out that rainfall in Jharkhand is 'increasing significantly' in the month of May.

Another July 2017 study by the IMD scientists, Long Term Rainfall Trend over Meteorological Sub Divisions and Districts of India, reported that between 1901 and 2013, seven districts in the state show decreasing rainfall trend and three show increasing rainfall (between 1961-2013).

"Rainfall isn't regular as it used to be earlier. Farmers plant crops and rains don't come on time, or there is a heavy downpour which washes away everything," said Ram Dinesh of Savera Foundation. "There is no recharge of groundwater leading to drying up of dugwells and handpumps."

Apart from lack of rains, stone quarrying is also a reason for groundwater depletion.

"In this area of Koderma, both legal and illegal stone quarrying is rampant and some mines are as deep as 300-feet. This disturbs the aquifers and several dug wells and handpumps go dry," said Ram Dinesh. He alleged that even in an acute drought year, the government has made no arrangement to supply drinking water to the affected villages.

Women of Kusmai tola, Domchach block of Koderma, can't sleep at night because of fear that their only live dugwell would go dry. Already four handpumps and two dugwells in Kusmai tola have gone bone dry due to acute drought in the state.

Poor irrigation network

On the one hand, rainfall seems to be getting erratic; on the other hand, the state has poor irrigation coverage, which exposes farmers to the vagaries of a changing climate. Farming is crucial because 70-80 percent of the state's population depends on agriculture. The state's tribal population, as high as 26 percent, practices subsistence farming. About 72 percent of the land holdings belong to small and marginal farmers.

Of the total 79.72 lakh hectare land in the state, only 37.30 percent is cultivable land. The irrigation coverage of cultivable land is only about 20 percent, with 102 small, medium or big irrigation projects pending; some stuck for more than 40 years, claim news reports. Lack of irrigation facilities means farmers are completely dependent on rains to grow crops.

Paddy and maize are two major crops of the state. And, almost 40 percent of the total cropped area remains largely mono-cropped under rice. Further, over 92 percent cropped area is covered under food grains and hardly 3-5 percent area is under cash crops.

Any failure in rainfall directly translates into failed crops and financial losses to the farmers.

In a good rainfall year, 32-year-old Jamnalal Kisku, a Santhal tribe member from Katiyo village in Markaccho block of Koderma grows paddy, maize, millets, chilli and brinjal. The entire crop is meant to feed his family of 12 members. But, this year has been exceptionally bad and full of losses.

"There is no source of irrigation except the rains," said Kisku. "Last year, when monsoon came, initially there were good rains. So, I planted paddy. But, thereafter, it was all dry and I lost my entire paddy crop," he complained. "My wells have dried up. There is no drought relief from the government. I have never seen such drought conditions in my life."

Subsistence farmers like Kisku are the worst affected due to drought, as they have nothing to feed their families.

"Whatever I used to grow would help sustain my family for six months. For the rest part of the year, I used to work as a daily wager. But, in the present drought, there is no option other than daily wage work to buy food and eat," he said. Forget water for irrigation, the government is not even supplying drinking water. "We have been left to fend for ourselves," added Kisku.

Similar stories of crop losses are pouring in from Giridih district, where tribal people are struggling for water. "Last monsoon, I had planted paddy, but there were no rains and I lost everything. It is mining of mica scrap from underground tunnels that is feeding my family," said Totarai, a Santhal tribe member of Tisro village in Tisri block of Giridih.

"We have such an acute shortage of water that in this peak summer heat, we cannot offer even half a glass of water to visitors like you," Savitri Devi of Kusmai tola in Domchach block of Koderma told the Gaon Connection correspondent.

Two years ago, the state chief minister Raghubar Das had said every area of the state would get irrigation facility and water in the next two year. However, the ground reality is far from what was promised.

Babulal Marandi, the first chief minister of Jharkhand and national president of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha blamed the present state government for the water crisis. "Earlier during the summer season, the government used to dig new handpumps and also do maintenance of old ones, so that there was no acute shortage of water. But, this year, the entire state machinery is busy with the elections," Marandi told Gaon Connection.

Villagers in Kusmai Tola, Domchach block of Koderma, Jharkhand are implementing watershed works to capture this year's monsoon rainfall to drought-proof their village

Decentralised water management

While the government looks the other way, some villages have taken it upon themselves to bring their own water. Kusmai tola in Domchach block of Koderma is one such village. Last August, the villagers, with active participation of women, decided to implement watershed works in the upper reaches (hilly terrain) of their village (mostly private forest) to arrest rainwater and recharge the aquifers.

With the help of technical guidance from Savera Foundation, the villagers have created water harvesting structures. "We have built two large ponds upstream to store rainwater, and four check dams at different locations to break the speed of run-off and recharge groundwater," explained Savitri Devi. "Through voluntary labour, we have also dug a kilometre long channel to transport water from the water harvesting structures to our farmlands. This year if it rains well, we should not face acute water shortage."

In spite of the low irrigation coverage and recurring droughts, neither the government agencies nor social organisations working in the state have focused on decentralised water management, said Ram Dinesh.

"But, it is becoming clear that in a changing climate, as rainfall becomes erratic, we need to capture every drop of rain that falls from the sky," he added.

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