Wainganga: A lifeline of Central India

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on the Wainganga river and learnings from a research project conducted in 2011.

Cover photo: Tank marking the origin of Wainganga River


The numbing winter chill lingered even as we sat huddled around a pit fire at the Shiva temple located in Mundara, Partappur – a small village near Gopalganj of Seoni District, Madhya Pradesh. It was a morning in January 2011 and our first visit to the temple marking the origin of the Wainganga River.

Origin of River Wainganga

Our team of fifteen in the ‘Wainganga Shodh Yatra’ (Wainganga Research Trip) inquisitively observed the small whitewashed temple and three interconnected tanks in its serene surroundings. First was a sacred tank, the second reserved for drinking water and the last one provided for animals.

The team included a hydrologist, geologist, ecologist, journalist, archaeologist, writer, fisheries experts and a couple of environmentalists on what was a reconnaissance survey. We hoped to use our collective knowledge and perception to get to know the Wainganga basin, problems that were rooted in water-related issues, and perhaps attempt to engage with the community living on its banks. This process was initiated under the ‘Wainganga River Basin Master Planning Project’ for the Government of Maharashtra by Gomukh Trust, Pune.

In 2011, two of us (Anuja and Rashmi) were freshly minted post-graduates of environmental sciences, and since then have spent the decade building our research work around issues we learnt being part of this process. Through the series of three articles, we will attempt to share with you our reflections on what inspired us about the basin, what problems need attention and what has transformed in the decade that followed. In this first article, we explore the fascinating dimensions of the river basin that captured our minds.

Vegetable farming on the riverbank. Photo by authors.

The Wainganga Basin and its meandering course

With a basin that spreads across more than 70,000 sq. km. and is a lifeline of Central India, little is found popularly written about the Wainganga. Yet for the people that inhabit the river basin, one often hears, “Yeh Ganga hi to hai!” (This is Ganga itself!). Local folklore alludes that Wainganga is the Vriddha-Ganga (or old Ganga), an epithet also shared by the mighty Godavari, of which Wainganga is one of the main tributaries.

The origin of Wainganga is on flat terrain, emerging from a spring. Wainganga traverses a distance of 642 km through two states, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, before it’s confluence with Wardha River.

The Wainganga meandering near Chamorshi in Gadchiroli District. Source: Google Earth

Initially, it flows northwards and then the course changes as it gets abutted by one of the Satpura outcrops. Here onward, the river then flows southwards through Balaghat district and then enters Maharashtra through Bhandara and Gondia districts, flowing through parts of Nagpur, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts. A beautiful hook-like meandering formation can be seen from Gadchiroli town to Markanda town. A few kilometers from there, the Wardha-Wainganga confluence occurs, and then the river takes the name Pranhita, which meets the Godavari in Kaleshwaram, Telangana.

District & Confluences map of River Wainganga. Map made by Siddharth Agarwal, Veditum.

Tributaries

Wainganga’s many tributaries include the Kanhan, Pench, Bawanthadi, Andhari, Ambagad, Bodalkasa, Sur, Aamb, Mor, Chulband, Gadhvi, Khobragadi, Paal, Kathani, Karvappa, Potfodi, Booti, and Wardha. The complete Wainganga river basin drains an area of 74,049 sq. km (inclusive of Madhya Pradesh 37743 sq. km. and in Maharashtra 36306 sq. km.).

These tributaries are ecologically very important. They not only provide water to the main river but also contribute to its habitat complexity, and biodiversity through provision of sediment, wood, nutrients and food resources. The confluence of Wainganga with its tributaries is culturally significant, much like other river confluences in India. There are temples built at these confluences which are visited by many people every year. A feature of Wainganga’s tributary Kathani is that it is one of the few remaining unobstructed rivers in India.

Aambhora temple at the confluence of Wainganga with its four tributaries Kanhan, Aam, Kolari and Murza. Photo by authors.

Forests

The Wainganga basin has large areas representing the central Indian forest biodiversity dominated by typical dry deciduous trees. Forests are dominated by different species of Ain, Sal, Kino, Mahua, Tendu, etc. and also several tracts of good quality bamboo. Extensive grasslands also can be seen in some tracts around Kanhan River. The habitat diversity in the region hosts a variety of fauna, including several rare and endangered species. There are over 5 protected areas including tiger reserves and their corridors in the watershed including, Pench, Umred-Karhandla, Tadoba-Andhari, Navegaon, Nagzira, Chaprala.

But beyond these, the basin has one of the largest community-controlled tracts of the forests in India, with several thousand villages in the region having received community forest rights. A large section of the population in this area is dependent on forest produce for subsistence and livelihoods. Forests contribute almost 20-30% of incomes for the people in the region where forest quality hasn’t been compromised with coupe-felling and other forestry activity in earlier decades. This creates an exciting dynamic in the way biodiversity is viewed, conserved and consumed by various communities in the basin.

Collection of resins from Anogeissus latifolia (Dhawda in local language) for household consumption, with deciduous forest in the background. Photo by authors.

History and culture of the Wainganga Basin 

Wainganga has inspired some fascinating pieces of literature, art and architecture from ancient times. Over the ages, the basin has played host to the Maurya, Satavahana, Vakataka, Rashtrakuta, Chalukya, and Yadava kingdoms.  In more recent times it was ruled by the Gond kings before the Marathas took over the region followed by the British rule. The region has been traditionally known for its pastoralists and shifting cultivators, with settled agriculture taking over only in the medieval times.

The basin, especially in what is Bhandara district today, is dotted by several megalithic structures which stand testimony to a flourishing culture in the ancient times. Somewhere, during this long history, poet Kalidasa (~4th-5th century CE) came to reside here to write the Meghadoota from the Ramtek hill near Nagpur. Pauni in Bhandara, Chamorshi in Gadchiroli are some ancient towns that dot the banks of the river. Markanda temple in Chamorshi has an ancient Hemadpanthi style temple with intricate stone carvings and has now morphed into a locally famous tourist destination. Wairagadh fort, among others like Tipagarh and Pratapgarh, are reminders of the times when Gond kings held court in the region. 

Carvings on the Markanda temple

Yet, surviving along with these grand structures are remarkable examples of living histories from the region – hundreds of small and large water tanks that dot the basin. 

Traditional water management system

Wainganga basin is also well-known for the traditional water management system called Malguzari tanks system. Malguzari tanks are one of the crucial contributions of the Gond period. These tanks are said to be built by Malguzars (revenue collectors) from the 16th century onwards. Malguzari system was basically a revenue system similar to Zamindari. It had been in existence since Gond period and was continued during British period and the name Malguzar was given during the british period. Malguzari was later abolished in 1950 and tanks became the property of the government. These tanks are mainly found in the Bhandara, Gondia, Gadchiroli, and parts of Chandrapur and Nagpur districts in Maharashtra and Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. 

There are thousands of such tanks, and many of these are two-three centuries old. These tanks are an essential source of livelihood for farmers and fishers and the communities residing near them. They act as a crucial source of water for paddy – which is a staple crop in this region. In addition to providing livelihood, they form a unique ecosystem supporting various flora and fauna. They play an important role in maintaining groundwater as well. Water management committees formed by villagers and fisheries cooperatives play an important role in upkeep and maintenance of the tanks and canal structures.

Since the beginning of human civilisation, rivers have been an important part of life. As showcased above, every region’s ecology, biodiversity, livelihoods and culture are greatly shaped by rivers in that region. Not only do rivers shape human lives but humans alter rivers too. As human civilisation progresses, the anthropogenic pressures on the rivers all around the world are increasing, leading to several environmental and social issues and Wainganga river is not alien to them.

In this part one of the article, we introduced you to some characteristics of the lesser known Wainganga river basin. In the second part, we will bring to you the various environmental and social issues we came across while working in this region. 

Fishing in the Malguzari tanks. Photo by the authors.

About the authors:

Rashmi Mahajan is a PhD student at ATREE. Her PhD research focuses on community-based water management of Maji-Malguzari tanks in Wainganga basin. She is interested in studying water management and governance across different parts of the world. She can be found on her instagram handle @rashmi_read_travel

Anuja Date is a PhD student at ATREE working on issues related to forest governance especially the impacts of the Forest Rights Act. She can be found on her twitter handle @AnujaDate.

Manish Rajankar is Director of Foundation for Economic and Ecological Development, He is working on ecological restoration of tanks in Wainganga basin from 25 years and is Wetland and Riverine theme coordinator of Indigenous and local Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) for South Asia. Also Coordinator of freshwater fishery of the Maharashtra Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network.

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