Grand revival

Telangana is faced with scarce water resources and the overuse of groundwater. The government’s flagship project Mission Kakatiya aims to revive the centuries-old tank irrigation network.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Chintapatla residents standing on the tank bed of Lakshman Chervu, a 119-acre storage body that has remained dry for several years of the past decade.

Chintapatla residents standing on the tank bed of Lakshman Chervu, a 119-acre storage body that has remained dry for several years of the past decade.

LAKSHMAN CHERUVU, a stunning, but parched, lake, greets visitors at the mouth of Chintapatla village, about an hour’s drive from Hyderabad, in the new State of Telangana. Local residents say it has stayed this way in several of the past 12 years.

An excited crowd gathers at the sight of this journalist. Chandraiah, the husband of the titular village sarpanch, Padma, is summoned. He greets this journalist and announces that the gram panchayat has received Rs.93.8 lakh under the Telangana government’s flagship project, Mission Kakatiya, to restore Lakshman lake.

Mission Kakatiya proposes to spend Rs.20,000 crore over the next five years to restore the State’s sprawling tank irrigation network, which was in wide use until the late 1950s. Its use diminished considerably following the emphasis of the Nehruvian years on large dams, such as the Sri Ram Sagar in Telangana’s Nizamabad district and the Nagarjuna Sagar, now on the border with Andhra Pradesh.

The tank network

Agriculturists and academics date the sophisticated system back 1,000 years, to the Kakatiya dynasty that ruled the region. As the plateau is located in the rain shadow region of both the Eastern and Western Ghats, settlers realised early on the need to conserve water in this rocky landscape. Interconnected rain-fed tanks, sometimes the size of large lakes, whose flow depended on gravity, were developed. Canals were built from these lakes to supply water to the fields.

This led to extensive cultivation of water-intensive crops such as paddy. Over the years, yields came down drastically because of decreasing reliance on tank irrigation and rampant exploitation of groundwater resources.

Situated in Yacharam mandal of Rangareddy district, Chintapatla has about 5,000 residents. They remember the time when Lakshman Chervu irrigated nearly all their farmland, and open wells had water at 20 feet (six metres) below the ground. That was 30 years ago. Today, there are 13 borewells, only five of which are functioning. They bring up water with high fluoride content from as deep as 400 feet. Another 15 hand pumps form part of a water grid. But the water is not potable.

Official records show that the 119-acre lake irrigated an area of over 250 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). This year, it is down to zero. The lake is over 22 feet deep with a sluice, a Nizam-era stone structure, on the tank bund. Chandraiah remembers his parents regaling him with tales about the massive size of the sluice gates. Much like the tank itself, it is now covered up with silt about 10 feet deep.

Mission Kakatiya aims to de-silt the tank, which is among 46,531 such tanks located across the State that were identified by the Irrigation Department following a field survey conducted over September and October last year. According to government records, Yacharam mandal has seven small- and medium-sized tanks—all are dry. The only tank with some water left is Pedda Churuvu, or Big Lake, near Ibrahimpatnam, the closest town.

Until about six months ago, Chintapatla residents had to buy drinking water from Mall, the neighbouring village, where the panchayat had managed to have a reverse osmosis (RO) plant installed. Thanks to NTPC, which donated a 1,000-litre-capacity RO purifier, things are now a little better for Chintapatla. The village panchayat, which runs the plant, charges Rs.5 for 20 litres of the water. For family functions, villagers hire tankers at prohibitive rates to get potable water from Ibrahimpatnam. Shantana, a 70-year-old woman, had died of kidney failure the day this correspondent visited the area. Her family hired a 500-litre tanker. It stood at the edge of the lake from where water was carried to Shantana’s home in buckets.

On both sides of National Highway 9 (NH9), which passes through the village, there are massive pipelines of Krishna Water Phase 1 and 2. They carry water from the Nagarjuna Sagar dam to Hyderabad, meeting 60 per cent of the city’s needs. Yet, the same water is rationed twice a week to villages like Chintapatla that are en route. Villages that do not have RO plants get priority.

Krishna Water Phase 3, which will supply another 400 million litres a day to Hyderabad, is nearing completion. The Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority is the second largest urban planning body in India after Bangalore, with a land area of over 7,500 square kilometres under its purview. The area eats into four other districts surrounding the city. Hyderabad consumes 1,500 million litres of water a day. Only half of the wastewater generated gets treated. The rest is let off into the Musi, a tributary of the Krishna river, which supplies water to Hyderabad’s famous Hussain Sagar lake.

River water disputes

While the government wants it to be perceived as a stand-alone project, Mission Kakatiya is part of a protracted battle over the waters of the Krishna and the Godavari, the two main rivers of the region. Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and even Odisha benefit from these rivers.

R. Vidyasagar Rao, Adviser on Irrigation to the Telangana government and a former member of the Central Water Commission, told Frontline : “We have filed a fresh suit with the Centre under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, seeking more water from the Krishna and the Godavari.” He said the earlier water contracts (the Krishna Tribunal Award, 2001, and the Godavari Tribunal Award, 1980) did not consider Telangana catchments vis-a-vis the Andhra regions, which, he said, were much larger. “Our main grouse is nobody has represented us properly. We [Telangana] want to be heard now,” he added.

This position has already irked the new Andhra Pradesh government. The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act of 2014, which gave birth to the two new States, mandates recognition of water allocations made by the tribunals on the Godavari and the Krishna in the past. It allows for a proportional break-up of the waters to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on the basis of these decisions. The Act also extends the term of the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal to make “project-wise specific allocation” on any new schemes.

The Telangana government is considering three irrigation schemes with water from the Jurala reservoir, located in Mahabubnagar district on a Krishna tributary called Kurvapur Kshetra. The Palamuru lift irrigation scheme intends to transport (lift) flood waters in the range of about 70 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) to irrigate the adjoining parched districts of Mahabubnagar, Rangareddy and Nalgonda.

This scheme is said to be dear to Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. The other is the Jurala-Pakala project. This would again transport water using the existing interconnected tank system to irrigate lands going up north from the Jurala reservoir to the Pakala lake in Warangal about 400 km away. The government intends to realise an extra 265 tmcft from floodwaters, which it hopes can be diverted through the revived tank system under Mission Kakatiya.

For all the projects except tank restoration, the government needs approval either from a multilayered water management system culminating at the Apex Council set up under the Ministry of Water Resources or through the redress mechanism of the existing disputes tribunals. Vidyasagar Rao said: “We will give an undertaking that none of the lower riparian States’ rights, including on excess water, will be violated. We are only looking at ways to store floodwaters, because this water is wasted if not utilised by any State.”

The State’s Ground Water Department warns of a chronic water scarcity situation. G. Sambaiah, Joint Director, said that according to the United Nations water resource indicators, eight of Telangana’s 10 districts are water-scarce. They are districts where over 40 per cent of water needs are met by underground resources. “As on March 31, 2012, Telangana’s average groundwater utilisation was 58 per cent. Because of overexploitation, groundwater levels have been depleting year on year. In some areas this exceeds 100 per cent, like in Medak. It is beyond replenishable levels,” he said. The worst affected districts are Rangareddy, Hyderabad, Warangal, Nizamabad (despite the location of the Sri Ram Sagar dam) and Medak.

According to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), an overwhelming 70 per cent of the State’s cultivated lands now depend on groundwater for irrigation—the opposite of the situation in the 1950s. A report in Economic & Political Weekly shows how tank irrigation increased “ninefold between 1875 and 1940 under the Nizam’s rule and brought about a sevenfold increase in farmland. This decreased just as drastically in independent India.”

CGWB data show that groundwater today has higher than permissible levels of salt, fluoride, nitrate and iron in almost all districts of the State. A recent report in The Hindu cites Union Health Ministry data identifying Telangana as the State with the second largest number of skeletal fluorosis cases in the country, a condition which leads to bone deformities because of high levels of fluoride consumption.

Given this situation, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti-led government is on a charm offensive trying to hard sell Mission Kakatiya. Repeated announcements, some of which are up on the government e-procurement site, have been made on the dates for tenders for earth-moving works.

Tanks would be revived in a phased manner—about 20 per cent of the work each year, covering the same percentage of area in all districts and legislative constituencies. Irrigation Minister T. Harish Rao, who is also the Chief Minister’s nephew, emphasised the need for transparency and said funds would not be a problem. He also encouraged the Telangana diaspora to “adopt” a tank. Officials in the Ministry said that he was likely to visit the United States “soon to increase NRI [non-resident Indian] participation, raise awareness and funds”.

Implementation issues

The project has largely been welcomed and is viewed as a political victory for the Chief Minister, but many are sceptical about its success and question the way it is being implemented. The Telugu Desam Party is now the second largest opposition, with 15 MLAs in a House of 119. Its Telangana president, L. Ramana, said: “They have announced 9,300 lakes in each phase, but tenders have not been cleared for even 1,000 of them. They neither have the money for the project, nor will achieve their own targets.”

Sarampally Malla Reddy of the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmers’ union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), agreed that the money allocated was insufficient. He said: “A minimum of Rs.1 crore is required to renovate each tank.” The government’s estimate was half that amount, but it said this was purely for “empirical purposes”.

Malla Reddy pointed to a recent newspaper report on a borewell casualty. He said: “Children dying trapped in borewells happens every day. Today, in several parts of rural Telangana, you can find two or three borewells in each survey number” that are abandoned after overuse. He sought identification and closure of these wells and rubbished the government’s efforts to get diaspora participation. “Why should they?” he asked. “They don’t get anything out of it.”

An effort to regulate wells about a decade ago did not yield much result. The Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Trees Act of 2002 mandates the registration of any private well, dug or bore, with the mandal revenue officers. The Act also empowers the mandal authorities to regulate the depth and use of private wells, and digging of new wells requires prior approval.

Data with the Ground Water Department show how ineffective the law has been. During its existence, borewells almost doubled, from 4.28 lakh to seven lakh, replacing dug wells as the main source of water. In 1986-87, there were 5.15 lakh dug wells as against 23,000 borewells. The authorities said not even 50 per cent of the wells have been registered. Other requirements of the law, such as planting trees and banning of sand mining in water-scarce regions, have not been successful either.

Job creation

In Chintapatla, the news of the disbursement of funds under Mission Kakatiya brings relief, but the residents want it to be routed through job-creation projects such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), instead of giving it to contractors. Padma said: “Over 300 residents go to Hyderabad every day as construction labour. If this money doesn’t come to us, how will it tide us over this drought?”

With the scaling down of the MGNREGS by the Central government, only six of the 37 mandals in Rangareddy district have funds allocated under the scheme. Yacharam is not among them. The crippling drought has meant the crop raised is mostly cotton because it requires less water than others, but the yields have been low and of poor quality. During previous drought years, about 600 villagers worked under the MGNRES, which tided them over the crisis.

Sridhar Rao Deshpande, Officer on Special Duty to the Irrigation Minister, said, “For people’s participation, we have left one option. The soil that is de-silted is not ordinary. It is mineral rich. We want people to carry the soil voluntarily back to their fields. They may have to invest about Rs.20,000 but the soil will increase the crop yield by 30 per cent because it will have high water retention capacity and the use of fertilizers and pesticides will be greatly reduced, bringing down production costs.”

But Rs.20,000 is a tall order for a drought-hit farmer. Deshpande said: “We want NRIs to help the farmers. You are absolutely right, Rs.20,000 is a high price. NRIs are willing to adopt tanks. The response has been tremendous.”

The Telangana government’s understanding of the MGNREGS is that it has “failed” as a programme in quality control. The authorities said hiring mechanised earth movers, trained engineers and agriculturists was a necessity to ensure quality and efficiency. They were also clear that Mission Kakatiya’s main aim was not job creation; it was to increase the acreage under irrigation, which was then expected to raise groundwater levels and in turn revive allied activities such as fishing.

Pointing to the severity of the drought, Principal Secretary to the Agriculture Minister Poonam Malakondaiah said cotton had replaced paddy as the main crop this year. “Once the farmers have more water, they can cultivate more crops—black and green gram, vegetables and maize. Currently, since there is only one season, wherever there is water, farmers are growing paddy. Fifteen years ago, there was not much cotton in the region. Cash crops began to be raised when they started feeling vulnerable. We want our farmers to once again diversify. When there are more crops, income increases and vulnerability to seasonal conditions decreases,” Malakondaiah said.

The authorities, however, said restoring tanks may not help if rains fail again next year. Deshpande said: “During deficit rainfall, only major irrigation [dams and canals] can help.” Vidyasagar Rao added: “We are looking into connecting the tank system to the nearest rivulet. Not immediately, but we are considering this. There’s also a serious thinking on dry land cultivation. Our Chief Minister is doing this, as he himself grew up on a farm and showed the world that Medak [district] could be cultivated. Under the supervision of agricultural scientists, a study is being done now.”

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