Local Initiatives for drought-proofing Maharashtra

Although infamous for the failure of its large dam approach and the recent dam scam, Maharashtra has also been one of the most progressive states in the country when it comes to watershed development, participatory water management and a pioneering discourse surrounding equitable sharing of available water sources. The state has had a number of remarkable stories like Ralegan Siddhi, Hiware Bazaar, Soppecom’s work on water users associations in Waghad and Palkhed, work of Paani Panchayat, Afarm, etc., in addition to a number of centrally funded and state funded watershed programs like Drought Prone Area Program (DPAP), Integrated Wasteland Development Program (IWDP), Adarsh Gaon Yojana, etc. The state has had its share of stalwarts like Late Dr. Vilasrao Salunkhe, Anna Hazare, Popatrao Pawar, Late Dr. Mukundrao Ghare, Smt. Kalpanatai Salunkhe to name just a few. They talked about not only increasing water availability, but also allocating and managing the available water resources equitably and sustainably and many other facets of participatory watershed management which were strongly rooted in equity, gender sensitivity, social realities and ecological sustainability.

Sarpanch of Hiware Bazar Popatrao Pawar Photo: Business Standard
Sarpanch of Hiware Bazar Popatrao Pawar Photo: Business Standard

This overall context had a role to play even as Maharashtra faced one of its worst droughts in 2012-13. The devastating drought pushed some unique watershed initiatives across the state, some of which were directly supported by the state, many without any support.

We looked at a few successful stories of increasing water availability locally, through watershed or other simple measures. The common thread running through these examples is ‘local initiative’. It was experienced again that having local communities at the driving seat, with encouraging guidance from the experts and help from government agencies can lead to positive results.

At the same time, we came across some quick-fix watershed measures which are currently supported by the government and discuss if these can replace the holistic and long-term effort of participatory watershed management and equitable water distribution. The examples below are taken from an agricultural daily “Agrowon” and they are indicative in nature[i]. We have talked with the key people behind the initiatives to understand how the work evolved.

Naigaon village in chronically drought prone Ahmednagar desilts its village tank

Naigaon is a small village of around 5000 people in Jamkhed taluka of Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra. Although Khairi Irrigation Project on Khairi River in Jamkhed is just 3 kms from the village, it does not save Naigaon from water scarcity. Since the past few years, Naigaon has been increasingly facing acute water scarcity in post-February months and its dependence on tankers has increased.

Dry landscape of Jamkhed Photo:
Dry landscape of Jamkhed Photo:

The village has a tank: The Naigaon Tank, constructed by the Water Resources Department after the great drought of 1972. It extends over 42 hectares of land. However due to lack of maintenance, the tank was silted and its water storage had decreased substantially.  The 2012-13 drought was the last straw for Naigaon. The tank, silted up and hardly holding any water was an eyesore for the villagers.  In the summer of 2013, more than 1500 people of Naigaon came together to desilt the Naigaon tank by hand and by machines. The collective effort resulted in removing over 3 lakh cubic meters of silt from the tank!

Being farmers, they realized the value of this silt and it was spread over more than 250 hectares of agricultural land. The Tahsildar of Jamkhed Taluk, seeing the enthusiasm and initiative of the farmers, waived royalty on the silt. But apart from this, the initiative did not take any help from the government. Why did they do that? We asked Watershed Committee Chair Suresh Ugale. “We decided to get together and do something in late 2012-early 2013. We were afraid that if government schemes like MNREGA take time in sanctioning, then we will lose the monsoon of 2013. We did not want to lose a single monsoon and did all the work entirely on voluntary basis.”

In addition to desilting, the villagers, along with agriculture department carried out watershed works in the surrounding region which included Continuous Contour Trenching, nallah bunding and gulley plugging.

The results are evident. Due to desilting of the village tank, water levels for 30 to 40 surrounding wells have increased. Farmers have been lifting water directly from the tank too. Watershed works have also resulted in increase in water levels of other wells and an increase in soil moisture. This in turn has lead to more crop diversity. In kharif of 2013, 35 ha of additional land was cultivated with multiple crops like cotton, soybean, mung, urad, sugarcane and 18 ha of land was under horticulture. The villagers proudly proclaim that the lands where silt was spread are more productive. In the words of Yogesh Shinde, “My light soil did not allow me much crop choice. But the silt from the tank allowed me to grow jowar and udid ( black gram, a lentil) and fodder crops. We’ve indeed been fortunate this year.”

At the same time, it is worrying that area under sugarcane is also increasing. When asked about this, the watershed Committee chair says, “Yes, we’ve been trying to irrigate all new sugarcane by drip. But that is difficult. The subsidies don’t reach the poorer farmers who need it the most.” But it is clear that without active efforts, more water can mean more water guzzling sugarcane in Naigaon.

No tankers for Pingori village this year

Pingori village in Purandar taluka of Pune district is surrounded by hillocks from three sides. 80% of the land is hills and only 20% is cultivable. Although Pune region has a very high density of large dams, no canal water reaches Pingori. Veer dam lies about 15 to 20 km downstream of the village and plays no role in water supply to the village.

In 2013 the village faced acute drought. People who held lands on the hilly tracts were left with no option but to sell offs their lands. In the words of Babasaheb Shinde, a veteran from the village, ““There was hardly any income source in village without water. People were migrating to cities. We had to do something.”As the situation turned alarming, some villagers came together. It was accepted by all that the key to their challenge lay in water availability.  Pingori had a village tank which was badly in need of maintenance and desilting. Despite several follow ups with Water Conservation Department, no desilting was undertaken by the department, siting non-availability of funds as the reason.

Left with no choice, the villagers of Pingori came together. Hundreds of villagers raised funds for desilting the tanks by working on NREGS schemes. Though they raised a considerably sum, it was still not sufficient for the entire desilting operation. Here, they were helped by Dagdusheth Ganapati Temple Trust.

With some help like this, Pingori undertook desilting work for nearly 45 days in summer 2013 by manual labour and machines. Villagers told SANDRP that more than 200,000 cubic meter silt was removed from the single tank and spread on agricultural fields. Desilting not only increased water holding capacity of the tank, but also its recharge. Following the monsoon of 2013, the village tank held more water and water table in the surrounding areas also increased.

Desilted "Ganesh Sagar" of Pingori village Photo:www.dagdushetganapati.oeg
Desilted “Ganesh Sagar” of Pingori village

Several years ago when Pingori tank held more water, it had fish in it and fishery was existing, if not thriving. Silt and droughts killed this initiative. But with desilting, local youth introduced over 2 lakh fish seed in the tank and even formed a Fisheries Society. In addition to desilting, the villagers have also undertaken watershed works in nearby hills, especially continuous contour trenches (CCTs) which has helped significantly in raising water table and augmenting stream flows. Cumulative gain of desilting has been increased cultivation on over 300 acres of land and also increased fodder availability.

Pingori has a remarkable lady Sarpanch Ms. Pallavi Bhosale. Ms. Bhosale tells us “I know what it is not even to have drinking water in your home. As a Sarpanch in 2012-13 I was deeply saddened as I had to call for tankers every other day. I could see women from my village walk for miles for water. So many horticultural plantations had to be hacked. It was very disturbing. The entire village stood together and hence this could happen.”

Today Pingori has not called for a single tanker as yet, although the Purandar block has received less than 25% rainfall in this monsoon till date.

How does Pingori avoid water guzzling crops, now that Pingori tank has water? “As a gramsabha we don’t allow water guzzling crops like sugarcane in Pingori. Our water is very precious and we cannot give more water to a few.”

Medsinga village in Taluka & District of Osmanabad is a village of 2700 population. Drought and water scarcity is a regular feature in Osmanadabad in Marathwada and Medsinga is no exception. As SANDRP indicated during the rought of 2012-13, water from major dams in Osmanbad-Latur regions is almost exclusively diverted to sugarcane and sugar factories, leaving smaller villages high and dry.

The village has a tank built by the villagers themselves, 25-30 years ago. Villagers decided to desilt this tank and increase its water holding capacity.

Here, they built recharge shaft inside the tank bed to increase groundwater recharge. This was a 13m x 7m x 2m pit with 2ft x 2ft pit below that followed by a bore well 70 ft deep. Twine was wound around the borewell casing pipe before inserted into the shaft. The shaft was then filled with pebbles to facilitate water percolation.

The villagers also repaired about 16 cement bunds constructed about 10 years back. These bunds were leaking as parts of cement had washed away. The expenses of about Rs 7 lakhs was covered by Holistic Watershed Development and Mahatma Phule Water Conservation Programme.

The cumulative impact of desilting, recharge and repaired bunds was increased water availability in 27 wells and 32 borewells.  There are 2 percolation tanks in the village constructed by Water Conservation Department. They have however lost their capacity due to siltation. Next phase of work plan includes desilting of these tanks.

Is increased water availability an end in itself?

The leaders in Pingori, Naigaon, Sinnar, etc., accept that watershed development is a long and complex process and not simply synonymous with increasing water availability. While it is very positive that water availability is indeed impacted by even short term measures, it seems to be essential that there is long term vision and a watershed approach behind these initiatives. In the absence of a long term vision, water guzzling crops and mismanagement of available resources can lead to a zero sum game. As reviewed by Soppecom in their review on watershed development in Maharashtra,[ii] in itself, watershed development can accentuate inequity by favoring the landed and the lower reaches as well as those who have the capacity to use pumps, siphons, etc.

Unfortunately the May 2013 Government of Maharashtra resolution of supporting nallah widening and deepening known as Shirpur Pattern and raising cement nallah bunds indiscriminately cannot really count as participatory, bottoms up process. Unscientific deepening and widening of streams is not only wasteful, but can also expose the groundwater aquifer, rather than helping recharge. It also raises additional questions of water availability in the downstream, exclusive work by mechanical equipment and not human effort that provides employment to the local needy, Shramadan, etc. While watershed development entails a ridge to valley approach where measures are taken right from the mountain top and logically culminate in the valley in form of bunds or weirs, indiscriminate erection of cement nallah bunds cannot qualify as watershed development. As Seema Kulkarni, Soppecom says, “Watershed program is a culmination of a watershed plan for a village or micro watershed. In the absence of such a plan, it is doubtful whether ad hoc measures can help”.

It is no wonder then that in the contractor-savvy Maharashtra, mega-scale projects like building thousands of cement bunds is looked at as a business venture than a critical intervention. According to reports, Government of Maharashtra through Agriculture and Water Conservation Department built over 3000 bunds spending more than 700 crores just in the last two years. As it is recently reported, many of the cement nallah bunds built hastily in 2013-14 after the Government GR are not holding water, some are built at hydrologically wrong locations, some are already damaged, some are built without sufficient desilting affecting water storage, etc.  A Government inquiry has been constituted on the same in many districts.

From the experience of recent examples like Pingori, Naigaon, Devnadi or the older successes like Ralegaon Siddhi or Hiware Bazaar, it seems that Watershed Development is so much more than erecting some structures at the right places with the help of machines. As much as a technical process, it is also a social and ecological process. And it is indeed more effective that way.

– Parineeta Dandekar, Amruta Pradhan, SANDRP


1. This election time (Oct 10, 2014) report highlights the success story of similar local efforts in Jalna-Aurangabad area:

2. Since the implementation of Phad irrigation, a low cost and eco-friendly system that works without electricity, agricultural production has increased improving the situation of farmers in Yavatmal. (Sept 7, 2014)



[ii] A. Samuel, K.J. Joy, Seema Kulkarni et al, Watershed Development in Maharashtra: Present Scenario and Issues for Restructuring the Programme