MUMBAI — In the western state of Maharashtra, dozens of men, women and children surround a water tanker on the main road. They hold pitchers, buckets and other containers, and are trying to fill as many as they can.
Renuka, 35, pushes her way to the top of the tanker and is able to fill her five pitchers. "I waited 15 days to get this much water. But how long will it last?" she says. "We haven't had tap water for the last two years. Our ponds and wells have dried up. There's no water at all."
Manohar was less successful, managing to fill just one bucket. A second spilled on the ground when someone tried to snatch it from him. The water crisis, he says, has turned "brothers into enemies."
The region is reeling from severe drought for the third consecutive year. In the past, people in this farming area worried first and foremost about failed crops. There was even a spate of farm suicides. Now, though, farmers are more worried about themselves, according to agricultural journalist Harveesh Singh.
"It's a scary situation," he says. "So far, the concern has been the crops, rising overhead costs for the farmers and their diminishing returns. But what we are witnessing now is a catastrophe. Our water reservoirs are almost empy. The level has reached as low as 5% in Maharashtra. People don't even have enough water to drink. They're fearing for their lives, and the lives of their livestock."
Drought is also being blamed on deadly forest fires currently raging in India's northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
While every drop of water is a struggle, one local government official had no qualms about wasting 10,000 liters of water just to settle the dust that was blown around by his helicopter as he arrived to assess the situation.
Anger is also brewing against the government for allowing seven matches of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament to be played in the state. Keeping the grounds green requires huge amounts of water.
"If you look at the water policy for the state of Maharashtra, there is a guideline that has to be followed. And the guideline is very clear: Water has to be used in order of priority. The priority is for drinking, cooking and agriculture," says Rakesh Singh, a spokesperson for Loksatta, an NGO working among farmers.
"Maharashtra cannot afford the IPL at this juncture," he adds. "Not when most of the state's districts are facing a severe drought. This is a moral as well as a legal issue."
The blame game
Maharashtra isn't the only part of India that's suffering. Droughts have also been declared in at least 12 other states. In the southern states of Karnataka and Telangana, people walk several kilometers in the scorching heat to fetch a bucket of drinking water. In Punjab, in the north, farmers cannot irrigate their crops. And in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, armed soldiers have been deployed around water bodies to prevent "theft."
Agricultural Minister Radhamohan Singh blames weather conditions for the crisis. "This is a natural calamity, something beyond our control," he told reporters. "There has been a continuous shortfall in rain. But we are doing everything possible to minimize the impact. We are working closely with all state government and providing all the help we can."
Environmentalists like Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People, blame government policies for the worsening situation. "This is going to be the worst summer India has faced since independence," he says. "The back-to-back rainfall deficit in the last two years has obviously played a role, but the bigger problem is the government's lack of planning, complete mismanagement and failure to prioritize how the water is allocated."
Thakkar says the government's obsession with building dams and interlinking rivers has led to serious neglect of the ground water supply, which he calls India's "water lifeline." Underground aquifers supply more than two thirds of the water used for irrigation, and 85% of the water used in rural areas. "Our water policy has to be focused on how to sustain that water lifeline," he says.
Experts say that ground water recharge systems like rivers, forests, wetlands and local water bodies have either dried up, or are extremely polluted. India's Central Ground Water Board warns that unless changes are made, 40% of the country's population will no longer have access to drinking water by 2030.