Wainganga basin: Strengths ignored & Weaknesses misunderstood

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the Wainganga river and learnings from a research project conducted in 2011. Written by Rashmi Mahajan with inputs from Anuja Date & Manish Rajankar

Cover photo: Fishing, an obstacle race through decaying trees in a newly created reserovoir. Photo by Anuja Date.


In the first article of the three-part Wainganga River Basin series, we introduced you to various geographical, ecological and socio-cultural aspects of Wainganga, an important river in central India. This second article will highlight the different environmental and social issues we have identified since our planning project called ‘Wainganga River Basin Master Plan’ by Gomukh Trust, Pune (for the Government of Maharashtra) began in 2010. 

Map showing the Eastern and Western districts of Vidarbha. Map prepared by Siddharth Agarwal

As a reader, one would wonder why we are reiterating decade-old issues? However, as we continue to work in the landscape, our observations suggest several problems continue to pester the region unattended and ignored. While hopeful that some issues may eventually be resolved, we observed some fundamental weaknesses in framing problems. Here, we attempt to unravel some of these complexities and lesser-known aspects through examples from the river basin. While we have tried to categorize the issues into different sections, we would like to emphasize that all these issues are interlinked. 

Wainganga basin is dominated by agriculture and forests, with limited industrial and urban development. Yet, the region’s current development plans and investment accommodate very little of these features as a strength. Focus instead is inclined towards conventional forms of development, leading to degradation of these features.

Lack of geographical and ecological perspective

“Oh! Are you from Vidarbha? It is very dry there, right? Do you work on droughts and related issues in that region?” 

This is what we often hear when we meet most people. The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra has been in the news for a high number of farmer suicides for more than a decade due to crop failures and increasing debts. However unfortunate this may be, such severe agriculture crises are not common across the whole of Vidarbha as they are generalized and portrayed in the media. There is a great agricultural diversity within the region based on different agro-climatic zones. While most districts in Vidarbha are known for cotton and soybean cultivation, eastern-Vidarbha, through which Wainganga flows, is historically known for its paddy cultivation. Bhandara and Gondia districts are known as the ‘rice bowls’ of Maharashtra. The Gazetteer of Bhandara (1908) district recorded 70 different rice varieties and the district was also known for its sugarcane production supported by the Maji-Malguzari (MM) tanks.

The MM tank system, albeit feudal, was a well-designed decentralized system for irrigation and could have served as a  hallmark of development in eastern Vidarbha. Revitalizing the MM tanks could have been made possible by instituting inclusive, democratic water users’ groups to reflect social progress. However, the entire tank system, including existing local, informal water management institutions, have instread seen significant neglect and breakdown after the government took over the ownership of MM tanks post-Independence.  Further, in towns and cities, these tanks have been encroached upon and converted into residential areas as agricultural practices gradually declined. As the access to decentralized water systems decreased due to lack of proper management, the government trained its eyes to promote larger, fund-guzzling projects like dams.

We find that MM tanks are often misunderstood as stand-alone tanks, whereas they are part of a complex system. Many of these tanks have their catchments in the forest, with these tanks supporting biodiversity, fisheries and related occupations apart from domestic water supply and irrigation. Unfortunately, a holistic approach to maintaining the whole MM tank system is absent. All the government departments associated with tanks (irrigation, fisheries, forest, revenue) have individual and disconnected approaches. For example, the forest department digs trenches in the forests without considering the catchment of the tanks, thus affecting the inflow of water. The Maharashtra government is implementing tank renovation schemes like ‘jal yukta shivar’ and ‘Galmukta Dharan-Galyukt Shivar’ in the region which primarily focus on tank desiltation. However, both these schemes have been heavily criticized across Maharashtra. The implementation is often unscientific and often ends up being detrimental to the tank flora and fauna. 

While this is the state of the Wainganga basin’s tank system, several issues are plaguing the main river’s integrity. There is a great demand in the construction industry for the superior quality sand found in the Wainganga and its tributaries. Sand mining is legally permitted in Maharashtra, and sand ghats are auctioned by the district mining office every year. However, there is a complete lack of seriousness in following rules. The sand mining policies are strict about manual sand excavation, yet villagers report the usage of JCBs and other large vehicles for sand exploitation by the ‘sand mafia’. In the absence of studies and regulations on demand and supply, sand hoarding has become a regular practice.

Even the latest sand mining policy allows for sand storage, which instead of acting as a regulator, is a very extraction-friendly offering. Maharashtra state is still awaiting a comprehensive sand mining policy, even as it sees several cases of illegal sand extraction. It is disappointing that the state does not vest any rights, contracts or employment to residents of adjoining gram panchayats or gram-sabhas for regulated sand harvest but instead proposes using technology such as drones, CCTVs, and GPS tracking of trucks.

Excessive and illegal sand mining alters the river bed and its course, destroying the habitat of riverine fauna and flora. This also endangers structures such as dams and bridges, creating new threats for the human population in the vicinity. Moreover, with the construction of the Gosikhurd dam, the sand deposition rates upstream and downstream of the dam have potentially changed. While sand mining continues, no studies have been published on rates of sand deposition and possible regulation over sand mining. 

Sand extraction with the use of a poclain machine on the Wainganga. Photo: Rashmi Mahajan

The river system’s health is impacted by sand mining and large-scale changes in its catchment, whether it is the excess withdrawal of water for irrigation, degradation of forests, or even ecologically inappropriate plantations that increase water losses. 

Wainganga’s catchment has an estimated 35% of  forest cover and several square kilometres under grasslands & savannas. While issues such as biodiversity and habitat loss, and forest diversion impact the region, there is also a problem of misclassification of ecosystems within the basin. Recent studies have shown that parts of the basin need to be reclassified as savannahs against forests. This reclassification can profoundly impact how ecosystems within the basin could be managed for their conservation and resources.

The basin has over 1.5 lakh hectares of land classified as ‘zudpi jungles’ or Class E forests with vegetation dominated by shrubs and grasses and sparse tree cover. Being largely open landscapes, these lands have attracted two very opposing planning ideas – either they have been prospected as sites for industrial expansion or seen as spaces available for plantations and afforestation efforts. Both these views completely ignore the fact that ‘zudpi’ forests are grass-dominated savannas, a unique ecosystem in itself. Plantations in these regions can adversely impact the water table in the region, while industrial growth will potentially displace the livelihoods of thousands of pastoralists. 

Zudpi Jungle or Class E forest. Photo: Shivani Agarwal

Lack of local livelihoods perspective

The majority of the population in this basin is dependent on farming, fisheries, and forest-dependent activities for livelihoods. As we mentioned earlier, it is imperative to consider the local context. From the 1970s onwards, the Maharashtra government took initiatives to improve fisheries based livelihoods. Though the intent was honest, a lack of understanding of ecology and local fisheries while focusing on instant benefit rather than long-term sustainable planning ended up doing more damage.

Before the formation of Maharashtra state, fisheries in MM tanks were entirely dependent on native fish species such as Dadak (Channa striatus) , Maral (Channa marulius),  Wagur (Clarius magur), Sawla (Wallago attu), Bilona (Channa gachua), Gotechati (Garra mullya) etc. However, as the government involvement increased, they promoted the introduction of Indian Major Carps (IMCs) such as Catla (Catla catla), Rohu (Labeo rohita) and Mrigal (Cirrhinus mrigala). Native species and introduced species lacked compatibility. While introduced species were herbivorous, native species were carnivorous. Fishers were ordered to eliminate native species to reduce the impact on introduced species. As introduced species gave greater yields in the early years than those of native species, fishers did not think twice about following the orders. 

However, as the time passed, feed available for IMCs declined, impacting their yield and affecting farmer incomes substantially. Though local fish species are sold at higher rates due to demand, they are rarely available because of the decline in their population. The various government-introduced schemes such as the blue revolution and fish-seed production are beyond the financial capacities of most fisheries co-operative societies in this region.  Similarly, the conflict between farmers and fishers over tank use does not receive adequate attention. There is no visible attempt to understand the issues of both groups and find a win-win or at least more sustainable solutions. 

Fishing, an obstacle race through decaying trees, in a newly created reservoir. Photo: Anuja Date

A livelihoods perspective is also necessary to identify issues of various agriculturists, especially given climate change. In recent years, rice intensification has been emphasized upon, and it has undoubtedly led to higher productivity and incomes among farmers in the basin. However, with climate change, there have been multiple instances of heavy unseasonal rainfall spells and delayed rainfall in the region, as was predicted in our analysis ten years ago. Farmers’ schedules of sowing, transplanting, irrigating and raising rice varieties are failing each year. With a majority of the population depending on rice, there is a need to find climate-resistant rice varieties and initiate transformation to other crops, including traditionally cultivated millets. 

Apart from this, a large population of landless and seasonal farmers and fishers, often undocumented, depend on cultivating products such as watermelon and cucumber along the river bed. Such precarious livelihoods are threatened by increasing sand mining, riverine projects such as lift irrigation schemes and dams. Lift irrigation schemes have failed all over Maharashtra. The beneficiaries cannot pay electricity bills for the pump house because of the per acre charges. Frequent power cuts also obstruct timely and adequate water supply, thereby affecting crop yield. It gradually results in non-payment of water charges by farmers. Even after such field experiences, the government DPR (Detailed project report) of the Gosekhurd project includes four Lift Irrigation Schemes and then two more added to it (Ref:1). Thus, the government continues to damage local livelihoods under the name of ‘development’.

Lack of inclusivity and equity

Wainganaga basin has some of India’s largest forest lands under community forest rights (Ref:2). Just as forest dwellers have been historically unrecognized, so have their forest-based livelihoods languished in many ways. Even after fifteen years of the Forest Rights Act 2006, few community groups have been supported in developing their plans for forest produce processing and marketing in the region. Investments in identifying local high-value forest produce, assessing value chains, and identifying markets are ignored.

The Van Dhan Yojana has just barely been initiated and may work in the future. But schemes such as these rest heavily on the availability of forest produce. With the advent of climate change, this reliable source of income is now threatened. Communities have noted changing patterns of fruiting among several forest species they usually harvest for subsistence. These include delays in the flowering of the Mahua (Madhuca indica), reduced fruiting of Chironji (Buchanania lanzan ), etc. Similarly, local communities have noted an increase in summer rainfall leading to losses in Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaf harvests since 2018. While some may dismiss these anecdotal observations, it is necessary to keep an ear to the ground as these changes have real consequences on the livelihoods of communities. Schemes such as the ‘minimum support price’ are rarely accommodative of such annual variation and challenges involved in forest produce harvest, and often, forest produce is undervalued. 

A basket full of the Mahua flowers, one of the biggest forest products in the region. Photo: Amod Date

Pride and politics over bare necessities

Maharashtra state has the highest number of large dams. But most of this built capacity was historically concentrated in the western parts of Maharashtra as some of the earliest dams in Indiawere built here taking advantage of the steep western ghats mountains for creating reservoirs and also for hydropower generation. This early dam building and concentrated irrigation capacity fuelled the sugarcane economy in western Maharashtra leading to an ‘irrigation’ backlog in Vidarbha region. For addressing this irrigation backlog, one of the proposed ideas was the construction of the Gosekhurd dam on Wainganga. If we consider just the Wainganga basin, there are 693 major, medium, and minor proposed and existing projects, of which 650 are completed and 43 are still ongoing (Ref:3). Several dams have been further proposed in the region, but are awaiting permissions as they involve large scale forest diversions. 

Gosikhurd Dam

Gosikhurd (also known as Gosekhurd) dam on Wainganga is touted as the pride of Vidarbha and is one of the biggest irrigation projects in India.  This project began in the early 1980s and is yet to be completed. According to a 2020 report by the Times of India, the project is predicted to be completed in 2024 (40 years since its inauguration) if the required fund is available on time. The original allocated budget for the project was INR 372 crores which increased to INR 8495 crores in 2018. Gosekhurd dam came into the limelight because of its grandiosity, cost overruns and delays, several corruption issues, rehabilitation package issues, and significant damage to forests in Vidarbha. The delays are blamed on the slow land acquisition process in villages and slow forest clearances. However, no one wants to introspect and learn lessons from these. Alternatives to dams (which are already in the basin) are constantly ignored.  

We often hear the statement that citizens of this country will have to sacrifice for the development but we forget to ask which citizens and what sacrifice? Generally, poor villagers and Adivasis bear the major brunt of these sacrifices, most of whom will neither get water from dams nor the electricity produced using river water. In the case of the Gosikhurd dam, 93 villages from three districts are going to be completely submerged. Villagers had to fight for dignified compensation with the support of Gosikhurd Prakalpgrast Sangharsh Samiti which they finally received assurance for in 2013, almost 30 years after the project was inaugurated. 39 years down the line, the work of the dam and canals is still incomplete and only a few farmers are getting water for irrigation.

Though people are said to be receiving better compensation packages than earlier packages, people have lost their villages in a whole sense. The village is not only a set of residential houses and farms but also characterized by forests and water bodies associated with it. Villagers are dependent on these forest patches for multiple reasons such as the collection of firewood, grazing, foraging. The allocation of relocation sites was not done taking all these factors into consideration. The destruction of the social capital of villagers is immeasurable. Some of the relocated people migrated back to their old villages wherever possible as they could not find decent work to sustain their living.

All the examples we have covered in the article so far are only the tip of the iceberg but enough to give a flavour of the argument we made in the beginning of this article. It does form a grim image of the situation in the basin, but it also sends out a very important message that all the environmental or regional issues are not ‘only’ biophysical in nature and don’t need hardcore technical solutions. The solutions don’t always come from bureaucrats and technocrats – sometimes we find solutions in local wisdom. In the next and last article of this series, we bring you hope through the stories of local solutions to issues we talked about in this article. Afterall, all is not lost. 


References:

  1. Gosikhurd Dam-Detailed project report (DPR)
  2. Maharashtra CFR-LA, 2017. Promise and Performance: Ten Years of the Forest Rights Act in Maharashtra. Citizens’ Report on Promise and Performance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Produced by CFR Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, as part of National Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy Process (CFR-LA). March 2017. (www.fra.org.in)
  3. Integrated state water plan for Maharashtra (Godavari and Mahanadi), Volume I

Acknowledgements:

Mr. Vilas Bhongade, Gosikhurd Prakalpgrast Sangharsh Samiti (GPSS) for providing latest information (phone conversation) regarding rehabilitation associated with Gosikhurd Dam

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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