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‘Water conservation has been neglected for years’

Excerpts from Water Conservation Minister Nitin Raut’s conversation with Shubhangi Khapre

State Minister for Water Conservation Nitin Raut says the government will have to make major policy corrections to tackle the water crisis,which is not just confined to drought in 15 districts of the state. Raut also points out it is time the government came up with a comprehensive water policy for both rural and urban areas

Why has the water conservation ministry failed to deliver results in Maharashtra?

Frankly,we had always dismissed the water conservation department as ornamental. Its potential to generate water bodies through minor projects that are less cumbersome was never factored. After I assumed charge of the department,I started exploring various factors to make it more effective in combating the depleting underground water tables. The allocation of budget for this department was only Rs 50 crore. It shows how little we cared for the department. Also,administrative powers are held by multiple ministries. For any project,I will have to seek multiple sanctions from agriculture and water resources departments. My ministry has several constraints when it comes to exercising authority. I fought financial constraints and intra-departmental hurdles to push policy decisions. I got tremendous support from Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

Why has it remained neglected?

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The water resources ministry is considered the nodal department when it comes to planning and executing irrigation projects. Over the years,the focus has been on big projects. Every project that was conceived and executed ran into several crores. Nobody was concerned about how effective,smaller and less cost-effective work through water conservation can bring results.

Are you saying big projects failed?

It is not a question of Maharashtra alone. Take a look around the world. Everybody is talking about water conservation projects. Unfortunately,Maharashtra did not even bother to have a comprehensive water policy. Our entire focus was on big irrigation projects that are all stuck owing to paucity of funds or facing relief and rehabilitation problems. After spending Rs 70,000 crore,we still require Rs 75,000 crore to complete the project.

Do you attribute this to some politics or lack of policy-making wherein the government ignored water conservation and lent more credibility to the water resources ministry?

I am not critical of the water resources ministry. It is held by our alliance partner NCP. I am concerned that water conservation has been neglected for several decades. The only exception was former chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik who understood its significance and tried to work on those lines. Naik had set up two committees whose reports were never implemented by successive governments later. Former state planning board chairman Ratnakar Mahajan had prepared a study that was never implemented.

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Do you think drought forced government to revert to water conservation?

When it came to tackling the water crisis on priority,it was evident we had to take short-term and low budget projects. The only option was check dams. We will have to make major corrections in policies. If for the past several decades,the focus was big irrigation projects,now we will have to consider water conservation as the priority.

Why did the government emphasise on check dams in Maharashtra to fight drought situation?

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By February-end,we realised the water crisis in 15 districts across the state was going to get worse. The incomplete irrigation projects,which required massive budgets,were not going to help in tackling the crisis. At that point,my department took the initiative to review the concept of check dams which are cost-effective and could be completed within short time spans. We have during the drought phase completed 1,423 check dams. The work began in March.

The Chief Minister considers it a big feat.

It is a remarkable achievement as we have succeeded in completing the work fighting financial crunch and achieving the target in three-four months. The check dams are going to be assets that which will go a long way in water conservation in the respective regions. It is not something in which money invested to mitigate drought has gone down the drain. Earlier,check dams,popularly called cement nala bandhs (CNBs),were built as part of the watershed treatment in downstream. It was never considered a standalone activity. We have done some modifications to improve the design to suit every region.

The check dams are ready in June. How does this serve in tackling water crisis when monsoon has already arrived in the state?

These are not season-specific projects. Although we took the decision in the midst of drought,1,423 check dams are here to hold rainwater and raise ground water tables. The water storage will help in improving irrigation potential. We spend Rs 8-10 lakh to complete one CNB. It helps provide water for four hectares and holds 10 TMC of water. In monsoon,the water filled will be three times more. It helps to augment neighbourhood wells.

Overall,what is the total benefit?

The check dams will play a significant role in holding rainwater. The results will be there for all to see in August-September. The sight of water in these check dam itself is reassuring for villagers and farmers. The success story of check dams has gained popularity with members of Parliament and MLAs proposing CNBs should be built in their constituencies. After completing 1,423 of them,we still have demand for almost double this number.

What about budget?

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Initially,there was no separate budget allocated for this project. After the drought,we set aside Rs 180 crore for check dams. But seeing the rising demand from across the region and results,we have increased the budget to Rs 234 crore for 2013-14. The funds were released to 81 talukas covering 13 districts for 2,340 CNBs. When these projects are completed,it will create direct and indirect irrigation facility for 9,360 hectares. Even individual MLAs/MPs have allocated their development funds for these schemes.

How do you propose to make best use of CNBs in the cotton-growing belt of Vidarbha?

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In Vidarbha,this experiment was undertaken through the Prime Minister’s package in 2006. Over 9,140 CNBs were constructed and funded by NABARD. The agriculture department reports indicate encouraging results. The other results are from Saurashtra,Gujarat. They constructed check dams in large numbers almost a decade ago. They launched a sustained campaign.

First published on: 10-06-2013 at 02:19 IST
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