MWRRA orders release of less than 3 TMC water for Ujani Dam: Too Little, Too Late

Above: Water released from Bhama Askhed Dam for Ujani Dam, April 2013  Photo:Author

Today (14th January 2016) Maharashtra’s Marathi AgroDaily announces[i]: “ 3 TMC Water will be released from Bhama Askhed and Chaskaman Dam for Ujani Dam from tomorrow, 15th January 2016. Looking at the opposition to this by farmers in Pune district, the release will happen under strict police protection. Electricity to farm pumps near the river will be disconnected for 7 days between 15th-22nd January to avoid water theft”.

Sounds a bit ominous, doesn’t it?

Due to a number of drivers, water sharing is becoming a strongly contested issue in the country. However, as we have pointed out earlier[ii], these conflicts are perhaps more serious and consistent in Maharashtra. Regions within the state have gone to the Supreme Court on more occassions than one for resolving dam-centric water conflicts. The state has the largest number of dams in the country and the dam-walls seem to have driven fault lines between regions as perennial upstream and downstream.

In this scenario, the work of Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) as an appellate authority, which was to specifically look at equitable water distribution in a basin [iii] could have been a solace. What has happened since the past ten years that MWRRA was formed, holds lessons for a number of Indian states. Before MWRRA could showcase a consistent track record or before lessons from the experience could emerge, Regulatory Authorities have been established in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. Karnataka and Delhi are taking steps to establish such authorities. Now, as a part of National Water Policy 2012, establishing WRRA has become mandatory for all states. Hence the functioning of the oldest such authority in Maharashtra warrants close scrutiny.

We have written about MWRRA’s comparatively positive role in October 2015 in supporting water release for Jayakwadi Dam: Marathwada’s largest dam, from the upstream Nashik and Nagar regions[iv]. MWRRA’s order of releasing 12.85 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic feet) water from upstream dams to Jayakwadi was the earliest and involved the largest water release decision so far.

Since August 2015, MWRRA has also been grappling with the contentious issue of water releases for Ujani Dam too, which is the largest dam in the Bhima Basin of Maharashtra. On the 6th January 2016, after several delays, twists and turns, it has ordered a release of less than 3 TMC water from 2 upstream dams (Bhama Askhed Dam and Chaskaman Dam) for Ujani.  Total Release ordered is 82 MCM (Million Cubic Meters) or 2.89 TMC of which 61.5 MCM (2.1 TMC) will be from Bhama Askhed and 20.7 MCM (0.72 TMC) will be from Chaskaman. Even in April 2013, more water (4 TMC) was released from the upstream Dams (Bhama Askhed and Andra) for Ujani as per HC Orders.[v]

Petitioners from Solapur who were asking for water are unhappy with MWRRA’s decision which is too little, too late.

Before getting into the interesting decision-making that surrounds this order, it will be necessary to understand the unique socio-ecological and socio-political role that Ujani Dam plays in Western Maharashtra.

Ujani Dam falls in the perennially water-scarce Solapur District and has been facing water release conflicts fairly consistently in the past few years. It has a special connection with the MWRRA. In 2012-13 drought, when Ujani was at zero live storage, a lone farmer sat on a fast unto death demanding drinking water releases for Ujani from upstream. High Court had promptly ordered MWRRA to perform its primary duty of ensuring equitable water distribution in the basin. However, MWRRA was nearly non existent then as none of its three members were appointed by the government! It was the HC which then ordered immediate appointment of members and gave life to MWRRA.

It was with reference to Ujani Dam and the ongoing protest that the then-Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar aired his views about filling dry dams, which caused a furor in the state and shook his political career.[vi]

Ujani Dam was completed in 1978 and its gross command is 2,59,540 ha. Its Live storage capacity is 1518 MCM, and dead storage capacity is more than its Live storage capacity at 1802 MCM[vii]. Although about 32,000 ha of the original command is still not irrigated due to incomplete canal work, the project has over 11 lift irrigation projects (LIP), which take water till the boundaries of Marathwada.

Many of these LIPs do not have mandatory Environmental Clearance[viii]. There is an absence of a Water Balance Study of Ujani and an utter ambiguity in understanding how much water goes where and for what and when. Even as the dam is often at 0% Live Storage due to a number of reasons, the ambitious Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Projects plans to take an additional 23.66 TMC water from the empty Ujani to Marathwada. Where this water will come from is a question, but the Environment Ministry had no qualms in clearing this project, without even a simple water availability study [ix]. Ujani Project Complex is an example of an highly politicized dam system.

Ujani also supplies drinking water to Solapur Municipal Corporation, but the current supply is so inefficient that, according to official estimates, for every 1 TMC water that Solapur gets from Ujani, whopping 20 TMC water has to be released from the Dam, benefiting several sugarcane farms and factories en-route. Although the administration says that it will fast track piped drinking supply system, it’s a puzzle why it did not materialize for so many years.

The approved cropping pattern for the project is a supposed to be of 8 monthly cycle (mainly Jowar, groundnut, pulses, Bajra, Chillies etc) which includes no perennials, but the Water Resource Department (WRD) officials themselves admit proudly in official meetings that Ujani irrigates nearly 100,000 ha of sugarcane. Most of the lifts also irrigate sugarcane. In fact, Solapur, which has been facing severe water scarcity in the recent years, has the largest number of sugar factories in Maharashtra. In the 2014-15 and 2015-16 droughts, the number of sugar factories in Solapur has ironically increased from 28 in 2012-13 drought year, to 32 in 2014-15 drought! While it can be said that a thriving sugar industry has brought prosperity to the region, many parts of Ujani’s original command remain unserviced and thirsty.

This June and then later, Solapur’s current dynamic Collector Mr. Tukaram Mundhe publicly took a stand that water will not be released from Ujani for irrigating sugarcane. He said that sugarcane is growing illegally in the command of Ujani, a dam meant for 8 monthly irrigation is made into a 12 monthly project and looking at the looming water scarcity, “One can’t hold lakhs of people to ransom to benefit a few.”[x]

After a satisfactory 2014-15 monsoon in which Ujani Dam was 100% full (a rare occurrence) 2015 proved to be the worst rainfall year in the past 100 years for Solapur. It rained only 193 mm between June-Sept. The dam which was 100% full in September 2014, was 27% full in March 2015[xi] just 6 months on and 0% Live Storage in August 2015[xii], just 5 months from there.

It was in August 2015, in the middle of the monsoon, when SANDRP published a report stating that water of Bhama Askhed Dam in Khed, upstream of Ujani Dam, should be released for Ujani immediately. Back then, Bhama Askhed was 89% full and more importantly, water from this dam sits idle. The dam has never irrigated a hectare of its intended command, neither does it supply drinking water to Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporations, as planned (project work is incomplete). In August, the riverbed is generally saturated so percolation losses would be low, evaporation losses would be low (higher humidity) and lifting would be less too, as the situation was not as desperate as it is now.

However, the Water Resources Department (WRD) does not have a system through which timely, holistic, basin-wide decisions can be taken. Maharashtra has indulged in purely project-based approach to water management but ecological identity and upstream-downstream linkages is a reality which the bureaucracy and engineers cannot wish away. Water conflicts is just one indication of this disconnect.

Water of Bhama Askhed dam was not released for Ujani, it is still not released, 5 months later.

Let us now look at the decision making which led to the current water release decision:

  1. Hearing in June 2015: In August, MLA from Solapur Mr. Bharat Bhalke filed an application before MWWRA asking for water releases for Ujani from upstream, upholding equitable water distribution clause of MWRRA Act. Similarly Mr. Siddheshwar Varade filed a case in Hon High Court (HC) of Bombay for the same.

However, during its hearing on 15.09.2014, MWRRA disallowed any Kharif (monsoon month) irrigation from the dead storage of Ujani and restricted any water release from the upstream dams as the application was for drinking water, and there was sufficient drinking water in the dead storage of Ujani and upstream dams were also facing scarcity. The High Court supported MWRRA decision and asked it to reassess the situation in October 2015, for Rabi Season. The June order also asked Municipal Corporations to treat and reuse sewage.

  1. Hearing in October 2015 On October 26th, MWRRA heard the two petitioners, asking for water for Ujani and also 8 respondents including Secretary and Officials of the WRD, Commissioners of Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad and Solapur, etc.
  2. MWRRA also invited Tata Power as they are diverting huge quantities of water AWAY from the Bhima Basin, into Konkan even in the months of drought through their dams like Mulshi, Valvan, Shirvata and Thokarwadi[xiii].

All of the respondents and interveners from upstream submitted how impossible it was to release any water from  their dams and how Ujani has in fact misused its water. Tata Power said that it can release a mere 30 MCM water from Mulshi Dam, that too as a “one-time special measure which will not set any precedence as public service”, at the same time, ensuring that full cost recovery for the power generation is compensated! All this while making profit, transferring water from a drought-affected basin to a water surplus basin and when the priority of water use by industries is 3rd, after drinking water and irrigation water in the State Water Policy. Tata Power’s stand is unacceptable and reprehensible.

On its part, MWRRA Judgement’s section on Ujani Dam, when it lists out dams in the upstream of Ujani,  does not even mention Tata Dams, when Mulshi Dam has the highest live storage among all dams in Bhima Basin!

The MWRRA upheld and evoked Section 11 (c) (“Equitable distribution of water in times of scarcity”). After due consideration, it applied a formula of issuing 20% cuts to domestic water use in the upstream and conveyance losses (through vigilant control) and reducing two Rabi rotations to one. This principle was applied to Bhama Askhed, Kasarsai, Andra, Vadivale, Khadakwasla, Pavana and Chaskaman. Only Bhama Askhed, Chaskaman and Andra were selected for water releases as other dams did not have sufficient water. Total water to be released to for Ujani, after 20% cut and 26 MCM from Tata’s was 291.81 MCM, approximately 10 TMC.

  1. Technical Member, MWRRA resigns Unfortunately, 10 TMC release decision of October 2015 proved to be short-lived. It was challenged by the interveners Mr. Gore and Mr. Pacharne in the Hon. High Court of Mumbai. And then, in a strange turn of things, the interveners (now petitioners in HC) proved with documents that the Expert Member-Technical of MWRRA, Mr. Suresh Sodal owns irrigated land in the command of Ujani. Any release from upstream dams to Ujani will benefit his land which lies in the command of Ujani. Hence, there is a conflict of interest as he has been part of a quorum to MWWRA judgement as well has been present during High Court hearings. The bench was severely displeased by this revelation.

“Could he not have recused himself? Is this appropriate? The decision of the water authority impacts the lives of lakhs of persons and a wrong decision can go against public interest.” said the bench.[xiv]

Mr. Sodal has resigned from MWRRA since the High Court hearing. The High Court dismissed all of the Authority’s earlier decisions and asked for a fresh hearing and a fresh decision from MWRRA.

  1. 6th January 2016 MWRRA Order From here on, two further hearings were held at MWRRA Office on the 14th and 18th of December. Finally the judgment was published on the 6th January,  2016. It simply states that water will be released only from those dams which have water above their spill way crest level and only that much water will be released, which comes down to about 82 MCM, of which only about 55 MCM or less than 2 TMC will reach Ujani. This is assuming there is 0% water lifting enroute, which is next to  impossible. It looks as if Ujani will hardly get any water through this exercise and upstream dams will lose water.

More importantly, it completely leaves dams like Tata Power off the hook.  It does not bring any sectoral sharing of scarcity in picture, it does not ask the urban areas or the industrial areas in the upstream to cut their water usage, it does not ask for any strong measures like reuse of sewage or reduction in transmission losses. The 20% cut formula is abandoned. In short, it does not share scarcity with all the basin users, which is at the heart of Equitable Water Distribution and Deficit Sharing.

While MWRRA may have objections against releasing water so late in the year, when there will be increased losses and reduced benefits, such conflicts and delays will not be new for Maharashtra. They will continue to take place. Simplistic decisions like releasing water only above the spillway can set dangerous precedents. Tomorrow, if dams from upstream Nashik and Nagar refuse to release water into Godavari stating that levels are not till spillway crest level, Jayakwadi will suffer and so will the areas en-route.

Irrigating from dead storage? An interesting thing which surfaced during these hearings was the fact that Ujani was 100% full in 2014-15 and an amount of 13.08 TMC was used for irrigation during the past year from its dead storage. This means that this year, an additional amount of 13.08 TMC has gone into filling the dead storage and when its filled, Ujani remains at 0% Live storage and can demand water from upstream.

This is not an isolated example. Ujani command exclusively has sugarcane and concentration of sugar factories which need humongous amounts of water. Backwater lifting is rife, water use is not accounted, releases to lift irrigation schemes and tunnels based on Ujani are not put in open domain. Water Users Associations (WUAs) are not formed, command is not delineated. There is no accountability or transparency in using dam waters.  Lifting water from Dead Storage for irrigation is common. (for many dams in the state).  This point was rallied strongly by the respondents.

While equitable water use is indeed sacrosanct, questions about how the available water before sharing was used by the downstream (as well as upstream) are going to be raised. Ujani command and backwaters cannot go on consuming water without any accountability and then ask for water from the upstream dams when it runs out of water.

This does not mean that the upstream has used water ideally. Pune district also has a dense concentration of sugarcane, there are water thefts from Khadakwasla canals for irrigating sugarcane, Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad do not use the available water prudently, there is no reuse or supply efficiency. Tata Power Dams continue to divert water from a parched basin to a surplus basin with impunity. There is no policy to regulate this. Our letters addressed to CM about this have been unanswered (and possibly unopened). MWRRA has not failed in laying the foundation of equitable water use. Let us hope that the emerging conflicts challenge the upstream as well as the downstream to use available water efficiently.

To sum up, MWRRA’s judgement is indeed ad hoc and problematic. It is not based on principles of equity like deficit sharing and has a potential of setting a precedent.

However, before coming to MWRRA, it was the Water Resources Department which should have been taking these decisions on its own, using its resources.  As Pradeep Purandare eloquently states, “Rules for the 1976 Maharashtra Irrigation Act, which would have necessitated detailed work by the canal officials and engineers of the WRD and brought in accountability in irrigating command, are still not formulated. Canal Officers are not deputed, Superintending and Executive Engineers do not think from the Basin point of view, no planning and scheduling of water in projects is done seasonally, important decisions are taken from the Mantralaya or now the MWRRA, but not the WRD, never at the decentralized levels. There is zero accountability and an absence of basic minimum governance.”

Seems like a tall order in the land of dams. Let us see what happens next with the MWRRA order of 6th January 2016. Unfortunately in this drought year, we seem to have more litigations and conflicts on our hands  than efficient and innovative water use and sharing., SANDRP




[iii] In this limited context “Equitable Water Distribution” means that by 31st October, all dams in one single basin would have proportionately similar percentage of water stored.












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