The canal that runs through Maregaon lies dry as stone. "It's been that way for two years," says sarpanch Premdas Chavan. "The Irrigation Department cut it off. They say this is to punish those who have not paid water charges. But the whole village suffers."

And so this village of 635 people, mainly Adivasis, in Yavatmal district finds itself trapped. "People cannot even sell land to meet their needs," says Chavan. "The government blocks them at the land records office. So until their dues are settled, they cannot sell."

The dues can be odd, too. "We had our own well," says Rambhau Sadashiv Mahajan. He is one of the slightly better off landowners here. The canal runs through his land. "They insisted I pay their charges," says Mahajan. "I told them I am using my well, not your canal. But they said: `If it runs by your land, you have to pay. Never mind which water you are using'."

"Then," says Chavan, "we got demands from both irrigation and revenue people. Meanwhile, charges that had started at Rs.65 a hectare rose rapidly till they came to the Rs.500 stage. Now think what damage this new law will that do."

The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Bill was passed by the State Assembly on April 16. Most farmers across the State remain unaware of the bill or its meaning. Those learning about it are stunned and angered. "Everybody is already in debt," says ex-sarpanch Sumitra Ingole in Talegaon, Amravati. "Who has the money?"

Sarpanch Premdas Chavan shows us Maregaon's dead canal, dry after the Irrigation Department cut them off. "We can't pay the old rates," says Chavan. "How will we pay new, increased ones?"

Back in Maregaon, Chavan points out: "This village lost canal water because people were too poor to pay the old charges. The rates plus fines crossed Rs.1 lakh for us and it got impossible." Rambhau Mahajan had to pay the equivalent of one acre of land - Rs.25,000 - in order to be able to sell four acres to survive.

Hike in water charges

The Bill signals massive hikes in water charges. The new rates will reflect "full recovery of the cost of irrigation management, administration, operation and maintenance." Farmers could be forced to adopt drip or sprinkler irrigation in some regions. Those with more than two children have to pay one and a half times the new rates. But how did this bill get through the legislature?

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) legislator, Narasaiah Adam, had blasted the Bill when it was introduced in the Nagpur session of the Assembly last year. Following his salvo, the Bill was referred to a joint committee of both Houses. "But no CPI or CPI-M MLA or MLC was included in it," he points out. (However, the PWP's Ganpatrao Deshmukh was on the committee.) The joint committee did more than approve the Bill. While it added phrases such as `equity,' it also brought in the two-child norm. And even made some clauses more stringent.

In Mumbai this year, the revised Bill was rushed through by voice vote on April 16, the last day of the session. "They brought in perhaps 16 bills on the last day," says Adam. "And this one came in around 6 p.m." It was chaotic. "This did not allow the bills to be read, let alone debated."

It was much the same in the Legislative Council, says the Shiva Sena MLC, Neelam Gorhe. "Many bills came up late on the last day. These included the water bill and even one denying workers in essential services the right to strike. So our leader said let us extend the session and work another two or three days. Instead, the government just rammed the laws through by voice vote."

Debt crisis

Back in Vidharbha, the debt crisis faced by the farmers is obvious. There is very little sign of celebration though it is Ram Navami the day we visit Yavatmal. No one has money to spend.

"It is not right in any way," says Nitin Khadse, upa sarpanch of Jalka village. "Poor families always have more children. More hands to work and earn. Why punish them? And with these costs those who have no irrigation will never get it. We will not accept this law."

"The Bill not being seriously debated in the Assembly was shameful," says economist H.N. Desarda. The former State Planning Board member demands "a much wider public debate on the issue. There is no trace in this bill of what Maharashtra's agriculture so badly needs. Drought-proofing and protective irrigation, for instance. There is a crying need for a sustained state role in water resources development as a whole. Instead they force an extreme market model of an anti-poor nature."

Narasaiah Adam vows a battle in the next session. "This Bill must be recalled for proper debate and action. We will compel them to bring it back to the House."

In Maregaon, sarpanch Chavan gives us a brief tour of the dead canal. "For this we were hit by both irrigation and revenue departments. Both claim taxes on it and we are told to pay." For them, it's Lagaan without the cricket match. But other forms of resistance could be in the offing. "We are already bankrupt ... We cannot pay. Let them try to make us."