In June 2019, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis told reporters that a blueprint of Marathwada Water Grid project is being prepared by the state government. Two months later, he said problems of the drought-hit region would be history once the project is in place. Three months later, Fadnavis was no longer the chief minister of the state.
In 2016, Fadnavis had mooted the water grid project, when the drought in Marathwada was so acute that more than 4,000 tankers had to be deployed in the region. Costing the exchequer Rs 25,000 crore, it envisions an integrated piped network connecting 11 dams in the region to ensure year-long water supply for drinking, irrigation and industrial purposes.
However, the new government under chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is reviewing feasibility of the ambitious project. Speaking to BBC Marathi, Water Supply Minister in the Uddhav government Gulabrao Patil in February 2020 said that the project has not been stayed, but the government is in the process of reviewing it.
Comprising eight districts, Marathwada, or the Aurangabad division of Maharashtra recieves scanty rainfall of 700 millimetres. It is a drought-prone region, where water is considered the biggest asset. With April just a week away, water supply, even in Marathwada's biggest town of Aurangabad, comes down to once a week. Bulky, imposing water tankers navigate through the city, selling water illegally to the residents, because the corporation is unable to meet the demands of a growing city.
Sanjeev Unhale, senior journalist and activist based in Aurangabad, said the daily trade of water tankers in Aurangabad during the months of April, May and June varies anywhere between Rs 30-35 lakh. "Hundreds of tankers run dozens of daily trips through the day. They extract groundwater from private borewells. Even though the groundwater recharge is depleting, the practice is rampant. If you have a bit of capital to invest, selling water is the most lucrative trade here," Unhale said.
A 2,000-litre water tanker costs Rs 500 during peak summer. If used judiciously, a family of four usually ends up purchasing a tanker every week. "A daily wage labourer earns Rs 6000 a month. It means they spend one third of their monthly income on a necessity, which ideally should be their right,” Unhale explained.
To rid the region of this hex, Fadnavis had come up with the Marathwada Water Grid scheme. It is a variant of the river linking project. Under the project, The 11 dams that will be connected include Jayakwadi, (Aurangabad), Yeldari (Parbhani), Siddheshwar (Hingoli), Majalgaon and Manjra (Beed), Lower Terna and Sina Kolegaon (Osmanabad), Dhanegaon (Latur), among others.
It aims to source water from sufficient area to the deficient one. At least, 76 towns, 79 talukas and more than 12,000 villages of the Marathwada region – spread across 64,000 square kilometres with a population of 1.87 crore – are supposed to benefit from the Marathwada Water Grid project.
However, the project, believe experts, runs the risk of being a waste of taxpayer's money.
Aurangabad-based Pradeep Purandare, water expert and retired associate professor at Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), said the entire project is divided into ten parts. The first eight parts pertain to the internal water grid system of Marathwada. The last two deal with getting water from Konkan region, as well as, the catchment area of Krishna River.
"The assumption of the project is that the dams would have water to be transferred from one place to another. But Marathwada has a water dispute with Nasik and Nagar. And the region itself gets limited water. Even Marathwada's biggest dam of Jayakwadi does not fill up every year. How will you transfer water when the dams hardly fill up," wondered Purandare.
In the upstream of the Jayakwadi dam, there are 34 medium and big irrigation projects and hundreds of small projects. An analysis of the last 43 years (between the period 1975 to 2017) shows that for 24 years, or 56 percent of the time, water availability in the dam was inadequate during the Rabi season - which is when farmers sow the winter crops. The period between 2012-2015, all four years were especially bad. With erratic monsoons and sordid effects of climate change, observers say the bad years will outnumber the good ones, which means the other dams in Marathwada will be of no help.
In October 2019, when farmers start preparing for the Rabi season, six of the 11 dams of Marathwada were at dead storage.
Purandare said that when the water availability is uncertain, the transfer of limited water could lead to chaos and politicisation of the issue. "Today, specific dam is supposed to be the source for a specific district. A politician might use his influence to ensure more water for his district while depriving others of their rightful share. It could be chaotic and trigger water disputes," he added.
The entire model of Marathwada Water Grid project is based on Israel. Israel's national water company Mekorot Development and Enterprise is carrying out the master plan for technology of implementation. The company has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Maharashtra. "There is a difference between Israel enforcing a plan and us emulating it. The scheme requires a certain law, discipline, and alertness. We do not have that," Purandare added.
The project entails a pipeline of 1,300 kilometers which will require serious maintenance. Experts wonder if the state and its officials have the integrity and competence to carry that out sincerely enough.
The existing 40-kilometer pipeline - from Jayakwadi to Aurangabad - is operating only at 50 percent capacity, triggering criminal wastage of water. Purandare asked if there are leakages and illegal connections on the current pipelines, "How are we to assume that the Water Grid pipeline would be immune from it?"
Even in Latur, councillors don't know how much of that water is wasted when it's being transferred from the dam to people's homes. "The water is lifted from Dhanegaon dam, but how much of it actually reaches the people and how much of it is wasted is something we do not know," said a councillor on the condition of anonymity. "We need to install water meters for that and the corporation does not have money."
The Israel model is not just difficult to emulate because of the state's inability to execute a plan so ambitious. Atul Deulgaokar, a senior environment journalist based in Marathwada's Latur district, said that Israel is a country which does not have problems related to energy and capital. "The Water Grid scheme is energy intensive, which means it will require heavy usage of electricity to pump water through the pipelines. In times of climate change, we have to think about conserving energy. This project does exactly the opposite. There are certain districts where the topography is such that we can use gravity for water transfers. That is the way to go forward," Deulgaokar said.
Marathwada Water Grid project is following the hybrid model, in which the company implementing the scheme will be investing 60 percent of the money. Experts say when the companies invest money, they expect returns, and no municipal corporation in Marathwada is in a position to pay more for water.
In July 2019, Latur's municipal corporation had a debt of Rs 350 crores, of which Rs 70 crore was just water bills. Councillor Ashok Govindpurkar said they spend Rs 12 crore a year for water. The recovery, however, is not even 10 percent of what they spend. "Half the expenses on water are for electricity bills because the water is pumped from dams built outside the city," he said.
Urban local bodies across Maharashtra are in the same situation. There are 264 of them – 26 Municipal Corporations (MCs), 231 Municipal Councils and 7 Cantonment boards. The fourth finance commission report of Maharashtra that came out in 2015 said the "total deficit for Municipal Corporations and Municipal councils in Maharashtra comes to Rs 13,673.71 crores". It also noted, "During the period FY 2008 to 2014(BE), the (state) assistance to Urban Local Bodies has grown by almost 1.8 times."
With added electricity bills, the water grid project will only increase their financial burden. Instead, Purandare said, the current Maharashtra government should focus on improving the efficiency of existing schemes, betterment of infrastructure that are already in place and water conservation at the demand level. "The government should seriously reconsider this project," Purandare said and added, "It will not quench Marathwada’s thirst, and will make things worse. It is an absolute waste of money."
The author is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India's 'WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme'
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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2020 12:19:55 IST