In a newsroom interaction with Firstpost journalists in March, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan shared some statistics pertaining to irrigation in the state. “Of the land that is tilled, only 18 percent is irrigated. Now if you compare that, Punjab is 98 percent irrigated, Haryana is 90 percent, UP is 60 percent, Bihar is 60 to 70 percent or in that range. The national average of land that is irrigated is between 45 and 46 percent. We're at 18 percent. Only Kerala is lower than us. 18 percent is just bad.”
What he didn’t mention is that Maharashtra is also the state with the maximum number of dams. According to the National Register of Large Dams, available on the website of the Central Water Commission, Maharashtra has 1,845 dams (35 percent of India’s large dams). Madhya Pradesh comes next with 906 dams. Maharashtra is also ahead of every other state with regards to projects under construction. Currently, it has 152 projects underway. No other state manages to reach the three figure mark in this category. Jharkhand is the next best with 29.
How is a large dam defined? A dam with a height of more than 15 metres or a storage capacity of more than 60 million cubic metres, according to the National Register of Large Dams. Dams with heights between 10-15 meters are also included in the list.
Maharashtra has spent money building the largest dam infrastructure in the country, which has actually turned out to be the least efficient in terms of providing irrigation to cropped area. This is what Parineeta Dandekar of the organisation South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People calls the “dam scam.”
Let’s compare Maharashtra with some of the states that Chavan mentions: Punjab has 16 large dams, Haryana has one, Uttar Pradesh has 130 and Bihar has 26. All these states have achieved greater irrigation efficiency with fewer dams.
So what has gone wrong in Maharashtra?
When a dam becomes an end, rather than a means to an end, what you get is a grand water and irrigation system on paper and water scarcity on the ground. The big-dams model of Maharashtra has largely worked in favour of the contractor lobby at the expense of needy farmers, water experts and activists that Firstpost interviewed said.
“The overactive, pro-dam lobby is responsible for the state of affairs,” Parineeta Dandekar said in a telephone interview. “The lobby is influential among politicians, bureaucrats and the administration and is more interested in the infrastructure and contracts rather than water reaching the people.”
Prithviraj Chavan told Firstpost that most of the rainwater in the maximum rainfall area of the Western Ghats is lost because it flows to the sea. A large part of the state sits atop the Deccan plateau, so water has to be pumped up, which in turn means expending energy. Given the topography, the big-dams model may not be the most efficient way to conserve water, though it may be the most efficient for skimming money.
The best way to conserve water would be to stop rainwater at different places through small structures like check dams and anicuts, water conservationist Rajendra Singh told Firstpost. Small structures are more efficient at holding water runoff, which in turn recharges ground water. “A community-driven, decentralized water management system is the best system to stop corruption, encroachment, pollution and over-extraction of water resources,” Singh said.
However, since a community-driven model involves a participatory approach and more transparency it is not in the interests of the contractor lobby. Also, the amount of money in constructing small structures is negligible compared to big dams. Singh, who has worked on water revival projects in Marathwada, said it costs between Rs 2 lakh to Rs 20 lakh to build a check dam or anicut.
Compare that to the costs involved in building large dams. A 2012 Maharashtra government report on irrigation gives details of the cost overruns. The original provision for the Renapur project in Latur was Rs 12.7 crore, which has increased to Rs 89.35 crore, a 700 percent increase. Similarly, the Bhima (Ujni) project in Solapur saw a 7,000 percent increase, from Rs 31.18 crore to Rs 2,184.17 crore. Time overruns are another issue.
Singh cited the example of a dam he visited in the Sahayadaris, which was commissioned four years ago. “Not one inch of land has been irrigated by this dam,” he said. As per his estimates, of the money skimmed off a dam project, 70 percent goes to contractors and 10 percent to politicians, while the remaining amount, or 20 percent, is the actual amount of work done.
Prithviraj Chavan told the Firstpost team that the most lucrative part of a dam is building the wall: “The contractors are only interested in that. Who’s interested in rehabilitating people?”
Other factors responsible are unrealistic projections of the potential of irrigation projects and the shoddy construction work. Vijay Deevan, a civic activist and former member of the Marathwada Development Board, said the original project documents almost always overestimate the irrigation potential of projects. Jayakwadi dam, the largest in Marathwada, was envisaged with a capacity to irrigate 2,72,000 hectares of land when it was conceived in 1965. This was scaled down to 1,42,000 hectares. The dam actually irrigates around 28,000 hectares.
The current efficiency of big dams in Maharashtra is just 23 percent, according to Deevan. Increasing the efficiency of the current projects can bring more crop land under irrigation.
Pradeep Purandare, a water and irrigation specialist based in Aurangabad said, “Those who have influence grab the land closest to the dam and the water for themselves, leaving nothing for the tailenders.” The tailenders, in physical and socio-economic terms, are the small and marginal farmers.
The reason for the distribution system, the network of canals that take water to the fields, being in a mess is because the contractors don’t do a good job, deliberately or otherwise. “Money is paid out, fake bills are prepared, but the work is not done,” Purandare said.
This is the fifth segment of a 13-part series on Marathwada’s drought.
Part 6: A farmer-activist narrates his experience of interacting with families of farmers who committed suicide in Latur
Read the previous parts of the series here: