The United Nations has designated April 22 to be International Mother Earth Day. It is also the day when the Simhasth Kumbh Mahaparv commences in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. Kumbh is India’s festival of creation, the biggest party on earth, for the earth. This mega festival attracts more than 30 million people and takes place in a cycle of 12 years at four sacred sites on our sacred rivers — Hardwar on the Ganga, Prayag in Allahabad which lies at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, Ujjain on the Shipra, and Nashik on the Godavari. The Kumbh reminds us of our place in the order of things in the creation and our duty to take care of our rivers, mountains, soil and land.
We have violated our duty to protect our soil and water. Now the violence committed on nature is translating into an emergency for humans. And nowhere is this more evident than in Maharashtra’s Marathwada. This year, the Godavari river in Nashik went dry. There is no water in Ramkund — the sacred pond in Nashik devotees come to bathe in during the Kumbh. In the town of Latur in Marathwada, water scarcity is so severe that the district collector has imposed Section 144 of the CrPC (making assembly of more than 10 people unlawful) for two months to prevent law and order problems arising from the water crisis. The administration has taken over 150 wells and tubewells near the city because the dam that supplied water to Latur’s population of 4.5 lakh and adjoining rural areas dried up in March 2016.
Water is being supplied by tankers after a water train brings water all the way from Kota. While the drinking water emergency will be addressed in the short run through these measures, rejuvenating our water systems needs a fundamental shift in the agriculture paradigm. In the 1980s, I was asked by the then Planning Commission to look at why Maharashtra’s requests for budgets to provide drinking water kept increasing, and yet the water crisis never gets solved. My research showed that the drought of 1972 was used by the World Bank to promote sugarcane cultivation, requiring intensive irrigation based on water mining through tubewells and borewells, just as the drought of 1965 was used to force the Green Revolution on India.
Marathwada lies in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats and receives an average of 600-700 mm of rainfall. Given the hard rock bed of the Deccan Trap, only 10 per cent of this water goes into the ground to recharge wells. Sugarcane requires 1,200 mm of water, which is 20 times more than the annual recharge. When 20 times more water is withdrawn from the ground than available, a water famine is inevitable, even when the rainfall is normal.
More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995 — most of them in the Bt cotton areas. Marathwada and Vidarbha account for 75 per cent of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. Between January and December 2015, 3,228 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra, including 1,536 in Vidarbha and 1,454 in Marathwada. In 2001-2002, before Bt cotton was commercially approved, the area under cotton in Marathwada was 0.89 lakh hectares. Within one year, between 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, the area under Bt cotton in Marathwada jumped 11 times from 0.89 to 10 lakh ha. In the following decade, the area under Bt cotton has increased 18.386 lakh ha.
Bt cotton hybrids are not suited to regions like Vidarbha and Marathwada. They need more water and, therefore, fail more frequently when assured irrigation is not available — a fact that Monsanto, the company behind the spread of monocultures, does not tell farmers when selling the GMO seeds. Bt cotton is also killing beneficial soil organisms which degrade organic matter and turn it into humus. Soils are becoming sterile. Our studies show that more than 50 per cent beneficial soil organisms have been destroyed by Bt toxins in Bt cotton areas. Unlike the crops it displaces, such as jowar, it returns no organic matter to the soil.
The increase in Bt cotton came at the cost of jowar which holds the answer to drought in Maharashtra. Jowar requires only 250 mm water and would have survived the drought, giving farmers food and livelihood security even with a deficient monsoon. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, while Bt cotton in Beed (in Marathwada) increased from 1.01 to 3.290 lakh ha, the area under “rabi jowar” decreased from 2.567 to 1.704 lakh ha. Bt cotton has displaced the mixed and rotational cropping of jowar, tur, mung, urad, wheat, chana. During the 1984 drought in northern Karnataka, an old farmer told us, “Bring me the old seeds of the native jowar, and I will drive away the drought”.
Not only do indigenous crops like jowar use less water, they increase the water-holding capacity of soil by producing large quantities of organic matter which, when returned to the soil, increase soil’s fertility and water-holding capacity.
Native seeds and organic farming are the answer to drought and climate change, to farmers’ suicides and to the agrarian distress. They are also the answer to hunger and malnutrition. Care for our seeds, our soil and our water are the real test of our love for our land and our commitment to our future, not slogans. The same processes that are killing our soil, water and climate balance are also killing our farmers. This is an emergency. Yet, the responses are not addressing the roots of the crises.
This Earth day, this Kumbh, we need to make a clear choice for the future of the planet and our survival — whether we want to step deeper into ecological and social emergencies as slaves of giant corporations, or we want to live as free and caring members of the earth family, Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, following our dharma in the creation.