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Maharashtra villages fall back on centuries-old reservoir systems for irrigation

Maharashtra villages fall back on centuries-old reservoir systems for irrigation

Paddy-growing eastern Vidarbha,where the region’s biggest and most controversial Gosikhurd irrigation project has been crawling to completion for more than 25 years,is turning instead to 300-year-old traditional water reservoirs.

Called maji malgujari talaos,or simply mama talaos,these have been taken up for rejuvenation. The revival of 21 of them in Bhandara district under a special drive has led to a diversification in agriculture and fishing and diversion of output for thousands of farmers.

These mama talaos dotting the agricultural map of Bhandara,Gondia,Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts were a picture of neglect until the Maharashtra government undertook the revival in 2008-09. Twenty-eight reservoirs were chosen for de-silting,strengthening,and building shelter pits for fisheries under the Government Machinery Deployment Programme. The 21 fully revived till now store an additional seven lakh cubic metres of water,the equivalent of a minor irrigation project. Farmers have now been able to harvest profitably not only the traditional paddy but also the newly introduced sugarcane. The other outcome has been an increase in rabi coverage from eight hectares to 91,and summer crop coverage from nothing to 79 hectares.


“Earlier,we used to get only two rounds of water. Now we get four. Our paddy output has increased from 25 quintals per hectare to about 32,” says Jambhora sarpanch Kalpana Gobade. Jambhora,with agriculture on 800 hectares,has a 44-hectare mama talao that irrigates 290 hectares.

President of the village fisheries society Kavdu Mungmode says: “Our fish business has doubled. We now produce fish worth Rs 2 lakh annually.” Since the revival,the village of 3,500 has 56 tractors. Many have diversified from fish to prawn.

In Kesalwada,Elkazari,Chandori,Ghanod and Amgaon,water availability and the emergence of two sugar units have encouraged the farmers to divert part of their land to cane. Together they have over 400 acres of cane. “The 21 villages in all have cane on about 1,500 acres,” says Shirish Apte,executive engineer,Small Irrigation Division,Bhandara,and the architect of the programme. Apte says traditional water harvesting systems have been rejuvenated elsewhere in the country through private initiatives ,but this is the first such government programme.

Asked if cane farming is advisable when it is seen as the culprit behind the depletion of the water table in western Maharashtra,Apte says,“Unlike western Maharashtra,Vidarbha gets good rains. With increased capacity,these tanks will have a lot of water to recharge wells. These farmers have been traditionally cane farmers; it had gone down over the years.”

Some farmers have also started jaggery unit. Crushing in Wainganga Sugar Factory has gone up from 1.3 lakh tonnes to 2.10 lakh in two years.

As the other districts take up the project,Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on Tuesday sanctioned Rs 2 crore more for the project in Bhandara.


200-300 years

The history of mama talaos in Bhandara,Gondia,Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts. Gond kings had brought members of the Kohli community from Uttar Pradesh who specialised in constructing reservoirs.


Number of mama talaos built in the four districts,using a scientific ridge-to-valley approach that is now adopted universally. Major reservoirs were built at higher levels to help its overflow recharge the smaller ones at lower levels.


The Kohlis’ share of cess. The Gond kings gave the Kohlis written rights to collect cess,along with maintenance responsibility. The rest of the cess was deposited in the royal coffers.


The cess was called malgujari,or tenancy. During British rule,the builders’ community retained their rights to cess.

Maji malgujari


It means ex-tenancy,and is part of the reservoirs’ current name. The Kohlis’ rights to collect cess were taken away after Independence. The state government took over the tanks,carried out major repairs and started collecting cess. Some tenants went to court; the Supreme Court stopped cess collection. Losing revenue,the government lost interest in the system,encroachments followed,and the reservoirs fell into neglect.