Atpadi, a taluka (administrative division) in the Sangli district of southern Maharashtra, covers approximately 60 villages with a population of over 1.5 lakh (1,50,000). It falls on the upper reaches of the Krishna basin, on the far eastern side of the Sahyadris, a region historically known as the rain-shadow region. It witnesses rainfall of barely 300 mm-350 mm per year and in 2012, Atpadi saw its worst drought, followed by droughts in 2016 and 2019. Thereon, it was known as the “land of dushkal” or “land of drought”.

Traditionally, the local population grazed livestock and grew small amounts of bajra, jowar and shrubs. Many then began to migrate to cities to work as textile workers or porters and to the water-rich regions of western Maharashtra to work as sugarcane cutters. “If you had come here even 10 years ago, you would have seen nothing apart from shrubs and livestock grazing. The area was completely drought-prone,” said Sachin Khandagale, principal at the Atpadi Agriculture Polytechnic.

Over the past three or more years the region has transformed. There are some villages rich with fields of pomegranate, while others are growing grapes, sugarcane, tomato, elephant grass and grains such as jowar and bajra. The farmers seem happier; their incomes are better. There is water to drink and to irrigate the fields. Fewer people now migrate to the cities for work.

A pomegranate plantation in Atpadi. Credit: Jaysing Chavan/Mongabay

The present-day Atpadi, however, is the fruition of decades efforts by farmers, scientists and activists to bring about a functioning model of equitable distribution of water, proving that drought-prone areas are not a lost cause.

This model is based on the principle that every single person, whether a land-owner or not, has a right to water for irrigation. Using an integrated approach, it involves the use of water from the surface bodies and groundwater of the village, along with an exogenous supply through lift irrigation schemes.

How the Bombay Textile Strike triggered a movement for water distribution

Atpadi’s transformation journey began with the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982-1983. In January 1982, over 2,00,000 textile workers that worked in the mills of Bombay (now Mumbai), went on strike. Many of the farmers had migrated from drought-prone regions of Khanapur, Atpadi and southern Maharashtra. Apart from demanding better wages and bonuses, the strike also intended to express their displeasure with the existing trade union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh or the National Mill Workers Association. The workers wanted to set up an independent union. “The strike went on for 18 months. When they exhausted their money, they came back to the villages,” said Bharat Patankar, activist and co-founder of Shramik Mukti Dal (Toilers’ Liberation League), a socio-political outfit that organises farmers and toilers on issues around drought, dam, project-eviction and caste oppression. Patankar is also one of the architects of the model of equitable distribution of water in Maharashtra.

a protest held by Shramik Mukti Dal (Toilers’ Liberation League). Credit: Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana

Atpadi, at that time, was experiencing a drought. KJ Joy, water researcher, activist and co-founder of Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, said that a number of the migrant workers returned to Atpadi and surrounding drought prone areas, and got jobs under the state government’s employment guarantee scheme. While the scheme was well-intentioned because it gave regular employment, the quality of the work was not ideal, in Joy’s opinion. The workers, who were originally small-land owners and farmers, were given jobs of road laying or breaking stones instead of work related to their fields. “They owned small pieces of land in their drought-riddled villages, but there was no water to till the land.”

Groundwater exploitation is one of the many reasons that the region has experienced drought. Explaining the history of groundwater exploitation, Patankar added that in the pre-colonial times, agriculture in these areas was done only in terrains where soil depth was more than six inches, and the remaining terrain was left for cattle grazing. It was only after the British started collecting land taxes, which would in turn come from crop income, did cultivation begin in areas that were not meant to be cultivated. The number of wells being dug increased. Mono-cultivation of crops brought in electric and diesel pumps, allowing more and more groundwater to be extracted. “So, in Khanapur, we found out that from 1972 to 1983 there was 500-fold more exploitation of groundwater within those 10 years, compared to the time before 1972,” Patankar said, adding that they followed in the footsteps of Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, also known as Mahatma Phule, a renowned social activist who is regarded as an important figure in the social reform movement in Maharashtra. “Mahatma Phule, for the first time, mentioned equitable distribution of water,” Patankar told Mongabay-India. He told the British government that they should give each farmer water through pipes. And accordingly, water should be available as per the requirement of crop. It should neither be more, nor less.

Equitable distribution of water

The concept of equitable distribution of water comes from considering water a public resource. “Water is not a private property,” Patankar said. “But the use of water becomes privatised, because agricultural land is privately-owned.”

Agriculture involves different types of land-holdings, as well as landless workers. Going by that norm, a public resource like water then gets used according to the ownership of land. “So, people who have more land get more water,” he said. “People with less land and landless and tapering get less amount of water or no water for agriculture. So, they will only get water for drinking.”

Additionally, the method of supplying water for irrigation through a dam also creates inequalities as those closer to the supply have better access.

An experiment underway to study the water retention of soil in Atpadi. Credit: Jaysing Chavan/Mongabay

Patankar said that equitable distribution of water should be based on the right to livelihood. And the right to livelihood should be given to any citizen of this country. “Whether or not you own the land or how much land you own, irrespective of that, there is a certain amount of water required for the production to meet livelihood needs – and that amount of water should be given to each individual,” he said.

After conducting various studies, the group of activists, farmers and scientists that were pushing for equitable distribution of water, decided that 5,000 cubic metres of water per household (every family), per year, is a decent amount for irrigation. With consensus on this, the next step was to identify water sources and reach out to the government for support in implementation.

The group then conducted surveys to understand the water sources in the Atpadi village. “Equitable water use is the equitable use of the total water available by integrating all sources – what we already have as surface, groundwater and in situ, along with exogenous use,” explained Patankar.

Water lifting

When the people of Atpadi recognised that they could demand for their right to water for irrigation, the movement for equitable water use, stepped up. Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana, a local farmer and farm labourers’ association of Atpadi and 13 adjoining drought-prone talukas organised a number of agitations which became more focussed in the early 2000s. It also held discussions and forums for farmers.

Their main demand from the Maharashtra government was to ensure that sufficient water from the Krishna river would be “lifted” and diverted to their villages though the then-proposed Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme in an equitable manner. This, they demanded, had to be done for all households, including the landless, living in the 13 districts. The state and the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation opposed this idea of equitable distribution of water on the basis of households, and preferred gravity command area-based irrigation.

Joy said that, as part of the original design of the then-proposed Tembhu Lift Irrigation project, 4.42 thousand million cubic feet of water was allocated to Atpadi taluka to irrigate 16,000 hectares of land. “Thus, as per the original proposed design, it would not have irrigated even one-fourth of the cropped area of Atpadi (the cropped area is more than 50,000 hectare) and would also lead to some villages being partially irrigated and some completely left out,” he told Mongabay-India. This would mean that many farmers would not have received water. “We submitted our study (based on all the surveys the group had done) and proposal to the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation and villages started fighting back. People told the government what they wanted to do.”

Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana led a series of agitations to demand the speedy implementation of the the Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme. Credit: Jaysing Chavan/Mongabay

The Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme had received administrative approval in 1996. Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana campaigned for improvement by changing the plan from a conventional lift irrigation to focus on equitable distribution. In 2014, and then again in 2016, the Maharashtra government agreed to sanction funds for the Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme which would lift water from the Krishna basin in five stages, and provide the drought-riddled regions of Sangli, Satara and Solapur districts with water, Atapadi being one among them. The government was on board with the equitable distribution of water model and then planning for it began from 2016..

Then the Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana convinced the Maharashtra government to restructure the scheme in the three talukas of Atpadi, Tasgaon and Sangola on equitable lines as a pilot project in 2018. “Atpadi is the first taluka to have closed pipelines instead of open canal systems for further distribution of the water,” said Patankar. The Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation, through the Sangli Irrigation Circle, is implementing the project.

Work in progress

Ajay Mahanur, a 26-year-old farmer from Gomevadi village in Atpadi pointed to a local water body and said that before the government agreed to the equitable distribution model in 2014, there was almost no water there. Now, it is rippling. The village that used to see only maize and jowar is now witnessing growth of tomato, double chilly, grapes, pomegranate and cucumber.

Vijay Satyawan Rage, a 35-year-old farmer, owns 70 acres of land. “Before the irrigation project (Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme), I used to barely use 1-2 acres of my land,” he said. “Today, I use almost all of it.” He also has a herd of 40 goats and 40 cows, and provides them 500 litres of water every day. He has fitted motors and canals next to the lake which provides him with the water it needs.

Ganesh Babar from Sangola, an adjoining taluka of Atpadi told Mongabay-India that the region is a leading area for the growth of pomegranate – a development that happened over the years but received a push from the Tembhu Lift Irrigation Scheme. “Our anaar (pomegranate) is exported around the world,” he said. “We have 16 water user associations, where farmers collectively take responsibility to take water and irrigate their fields and ensure a steady supply.”

The pilot project in Atpadi, though successful, is still a work-in-progress. “There are many challenges to this, and a big one is to document every single household accurately,” said Joy.

Another challenge, Joy, explained, is that the irrigation officers get transferred frequently. “By the time we explain to them, they are gone,” he said.

They are also looking for ways to improve soil moisture, which would reduce the need for irrigation. Joy said that crop diversification, changing cropping patterns, are different ways in which they can improve the quality and moisture holding capacity of the soil, helping it tackle the vagaries of climate change.

They are now working to see how this model can be applied to other drought-prone regions of Marathwada.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.