Marathwada’s drought: Shirpur, Jal Biradari projects show impact of small local initiatives

In a state where large but ineffective state projects and weak water management laws have combined to exacerbate the effects of drought, a clutch of activists, hydrologists and village leaders have begun to explore the prospect of implementing small, cost-effective water conservation efforts to beat the scarcity. Firstpost examined two such projects – the so called Shirpur Pattern of Development, and Rashtriya Jal Biradari’s river revival scheme – that appear to have worked.

 Marathwada’s drought: Shirpur, Jal Biradari projects show impact of small local initiatives

A water conservation system in Shirpur. Photo courtesy: Amrish Patel

A model study

In the middle of severe water crisis in Maharashtra, there is one taluka that is water tanker-free. Every house, agricultural field and industry in Shirpur, Dhule district have water.

Shirpur takula, in the north of Maharashtra and close to Nandurbar and Jalgaon, has been given the moniker of ‘Green Taluka.’ Why the name?

Shirpur which was otherwise an obscure town has become a case study now. Local Congress MLC Amrish Patel came up with now popularly known as the ‘Shipur Pattern of Development.’ Fourteen years back, troubled by the acute water crisis in Shirpur, Patel wanted to use rainwater conservation methods and construct small dams to meet the water demands of the taluka.

While most places in Marathwada have parched lands and dry water taps, farmers in Shirpur boast of cultivating not one, but three to four crops in a year. During April-May, cultivating cotton is considered to be a risk as it requires a lot of water, but in Shirpur, the story is different. The farmers start sowing cotton seeds towards end of April, even before the arrival of monsoon.

Water tankers are seen frequently in the nearby taluka of Sindkheda, Chopada and Amalner. Even Jalgaon district, from where Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse and Water Conservation Minister Girish Mahajan district come from, is not free from water woes.

Like most places in Marathwada, Shirpur too is not unfamiliar with water shortage. The area receives an

average rainfall of around 650mm with most of the rainwater draining into Tapi river. Amrish Patel with the help of geologist Suresh Khanapurkar devised a plan to trap this rainwater. Patel and Khanapurkar organized an 11-member team and started building cement check dams around nullahs.

Groundwater which was found 500 to 700 feet deep is now just 100 feet away.

The project was not entirely unopposed. Initially, farmers were apprehensive of allowing the team to build cement walls, but when they realized that there was no vested interest, they came forward to help us, said Patel.

Congress MLC Amrish Patel

Congress MLC Amrish Patel

Check dams have been built by government agencies all over the state, but most them have failed to achieve the objective. In Shirpur, the dams have water till March. What makes the Shirpur Pattern work?

Explaining the construction of these dams, Khanapurkar told Firstpost, "In 81.20 percent of the state, Deccan basalt rock lies below the top soil. This rocky layer is impermeable and not much water percolates down. Below this layer lies Murrum (red gravel), which holds water and this can be drawn from wells and borewells."

What Khanapurkar and his team did was remove the rocky layer, so that water percolates into murrum. “The nullahs were also widened as more the volume of water, more is the pressure it exerts on soil,” said Khanapurkar.

After the rocky layer was removed, the streams were deepened by at least 20 feet. Small ‘door-less’ concrete dams were constructed. He explained that the weirs (water blocking walls on streams) do not have gates, so the water flows downstream only after the dam is full.

"The volume of water that percolates down in this method is eight times the storage capacity of a check dam. I call this angioplasty of streams, as it recharges the groundwater by removing obstructions through pressure," he said. The geologist stressed that the old methods of water conservation won’t work because of the change in rainfall pattern.

In 2004, Khanapurkar was posted as the senior geologist of Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) in Dhule. Patel, who was then a minister, asked Khanapurkar to quit his job and work for him. Khanapurkar was just six months away from retirement.

"On the last day of my work, Amrishbhai called me up again and renewed his offer. I imposed all sorts of difficult conditions, but he agreed to them all. Today, I regret being so difficult," said an emotional Khanapurkar.

While Khanapurkar gave the technical know-how, Patel set aside Rs 3 crore every year for the project.

Their combination paid off and brought 80% of the land in the 60 villages of Shirpur taluka under irrigation. Activists like Medha Patkar, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Road and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, NCP MP Supriya Sule have visited Shirpur to study the model.

In fact, in November last year, Raghunandan Lahoti, a businessman from Jalna, along with his friends attended a one-day workshop conducted by Khanapurkar. Impressed by the workshop, he traveled to Shirpur along with his wife and son to understand the pattern better. Later, he constructed eight cement dams in Jalna, saving a huge amount of water.

Talking about the advantages, Patel said, “There is no need to displace people. The capital cost is low. So far, we have built 91 check dams with an expenditure of Rs 20 crore and total water conserved is 600 million cubic feet (mcf). The cost to build a medium-sized dam is Rs 80 crore.”

He has set a target of building 20 check dams every year. "Each village should have a check dam,and surface and groundwater storage should be enough to meet the drinking and agricultural needs for three years," he added.

Most farmers in Shirpur testified to the fact that their income has increased significantly because of this model.

Geologist Suresh Khanapurkar

Geologist Suresh Khanapurkar

Suman Dhonde, a farmer from Godi village near Shirpur, told Firstpost, "After a check dam was built, there has been a two-fold increase in my income. The groundwater level in borewell increased. I can plant the second crop even when rainfall was not adequate.”

Another farmer from Shirpur, Vijay Patil considers himself lucky. "Four months after I purchased the farm, they dug up the nearby nullah and water level in the borewell went up. Unfortunately, two years of below average rainfall has dried up the nullah or I could have gone for the third crop," he said.

Interestingly, idea of the Shirpur Pattern came from a farmer in Wanjari. “We were surveying a stream in the village, when Sardar Wanjari asked about our work. He told me point-blank that I would not succeed in increasing groundwater level unless I dug up the stream. Back home, after making several calculations, I arrived at the same conclusion,” said Khanapurkar.

Earlier, labourers from north Maharashtra went to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh looking for daily wage jobs, but now they go to Shirpur.

Shantisagar Jadhav, a farmer from Bhatpura village and his joint family has a 15-acre land. His share is six acres. “Thanks to the Shirpur Pattern, I have cultivated three crops – cotton, wheat and lady finger. Now, I am self-employed and my annual income is around Rs 5 lakh. I make a profit of Rs 2 lakh. MLC Patel is like a god to us,” said Jadhav.

Patel expressed his disappointment regarding the state government not implementing the Shirpur Pattern. He wants the state government to focus on quality educational institutions, hospitals, and job creation.
“I wanted to give back to the society. I am thankful to all whose standard of living has improved due to water conservation efforts in this region,”said Patel.

The impact has been tremendous. Of the 160 villages in the taluka, 100 villages have adopted the Shirpur Pattern. “It’s a man-made drought. There is no need to build big dams. Water should be arrested in the nullah so that the water level increases,” explained Khanapurkar.

He pointed out the state government’s Jalyukta Shivar was being handled by the agriculture department, but it needs the technical expertise of geologists and civil engineers. It’s a waste of money and energy too, he added.

Khanapurkar said that the whole system of water conservation needs a complete overhaul. The total cost of building one cement wall is Rs 14 lakh. “Currently, the government sanctions funds for only building the weir, but not for digging. Secondly, this is a technical work. It will have to be done by machines and cannot be undertaken under the employment guarantee scheme (EGS). Moreover, the agriculture department should not be allowed to build check dams. They don’t have a single civil engineer."

Revival of rivers

1.5 km work of stream deepening and widening undertaken by Naam foundation along with Jal Biradari in Jalna district. Image courtesy: Suneel Joshi

1.5 km work of stream deepening and widening undertaken by Naam foundation along with Jal Biradari in Jalna district. Image courtesy: Suneel Joshi

Away from Shirpur, Rashtriya Jal Biradari (RJB), an independent network of volunteers, spearheaded by well-known water conservationist Rajendra Singh, has been concentrating on reviving dried up rivers in Marathwada.

In the last couple of years, Singh has been part of watershed management projects across Marathwada. He has worked alongside NGOs, farmers and research groups that contribute by funding, bringing manpower and resources for stream widening and water harvesting.

Osmanabad district’s Kalamb taluka had received 200-215mm rainfall for just four days last year. In February 2015, the RJB surveyed about 10 villages in the taluka and watershed projects were undertaken.

Suneel Joshi, head of RJB’s Maharashtra division, said, “It is an ongoing project, where we have dug up nullahs. We are hoping for a good monsoon so that the nullahs will be able to retain rainwater, which in turn will benefit Osmanabad.”

Water conservationist Rajendra Singh interacting with farmers in Osmnabad during the inaugural function of one of the Jal Biradari project in the district. Image courtesy: Suneel Joshi

Water conservationist Rajendra Singh interacting with farmers in Osmnabad during the inaugural function of one of the Jal Biradari projects in the district. Image courtesy: Suneel Joshi

Singh, who is also an advisor for Jalyukta Shivar, told Firstpost, “The drought situation is really bad and water should be carefully managed. There is not enough groundwater or surface water. Marathwada wouldn’t have faced this drought, if the region had enough reservoirs. If the state can have reserve police and food in case of contingency, then why can’t it reserve water to help the distressed people during drought?”

Three years back, Ranjani village in Osmanabad which had adopted a water revival method under Singh’s guidance, is now benefiting from the technique as rainwater, however little, was retained, said Joshi.

So far, the RJB and villagers have effectively revived rivers like Agrani in Sangli and Mann in drought-prone Satara district.

The group’s ongoing projects include revival of Godavari in Parbhani’s Dharasur village, which has completely dried up. In Latur’s Ausa taluka, Singh along with Pasha Patel, member of the Legislative Council, were able to rejuvenate Tavaraja and Terana rivers in about 70 villages. A project to revive Holna river in Beed district’s Ambejogai taluka has been undertaken with the help of NGO Manav Lok under their drought-relief programme. Also, in Deglur, locals collaborated to widen and deepen a 7.5-8 kilometre-long stream under the project.


“We are not depending on the state for these projects. We got tremendous response and support from the people once they saw the results of our efforts. Our next strategy is to chalk out a plan for the village as a whole and based on that we will focus how we can effectively use our resources,” Joshi said.

Such independent collaborative efforts with the backing of almost 14,500 farmers’ clubs and revival projects undertaken in across all the eight districts in Marathwada can yield results; all the region needs is a good monsoon.

With inputs from Shraddha Ghatge

This is the ninth segment of a 13-part series on Marathwada’s drought.

Part 10: Why debt-ridden farmers are deemed the least credit worthy

Read the previous parts of the series here:
Part 1: Region is parched, impoverished and desperate, but it's a crisis of its own making
Part 2: In the midst of severe economic downturn, private water sellers reap profits in Latur
Part 3: Drought has brought the economy down and is forcing farmers to leave the region
Part 4: Water scarcity has created a region where trust has eroded and left the social fabric frayed
Part 5: Maha has the most dams in the country, but the least effective irrigation network
Part 6: A surveyor of suicides tells the story behind the statistics and the lonely struggle of Indian farmers
Part 7: Will outreach help reduce farmer suicides?
Part 8: 'Toothless' laws lead to water exploitation


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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2016 17:37:10 IST