Guest Blog by Sachin Tiwale
In summer of 2016, after witnessing two consecutive droughts, Art of Living (AoL) along with RSS Jankalyan Samiti, (RSS-JS) initiated Manjra River Rejuvenation program with the involvement of local leaders and residents. As a part of this program, the Manjra River channel was deepened and widened to create additional storage to meet the drinking water demand of parched Latur city of Marathwada, Maharashtra. During implementation, the leading organisations AoL and RSS-JS proclaimed rejuvenation project as a permanent measure resolving the crisis by creating storage of 18 million cubic metre (MCM) enough to meet Latur city’s water demand (Ghadyalpatil 2016; Thomas 2016). With a promise of supplying piped water every alternate day, they collected around Rs. 70 million from the people. However, as described below, even after completion of massive excavation damaging river ecology, this project failed miserably. It could not even supply one drop of water to the citizens of Latur. Surprisingly, this failure is never revealed or discussed and on the contrary, the project was celebrated as a success (Samvada, 2016).
Hereby, I examine the validity of the river rejuvenation approach and illustrate how the project was ill-conceived and poorly planned without an understanding of river basin, needs of Latur city and existing water supply infrastructure leading to its failure in fulfilling promises. The Manjra River Rejuvenation case can be studied and analysed as a technological failure or violation of multiple rules and regulations alone, similar to umpteen numbers of other cases documented in the water sector across the country. However, I wish to go beyond categorising this rejuvenation work as merely an approach failure or poor planning or technological failure. As labelling of technological failure does not answer – how could it happen the way it happened? Precisely, some of the larger and critical questions mentioned below are worth investigating.
- How did deepening and widening of Manjra river violating multiple rules and regulation happen rather how was it allowed to happen in the light of the day when major media houses were covering this issue?
- How did the leading organisations manage to garner support from a range of actors including top bureaucrats, ministers and chief minister of the state and political leaders from across the party line who not only supported but appreciated the work?
- How did the massive failure cover-up happen and it was celebrated as a success in the eyes of the larger society?
- Why did no one raise questions about fixing accountability of Rs. 70 million collected from people which not only straightaway went into the drain but caused massive environmental damage? What about the damage to the river and also damage to the environment and society due to this damage to the river?
- What were the opposition and other political parties doing? Why did they not raise any of these issues?
In this country, apart from Gurus and religious organisations, I doubt whether any other entity including NGOs, corporates or even government agencies can manage such a ‘show’ involving the expenditure of money entirely collected from people and adversely affecting a public resource, a river. Not only garnering support but acquiring appreciation from a range of stakeholders, involving violation of multiple rules (some of them are visually covered by media and broadcasted across the country), massive failure in delivering promises and yet able to celebrate it as a success.
Therefore, it is essential to scrutinise the nature and character of leading agencies involved – Art of Living and RSS Jankalyan Samiti. The religiousness of the leading agencies (and their symbiotic relationship with the current regime and Hindu nationalism) is very tough to ignore.
In later part of this article, I attempt to answer some of the questions mentioned above by referring Bhattacharya (2019) and drawing concepts like ‘uncontainability of the guru’ and, ‘universal acceptability’ and ‘unprecedented structural cooperation’ Guru and religious organisations receive from all including state actors. The article raises questions over increasing involvement of enterprising Gurus and their organisations in water conservation by posing themselves as water experts and saviour of common people with their questionable knowledge claims. And tendency of state to become willing partners with such Gurus without any scrutiny or accountability and silence of the media.
Deepening and widening of river: Assessing knowledge claims
In early 2016, as a result of the second consecutive drought, all three sources of Latur municipal corporation’s drinking water supply scheme – Manjara (Dhanegaon) Dam and Sai and Nagzari barrages went dry. In response to this crisis, Art of Living (AoL) and RSS Jankalyan Samiti (RSS-JS) gathered local leaders and residents together to form Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS) to strengthen water resources of the city. The JLS decided to rejuvenate Manjra river by deepening and widening river channel upstream of two barrages – Sai and Nagzari to create storage of 18 MCM (refer map below) which JLS claimed sufficient to meet the drinking water demand of the Latur city (Ghadyalpatil 2016; Thomas 2016).
According to JLS member Mahadev Gomare, who is also an active volunteer of AoL, the plan was to rejuvenate the river over a stretch of 18 km by widening and deepening the channel by 80 m and 3 m respectively. This entire idea was conceived and executed by the leading religious organisations and within two months, JLS excavated 4.3 million cubic meter of silt covering 15 km stretch of the river using more than 25 massive earth-moving machines.
The leading organisations were so confident about the deepening and widening of the river as a solution that they initiated work without preparation of feasibility report and detailed project report. As explained by one of the AoL leaders Mahadev Gomare,
“Preparation of feasibility report and DPR leads to wastage of time. We want to work fast. We do not want to work like government engineers.”
While interacting with confident AoL leaders, I realised that none of them was formally trained in hydrology, geology and river ecology. During implementation, sections of media and other actors widely praised Manjra Rejuvenation work as an extraordinary move of AoL and RSS-JS to come forward in the middle of the crisis. However, no one raised a question – how are they going to achieve stated objectives without essential preliminary studies? And since no studies or documents existed to scrutinise, everyone was showing blind faith in the words of AoL and RSS-JS.
In this section, I am assessing the knowledge claims of AoL and RSS-JS by asking three fundamental questions:
- Is there any excess water available in the basin to be stored?
- Is it necessary, useful, desirable or logical to dig a river when the city already has enough water reservation in an upstream dam?
- Can Latur city use this additionally created storage capacity?
1. Is there any excess water?
Though JLS was intended to create 18 MCM of storage, the question is whether the basin has excess water to fill the additionally created storage. The analysis of surface water availability data at the basin scale and existing storage structures constructed on the Manjra river indicates that there is no such excess water available.
As per the Godavari River basin plan, Manjra basin (area 7231 sq km, culturable area 6860 sq km and annual average rainfall as per IMD 911.8 mm) is already facing water shortages (WRD 2017). The total surface water (all figures mentioned here are for surface water, groundwater availability and use is not included in these figures) allocated by Godavari Water Dispute Tribunal to Maharashtra from Manjra basin is 623 MCM at 75% dependability. However, the live storage capacity of completed and ongoing projects is 628 MCM (natural water available 758 MCM). The total permitted water use is 777 MCM, surpassing the total water availability by 154 MCM (WRD 2015; WRD 2017). Therefore, Manjra basin is an overdeveloped and closed basin where the capacity of existing and under construction water storage structures and total permitted water use is much more than the quantity of total water allocated by GWDT to Maharashtra in the basin. There is no ‘excess’ water available that can be just stored by widening and deepening of a river channel.
2. Is it necessary, useful, desirable or logical?
Manjra dam alone supplies 20 MCM water to Latur city by direct pipeline constructed from the dam to the city which is sufficient to meet the then city water demand. One of the misleading claims made by JLS members in support of their work is that – the additional storage created by them will help Latur in times of distress. This claim is no longer valid. As map above indicates, the largest reservoir of the Manjra basin with a capacity of 250.7 MCM is located at the upstream of Latur city (CWC 2015) followed by series of total 14 barrages constructed on the river before it enters in Karnataka. Nagzari and Sai are two such barrages which were built to supply 4.26 MCM water for Latur city and JLS was focusing on strengthening of these sources by widening and deepening. However, between Manjra dam and Nagzari barrage, over a river channel length of 50 km, total six barrages already exist. No stretch of the river channel is left without the influence of a barrage. Also, there is no major tributary bringing additional water from the catchment to these two barrages. As a result, the inflow in Nagzari and Sai barrages is mainly controlled by the Manjra dam and six upstream barrages. Unless and until upstream structures overflow or release the water, Nagzari and Sai will not get adequate water to fill the additionally created storage capacity by Jalyukta Latur Samiti. So, the question is: in the absence of excess water available in the highly controlled and regulated basin, how do these barrages get additional water to fill additionally created storage?
The answer is obviously no. Moreover, digging a river channel and creating shallow water storage cannot be an appropriate solution as it increases evaporation and seepage losses. In the time of distress, the Nagzari and Sai barrages are likely to dry much early than the upstream Manjra reservoir. From the management point of view, during distress, prioritising drinking water demand and reserving water in the Manjra reservoir from other uses is much more convenient than managing water in small shallow barrages. This indicates the entire program was wrongly conceived and it could have been avoided if a proper feasibility study would have been conducted and put out for public scrutiny.
If somehow, they managed to ‘conserve’ the water in these two barrages then Latur Municipal corporation (LMC) was officially needed to get approval of the water resource department to reserve the additional water before using it. Already, then with possibly existing water reservations is exceeding total availability of water in the basin and Latur city had a reservation on upstream Manjra dam. There was the least possibility of getting an additional reservation to the city, causing conflict among users. In any case no such approval was sought by the JLS from the water resources department and none was given. How then did the water resources department allowed this project to be implemented at all?
Since the basin is closed, the conservation practice for storing water needs to be evaluated carefully before implementation, as it could lead to reallocation of existing water usages. It means without official reservation Latur city could be using the water share of downstream users. It further means urban water users of Latur city are grabbing the water of downstream farmers and villagers and depriving them from fulfilling their drinking and irrigation water needs.
3. Planning Blunders: Can Latur use stored water?
The third important question is – if anyhow water is stored in the additionally created capacity, can Latur city use the stored water to fulfil its demand? Unfortunately, the answer is No.
It is a well-established fact that in urban water supply, mere augmentation of the resource is not enough at all. The urban water supply is an integrated system where capacities of raw water abstraction, conveyance (either by pumping or by gravity) and water treatment are planned and designed as per water storage capacity. Therefore, increasing the storage by deepening does not help at all as remaining infrastructure is not capable of dealing with the additionally created storage.
In the case of Manjra River Rejuvenation, JLS experts did not think of the subsequent infrastructural arrangement needed to use the additionally created storage in Sai and Nagzari barrages. No infrastructural arrangement was made at Nagzari and Sai barrages to pick up the additionally stored water, treat it and pump it towards the city. Without cross-checking the adequacy of required infrastructure, the plan of widening and deepening of the river was executed by the religious organisation which yielded nothing for the citizens of Latur apart from damaging the river channel and riverine ecosystem.
The interview with an engineer from the water supply department of Latur Municipal Corporation revealed that the water supply department was not consulted at all while preparing and executing the entire plan. This itself questions the participatory mechanism of project implementers. At Nagzari barrage, which has higher storage capacity, the level of additional storage crated with deepening was well below the existing jackwell.
For fetching additionally stored water, the additional arrangement was needed to extract the water from Nagzari barrage which includes installation of a pump and a new pipeline. According to water supply engineer, even a temporary makeshift arrangement (floating pumps and pipeline) to extract water was costing Rs. 2-2.5 million and if water supply department wants to plan a permeant measure by shifting the jackwell at a lower level, then it was going to cost approximately Rs. 30 million. Similarly, additional investment was needed at Sai barrage. Therefore, the available infrastructure was not capable of fetching this additionally stored water.
Additionally, the treatment plant constructed to treat water from Nagzari barrage (at village Warvanti) was not functional for last ten years and treatment plant for Sai barrage (constructed at village Arvi) was barely functioning at half of its designed capacity. The water treatment plants were not in a position to treat existing water storages, so there was no question of treating additionally created storage by JLS.
As a result of this planning blunders, not a single drop of water from the work of AoL and RSS-JS has reached to the taps of citizens after spending around Rs. 70 million and even after witnessing a good rainfall – 21% excess than normal rainfall in the following year 2016 (IMD 2016). Latur residents continued to receive water once in a week.
These basic issues could have been easily identified if the feasibility study was commissioned by JLS and put out for public scrutiny, instead of chest-thumping about not following standard practices which have evolved over decades through learnings from such failures in the past.
Neglecting real issues, adopting popular measures and celebrating success
Moreover, this entire approach of widening and deepening adopted by AoL and RSS-JS is a typical technocratic supply-side and popular measure neglecting real issues of the water supply system of Latur. The distribution network of the city is old and leaky, causing significant water losses. The non-revenue water (NRW) in Latur is estimated in the range of 50-55%. The water treatment plants are poorly maintained. Therefore, efforts of increasing water availability at the source are questionable when half of this water is lost in the distribution network. In the following year after the rejuvenation work in 2016, even after witnessing an excess rainfall and adequate availability of water in the Manjra dam, the municipal corporation could not use its own water quota because of bottlenecks existing in the network and treatment plants and supplying water only once in a week.
However, more useful activities like reducing losses and increasing efficiency of water supply system or increasing groundwater tables by rainwater harvesting in the city are possibly not as attractive as a massive worksite where more than 25 excavators and 50 dumpers are operating and changing the landscape. Such massive worksite is appealing and impressive as many ministers of the state visited the site and clicked photographs and selfies (Scroll 2016).
Surprisingly, after completion of widening and deepening, just before the onset of the Monsoon, rejuvenation is declared as a success and this success is celebrated in the presence of RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat (Samvada 2016) without measuring or evaluating the contribution of this work towards mitigating the water crisis of Latur City. Though initially the project was started to permanently tackle water scarcity of the city, towards the end, the images of deepened and widened channel with full of water (which was oblivious after rainfall) became the symbol of the success of the project. These images were widely circulated and celebrated. No one questioned whether the intended purpose was met or not. Even a booklet published by Jalyukt Latur Samiti (JLS) after completion of the work does not mention anything about its precise impact on the water supply of Latur city.
In the post-implementation period, some members of AoL and Jalyukta Latur Samiti defending the work claiming an increase in groundwater level and water made available for farmers, as an impact of their work. However, that was changing a goalpost too far! These claims were not backed by any evidence. In any case these objectives could have been achieved by implementing other measures (e.g. watershed development) without damaging the river ecosystem and farmland of neighbouring farmers.
Beyond technological failure: Role of Guru and religious organisations
As mentioned earlier, Manjra River Rejuvenation is not only about technological failures.
It is a classic case of managing a show with a range of stakeholders and celebrating even a complete failure. I am doubtful whether apart from religious organisations lead by enterprising Gurus any other private, government or community organisation can do this. Therefore, here I am drawing from Bhattacharya (2019) who argues that the Guru and religious organisations enjoy ‘universal acceptability’. AoL capitalised wider acceptability of their leader and could raise the resources and align the range of actors including bureaucrats, trade organisations, corporates, media houses, political leaders from across the party line and citizens of Latur city.
Moreover, Guru and religious organisations are perceived as omniscient and therefore, nobody had challenged the approach and methodology adopted by JLS. The wisdom of ‘Guruji’ was unquestionable and accepted by all, including those involved in water conservation and managing urban water supply services. My colleague and I have described elsewhere about multiple rules and regulations this project has violated that could have been clearly seen at the worksite during implementation (Tiwale and Deshmukh 2017). Manjra river being a 6th order stream was not at all eligible for widening and deepening activities which are prescribed for small streams and rivulets of 2nd and 3rd order (GoM 2013; GoM 2015). Though, AoL and RSS-JS leaders claimed excavation up to 3 metre deep and 80 metre wide, in reality at the site the river channel was deepened more than 7- 8 metre and widened up to 200 metre at few locations. Yet, nobody questioned any of this before, during or after implementation.
The religious organisations receive ‘unprecedented structural cooperation’ from all actors as Guru is characterised as ‘uncontainable’, something which cannot be bounded. When these rules were violated in the light of the day for two months, no government entity intervened and stopped the work. The local government officials were aware of the work and yet chose not to intervene. Being a notified river, then executive engineer of Water Resources Department, Mr. Chishti could have intervened and stopped the deepening and widening of Manjra river by invoking section 19, 20, 21, 93 and 95 of Maharashtra Irrigation Act 1976 (GoM 1976). These sections empower irrigation officer to intervene in work of modifying channel and prohibiting the act of damaging, altering, enlarging and obstructing a notified river. None of the political groups questioned this,.
The executive engineer had visited the worksite multiple times when rejuvenation work was going on, and when he was asked about his visits and not taking any actions, he replied –
“I am not officially involved with this [Manjra] case. The collector office never consulted with us [water resources department] regarding this work… I visited the site as an individual citizen of Latur… I also used to visit the Nagzari barrage to ensure the safety of barrage structure and especially its foundation as deepening was going on. I did not monitor the activities of deepening and widening of the river bed.”
Moreover, many experts and ministers including then Minister of Rural Development and Guardian Minister of Latur district and Minister of Water Conservation Pankaja Munde, water expert Rajendra Singh, then Cabinet Minister of Water Resources Girish Mahajan, then Chief Secretary of Government of Maharashtra Swadheen Kshatriya and engineers from various departments had visited the worksite (Scroll 2016; Sakal 2016). All ministers, government officials and political leaders across the party line praised the project and participation of people. Yet, nobody objected the nature of work and the way it was carried out. Shockingly, none of the visited experts, bureaucrats or ministers bothered to inquire about the project and its stated promises even after massive and complete failure. Surprisingly, the citizens of Latur ranging from street vendors to trade organisations who had contributed from a small amount to lakhs of rupees have not come forward, raising the issue of promises made or failure of the promises.
In fact, the boundaries between state actors and religious organisations were so blurred that this work initiated by AoL and RSS-JS, violating multiple rules and regulations, was inaugurated by then district collector Mr. Pandurang Pole on April 8, 2016. Moreover, Mr. Pole actively supported violations of rules by announcing assistance of one earth-mover at the worksite on behalf of government and donation of one day salary from members of revenue department employees’ organisation (Loksatta, 2016).
Later, then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced the support of Rs. 54.7 million for this project. As a result, the Water Resources Department (WRD) engineers started deepening a 6th order stream violating all the rules. The concerned engineer reported that it was the first project where the department received money before any technical sanction. So here, state officials violated their own rules of project execution and implemented a project further violating the rules and regulations.
This clearly illustrates the relationship between state actors and Guru and their religious organisations. Guru is all pervasive and manages all – from local bureaucracy to ministers and chief minister of the state in a such a way that no one counters his actions violating the constitution. In fact, at a later stage, the state itself aligned with Guru and became a partner in violating the state’s own rules and contributed in ruining a river ecosystem of which state is a custodian.
The article illustrates how the Manjra River Rejuvenation project was ill-conceived and poorly planned. As a result, after spending Rs. 70 million, the project damaged the river ecosystem and could not deliver a single drop of water to the citizens against the promise of a permanent solution resolving the water crisis of the city.
The article argues that the case of Manjra River Rejuvenation is not merely a technological blunder or result of poor planning. It illustrates the power of Guru and religious organisations in raising resources from multiple stakeholders, managing range of state and non-state actors – from local collector, chief engineer to ministers and chief minister of the state, violating multiple rules and regulations in the light of the day and actively involving state actors to contribute towards the ruination of a river ecosystem of which the state is a custodian, and covering-up the massive failure in delivering promises and their ability to celebrate the same as success.
Though here I am commenting on nature and character of religious organisations in a limited capacity, more such studies are required revealing modus operandi of religious organisations and their enterprising Gurus who are increasingly interfering in the domain of water conservation (and in other such development initiatives) posing themselves as experts and saviour of people with their questionable knowledge claims.
Bhattacharya, Srirupa (2019): “Groundwater, Gurus, and Governmentality: Seva in the Neo-liberal Development Regime in India”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 54, No 32, pp 51-59.
Chari, M and Sharma, S (2016): “Can Maharashtra prevent drought by digging rivers? The government and some NGOs think so. But ecologists disagree”, Scroll, August 9. Retrieved from: https://scroll.in/article/812718/can-maharashtra-prevent-drought-by-digging-rivers
CWC (2015): “National Register of large Dam”, Central Water Commission.
Ghadyalpatil (2016): Water train and beyond – how Latur is tackling drought. Retrieved from http://www.livemint.com/Politics/JddufMwmfdkAjuVYEJ8oNL/Water-train-and-beyondhow-Latur-is-tackling-drought.html
GoM (1976): “The Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976”, Low and Judiciary Department, Government of Maharashtra, The Government General Press, Mumbai.
GoM (2013): “Guidelines: Nullah deepening and desiltation of existing cement nullah bandh and construction of new cement nullah bandh with deepening”, Government Resolution No. RaKruYo-2011/Case No.72/JaLa-7, Mumbai: Water Conservation Department, Government of Maharashtra.
GoM (2015): “Implementing River Rejuvenation program with people participation under Jalyukta Shivar Campaign by convergence of different schemes”, Government Resolution No. NaPuYo-2015/Case No203/JaLa-7, Mumbai: Water Conservation Department, Government of Maharashtra.
IMD (2016): “2016 Southwest Monsoon End of Season Report”, Pune: India Meteorological Department, Earth System Science Organization (ESSO), Ministry of Earth Sciences.
Jamwal, N (2016): “Playing with water: Karnataka’s controversial river rejuvenation plan”, Hindustan Times, May 23. Retrieved from http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/playing-with-water-karnataka-s-controversial-river-rejuvenation-plan/story-ZRTPnQaamPVY1cVlhYPC6K.html
Loksatta (Marathi) (2016): “Laturkaranche bhagirath prayatn”, Lokasatta, April 9. Retrieved from https://www.loksatta.com/maharashtra-news/1-core-93-lakh-funds-collected-manjira-river-deepening-1224987/
Sakal (Marathi) (2016): “Laturachaya Kamasathi Tin Kotinchi Madat”, May 6.
Samvada (2016): “RSS Sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat appreciates #JalayuktLatur Project, a successful water conservation initiative at Latur” Retrieved from http://samvada.org/2016/news/jalayuktlatur/
Scroll (2016): “Maharashtra minister draws criticism for clicking ‘insensitive’ selfie in drought-hit Latur”, Scroll, April 18. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/latest/806799/maharashtra-minister-draws-criticism-for-clicking-insensitive-selfie-in-drought-hit-latur
Thomas (2016): “Let down by govt, Latur’s thirsty residents step up”, The Hindu Business Line, April 15. Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/let-down-by-govt-laturs-thirsty-residents-step-up/article8480462.ece
Tiwale, S and Deshmukh, A (2017): Combating Drought with a Haphazard Measure: A Story of Manjra River Rejuvenation”, India Water Portal. Retrieved from https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/combating-drought-haphazard-measure-story-manjra-river-rejuvenation-0
WRD (2015): “State Water Resource Plan: Godavari Basin – Draft Plan”, Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra.
WRD (2017): “Integrated State Water Plan for Godavari Basin in Maharashtra Volume – I: Integrated Plan”, Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra.
Note: A version of this article was published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 55, issue 24, p 57-60.
 Interview with members of Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS) and Art of Living (AoL) volunteers Makarand Jadhav and Mahadev Gomare.
 In summer of 2016, Latur had occupied headlines in national news coverage because of draught and train carrying water – Jaldoot. So, several newspapers and news channels were reporting from ground.
 The complete name is Sarvajanik Jalyukta Latur Vyawasthapan Samiti but often referred as Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS).
 This does not include environmental water use – water needed for natural ecosystem.
 Closed basin is defined as a basin where water use has exceeded or approaching to the total renewable water available in the basin.
 Interview with water supply engineer of Latur Municipal Corporation.
 A well constructed in a river channel to lift the water using pump.
 These were the old infrastructure and over the period, Latur municipal corporation had gradually shifted to Manjra dam and associated treatment capacity to meet its demand.
 Interview with water supply engineer.
 Interview with WRD Executive Engineer Mr. Chishti.
 Based on information available on Jalyukta Latur mobile app.
 Interview with Engineer from Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra.