“Just deepening nullahs won’t rejuvenate rivers”, says Pradeep Purandare

Pradeep Purandare is a former Associate Professor (Irrigation Management), Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad and has worked as an expert member on the Marathwada Statutory Development Board. At present he is a member of the committee on Integrated State Water Plan, chaired by K P Bakshi, additional chief secretary. In an interview with Chitra Sawant, Purandare warns of an ecological disaster in the offing, if the present uncontrolled exploitation of rivers continues unchecked. Edited excerpts

Maharashtra has enacted nine irrigation-related water laws. Of these, only one has formulated the required rules.
Maharashtra has adopted a State Water Policy in 2003. It was supposed to be revised every five years. However, that revision has yet not been done. Meanwhile, National Water Policy has been revised in 2012. In the absence of rules for the other eight acts, there is hardly any implementation of the acts. The work of issuing necessary notifications and execution of agreements with different utilities as per the acts is also incomplete. In short, the structure of water governance is not in place. An unprecedented legal crisis is in offing.
A panel of water resources department set up to probe projects related to the multi-crore irrigation scam has pointed to several irregularities in granting approvals to a majority of the 122 projects it scrutinised, with several being tendered without technical or environment clearance.
Special Investigation Team (Chitale Committee) was constituted on 31 Dec, 2012. SIT submitted its report on 1 Mar, 2014. This report is available only in Marathi, because of which the national press could not report on it in detail. It’s Executive Summary and especially, the recommendations are simply not compatible with the details available in the report. The then-government prepared its Action Taken Report based on such material and completed the formalities. Did all this happen as a design? The question may remain unanswered. SIT report has lots of details with far reaching implications.

Maharashtra still does not have an Integrated State Water Plan (ISWP), what would you like to say on it?
Though MWRRA Act has important and basic provisions with particular reference to water governance, it is unfortunate that the framework of water governance is conspicuous by its absence. River Basin Agencies, State Water Board and State Water Council –important pillars of the water governance – have simply not been operationalised in the state. As a result, the state does not have an ISWP – the soul of the Act- ready even after 10 long years from the date of enactment of the law.
What role does the MWRRA play in water governance?
MWRRA claims to be India’s first quasi-judicial Independent Regulatory Authority in the water sector. It is supposed to be the custodian of water laws in the State. However, the so called regulatory authority has accorded sanction to 191 projects during the period 2007-13 despite the absence of ISWP. This is a serious and brazen violation of Sec 11 (f). MWRRA, instead of implementing the law of the land, has set a wrong precedence and has made irreparable damage to the future of the water sector in the state.  In October 2014, I had filed a PIL in the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court about the preparation of ISWP and operationalisation of the legal framework of MWRRA to make the government accountable to the people. The Hon’ble High Court has declared 191 projects, cleared by MWRRA in absence of ISWP, as illegal. The court has also ordered that no administrative approval should be given to new projects till the preparation of ISWP.

What are your views on the state government’s river rejuvenation programme under its ambitious Jalyukta Shivar campaign?
Construction of series of bandharas and nullahs, deepening and widening does not lead to Rejuvenation of River (ROR). ROR would be achieved in truest sense if ground water regulation and demand side management is done in letter and spirit. ROR is a broader concept and it requires undertaking several measures. If all these measures are not taken together, and only deepening of nullahs is done and that too in an indiscriminate manner using earth moving machinery, then it would be a standing invitation to ecological disaster because aquifer itself would get exposed and eventually may even get chocked up by the direct entry of muddy water into it.
Secondly, ground water follows certain hydraulic gradient and slowly flows towards the nullah. That hydraulic gradient would become steeper due to excessive nullah deepening and hence, could lead to drying up of wells in the upper reaches of the watershed. Its success, in addition to the above, depends on dynamics of agro climatic conditions and the availability and use of water in river basins and sub basins. Jalyukt Shivar has, unfortunately, trivialized ROR, and if it is allowed to continue in an unchecked and uncontrolled manner, an ecological disaster is in offing. Restraint is the key word when it comes to ROR.

How do you think the core issue of drought management should be handled?
The core issue of drought management could be handled through Water management, governance and regulation with emphasis on demand side management.

How can the water sector be regulated wherein water can be distributed in an affordable and equitable way?
Improved water management with standard operating procedures (SOPs) enabled through good water governance is the only way out. Improved water management of irrigation projects includes preparing water budget and water distribution program involving farmers in the process, carrying out adequate maintenance and repairs of the distribution network and implementing the programme, check unauthorised use of water, measure water and prepare water audit reports. However, even though SOPs are available, those cannot be implemented, as the main reason being lack of water governance.