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Vidarbha's despair

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005

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Neglect of time-tested systems of water management and reliance on unviable projects turn a once-green land into a perennially drought-hit area in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

LYLA BAVADAM in Vidarbha

THE view from Majjimama's window is desolate. From inside the 90-year-old's dark room the landscape outside is rendered almost featureless by the intense glare of the sun. Trees are conspicuous by their absence. But Majjimama, who has been blind for 15 years, still `sees' in his mind's eye a landscape that is lush with greenery.

Until about two decades ago, the Ramtek area, where his village Belda is located, was a land of plenty, well-known for its lakes, water tanks, orange trees and the much-sought-after Ramtek paan leaf. The contrast now, with the bare scrubland and pulsating heat, is drastic and the old man's grandson says his inability to see is a blessing in disguise.

Water scarcity is not new to Vidarbha. Geographically, much of this central Indian region is in the rain shadow area. But topographically, it is favourable for water conservation efforts and this saving grace was recognised by the region's ancient rulers. The old tanks, step wells and intricate water distribution systems have now fallen to pieces. The greater loss, however, is the complete lack of understanding that the administration has shown for managing water in this region.

Instead of building on and improving the knowledge of past systems, the government has opted to rely on fiscal-heavy programmes of international development agencies, World Bank loans and a plethora of government reports. These have yielded nothing of lasting value. Despite recurring water problems, no long-term preventive measures have been initiated by the State government.

Inappropriate crop-planning, deep borewells and unfinished water projects litter the region, perpetuating the water scarcity. Small instances of desperation and bureaucratic inefficiency tell the larger story of Vidarbha's despair. In Ramtek tehsil, the crucial rabi and kharif crops have taken a beating yet again. Erratic rainfall towards the end of the last monsoon, long spells of power cuts and the absence of irrigation resulted in a non-profitable year for farmers. Paddy was sown on a minimal 3,000 hectares in the kharif season and this yielded only about 20 per cent of the expected produce, primarily because the 30 storage tanks built by the government turned out to be useless as they had no gates to control the flow of water.

In the villages surrounding Amravati, acts of desperation by villagers, in the form of regular smashing of the pipe that supplies the town's drinking water, are common. Benefit schemes for farmers such as the Jawahar Rozgar Yojna, the Satrapar Ladha Sitapar Irrigation Scheme and the Rajiv Sagar Irrigation Scheme remain largely on paper. Employment Guarantee Scheme projects for the unemployed have been initiated but the so-called safeguards of the scheme ensure that the scheme does not serve its purpose fully.

Much of this scenario was foreseen. A projection made by the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) said in April that nearly 50 per cent of the State was likely to face acute shortage of water for drinking and irrigation this summer. More than 400 villages across the State experience acute water shortage with no access to safe potable water. The figures for mid-May released by the State more than bear out the GSDA's projections. Close to 3,000 villages and 3,000 hamlets depended solely on tanker-supplied drinking water.

The worst hit areas are in Vidarbha, where the burdens of scanty water supply are borne by both urban and rural areas. In a last-ditch attempt at regulation, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) even stopped giving new power connections to farmers for agricultural pumps unless they had clearance from the GSDA. In Akola district, the scarcity is so great that the district administration has forbidden the use of coolers. In the searing heat of central India, where temperatures commonly touch 50o Celsius, this is just one more travail to be endured.

The situation is of course profitable to some, not least to the government. In Akola town, for instance, the entire supply and distribution of bottled water has suddenly come under the control of the government. Officials refused to respond to queries on this unusual government involvement, but it is understood that the government control is in response to the heavy demand for bottled water and is an attempt to prevent a black market in bottled water and also the entry of spurious goods. But these do not explain why the price of bottled water is higher by two to three rupees in this area.

Profiteering from drought is quite common. Rajan Gadkari grows cotton, but unlike many farmers he does not depend on agriculture entirely for his income. Primarily a "businessman", he ventured into farming because of the tax breaks it brought. He says, "Of late the water problem has made it more of a burden." So he has returned to business. "Money is made by water," he said, pointing to two trucks mounted with well-boring equipment that stand outside his house. Gadkari dodges queries about the locations and the depths to which he digs. Other issues like the long-term implications of emptying out aquifers are of even less interest to him. He is, by his own admission, a businessman and for him the spell of water scarcity is a season of plenty.

Hundreds of bores are sunk on a daily basis across Vidarbha. In Amravati itself, there are "15 to 20 new bores being dug daily", according to local resident and environmentalist Kishor Rithe. The rules are inexplicably skewed. Within the town limits there is no specified limit for the depth of borewells and drills can spin all the way down to 500 metres. The ban only applies on agricultural land where 60 m is the limit.

Statistics show that officially there are over 3.5 lakh borewells for drinking water and about 30 lakh for irrigation purposes in the State. About 30 per cent of Vidarbha's villages experience acute water shortage. Water in dams across the region lies at dangerously low levels. Some, such as the Kotepurna dam, which serves Akola town, have been dry ever since the beginning of the summer. The few showers that have fallen have been inadequate. The dam remains empty and the surrounding water table has dropped drastically.

The Pench irrigation project, one of the largest in the region, was originally meant for irrigation and power generation. Pressing demands from thirsty urban areas ultimately meant that Pench waters were diverted to supply drinking water to Nagpur. Other projects have been in a state of limbo for decades. Construction on the Upper Wardha dam started in 1975 but is still to be completed. The Gosikhurd and Lower Wardha projects were announced in 1992 but work has begun only recently.

After the drought of 1992, as many as 46 State and local-sector irrigation projects got the green signal in Vidarbha. Thirty-nine minor projects have been proposed, of which 15 have been cleared. The region has about 48 lakh hectares of arable land, of which only about 11 lakh hectares are irrigated. The Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation has 13 major, 27 medium and 56 small projects in the pipeline. The irony of the situation in Vidarbha is that though the water scarcity is a geographical and historical fact the response continues to be inadequate. The region receives between 40 and 50 days of rainfall in a year, averaging about 1,400 mm annually, according to the Central Groundwater Board. This is the lower end of the rainfall average scale. Hence blaming the scarcity on the vagaries of the monsoon is not an acceptable argument.

Experts agree that the growing scarcity is a direct outcome of poor water management and conservation. Interestingly, many of the guidelines provided in the National Water Policy, 2002, are disregarded. In the section on Drought-prone Area Development, the policy says: "Drought-prone areas should be made less vulnerable to drought-associated problems through soil-moisture conservation measures, water harvesting practices, minimisation of evaporation losses, development of the groundwater potential including recharging and the transfer of surface water from surplus areas where feasible and appropriate. Pastures, forestry or other modes of development which are relatively less water-demanding should be encouraged...."

The State government's attempts to meet the water needs can only be described as wildly teetering acts. "There is unfortunately no deeper understanding of the way this problem can be resolved. The State goes overboard in building large dams and cutting forests but there is no environmental maintenance. Large dams are not the answer," said H.M. Desarda, a committed water issues activist and a former member of the Planning Commission.

There are two approaches to managing the region's chronic water scarcity and experts are categorical that both have to be applied in conjunction with each other. "There is no doubt that immediate relief has to be provided and tanker-supplied water is inevitable in such times but the government has to make a move to take preventive action. The true solution lies in engaging the natural cycle to repair the problem," Desarda said. The long-term plan should be reforestation of depleted areas with the ultimate aim of rehydrating groundwater tables.

Instead of engaging the natural cycle to repair the damage, as suggested by Desarda and the Water Policy, the Centre gave the green signal to 46 projects, which would submerge a total of about 63,000 hectares of forests in eastern Vidarbha. This is what Desarda referred to as "unthinking and unbalanced development". Decentralisation of responsibilities, so that local people have more of a reason to be involved with local water management, is also a step to be considered more seriously. In fact, the National Water Policy of 2002 says: "Water users' associations and the local bodies such as municipalities and gram panchayats should particularly be involved in the operation, maintenance and management of water infrastructures/facilities at appropriate levels progressively, with a view to eventually transferring the management of such facilities to the user groups/local bodies."

The many examples of ancient water conservation systems all over Vidarbha are not only proof that water has always been a precious commodity in the region but are pointers for future conservation programmes. Ancient architects understood the link between topography, cultivation and water-harvesting and made optimum use of the rolling hills of the Satpuras.

In the Ramtek region, for instance, there are still green patches in the midst of the dry land, evidence that some moisture continues to exist below the dry surface. In certain sections, thin lines of greenery connect the larger patches of verdure, a surface guide to the underground path of the pipes.

Likewise, in Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra, remnants of the Nizamshahi dynasty's water distribution system bring touches of green to this drought-ridden area.

While both the Ramtek and the Ahmednagar water systems may take a great deal of investment to revive, the basic structures of tanks as well as the topographical indicators for construction are valuable guidelines from the past. If nothing, these time-tested schemes may turn out to be more reliable and viable than the water projects on which the States spends Rs.1,600 crores annually.

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