x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

When lifeline for Indian farmers dries up, many see suicide as an option

More than 2,200 farmers in India committed suicide in the past four years, as water loss and drought drove them deeper into debt.

MUMBAI // Sachin Ingale slipped out of his family's two-room, white-painted mud hut at about 4pm and walked to their farm field, where he took a deep swig of pesticide from a plastic bottle. The 22-year-old died later that evening.

Four months later, the mercury is pushing 50°C in his village in Maharashtra. Inside the family hut, a picture of a serene Buddha decorates a wall above a cracked concrete floor.

His elder brother Satish Ingale sits as he explains the pesticide killed Sachin, but it is the loss of water rights to heavy industry, the worst drought in four decades and the rise in debt that follows that is causing farmers to take their lives.

In 2003, Maharashtra state, which has a population of 112 million, gave industries and municipalities access to 25 per cent of the water in its irrigation reservoirs. Power plants were the biggest beneficiaries, prompting a spurt of investment, according to a March report by the Pune-based non-profit advocacy group Prayas.

"Water for food and water for industry is a debate on in much of the world, and we're no exception," said Sachin Kalantre, a deputy administrator in Maharashtra's Amravati town. "The way out is for both to work together. There has to be a consensus."

More than 2,200 farmers in India committed suicide in the past four years, as water loss and drought drove them deeper into debt. Sachin Ingale killed himself the same day his family's tractor was repossessed after two missed loan repayments.

The suicides on the one hand and a power shortage on the other pose a dilemma for an economy trying to boost the slowest pace of growth in a decade.

While routing water to industry can rob India's 235 million farmers of supply, electricity shortages and blackouts close companies, cut jobs, impede education and put the lives of hospital patients in peril. The prime minister Manmohan Singh's government promised electricity to every household by March 2012. About 400 million of the nation's 1.2 billion people are still without power.

Increasingly, farmers are fighting back to stop power plants and factories siphoning off water needed for crops, threatening to stall more than Dh367 billion in spending by such companies as electricity utility Indiabulls Power, South Korea's Posco and Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal.

"Water is our life," said Satish Ingale, 25, cradling a photograph of his dead brother. "We'll be finished if we don't water the fields. What can we do but hope and fight?"

The drought in Maharashtra is not just because of a lack of rainfall. In the state's Vidharbha region, where Indiabulls is building a power station, monsoon rains last year were an average 8 per cent above normal, according to meteorological department data.

"Rainfall isn't always the problem, inefficient distribution for irrigation is," said Mandar Sathe, a senior researcher for Prayas. "A lot of the drought is man-made."

Mumbai is famed for its sugar and cotton plantations along with mango and orange orchards.

Those harvests depend on the state's 12 main reservoirs and eight of them have water levels below the 10-year average, according to data on the Central Water Commission website. The Jayakwadi dam, the state's second-biggest, has dried up, according to the commission.

Yet, electricity demand in the country is growing and lack of investment led to a blackout in July in an area inhabited by more than 600 million people. The gap between peak demand and supply is about 9 per cent. Water shortages have prevented construction of 30,000 megawatts of power plants throughout India, 13 per cent of current capacity, Naina Lal Kidwai, country head of HSBC Holdings, said last month.

Indiabulls Power is building a Dh4.77 billion coal-fired electricity plant in Maharashtra that is emblematic of the water conflict between heavy industry and agriculture in India.

The New Delhi-based company has been allocated 87.6 million cubic metres of water annually from the Upper Wardha dam for the 2,700MW plant, according to its website. It has not been able to build a water pipeline from the dam because 5,000 farmers, Mr Ingale among them, oppose it.

"We haven't given permission for the pipeline to run under our village," said Durgabai D Aghane, the headwoman of Nimbi village, which is on the planned route of the pipeline. "People are committing suicide. Look at what's happening because there's no water."

Indiabulls Power's offices in Amravati were attacked by people protesting the water allocation in March. The previous day its offices in Mumbai were also attacked, according to the report.

"Conflicts between industry and farmers will get worse as water becomes more and more scarce," said Jai Krishna, an official at environment lobby group Greenpeace, who campaigns for farm-water rights in Maharashtra's Vidarbha area and other parts of the country. "Prioritisation of water for farmers over industry is essential especially in an area where irrigation has been neglected for years."

Indiabulls Power is not the only utility facing water shortages. Maharashtra State Power Generation Company shut a 1,130MW plant in February because of lack of water, said Mahesh Aphale, a spokesman for the company.

"We had to close the plant because drinking water had to be given priority over all else," he said.

"Definitely there's a water shortage in India, there's nothing to hide," the federal water resources minister, Harish Rawat, said this month. "It's for the regional governments to decide how they'll allocate water to agriculture and industry."

The water assigned to Indiabulls Power from the Upper Wardha dam is enough to irrigate 23,200 hectares of land, according to the Maharashtra government. The diversion will affect land owned by about 25,000 farmers, according to Sanjay Kolhe, coordinator of farmer body Kisan Ekta Manch, the organisation protesting the water allocation.

Wheat farmers in Maharashtra may have lost as much as 5.71 billion rupees (Dh377.4 million) of potential earnings because of reduced water availability for the crop, Prayas estimates. While the government announced debt relief of 600bn rupees for the nation's rain-starved farmers five years ago, the waiver failed to benefit the Ingales.

"We have to live with debt," said Satish Ingale, who now borrows his neighbour's tractor. "You just sink further and further into debt. There's no end."