Mumbai: On 9 June, the Maharashtra government inaugurated hundreds of small cement dams simultaneously in 150 villages in 15 drought-prone talukas of the state, marking a welcome change in the state’s strategy that heavily relied on large irrigation projects that raised controversies over displacement, rehabilitation, damage to the environment and corruption.
Besides, the total construction cost of the 1,423 so-called ‘check’ dams was just Rs.150 crore, roughly around Rs.10 lakh per check dam.
The construction of these dams and desilting of traditional water bodies such as village ponds and lakes among others will help the government create additional water storage of 8.5 thousand millon cubic feet (TMC) without having to displace and rehabilitate people besides addressing issues related to environment and forest clearance.
In fiscal 2014, the state wants to construct another 8,000 check dams by spending around Rs.800 crore. The state government is also planning to increase its budget allocation for decentralised irrigation, renovation of traditional water sources and provide subsidy to farmers to buy drip irrigation systems which can save 40-60% water, depending upon the nature of land and cropping pattern.
However, the state is going to require financial assistance from the central government if it wants to increase the budget for decentralised irrigation to Rs.3,000 crore and this won’t be an easy task.
State chief minister Prithviraj Chavan told Mint on 8 June, “We spent around Rs.5,000 crore for providing drinking water in 11, 000 villages, fodder to nearly million cattle and compensating farmers for the lost crop. I thought this is unacceptable although this expenditure was necessary but it was consumption expenditure it did not created any capital assets and we will be spending another Rs.5,000 crore if we have to face another drought.”
This prompted Chavan to give a push to decentralised irrigation, which will help villages have at least drinking water besides saving thousand of crores of government money in providing water through tankers.
In August, one-third or 122 of 352 talukas were declared drought-affected by the Maharashtra government. Most politicians and policymakers say the drought was more severe than the one in 1972, considered to be one of the worst droughts faced by Maharashtra since Independence.
Many analysts believe the state government’s move is “better late than never” but they want it to do some handholding and ensure that proper maintenance is carried out for fist two-three years by ensuring people’s participation in the maintenance work, failing which they fear the check dams will get filled with silt and develop breaches and eventually become defunct.
“The experiment of watershed development at Ralegaon-Siddhi of Anna Hazare and Popatrao Pawar’s Hivare Bazar (both in Ahmednagar district) became role models only because they could sustain what they achieved through water conservation over the years,” said Pradeep Purandare, a former professor at the Water and Land Management Institute.
The debate on Maharashtra government’ s irrigation strategy started with the state’s economic survey for fiscal 2012 stating that even after spending Rs.70,000 crore in a decade—between 2001-2011—the area under irrigation has increased only by 0.1%.
Even a white paper, published by the state government in December, stated that if all the irrigation projects are to be completed, it would require another Rs.60,000 crore and take at least 10 more years to complete.
Big dams means big contracts to be given and the contractor-neta-babu (politician, bureaucrat) nexus is unlikely to give up the milch cow easily.
The Gosi-Khurd project in Vidarbha district is a classic example of how bad planning and populism can lead to astronomical cost escalation. The project cost was estimated at Rs.327 crore in 1982, which has now touched Rs.13,739 crore.
Originally it was envisaged to bring around 250,000 hectares of land under irrigation but by June 2011, only 34,000 hectares. of land could be brought under irrigation.
The state government has to show the political will to solve these issue by setting aside all regional and party considerations and focusing only on those projects on which 75% or more work is complete.