Women fill vessels with water from public drums at a village in Beed district, Maharashtra (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg). 

We Need To Focus On Water Budgeting To Address Drought, Says Bain Capital’s Amit Chandra 

As farm distress takes centrestage in India, lack of water still remains at the heart of the agrarian crisis. While there have been various initiatives taken by state governments, a lot needs to be done on the ground.

Amit Chandra of Bain Capital has been actively working on water conservation in Maharashtra for a few years now. He talks to BloombergQuint’s Menaka Doshi on his most recent visit, on-ground observations, the collective power of people, and why there may still be hope for the drought-led agrarian crisis.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview

You’ve recently travelled through rural Maharashtra. What is your assessment of the drought-led agrarian crisis building up?

Menaka, unfortunately the monsoon has failed in many parts of the state, especially in the Marathawada region. Consequently there has been a decrease in Rabi crop sowing and also Kharif rain-fed crops like cotton and soya bean have been affected in many areas leading to crop losses and increased farm distress in many parts of the state.

Can you share a few experiences/anecdotes from your travels to better describe the situation?

In normal monsoon years, a majority of the Rabi crop is sown by mid November. We had visited the farms in Marathwada on November 20 and noticed that many of the farms were empty. The reasons cited by farmers for reducing Rabi sowing were decreased soil moisture and depleted ground water. For example, we visited sites of Manjara dam area in Beed district where a large number of sugarcane farmers have given up Rabi sowing due to non availability of water.

The state government has declared over 151 talukas as drought-hit. How adverse are the conditions at this point? In your assessment how much worse are they going to get?

The situation is indeed dire in the Marathawada region. Data coming in across the state suggests that sowing of Rabi crop, could be down by well over a quarter in the state, due to a commensurate decline in water in our reservoirs by the end of December. Drinking water is already a valuable commodity in the drought affected regions. Many water bodies could dry up by January or February. The government is already beginning to deploy water tankers in many areas and will be forced to increase the scale and continue doing so till May. Naturally, the situation of people, cattle and other livestock will be worse post winter when the temperatures start soaring.

The Maharashtra state government has claimed to be actively been working on schemes to enhance rural water availability through the year. In your experience how real are these claims? Will these help mitigate the crisis, and to what extent?

Maharashtra government’s flagship project Jalyukt Shivar has been implemented widely across the state for a few years, but this scheme needs to continue with sustained effort for many years for us to make a serious dent on drought. Till then, given the lack of irrigation and the increased onslaught of failed monsoons, we will continue to face the pressure of drought in areas that are largely non-irrigated.

In my view, schemes like Jalyukt Shivar are very cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions to deal with a highly difficult problem. We need to persist with such a scheme for many years, and additionally focus on issues like water budgeting and efficient consumption techniques in order to effectively deal with an issue that has been plaguing the state for so many decades.

There have been several private efforts, such as that of your foundation, in the area of water conservation in the state. Can you describe some of these efforts, their scale and scope and most importantly their effectiveness in the face of such drought-like conditions?

Apart from our foundation, many others like Paani Foundation, Caring Friends, Village Social Transformation Mission, BJS, Tata Trusts, Reliance Foundation etc. have been working towards drought proofing of Maharashtra.

The good news is that, in the recent years, these efforts and momentum have accelerated substantially.

What is most heartening is that these efforts are being done in a true spirit of partnership between the community, government, and donors. 

People in the community are becoming much more aware about watershed issues and its benefits and it is great to see them take a lot more ownership of this precious resource and participate in its conservation.

It is very important to ensure that the efforts towards watershed management activities are carried out on a sustained basis and not abandoned during good monsoon years. 
(Image source: Amit Chandra) 
(Image source: Amit Chandra) 

People also need to be trained on understanding the concepts of water budgeting and conservation since all these efforts are going to create a finite amount of water availability. It is up to the community to judicially use the available water and gradually this is happening, but a lot more needs to be done in this area.

(Image source: Amit Chandra)
(Image source: Amit Chandra)

In terms of what is possible with the support of donors and active community participation, this year’s outcome of Gaalmukt Daran Gaalyukt Shivar Yojana—the Maharashtra Government’s scheme to desilt water bodies—is a prime example.  In its very first full year of operation, this scheme—supported by Caring Friends, our foundation, Tata Trusts, and a few others—was able to help farmers desilt 2.2 crore cubic meters of silt from 3,070 water bodies across 4,600 villages.

This has helped create a storage of 2,200 crore litres of water (which would be roughly equivalent to 2.2 lakh water tankers of 10,000 liters capacity). 

The silt, when applied to farmlands, would help tens of thousands of farmers massively boost their net income every year on account of improved yield and reduction in input costs.

Another flagship initiative—The Water Cup run by the Paani Foundation—has worked in 2000-plus villages and trained 20,000 volunteers in watershed management across 75 Talukas. These villages are in a better position in terms of water availability when compared to other villages in these drought-prone regions.

What are the learnings at this point on:

a) Effectiveness of state efforts to mitigate natural disasters such as droughts

Menaka, drought is both a natural and man-made disaster. Much of it is avoidable and arises out of inappropriate use of water and inability to harvest rainwater to optimum levels.

The state has launched Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture, a World Bank project in May 2018 to work in 5,000 drought-prone villages over three years to mitigate droughts, floods and other natural climate disasters. Under Gaal Mukt Dharan, the committee identified over 31,000 water bodies for desilting across the state, most of them in drought-hit areas.

I personally believe that the current strategy of the government is the right one. 

It makes more sense to focus on precious resources with approaches like decentralised water management via schemes like Jalyukt Shivar, POCRA, Gaal Mukt Dharan, which are relatively low-cost, environmentally friendly and quick to execute.

Importantly, they focus on raising the water table and the best place to store water is under the ground. Additionally, we must focus on river rejuvenation, especially in forest areas and close to their source.

b) The causes and outcomes of agrarian crisis

I think this is a complex issue but one that we can resolve if we put our best minds to work. I am personally still learning about agriculture and so will not profess to be an expert, but the last few years that I have spent looking at the farm sector, I have been struck by a few basic observations.

Firstly, we need serious focus on this sector, given well over half of our citizens are directly or indirectly dependent on it.  Focus does not mean hand outs but sensible resolution of issues plaguing the sector for decades, and that have been allowed to fester, as a consequence of which an average Indian farmer still earns less than Rs 8,000 per month for a family of between four and five members!

Whenever we build industries, we focus on basic building blocks, and in agriculture these are water and soil. With most of the states dependent on monsoons and soil quality being pretty mediocre, we need to focus hard on climate resilient agriculture.  This means huge focus is needed on techniques like rain watershed, dam desilting, and natural farming.

At the same time, another reason for agrarian crisis today can be attributed to the unscrupulous use of water both surface and underground for cash-rich and water-thirsty crops like sugarcane, rice, banana, cotton etc.

The demand-side management of water and cropping pattern management based on water availability in the region will be the key mitigation strategy going forward. 

Cultivation of multiple crops in arid and semi-arid regions where both rainwater and groundwater are limited is also leading to the agrarian crisis.

There are also other important issues like processing, storage, and linkages, which are important and need serious focus.

We have an opportunity to move away from thinking about agriculture as simply being a small part of GDP but think about the fact that with a disproportionate percentage of our citizens being dependent on it, if we materially improve its health, we will significantly contribute to the state’s well being.

Amit Chandra is the managing director of Bain Capital. He has been working on water sustainability with farmers since 2013. Views are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.