Telangana is faced with scarce water resources and the overuse of groundwater. The government’s flagship project Mission Kakatiya aims to revive the centuries-old tank irrigation network.
LAKSHMAN CHERUVU, a stunning, but parched, lake, greets visitors at the mouth of Chintapatla village, about an hour’s drive from Hyderabad, in the new State of Telangana. Local residents say it has stayed this way in several of the past 12 years.
An excited crowd gathers at the sight of this journalist. Chandraiah, the husband of the titular village sarpanch, Padma, is summoned. He greets this journalist and announces that the gram panchayat has received Rs.93.8 lakh under the Telangana government’s flagship project, Mission Kakatiya, to restore Lakshman lake.
Mission Kakatiya proposes to spend Rs.20,000 crore over the next five years to restore the State’s sprawling tank irrigation network, which was in wide use until the late 1950s. Its use diminished considerably following the emphasis of the Nehruvian years on large dams, such as the Sri Ram Sagar in Telangana’s Nizamabad district and the Nagarjuna Sagar, now on the border with Andhra Pradesh.
The tank network
Agriculturists and academics date the sophisticated system back 1,000 years, to the Kakatiya dynasty that ruled the region. As the plateau is located in the rain shadow region of both the Eastern and Western Ghats, settlers realised early on the need to conserve water in this rocky landscape. Interconnected rain-fed tanks, sometimes the size of large lakes, whose flow depended on gravity, were developed. Canals were built from these lakes to supply water to the fields.
This led to extensive cultivation of water-intensive crops such as paddy. Over the years, yields came down drastically because of decreasing reliance on tank irrigation and rampant exploitation of groundwater resources.
Situated in Yacharam mandal of Rangareddy district, Chintapatla has about 5,000 residents. They remember the time when Lakshman Chervu irrigated nearly all their farmland, and open wells had water at 20 feet (six metres) below the ground. That was 30 years ago. Today, there are 13 borewells, only five of which are functioning. They bring up water with high fluoride content from as deep as 400 feet. Another 15 hand pumps form part of a water grid. But the water is not potable.
Official records show that the 119-acre lake irrigated an area of over 250 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). This year, it is down to zero. The lake is over 22 feet deep with a sluice, a Nizam-era stone structure, on the tank bund. Chandraiah remembers his parents regaling him with tales about the massive size of the sluice gates. Much like the tank itself, it is now covered up with silt about 10 feet deep…
According to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), an overwhelming 70 per cent of the State’s cultivated lands now depend on groundwater for irrigation—the opposite of the situation in the 1950s. A report in Economic & Political Weekly shows how tank irrigation increased “ninefold between 1875 and 1940 under the Nizam’s rule and brought about a sevenfold increase in farmland. This decreased just as drastically in independent India.”
CGWB data show that groundwater today has higher than permissible levels of salt, fluoride, nitrate and iron in almost all districts of the State. A recent report in The Hindu cites Union Health Ministry data identifying Telangana as the State with the second largest number of skeletal fluorosis cases in the country, a condition which leads to bone deformities because of high levels of fluoride consumption…
This will be published in the March 6, 2015, edition