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Dying wisdom: The tanks and stepwells of Ramtek

By Anu Kumar

For centuries the people of Ramtek managed their traditional water harvesting systems, thrived and prospered. The community decided on water distribution. In 1950, water management became the responsibility of the state. Today, the area is drought-ridden. Revitalising the tanks and stepwells could be the best solution

Ramtek in Maharashtra, known for its sprawling lakes and scenic beauty, is venerated as the birthplace of a great literary work. It was here that Kalidas wrote his masterpiece Meghdoot. The township itself is more than 200 years old. It is dotted with old temples. Ramgiri, the hill that stands 500 feet above the town, signifies 'the hill of Ram', while the name 'Ramtek' means both the hill (tekri in Marathi) of Ram and the place where Ram rested for a while before returning to Ayodhya after 14 years in exile.

Ramtek's orchards produced high-quality betel leaf. At one time, the 'Ramtek paan' was sought after. Despite its dry climate, betel was widely grown in the area during the time of the Bhonsales and the British who came later. Earthen mandaps were constructed over the saplings (to retain humidity) and then overlaid by trees and shrubs to form a natural greenhouse.

A scientific analysis of traditional water-harvesting structures around Ramtek has revealed how a whole system for capturing water, based on local topography and soil type, once existed. The hilly terrain around Ramtek, part of the Satpura range, harbours several tanks, pointing to the fact that a full-fledged water management system was once maintained by the people. Patches of silver are clearly visible along the drive up the hills around Ramgiri. These are the tanks that abound all over Ramtek.

Today, however, Ramtek presents a quite different picture. The kharif and rabi crops in Ramtek tehsil were ruined this year because of scanty rainfall, long hours of power cuts and lack of irrigation facilities. The sowing of the rabi crop too has been delayed. In tribal-dominated Ramtek tehsil, agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the villagers.

The Pench irrigation project was originally meant to serve the irrigation needs of the local villagers and to generate hydro-electricity. It now supplies drinking water to Nagpur's ever-growing population.

A delay in rainfall meant that paddy transplantation was only possible over 3,400 hectares of land in the tehsil during the kharif season. Many paddy growers in Ramtek, Nagardhan and Deolapar are facing drought. The 33 tanks constructed by the zilla parishad's irrigation department, at a cost of crores of rupees, are in bad shape. No water can be stored in these tanks as they have no gates.

The Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) could not come to the rescue of the farmers as the wells too are only on paper. Very few benefits of the Rs 4 crore Rajiv Sagar (Bawanthadi) Irrigation Scheme are actually available to farmers from the tehsil. The scheme destroyed around 15 lakh green trees in the Ramtek forest range. Despite the state government granting administrative sanction, not a single rupee has been made available for the implementation of the Satrapar Ladha Sitapar Irrigation Scheme. Consequently, the scheme remains only on paper.

Load-shedding imposed by the MSEB has affected the running of agricultural pumpsets, adding to the farmer's woes. In nearly 70 per cent of villages in the tehsil, paddy production ranges between 15 and 20 per cent of expected production.

Although the government's immediate task should be to provide relief to the farmers, there is also a case for reviving traditional structures of water management and promoting decentralisation of their management and maintenance.

Shantanu Puranik of Minienviron Systems, Nagpur, and his colleagues initiated a case study of traditional water harvesting systems in the Ramtek area. The famed centuries-old 'Ramtek model' comprised 144 tanks spread over 400 square kilometres, most of them sequentially arranged, some even interconnected.

Water flowed downhill and moved from one tank to another via channels. The Kindsey talao once supplied water to several surrounding areas. Today, the tanks have been sidelined by newer water distribution structures. There is the growing danger of siltation: inflowing channels leading from one tank to another are blocked. The stepwells in the region are in a state of disrepair. These stepwells were dedicated to individual deities, small-time goddesses. Therefore people looked after them. Sadly, this is no longer the case.

Many of the tanks appear to have been constructed around 250-300 years ago. Monsoon delays were responsible for frequent crop failures, and so the tanks were built to supplement the water required in the rice fields. Tanks were constructed practically everywhere. The state official, called patil or malguzar, was also responsible for the collection of revenue. If any tank, canal or outlet suffered damage, the villages would repair the structure under the supervision of the malguzar.

A committee consisting of the malguzar and four or five senior villagers decided how the water was to be distributed. This decision was binding on all farmers. The committee would appoint a 'pankar' who was responsible for the release of water to the farmers and ensured that the committee's decisions were properly implemented. He also had to supervise the maintenance of the canals. The pankar was usually a landless labourer. He was paid by the farmers, who would set aside a share of their crop and provide him clothes. If the pankar was found favouring any particular farmer he was removed from his post and denied his rights and privileges. Anybody found guilty of damaging the canal or the tank was denied his share of water for that year.

The Abolition of ex-Proprietary Rights Act (APRA), enacted in 1950, saw the proprietary rights over the tanks being transferred from the malguzars and local village committees to the irrigation department and zilla parishads. These government departments were entrusted with the responsibility of repairs and maintenance of the tanks. But they were not equipped to maintain and repair such a large number of tanks.

In the late-1960s, the government set about adopting modern techniques and replacing most of the traditional local tank structures to enhance their water-holding capacities and improve the water distribution system. However, because of a shortage of manpower, the new structures and the traditional structures that were taken over were not maintained. Worse, the villagers ceasesd to care about and look after the structures, as they were not able to influence the people within the government machinery.

Following a severe drought in the region, in 1992, a flurry of irrigation projects was announced. Construction work on Upper Wardha had begun in 1975; it has not yet been completed. The Gosikhurd and Lower Wardha schemes have only recently commenced construction. Sugar factories were opened in Vidarbha in the hope that dams would be constructed. Several of these factories have reported losses; some have even begun closing down.

Groundwater levels in Vidarbha are falling due to the scanty rainfall, absence of dams, improper crop planning and an increasing number of wells and borewells. Digging more borewells and wells is not the solution. In 1997, the Centre gave long-awaited environmental clearance to 46 irrigation projects in eastern Vidarbha, which were affected by the Forest Conservation Act. Clearance was given only after an extensive survey of the forestland that would be submerged by these projects, and `zudpi jungle' (scrub and wild grass) land identified for carrying out compensatory afforestation. A total of 63,341 hectares of zudpi jungle land was transferred to the forest department for compensatory afforestation, as per the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act. Of the 46 projects cleared by the Centre, 33 are state sector projects and 13 are local sector projects. The Centre has cleared a further 17 projects out of 39 planned under the special package for the development of Vidarbha. Most of these are minor projects.

The revival of Ramtek's traditional tanks could prove the best solution for the region's water problems. The expertise required to build such tanks and distribution systems is available locally, and any kind of emergency can be tackled immediately to minimise losses. The technologies adopted were simple and could be used by the local inhabitants. This meant that the local community was not dependent on external agencies for tank-building, repairs and maintenance.

Traditional practices ought to find wider promotion, acceptance and application. Ideal for the time in which they were devised, they can be improved by modern science. For example, the runoff from catchments could be increased. Recharging efforts could be made more efficient. Traditional technologies could, in fact, be used to deal with present-day water quality problems such as fluoride and arsenic in groundwater. Modern science can also be used to explain how groundwater recharge, through the construction of traditional water-harvesting systems like small ponds and tanks in catchment areas, has revived rivers.

Watershed policies should, ideally, be related to aspects of the cropping pattern. As the evolution of the watershed policy in Andhra Pradesh and a few other states has shown, the emphasis is now on greater decentralisation and the maintenance and revival of tanks and ponds around which village life was once centred.

(Anu Kumar is a Mumbai-based freelance writer with an interest in development issues)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2003