In March, a group of prominent residents met in Latur city to think about ways to cope with the water scarcity that had propelled their city to the national headlines.

“After the 1993 earthquake, for the first time, the whole country was looking at Latur,” Nilesh Thakkar, the owner of a biochemicals business and one of the participants in that meeting told “If it went on like this, a negative sentiment would be created.”

A solution was offered by Makrand Jadhav, a civil engineer who works with the Art of Living Foundation, a non-governmental organisation led by the spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Jadhav made a presentation, proposing a project to widen and deepen Manjira river that supplies drinking water to the city. The river had run dry after four consecutive years of scanty rain in the region of Marathwada in central Maharashtra. Jadhav claimed it was possible to increase the capacity of the river to store rainwater, which could be supplied both to the residents of Latur city and used to irrigate the fields of farmers nearby.

Instead of depending on the government, he suggested that wealthy citizens and private organisations raise resources to implement the project.

“Jadhav said it will cost Rs 8.5 crore,” recalled Thakkar. “We immediately agreed.”

Three civil engineers drew up the initial plan. Thakkar said there were no hydrologists, ecologists or other riverine experts involved.

The project was named Jalyukt Latur, borrowing from Jalyukt Shivar, or Water-filled Land, the name of Maharashtra government’s water conservation programme.

Matters proceeded rapidly from there. On April 4, Jadhav said, they hired a Bengaluru-based company to begin a survey of the river. By April 7, the Bengaluru firm had completed the survey. In five days, they had collected Rs 3 crore.

On April 8, which is Gudi Padwa, an auspicious day for Maharashtrian Hindus, the project on the Manjira was inaugurated at a village called Sai, five kms from the city. Latur’s collector Pandurang Pole was the chief guest at the occasion.

Over the next two months, an assortment of earthmoving machines worked feverishly on the dry riverbed, dredging up earth and knocking down the river banks.

By the last week of June, about 15 kms of the riverbed had been deepened and widened.

The watershed approach

On the face of it, the Jalyukt Latur project appears dynamic and purposeful. But ecologists say the project encapsulates much of what is wrong with Maharashtra’s water conservation programme, which was introduced in 2014 with the aim to make the state drought-free in five years.

For one, the programme disregards decades of experience that shows there isn’t much use desilting streams and rivers in isolation. Water conservation needs to done in conjunction with soil and forest conservation, ecologists say.

In technical jargon, this is called watershed development. A watershed is a unit of area from which water drains into a single channel.

More than 250 kms from Latur, in Washim district in eastern Maharashtra, a watershed development project is underway in Bhamdevi village. Mud partitions crisscrossed the village’s commonly-owned land, creating compartments bunds. The bunds, explained Nilesh Heda, an ecologist with the non-profit Samavardhan, help stop rainwater at the place where it falls.

The excess water that overflows is further stopped in trenches dug on the downward slope of the land. These are called CCTs – continuous contour trenches. They hold the water, allowing it to percolate in the ground.

The entire village was covered with such trenches. To hold the soil, trees have been planted along the trenches in Bhamdevi.

Such projects are guided by the "Ridge to Valley" principle that mandates that rainwater is stopped along the ridge, which is the highest point of the land, before the excess reaches the valley and flows away as streams and rivers, which are at the lowest points.

With the water, the soil is held back too – if it gets washed away, not only are farms depleted of nutrients, the streams and rivers are clogged with silt.

The dangers of digging streams

This old model of watershed development has been discarded in Jalyukt Shivar.

On paper, the programme mandates 11 types of works, ranging from compartment bunds, CCTs and small check dams. But on the ground, said Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a research centre in Pune that focuses on water and energy, the entire focus of Jalyukt Shivar has been on nala kholikaran or the desilting of streams.

“Desilting is important,” said Dharmadhikary, “but they are redoing the riverbed instead with JCBs.” Earthmoving machines are popularly called JCBs, after a leading company that makes them.

Across villages and districts, the machines have been at work, digging up the beds of streams and rivers, creating mounds of the excavated soil which in many places, still line the banks.

Pradeep Purandare of the Water and Land Management Institute in Aurangabad said: “The scheme right now has been hijacked by JCB owners.”

In itself, desilting streams is not a flawed concept, say experts. But when it is done in excess, the indiscriminate digging may remove a layer of sand in addition to silt, thereby exposing aquifers, which are fissures in the ground where water is stored.

Sand is a percolation agent – it helps soak water, replenishing the groundwater tables. Without sand, water might fill up in the streams, but is unlikely to percolate and more likely to evaporate.

There is more. If the layer of sand is removed, subsequent siltation could permanently plug the openings of aquifers. And water that enters these aquifers will no longer get naturally filtered through layers of sand.

What worries ecologists the most, however, is that not only rivulets and streams but even rivers are being dug up in Maharashtra.

Streams are classified in several orders, depending on their relative size. The smallest rivulets and tributaries are first order streams. When two such tributaries join, they become second order streams, then third and fourth and so on.

According to government norms, deepening work of any kind can take place only on streams of the order two and three. But in several places, streams of the order one and four too have also been dug up.

Manjira river in Latur is of the fourth order – which is one of the reasons that the project is among the most controversial.

Legal challenge

As collection boxes sprung up around Latur city for Jalyukt Latur, Shriram Kulkarni, a lawyer interested in civic issues, began to pay attention. Unlike several thousand others who enthusiastically contributed to the project, Kulkarni was instead concerned.

The Manjira was the only large river in the district and Kulkarni felt work on it should be done with care. What alarmed him the most were the public declarations that the project was aimed at increasing Manjira’s storage capacity.

“Jalyukt Shivar’s main motto is not to store surface water but to help it percolate,” he said, speaking from a small one-room office, just a few buildings down the road from the makeshift headquarters of Jalyukt Latur.

Kulkarni was also concerned over the seeming lack of transparency in the project, particularly the speed at which it was ushered through the maze of bureaucratic guidelines and environmental safeguards.

He began to examine the project more closely. On June 12, he filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal, seeking an immediate stay order on the project. This case, which names everyone from the divisional commissioner of Marathwada to local district authorities as respondents, is pending in the court. Apart from raising concerns about the project’s environmental viability, the petition contended that it had proceeded without due permission.

‘Our earth is not so sensitive’

Among the more publicised aspects of Maharashtra’s Jalyukt Shivar scheme is how it has encouraged citizens to actively take ownership of the projects. What is less clear is whether the privately-funded projects are approved and monitored by the government.

Put simply, the question is: can anyone go and dig up a river?

In the case of Jalyukt Latur, there is very little on paper about it. Thakkar said that they received verbal permission from the Collector to proceed with the work. Jadhav, meanwhile, proffered as proof of authority a letter issued by the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency.

“We are not doing anything wrong,” Jadhav said. “We took the permission of the GSDA. They said we should not dig more than three metres deep. We have not done that. We have done the work according to their norms.”

This letter, said MS Shaikh, senior engineer and supervisor of the GSDA in Latur, was only a set of guidelines.

“[Jalyukt Latur] made a committee and took an opinion from us on government guidelines,” Shaikh said. “We simply gave them those guidelines. I did not and cannot give permission to do the work because I am not the authority.” Shaikh said only the Collector was authorised to approve the project, and to his knowledge, no such letter had been issued.

Pandurang Pole, the Collector, deflected questions on whether his office had approved the project in writing. “If the Gram Panchayat has not given permission, how will they let anyone do this work?” he said.

Didn’t the government norms limit desilting projects to second- and third-order streams?

“There is no scientific proof that you can’t work on fourth-order streams,” he said.

But what if the private organisations dug deep enough to disturb the aquifers?

Dismissing the risk, he said: “Our earth is not so sensitive.”

How widespread are the benefits?

Huge mounds of excavated soil line the banks of the Manjira near Sai. The village is one of the oldest sources of water for Latur. “Nizam ke kaal se chal raha hai paani,” said a farmer. “This water has been going from this river since the time of the Nizam.”

In recent years, as the city has grown and drinking water has come under stress, farmers in the villages along the Manjira were prohibited from pumping water for irrigation.

In some places, farmers said they quietly broke the rule, pumping water at night. The people of Sai village, however, claimed they had been allowed to withdraw the water, since nearby sugarcane factories released effluents in the river, which made the water unfit for drinking.

The recent drought brought an end to this urban-rural conflict: the river has run dry for three years and there is no water to be pumped.

Farmers have stopped growing sugarcane and switched to soyabean. This has cut their profits – sugarcane gives higher returns for the money invested.

No wonder, there is support in the village for the project. Farmers hope it will revive the Manjira and raise groundwater levels, allowing them to pump water and go back to growing sugarcane.

Kulkarni sniffs a grand conspiracy. His petition in the National Green Tribunal alleges that the project is aimed at helping the sugar industry. The river will store water for the use of sugarcane farmers and mills.

But such a prospect seemed fanciful to many. Rajabhau Pawar, a farmer with 10 acres on the banks of the river, aspires to grow sugarcane, but was sceptical of the project’s benefits. “The soil on the side will flow into the river and make it shallow again,” he said.

While the project’s advantages are still being debated, its adverse impacts have already been felt.

Upstream from Sai is Inderthana village. Shaikh Shakeel, a resident of Inderthana, claimed that the widening of the river had resulted in the loss of government-owned commons on its banks. This was where the landless went to graze their animals.

Across the bank, in the village of Nagjhari, Sukhdevi, a small farmer who owned a dozen goats, had a similar complaint. “They have dug up the river and all the chara [fodder] is gone,” she said.

In the summer months when water is scarce and fodder is too expensive to buy, the poor depend on the vegetation growing on the dry river bed.

“Poor people used to take their animals there, goats, sheep, buffaloes, cows,” she said. “Now where will we graze them?”

Jalyukt Latur’s tagline is "Water for everyone". The statewide programme, Jalyukt Shivar, claims to be a ‘people’s movement’. The next story looks at how valid these claims are.

Read the first story in the Drought Country series here.