Fifty per cent of India's dams are concentrated in Maharashtra, but only 17 per cent of the agricultural land in the state gets irrigated. The irrigation department (id) presides over an unwieldy irrigation system that is in a state of acute disrepair. And, the government of Maharashtra (gom) has been unable to do much about it for it is hamstrung by a grave resource crunch. To extricate itself from this mire, it issued a resolution, in July 2001, notifying that irrigation water was to be supplied only to farmers' water user associations (wuas). But the gom's desire to use wua s as an agency for transforming the irrigation system of the state remains only on paper. It is very easy for a farmer to ask for water to irrigate 5 hectares (ha) and actually irrigate 10 ha since the volume of water is not specified. If id officials, who are supposed to monitor this, suspects anything wrong, all the farmer has to do is to tip him off. A lot of the water is thus unaccounted for. "This way, farmers are also able to withhold information about the crop they grow and the area covered, leading to cropping patterns that are different from and more water-intensive than envisaged at the planning stages of the project," discloses S V Sodal, the irrigation secretary, gom. The farmers in the association realise that water belongs to them as a group and if they take more than their share, this will directly affect other farmers. Rajubhai Kulkarni, chairperson of a wua in Ozar, points out, "whereas farmers would think along lines of how much land they had to irrigate before, they now think in terms of how much water they have and how this can be stretched to irrigate as much land as possible. This automatically leads to water efficiency." According to their records, while 150 cusecs of water, would earlier irrigate 150 ha of land, many farmers now irrigate 200 ha with the same amount of water. The efficiency of the wuas is attested by the fact that the id recovers 90-95 per cent of the cost from these associations whereas before it only managed a 25-50 per cent recovery from individual farmers, despite the fact that water-cess has been steadily increasing over the last few years. Increasing water-efficiency has been accompanied by greater productivity.
Since the management is local, the system is transparent. There is no water-theft. Everyone knows how much land the other has, what crop is grown and how much water is needed. Farmers react differently to peer pressure than on fines imposed by the id. The vigilance of irrigators in protecting their perceived right to a fair share of water keeps everyone on their toes. As Bharat Kavle of spk points out, if any farmer has a problem, he can find his man in the village itself. "Before, the farmer would have to make repeated complaints to the id. Since these were never heard, he would simply break into the system and take his water," says Kavle.
Many farmers are actually relieved not to have to deal with the hassles of lying and bribing to get water. "We did not get the amount of water we applied for and sometimes none at all. Even if we got water, it was irregular. Often if we did not apply for water we were still taxed for it. Many didn't pay because they felt that the water should be free anyway," says an old farmer, Murlidhar Kasa, who admits having paid a number of bribes in his day.
The taluka of Yeola in Nasik boasts of having the largest number of wuas (about 55) in Maharashtra. These are mostly concentrated in the middle and tail reaches of the left bank canal of the Palkhed dam and they were formed between 5-10 years ago. These wuas have now organised themselves into a federation
When the wuas in Yeola were newly formed, they got assured water but lately they have had to do with much less than their quota and have suffered great losses. This is partly due to the lack of rain that led the collector to "reserve" more and more water for drinking, but the wuas suspect that much of the water is illegally sold to rich grape and sugarcane farmers in Niphad and Dindori in the head reaches. In their attempt to uncover thefts they videotaped incriminating evidence (like submersion pipes with electric motors illegally lifting water from the canal). Mohan Gunjar, Chairperson of a wua in the area talks of how the Yeola farmers were instrumental in uncovering water thefts last year and had three guilty officials suspended.
Without adequate water, existence of wuas is threatened. The federation of wuas in Yeola has recently filed a writ petition with the High Court against the id for not abiding by the contract and supplying them their fair share of water. In spite of their difficulties, the farmers are determined to fight on. Before forming wuas most of them hardly got any water at all and having had a taste of a guaranteed hassle-free supply of water, they will not let go so easily.
Many irrigation department officers, who deal directly with the farmers, have been instrumental in setting up associations -- this is a trend that is increasing gradually. The new wuas are formed mostly at the tail ends of canals where it is easier to motivate farmers into forming associations. Some wuas have even got to the stage where each member contributes money or labour when repairs are necessary. "After joining the wua there has been a lot more sharing -- of farm equipment, tractors, ideas -- between farmers and the number of conflicts has gone down drastically", says Eknath Hari Pawar, a member of Triveni Sur, a farmers' association at the tail end of a branch of the Mula dam's right bank canal.
"Wherever farmers are forming societies they are performing well. We are convinced that this is a system that will work," says Sanjay Belsare, an executive engineer who did exceptional work in Akola in forming wuas under the Katepurna irrigation project.
There are many others in the government who voice eloquent about wua, but the government as such has done precious little to build up the capacity of the farmers' associations. The Water and Land Management Institute (walmi), a government body, is in charge of spreading awareness about wuas to farmers. According to S G Bhogle, head of department of social sciences at the institute, "In about 4-5 years we will be in a position to hand over the entire system to the farmers. It is a process and will take time". This is also a common refrain of id officials.
That the process of bringing about awareness cannot be hastened is a perfectly logical argument. But, it does not explain why a large number of associations, that have been formed, have not started functioning. According to farmers and ngos, involved in the process rehabilitation or repair of the irrigation facilities before their transfer to farmers is the biggest problem. Most of the vast network of irrigation canals lies in disrepair due to years of neglect, especially at the field level. The unlined canals are often heavily silted, weed-infested, and broken. The government is bound by a contract to rehabilitate irrigation systems before handing it over to wuas. It has not been able to do so in most cases, pleading lack of funds. 590 associations, almost twice the number of functioning associations, have gone through the tedious procedure involved in registration only to be held up by official inability to give the farmers a functioning workable system to take over.
The cash-starved gom has approached the World Bank (wb) for funds under the 'Jalaseva Sudhar Prakalpa' or surface water improvement scheme, which would help pay for the repair of the canal distribution systems. The wb insisted on an "enabling legal framework" that would ensure that the funds are properly spent. This led the gom to produce the draft Maharashtra Farmers Management of Irrigation Systems (mfmis) Act -- largely a copy of a similar act already in place in Andhra Pradesh. The act has been held back by vested interests with substantial political clout and consequently most of the funds have not come through from the wb.
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