A Trickle and a FloodArghya Ganguly reports on a low-cost, citizen-led water conservation project in Shirpurtaluka in north Maharashtra that is ensuring farmers in the area have as much water asthey need.The laser fountain show is about to begin. The floodlights at the amphitheatre of the MukeshPatel Recreation Park in Shirpur town in north Maharashtra go dim. A married pair gigglesand tries to squeeze closer. Music starts playing as the fountain sprays water into variousshapes and the laser beams a green light on a couple dancing the waltz. The laser fountain, a15-minute spectacle of water and light, is the main attraction of the recreation park, whichhas various other rides.The giggling couple, Krishna and Geeta, sitting on the amphitheatre steps identifies with thestory — a celebration of love and water.Krishna, like many others in his village Taradi, had been forced to take up a job cuttingsugarcane in Gujarat because the lack of water for irrigation had dried up his crops. But thewater situation had improved recently after check dams had been built in Taradi and Krishnawas able to return home. He will, very soon, be able to grow two to three crops on his landlike his friend Sangram Singh Rajput in the neighbouring village of Bhorkheda.***Seven years ago the groundwater level in Bhorkheda had dropped to 600 feet and less, andRajput’s two borewells had gone dry. “Things were very difficult,” says Rajput. “My fatherused to work in the fields during the day and drive trucks at night to make ends meet.” Butthe construction of check dams had helped raise groundwater levels by 400-450 feet. In twoyears, water was available in the borewells at a depth of 60 feet.Rajput owns 550 acres of land on which he grows papaya, okra and tomato. With plentifulwater resulting in a bumper crop, Rajput has built a bungalow, bought three tractors andtrucks. “I’ve been making Rs 9-10 lakh on each crop,” says Rajput, wearing a broad smile on his face and a thick gold chain around his neck. Sardar Prabhu Vanjari, an 80-year-old Adivasi farmer from Asli, a nearby village in Shirpur taluka, is sitting few steps below Krishna and Geeta. Vanjari has seen worse times. “Eight years back there was nothing to eat,” says Vanjari, misty-eyed, “For one meal a day, our family of five had to go 15 km to Bordara village and literally beg. Ifanyone had surplus they would give us. One couldn’t even kill hunger with water if food
wasn’t available for the day because there was shortage of drinking water.” Vanjari says thatit wasn’t just his family but most of the 2,000-odd people of his village who slept most nightson an empty stomach. But all that was until Suresh Khanapurkar turned up in Asli in 2004.Khanapurkar had then just retired as senior geologist in Maharashtra government’s GroundWater Survey and Development Agency. On the insistence of Shirpur’s MLA Amrish Patel,Khanapurkar took up the post of director of water conservation at Priyadarshini SahakariSoot Girni, a spinning mill. Khanapurkar’s initial idea was to concentrate on building checkdams, which are meant to store rain water. This would work well in Shirpur where it rains550 mm on an average in a year.***On a visit to survey a site in Asli, he bumped into Vanjari. “He asked me what I was up to,”Khanapurkar, 65, remembers. “When I told him that I was thinking of making small dams, hegave me an idea that became the main reason for the success of this project.”Vanjari told Khanapurkar that it wasn’t enough to just build small dams to raise groundwaterlevels. Water channels had to be widened and deepened for the rainwater to seep into dryaquifers below the surface of the ground. If this wasn’t done, then the force of the waterwould wash away the bunds. Only then would water accumulate underground and thehydrostatic pressure help raise groundwater levels. “What a genius! And he [Vanjari] hasonly studied up to the second standard,” says Khanapurkar.Khanapurkar explains how he applied Vanjari’s idea and got a “fascinating breakthrough”.After deepening and widening the stream by about 100 feet, Khanapurkar constructed a seriesof check dams 400 metres apart. This helped to remove “all hurdles in the way of water”, anoperation he describes as an “angioplasty in water conservation”. The capacity of a check dam usually ranges between five lakh litres and 30 lakh litres. Shirpur gets an average of 550 mm of rains in a year, but the rainfall pattern is such that one year of plentiful rains is followed by two years of insufficient rains. To overcome this problem Khanapurkar calculated the amount of drinking water required in the village and the amount required to grow a second or third crop on thecultivable land. “I totalled everything and multiplied it by three. This way I got how muchwater was needed to be stored for three years. Now if there is drought for two years there isno problem. If there is flood, too, there is no problem because I’ve widened and deepened thewaterways. The excess water will be accommodated and used in the drought area,” he says.Three million litres of water from last year’s rainfall have been arrested in each of the sixdams in Asli, enough to last the next two summers. Initially, there was some resistance from
farmers because building dams meant excavating the land and farmers had to let go off theirfield for the duration of the construction work. But Khanapurkar and Patel convinced them.The mud excavated in the process was used to level the fields and construct roads. In the lasteight years, 95 check dams have been built in 35 of the 149 villages of Shirpur taluka.Construction is underway in another village and will be completed before the monsoon hits.One dam, requiring 500 metre of land to be excavated, costs up to Rs 25 lakh. LegislatorPatel finances the “angioplasty” from the surplus from his spinning mill and various trusts.In 2010, Vanjari earned Rs 4 lakh from his cotton field.***Approximately, “Rs 2 lakh crore (some say more) have been spent since Independence inMaharashtra on agriculture” says the Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2011-12, but only 17per cent of the state is irrigated. Last month, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asked theCentre for Rs 2,281 crore to tackle the drought. In its presentation to the Prime Minister’sOffice, the state government has identified 15 districts as drought-hit. Parts of north and westMaharashtra, and Vidarbha are the most affected by the drought. The irrigation potentialcreated (up to June 2011) was 6.37 million hectares while the irrigation potential utilised was4.66 million hectares. In other words, the accumulated water stored in dams in Maharashtracould’ve irrigated 6.37 million hectares but actually reached only 4.66 million hectares.Manish Jain, member of Legislative Council from Belgaum, says that it doesn’t matter howmuch money the state has asked the Centre for and how much will be sanctioned. “We’veseen loads of money being pumped into drought-hit areas for decades but the money is onlytransferred on paper. It does not reach the affected areas. There are lots of lacunae in thesystem,” says Jain.Sometimes, it doesn’t help even when the money reaches the ground level. Khanapurkar hashad to dismantle at least 12 government-built dams in Shirpur because they “were clearlybuilt with bogus materials. There was no cement and sand, just stones. Thus they didn’t havethe strength to arrest water”.On hearing of Chavan’s plea for grants for the state, a Congress MP from Delhi recentlyerupted: “Western Maharashtra is being hyped because political leaders such as deputy chiefminister Ajit Pawar, home minister R R Patil and rural development minister Jayant Patilrepresent these districts.”But the farmers in Shirpur, who have relatives and friends in severely-drought affected Sanglidistrict in western Maharashtra, feel that “no one speaks of the more burning issue: casteism”.“More than corruption, it is casteism that is the primary reason for the abysmal state offarmers in Maharashtra. A few years back, before the check dams came to our rescue, we toowere at the receiving end of casteism. We got scant respect from the state governmentbecause we had Adivasis and low-caste Marathis residing here,” says a farmer. “Why do you
think Rahul Gandhi was only brought to Satara district to meet the drought-afflictedfarmers?” he continues angrily. Gandhi had visited two villages in Satara district last April.The farmer reckons that it was because Satara has “powerful high-caste people like in Nashikand Pune”. He should’ve gone and met the farmers in “Jath and Atpade taluka in Sanglidistrict which want to shift to Karnataka” the farmers in Shirpur say.A few months ago, a car pulled up at Khanapurkar’s door. It was a farmer from Diganchi inAtpadi, a town in Sangli district, who owned 200 acres but had lost Rs 40-45 lakh theprevious year because there was no water to irrigate his fields. Khanapurkar surveyed thefields and told the well-off farmer that there was ample water in the village for his land andthat he could ensure it was available in a couple of months. Khanapurkar then gave thefarmer an estimate of how much it would take to build the check dams. The farmer hadsecond thoughts. “Why should I do the government’s work?” he told Khanapurkar later.The reason why Shirpur isn’t at the mercy of nature, why the cotton plants grow morehealthily; why the girl and boy waltz in gay abandon atop a green-illuminated spray isbecause the farmers of Shirpur chose not to wait for the establishment to come to their aid.They got the angioplasty done on their own.