Union water resources minister rolls out plan to make Maharashtra water-sufficient in the shortest span of time

Did you know that Maharashtra, which brags about being ahead of other states in many sectors, lags much behind in a sector that could have saved it from the agrarian crisis that has killed thousands of distressed farmers over the past 15 years? Yes, we are second from the bottom in terms of creating an irrigation facility for our farmers and drinking water facility for all. Jharkhand is the lowest in this list and Punjab tops it. What's more, even the desert state of Rajasthan has created a irrigation capacity that is double the size of Maharashtra's land (under irritation).

It is really a sad commentary on the affairs of the state that takes immense pride in its modern outlook, industrial development, foreign direct investment and the revenue it generates for the country's coffers.

Let me tell you this piece isn't all about just farming. Dam facilities for irrigation do not necessarily mean a rural issue, because these do quench the ever-increasing thirst of cities. Drinking water is already one of the biggest problems in the 21st century. Conservation, innovation, planning and judicious investment in creating long-lasting assets is the biggest challenge as we experience climate change that has altered rain patterns.

The failure
Why has Maharashtra, with just 21% irrigation capacity done so badly? Ex-CM Prithviraj Chavan did answer the question some five years ago. His observation that the state could add a mere 0.1% capacity in 10 years and he did not know where '70,000 crore went, created an unprecedented battle between the Congress and the NCP, which had the irrigation portfolio since 1999. The NCP leaders were subjected to corruption charges. The Congress too cannot escape responsibility for it was in power for the longest period.

After coming to power, the BJP had to do: probe NCP leaders further and punish them if found guilty, and rectify the mistakes of the past to create more irrigation facilities.

Three years on, the probes are underway. The leaders who faced serious charges seem to have secured their political careers, at least for now. The addition of irrigation facility suffered teething problems because of what had happened to the department in the past. It took some time for the BJP to settle in and focus first on completing unfinished major and medium projects. CM Devendra Fadnavis concentrated on micro kind of projects such as Jalayukta Shivar, which evoked a good response. But it was also mired in controversy due to habitually corrupt contractors.

Enter Gadkari
At a time when farmers are agitated and the Fadnavis government is looking forward to creating long-term and sustainable solutions, Union Minister for Water Resources Nitin Gadkari has entered the scene with a novel project under his belt. The project was delayed for years. It's about interlinking rivers to cater to water deficit rivers from water surplus basins. It envisages interlinking 60 rivers across the country.

Faced with legal challenges and difference of opinion between the states involved (Maharashtra, Gujarat and MP), the project could be the toughest that Gadkari has handled so far.

Maharashtra first
Gadkari has started with three interlinking projects, of which two are in Maharashtra. Par-Tapi-Narmada and Damanganga-Pinjal will commence in the next three months. He has approved an initial budget of '20,000 cr for them. In addition, he proposed another '40,000 cr assistance to the state. He was immensely confident that the Union cabinet will approve his financial plans for Maharashtra without any delay.

Damanganga and Pinjal is important for Mumbai. The linking of the two rivers will divert surplus available water from Damanganga basin to Mumbai through Pinjal reservoir. A dam across Damanganga river at Bhugad bordering Valsad district of Gujarat and Nashik district of Maharashtra will be constructed, while another dam will come up across Vagh river at Khargihill in Thane district.

Other projects of interlinking Damanganga-Godavari, Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari, Par-Godavari and Nar-Par-Girna rivers will reduce the water scarcity in Central and Northern Maharashtra. Gadkari's ministry will also assist the state in an exclusive irrigation programme for 14 farmer suicide-affected districts. Gadkari's confidence is unparalleled when it comes to beating time. Ranked a topper in the Modi Cabinet, he is known for his 'bulldozing' ways. He has to his credit some top class infra projects such as the Mumbai-Pune expressway and 55 flyovers in Mumbai, but that was 20 years ago. What he has created in the past three years in terms of highways, tunnels and bridges is just incredible.

Gadkari said if things fall in place then Maharashtra's water-holding capacity should increase to 40% in just two years. A tough task, indeed. But Gadkari's admirers say he could pull it off, yet again. To them, we say Amen!

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com