Tank desiltation scheme in Maharashtra: Policy concerns and way forward

Tank systems of India

Reservoirs, artificial or natural, play an important role in securing water for lives and livelihoods. India has about 580,000 tanks of various sizes spread over across the country, of which 150,000 tanks are located in the semi-arid region of Deccan plateau. In Maharashtra alone, there are highest number (42 per cent) of irrigation dams. Tank systems are greatly useful in recharging groundwater, providing drinking water for livestock, and irrigation for crops. Tanks are also a useful source of silt for fertilisation and construction material and are complex ecological systems that are influenced by a range of factors such as urbanisation, agricultural patterns, land use and managerial institutions around them.

Community-based tank rejuvenation is of critical importance, mainly in drought-prone and arid as well as semi-arid regions and is an essential way in which water can be conserved for both surface and groundwater irrigation. These systems however need to be continuously maintained, repaired and monitored. Local communities took keen interest and undertook collective efforts in periodic repair and maintenance of these structures, in the pre-British era, although ownership remained restricted to the rich in most cases. However, In post-independent India, the tanks came under the ownership of the state government and the consequent lack of integrated approach and poor involvement of communities, led to the decline of these irrigation systems.

Revitalising small dams and water tanks in Maharashtra

Efforts are now being undertaken by the state governments to revitalise the small dams and tank systems and improve their utility. For example, in Maharashtra, activities such as construction of tanks and removal of silt through the Employment Guarantee Scheme (which later converted in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) are regularly taken up during drought years. Desilting and rejuvenating of water bodies was also taken up under the Jalayukt Shivar Yojana initiated in 2016.

The state has now designed and has been implementing a specific program for desiltation known as ‘Gaalmukt Dharan, Gaalyukt Shivar Yojana’ (silt free water reservoirs and silt applied farms) (GDGS) policy since 2017. It has set up a ‘Desilting Policy Committee’ which recommended that 31,459 small dams and water tanks be desilted in the state. The revised state water policy in 2019 promotes GDGS as an important strategy for drought mitigation.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of desiltation activities of tanks on the economy, but very few have looked at the impact of desiltation activities on environment, agriculture, equitable outcomes and institutional mechanisms.

This study 'Gaalmukt Dharan, Gaalmukt Shivar (tank desiltation) scheme in Maharashtra, India: Policy concerns and the way forward' published in the journal Law, Environment and Development evaluates the impacts of tank desiltation activities from two drought prone districts of Marathwada namely Beed and Nanded on agriculture and livelihoods. Seven percolation tanks desilted by the local NGOs from both districts were selected for the study.

The study found that:

  • Small farmers found the silt deposition activity costly and inconvinient

The beneficiary farmers had to bear the transportation cost and the cost of spreading silt and levelling their farms. A large number of farmers (58 percent) who took silt for farm application belonged to the small and marginal category having less than 5 acres of land. Many of them took loans for this from informal sources like friends, relatives or money lenders.

While, large farmers used the highest quantity of silt, the landless and artisans such as pottery makers, local and noncommercial brick kiln makers were left out and did not benefit from the silt that was removed from the tanks.

Absence of proper roads also posed a problem and many a time, the vehicle carrying silt had to travel through another farmer’s land for which many landowners charged money for allowing the vehicle to transit through their farm, which also increased the transportation costs.

  • Water levels improved

Desiltation of the tanks helped recharge the groundwater tables and increased the duration of water availability in the tanks during the summer months due to their increased storage capacity.

  • Silt application improved soil quality

The results obtained from soil analysis showed that the silt application had a mixed impact on soil texture, bulk density and water holding capacity of the farm soil and it varied from the tank to tank.

  • Area under irrigation increased

The area under irrigation (of 33 households) increased from 57 acres to 75.3 acres (32 per cent) in the Kharif season for the three main crops (cotton, soybean, and bajra). A similar trend was observed in the Rabi season where the irrigated area of the three main crops (jowar, wheat and Bengal gram) increased from 18.7 acres to 26.7 acres (43 per cent).

  • Increase in agricultural yield

Farmers reported that silt application increased production by about 50 percent and at the same time reduced the the need for fertilisers thus reducing fertiliser cost by about half. The crops also looked visibly healthy. A shift towards more cash crops with more households cultivating soybean and cotton was observed.

  • Impact on land use

Area under cultivation and seasonally irrigated area increased by 3 percent and 5 percent respectively. The perennially irrigated area showed a significant increase of 112 percent. Rainfed area and wasteland reduced by 7 percent and 11 percent respectively.

  • Fertiliser use showed marginal decrease

A slight reduction in the use of chemical fertilisers was observed for major crops. The per acre cost of chemical fertiliser use reduced by 8 percent and 9 percent in the case of cotton and soybean for the Kharif season while per acre cost reduced by 15 percent and 6 percent for jowar and Bengal gram respectively during the Rabi season. In the case of perennial crops like sugarcane, a reduction in per acre cost by 31 percent was found for chemical fertilisers.

  • Migration from the village declined

A slight reduction in migration was also observed in the area due to improvement in farm yields. For example, in Moha village, farm prices doubled as they became more fertile and had increased water availability. More crop residue also increased fodder for cattle. It also led to creation of additional income generating activities such as fishing.

  • Lack of attention to participation, sustainability and equity issues

The Government Resolution (GR) on GDGS clearly mentions that in each village where tank desiltation is planned, the ‘Village-level Monitoring Committee’ has to be formed for planning, executing and monitoring tank desiltation activities.

However, except for two villages, there was no consultation and the desiltation activities were planned with village key leaders, Sarpanch and their close followers. Diverse groups such as rainfed farmers and small landholders were not included in the planning and implementation of desiltation activities in most villages. Distribution of silt was inequitable with rich farmers having easy access to large quantities of silt in contrast to rainfed and small farmers who lacked the financial resources to procure silt.

Modifications proposed in the Government Resolution (GR)1 on GDGs in Maharashtra

The paper suggests some modifications in the GR-12 and GR-23 issued by the Government of Maharashtra on the GDGS scheme:

  • There is a need to include groundwater recharge potential of the tank as a criterion in addition to present criteria of age of the tank and its command area, while prioritising tank for desiltation.
  • There are situations where the GR prohibits undertaking or selecting the tanks for desiltation work, such as tank with irrigation potential of 0 to 100 hectare, tank area under private ownership of a farmer or when there is no clarity about land ownership. In such cases, amount of silt deposited should also be considered as important criteria for selecting the tank along with the irrigation potential of the tank. If tanks are silted to around 75 percent of its full water storing capacity, then the government should consider desiltation.
  • Tanks under private ownership should also be considered for desiltation as it can lead to groundwater percolation benefits and silt availability. In such cases, the Gram Panchayat can take the written permission from the owners of land prior to submission of the proposal to the Tahsildar.
  • While tanks with more quantity of sand will not be considered for desiltation according to the GR, a list of such tanks should be created and made available.
  • For the effective implementation of the tank desiltation work in villages, the GR-2 has suggested formation of a Village-level Monitoring Committee (VMC). The VMC should also ensure inclusion of women SHGs, women farmers, landless households, and of minority communities (SC/ST/OBCs). All village level members of VMC should be selected through Gram Sabha. Along with the formation of VMC, there should be clear provisions about conducting periodic meetings and documenting the procedure of meetinsg during the project.
  • In addition to the existing responsibilities mentioned in the GR, the VMC must i) undertake awareness activities in the village regarding the desiltation plan ii) display and update information about the plan and execution of the desilting activities at public places iii) Nearby villages can also be invited to take away the silt for their farms in case of extra silt iv) sort out the issues related to making temporary roads where it requires vi) suggest ways and means to compensate the farmers getting affected by temporary roads vii) give priority to small and marginal farmers for silt import and ensure that all sections of farmers benefit from this activity.
  • Rather than NGOs and groups of farmers, Gram Panchayat needs to be treated as an important agency to approach Tahsildar and as the key agency in planning and executing the desilting activities with help of VMC. 
  • The GDGS should be included as a part of the Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) at the national level.
  • Existing policy instruments in the water and agriculture sector, such as Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976, Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority Act, 2005 and, Maharashtra Management of Irrigation Systems by Farmers Act, 2005 do not fit well with the tank desiltation activities carried under GDGS.

There is a need for formulating a special comprehensive law devoted to the desiltation issues to regulate the planning and execution activities which will benefit all stakeholders, and will ensure safety of ecosystem services in the long run.

Notes

1 Implementing Gaalmukt Dharan and Gaalyukt Shivar (GDGS) Yojana 2017 ; Formation of monitoring committee at village level for GDGS scheme 2017

2(Government Resolution (dated May 6, 2017)- Government of Maharashtra (GoM) (Code number of GR is 201704101302368426) for Tank Desiltation)

3 (Government Resolution (dated December 6, 2017)- Government of Maharashtra (GoM)  (Code number of GR is 201712061616303426) for Village Monitoring Committee for Tank Desiltation)

The paper can be accessed here