Maharashtra's elusive water plan

Marathwada, a region in Maharashtra that has faced drought for 3 years in a row is finally receiving rainfall. Dinodia/Getty Images
01 August, 2016

This monsoon in Marathwada is a hopeful one—in most parts, there has been adequate rain. The year’s crop promises to make up for four years of drought in this region of Maharashtra.

Despite this optimism, the state remains unprepared to deal with droughts and their consequences. Most of the government's efforts at drought mitigation have simply been eyeball-grabbing gestures. Take the supply of water via railway wagons to Latur city. A year-long research study carried out jointly by Mumbai-based think tank Observer Research Foundation and NGO Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, showed that there were problems with distribution; Dalit bastis, settlements of nomadic communities, and slum dwellers did not receive water. Another instance is the deepening and widening of river beds under the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, a state-government water conservation programme. In a PIL he filed on 18 May that was accepted by the National Green Tribunal, the Latur-based environmental lawyer Shriram Kulkarni deemed the programme “ecologically devastating.” Yet another example is the prohibitory orders around some water bodies in Latur that, in an attempt to prevent water riots, make it unlawful for more than five people to congregate around a water body.

All these measures ignore the core issue of drought management: that of having a credible estimation of water availability and planning around it.

Eleven years after the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) Act, despite three changes in government and raps from the Bombay High Court on orders following PILs, and four crushing years of drought later, Maharashtra still does not have an integrated state water plan.

The water plan is meant to provide a broad, overarching framework that will facilitate the functioning of all government departments and public bodies dealing with water—such as irrigation, agriculture, water resources, groundwater survey, water users’ cooperatives, among others. Suresh Kulkarni, the secretary of MWRRA, a quasi judicial body responsible for regulation, allocation, management and utilisation of limited water resources in the state, said, “If we had the plan in place and had worked according to it, the drought would not have had such a disastrous impact on people in the last three-four years.”

The authority Kulkarni heads was set up in 2005, through the MWRRA Act. The first and most important of its tasks was to prepare an integrated state water plan—broadly, it involves a mapping of river basins and ground water across the state to arrive at the existing water availability, and to draw up rules around its usage and distribution. This was to be revised every five years.

According to the act, the MWRRA is also the authority that is supposed to vet proposals for projects that need water, basing decisions solely on availability of the resource and requirement of the project. But in the absence of an integrated state water plan and credible data, even this function has remained unfulfilled.

For all practical purposes, the authority is a caged parrot, with no agency of its own. Though its mandate involves working in collaboration with several ministries and departments, the MWRRA itself depends on the state’s water resources department for funds and procedural matters. The department does not have people who understand watersheds, river systems, ecology and cropping patterns, a source in the MWRRA admitted to me; the department's role as ringmaster severely clips the wings of the MWRRA, where interdisciplinary functioning is the core idea. The regulatory authority also functions with a staff of 20 against the sanctioned 41 posts—it has been this way since it was established.

This April, in the middle of the drought, three posts on its board—including that of the chairman—fell vacant as members retired. A government—running for cover from court strictures following a PIL filed in 2014 by Pradeep Purandare, a water expert and former professor at the Water and Land Management Institute in Aurangabad—urgently issued an order on 17 June reconstituting the authority; a mandated committee will discharge duties till the vacant posts are filled.

Meanwhile, the powerful quasi-judicial authority waits for the state water council to prod the state water board to, in turn, prod the river basin authorities to further prod the sub-basin authorities to submit credible error-free reports on water availability for the region. Eventually, these will be brought together to give us the elusive water plan.

“We are following up with all the concerned bodies—river basin agencies, state water board, groundwater authority...we are pursuing them for plans, data,” Kulkarni told me, highlighting the MWRRA’s helpless position.

Despite the number of years that have passed since the law was enacted, the MWRRA has no rules that guides its implementation. The water resources department prepared a set of rules in 2012 following an order from the high court, but it was found to be contradictory to the provisions of the Act. The department had to eventually withdraw these rules.

Water users’ associations—citizen bodies that allow for decentralised, participatory management and distribution of water—are a crucial part of the framework that is to be enabled by an integrated state water plan. Such associations, and a water resources regulatory authority, were part of the conditions that the state agreed to when it availed a Rs-1800 crore loan from the World Bank in 2003.

In the months following this loan for the Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project (a project aimed at sustainable development of water resources), 1545 water users association were registered under the irrigation department; there are several more registered under the co-operative department, but hardly any water users associations are functional today.

Although exceptions, such as Khudawadi in Osmanabad district, are hard to come by when it comes to functional associations, they show exactly how the MWRRA is unable to carry out its functions.

Residents of the village told me about how their water distribution woes were resolved after the association was formed in 1992. The water tax collected by the association was spent largely on employing four security guards to maintain vigil on the canal network and to prevent leakages.

However, this summer, the guards were dismissed; the water resources department had decided that there was not enough water to be spared for the farmers in Khudawadi even before the dams ran dry. Khudawadi stopped getting canal water, and the water users’ association could do precious little.

“What was essentially an issue of water management was converted into disaster management,” said Purandare. It is on orders pertaining to his 2014 PIL demanding an integrated state water plan that the current state government has been making some right noises lately about the integrated state water plan.

For instance, the state’s water council, headed by the chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, met for the first time since the law was enacted only after the PIL was filed. At this meeting, it asked the state water board headed by the chief secretary to collate five river-basin plans pertaining to Maharashtra and present it before the council.

At a state water council meeting on 19 November 2015, the water board presented the Godavari river basin plan. “Work on the plan had been outsourced to eight different agencies. The compilation had several purposeful errors...It was horrendous! ,” said Purandare. For instance, it assumed that evaporation across the districts was the same. Following Purandare's suggestion, Fadnavis constituted a committee to oversee preparation of the integrated state water plan in April 2016; he had then said the proposal for the water plan would be submitted in three months’ time.

There are several roadblocks to arriving at a plan though—ones that will not get resolved in a months' time, when the deadline draws in.

For one, hydrology data is a problem: any project requires a water-availability certificate—a document issued on the basis of the availability of water in the dam and at present, respective regional chief engineers are tasked with issuing these certificates. Both Purandare and Seema Kulkarni from SOPPECOM, a non-governmental organization working towards sustainable use of natural resources, posit that engineers have no understanding of water systems, leave aside complex inter-basin matters. These certificates have been issued on an ad hoc basis, and projects sanctioned as per electoral compulsions, creating a situation where, in some cases, the irrigated area is greater than the water held in storage by dams.

The MWRRA Act also makes river-basin agencies the basic blocks for studying and planning water availability and use, as opposed to irrigation development corporations that hold centre stage now. The former requires personnel from multiple disciplines from ecology to agriculture to riverine systems to meteorological sciences; the latter merely has civil engineers.

When, on hearing Purandare’s PIL, in a landmark order, the high court ordered the government to set up river basin agencies, an ordinance was formulated overnight. It rechristened the irrigation development corporations; they were to now be referred to as river-basin agencies. This is alarming in light of the responsibilities of a river basin authority in providing drinking water, supply to industry, domestic water supply—things other than irrigation.

Despite promises by the chief minister and others, as well as the procedural measures initiated at the behest of the court, nothing is being done to put in place a system that is responsive to calamities such as drought. There’s also little effort at gathering data that can help prepare the integrated water plan. For instance, the state Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency’s (GSDA) last detailed report identifying over-exploited watersheds came out in 2012. The agency has estimates for 2013-14; groundwater table data for 2014-15; and very little thereafter. This, when almost 40 percent irrigation in Marathwada is dependent on ground water sources.

Climate change is already extracting a heavy price on farmers in the state—the numerous extreme weather events of the past three or so years bear this out. This monsoon, too, is not without its problems. N Chattopadhyay, the deputy director general of meteorology at the Indian Meteorological Department in Pune, said isolated pockets with huge variation in temporal and spatial distribution of rainfall is a concern.

In Osmanabad's Kalamb taluka, for instance, where a young farming couple committed suicide at the end of June this year, rainfall has been largely scanty for the last four years. Some other talukas have received excess rainfall, washing away much of the season's first sowing.

Referring to the variation in isolated pockets, Chattopdhyay said, “If this continues into next year as well, we could say with some certainty that it’s climate change at work.”

While the monsoons are a relief this year, they cannot be the only source of water for the state. An integrated water plan, an independently functional MWRRA, and a clear understanding of where the state’s water level stands are the bare minimum requirement to prepare for the drought, and even these have yet to be initiated.