The much talked about Shirpur Model in Maharashtra

“Shirpur model”, is being projected as a “miracle cure” for drought. What is this much talked about Shirpur model all about?

By K J Joy
Published: Saturday 14 September 2013

 “Shirpur model”, angioplasty in water conservation for its proponent Suresh Khanapurkar, has been in the media limelight in Maharashtra for the last few months. This “miracle cure” for drought has also got government patronage. Government of Maharashtra (GoM) brought out a Government Resolution (GR) on 9 May 2013 to replicate the Shirpur model all over Maharashtra. Apparently huge funds are also being made available for this. In the processes it seems to have pushed back the crippling drought that Maharashtra went through and the much talked about massive Maharashtra irrigation scam from public consciousness.

This is an attempt to present what this much talked about Shirpur model is all about and what some of its criticisms are. It is based on the available published literature in Marathi, including the articles by Shri Khanapurkar himself, the report of the Government appointed expert committee that examined the Shirpur model and discussions with a few of the social activists form the region and also a few experts.

What is this Shirpur model?

Shirpur model gets its name from the place Shirpur, a tehsil in Dhule district of North-east Maharashtra. It is in Tapi basin. In two watersheds – TE-63 and TE 75 – Suresh Khanapurkar, a retired officer with the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA), Pune, implemented certain water conservation measures since 2004. It consists of three measures: one, well recharging using canal water; two, cement structures (bandhs) on streams; and three, widening and deepening of streams. The structures are without gates and waste weirs. The financial support came from Priyadarshini Cooperative Cotton Mill and the local MLA fund.
The programme has been implemented in about 200 km2 covering about 35 villages. The work mainly include 91 cement bandhs, recharging of 59 wells along with 29 km recharge channels, and widening and deepening 36 kms stream length – widened by 10 to 15 meters and deepened by 10 to 13 meters. Rs. 15.55 cores were spent. Now he is planning to extend the work in the entire 149 villages of the tehsil.
Some of his claims include: in basalt area the water level came up from 500 feet to 15 feet in summer and in the alluvial areas of Tapi the water level has come up from 280 feet to 80 feet; a minimum of 5 crores liters (50,000 m3) and a maximum of 15 crores liters (150,000 m3) of water has been stored because of stream widening and deepening. As a result of this the water level in the bore wells on either bank of the stream up to two km distance went up by about 150 feet. He has gone to the extent of claiming that the Shirpur model would be useful not only for Maharashtra but for the entire country.
He has provided a set of recommendations to the government of Maharashtra. One, widen and deepen all the small streams in each and every micro watershed; construct cement structures without waste weirs and gates on the streams at every 300 to 400 meter interval; use only big earth moving machinery for this work (and not labour under any of the employment guarantee schemes). Two, provide four earth moving machines (like poklands and dumpers) per tehsil to each sub-collector. Three, set up tehsil and district level water conservation committees which will decide on prioritisation of works.  According to him, all these measures would completely eliminate water tankers from Maharashtra and would have enough water for a second crop.
Ghare Committee Report
The Government of Maharashtra appointed an expert committee to look into the Sirpur model. The committee headed by the late Dr. Mukund Ghare, a well respected groundwater expert in Maharashtra, also had other experts like Sourabh Gupta, scientist with the Central Groundwater Board, and Suresh Khandale, Additional Director of GSDA, Pune. The Committee visited some of the sites of the interventions and also reviewed the documents made available to it by Shri Khanapurkar. The committee submitted its report in 2011.
The Committee found that Khanapurkar’s claims of recharge and storage impacts are rather exaggerated. It is of the opinion that the costs are a few times more than the cost norms of similar government programmes. The committee could not see any detailed plan and cost estimates for the interventions.  No proper procedures seem to have been followed in getting the necessary permissions.  The committee report also observes that many of the interventions are scientifically and technically wrong.
The committee found that the well recharge using canal water involves digging a recharge pit of the size of two meter in length, width and depth and a silt trap and filtration pit that are constructed in it using cement. In the case of one of the wells that the committee visited water has been brought through canal from Karvand dam and the recharge pit is used to recharge the well. Apparently Rs. 40,000 is spent in recharging one well. About 59 wells have been recharged in 19 villages spending 25 lakhs. The groundwater recharge through wells under the Shirpur model is about four to five times more than the present cost norms of the similar government programme. The cost per well for the recharge programme taken up under the Employment Guarantee Scheme is about Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 11,000; under Shirpur model it is about Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000. If one factor in the proportionate cost of storing and conveying this water (the dam and the government canals) then the cost would be much more.
Some of the other important observations and conclusions of the committee include:
One, no proper design or cost estimate done prior to the construction of cement nala bandhs; nor prior approval taken. The same goes for the programme of widening and deepening of streams. No proper accounts are kept.
Two, it is not technically correct to construct surface cement nala bandhs in areas where the clay is accumulated. Areas like Shirpur, Shahada, Taloda and Akkalkuva especially with clay soils – all part of the Tapi basin – get their aquifers recharged mainly through the “Bazada   Zone” found at the base of the Satpuda ranges. [Bazada is not a scientific term and it denotes accumulation of coarse material that is very often found at the foothill of mountain ranges]. To do artificial/additional recharge of the aquifers with the rain water it is sufficient to remove the clay layer by about 1 to 3 meters. So what is the technical reason for Khanapurkar to deepen the stream beds by 15 to 20 meters? Because of such deepening at least two to three aquifers have been exposed. The muddy rain water comes in direct contact with these aquifers. This leads to cementation of the aquifers (meaning clogging of the openings in the aquifers), stopping of the flow and as a result over time the aquifers can become inefficient. 
Three, while deepening in basalt areas the aquifers have been exposed and as a result the water has come to surface and is getting evaporated.
Four, the claims of Khanapurkar of bringing an additional 1000 ha under irrigation or brining the groundwater level from 150 meters to 30 to 40 meters because of his angioplasty seems to be rather exaggerated.
Five, Khanpaurkar has not adhered to the necessary technical norms/issues. Any activity undertaken against the laws of the nature would have negative impacts in the long run. In a given area the width and depth of a stream gets decided as per the hydro-geology of that area. So deepening the stream beds more than what is required can lead to environmental problems.
And so on…
The Ghare Committee report never saw the day light. Instead, the government appointed another committee headed by the Director of GSDA which submitted its report on 20th April 2013. The government brought out the GR based on this report on 9 May 2013. 
What does the GR say?
The main provisions in the GR include:
1) the main purpose of deepening of the streams should not be creation of surface storages, but recharge of aquifers;
2) deepening of streams should be taken up only on second or third order streams;
3) The length (of the stream deepening) should be within the limits of surface run off calculations;
4) It should not be taken up on locations with sand deposits in the stream beds; also it is not good to take this up in alluvial areas.;
5) deepening on streams with a natural depth of more than three meters should be taken up only under the supervision of GSDA;
6) stream deepening should not be taken up on hard rock (basalt) meaning it should be done only on murum;
7) the maximum depth should not be more than three meters;
8) the “bazada” zone in alluvial areas is the best suited for stream deepening (in fact that is the special characteristic of Shirpur area);
9) it is obligatory to take up this work only with machinery and the Schedule of Rates of the water resources department would operate; and
10) the technical and implementations details are to be worked out by the Commissioner, Agriculture
The GR does not give unlimited scope to the angioplasty of Khanapurkar. Probably that’s why Khanapurkar himself asked the government to withdraw the GR! There are many who think that the government should not have been in a hurry to come out with this GR to generalise this strategy all over Maharashtra. Instead, first it should have made the Ghare committee report public and should have held public discussions on the issue. Also, it should have assessed where it can work and were it cannot (as the geo-hydrology of Tapi basin and the rest of Maharashtra is so different).
Differing viewpoints
Two leading Marathi journals -- Andolan of National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Sadhana, a weekly started by Sane Guruji and in the past edited by the socialist veteran G. P. Pradhan and by the anti superstition crusader Dr. Narednra Dabholkar, who was recently shot dead in Pune, carried articles by Khanapurkar in their April-May 2013 issues. The support from NAPM and a section of the socialists in Maharashtra seem to stem from their anti-dam stand. In fact their support is rather blind as they do not seem to have read the report of Ghare Committee. In fact many of them were taken by surprise when the report became public and when some of the hydro-geologists, water experts and socio-political activists expressed serious reservations about the Shirpur model.
Maharashtra Sinchan Vikas, the official journal of the Directorate of Irrigation Research and Development (DIRD) which is directly under the Water Resources Department of Maharashtra also carried an article by Khanapurkar in its June 2013 issue. The editorial of this issue also refers to the Shirpur model. Does this indicate the support of the water resources bureaucracy to the Shirpur model? The editorial argues for smaller structures as against large projects and also for widening and deepening of streams. This is surprising as the irrigation bureaucracy by and large is not in favour of smaller systems; they are votaries of large systems; even watershed development has entered their word view only rather reluctantly. Even the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri Prithviraj Chavan belonging to the Congress is also a great supporter of the Shirpur model. This seems to be part of an effort to carve out a constituency for himself against the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and its face in Maharashtra, the Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar who had to resign from the cabinet when the irrigation scam unfolded in the state.
The issue is why did the Shirpur model get so much visibility and the state patronage? Pradeep Purandare, a voluntarily retired professor from Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad thinks that probably it is not by accident, but by design – to get out of the mess that the government and the water resources department found themselves in because of the irrigation scam, the white paper (on the irrigation scam) and the drought. This view gets further strengthened because Shri Madhavrao Chittale who heads the government appointed committee to look into the irrigation scam and his “Sincahn Sahayog” (NGO set up by him) has been in the forefront of praising the Shirpur model. Mind you Chittale is also one of the biggest votaries of the interlinking project!  
Himanshu Kulkarni of ACWADAM, a premier NGO working on groundwater, thinks it is important to assess what the “Shirpur model” does to aquifers in terms of their storage and transmission characteristics and also their relationship with streams, watersheds and river basins. The lean season flows in streams and rivers are a consequence of aquifers discharging groundwater to the surface as seepages along stream and river channels, known as “base flow”. In most regions, groundwater moves towards streams and even when it does not emerge as base flow in the stream, it follows the stream path in a coherent direction underneath the stream channel. In the light of this, Kulkarni calls the ‘desilting’ of streams to expose aquifers underneath, blatant excavation of wells – constructed along, across and in the stream bed, to tap the aquifer below. Thus he warns that if the Shirpur model is taken up for large scale replication then it can lead to short and long term (negative) impacts, and some of them could be irreversible. Water from many of these structures is being pumped directly affecting flows – surface water and groundwater – downstream. It can play havoc with the hydro-geology of the region threatening the sustainability of stream/river flows. It also raises questions of equity and access to downstream.
For Dr. Sulabha Brahme, well known economist and who has written extensively on drought and drought proofing in Maharashtra, the issue is who has given permission to the Priyadarshini Cooperative Cotton Mill and Khanapurkar to intervene in the public water storage and distribution system? According to the Maharashtra State Irrigation Act of 1976 (Clause 11) the water resource department (earlier the irrigation department) is supposed to notify the rivers/streams prior to taking up any water resource development project on them. The rivers and streams which are not notified are under the control of the revenue department. Has either the water resource department or the revenue department given permission to “encroach” on the rivers and streams? The Ghare Committee report clearly shows that such permissions have never been got.
Dr. Brahme also thinks that the Shirpur model is not suitable for other regions in Maharashtra as stream excavation would be meaningless in basalt which is about 92% of Maharashtra. Since the aquifer capacity is very small there would not be much recharge. In streams where there is good sand deposits the excavation would only destroy the sandy aquifers, the way indiscriminate sand excavation does. According to her drought proofing is possible only through scientific planning taking into account the rainfall pattern, the agro-climatic conditions and hydro-geological characteristics, involving people and through public funds.  
Lokabhimukh Pani Dhoran Sangharsh Manch (Manch to be brief) – a network working on water policy and related issues in Maharashtra – appealed to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra to withdraw the GR and also stop funding the replication of Shirpur model in other parts of Maharashtra. The Manch thinks it rather strange that a state like Maharashtra known for many ideal watershed development projects have now started focusing only on streams and structures delinking them completely from the surrounding watershed through this GR.
What does the hype around the Shirpur model tell us? It tells us that short term measures can have long term negative impacts. It tells us that small need not be always beautiful. It tells us that even under a severe drought like the one that Maharashtra went through recently we should not embrace such “wonder cures” blindly; instead we should take a more informed position based on empirical and scientific evidence.

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