Even with enough attention and public funds received by the Jal Jeevan Mission, many regions are still parched. The flagship programme has done more for plastic pipe manufacturers and less for the thirsty, many experts have said.
Most of India’s groundwater is also imperilled by excessive extraction and pollution. So I travelled into Telangana, hoping to understand how it transformed itself from a highland dry state into a water-secure state in less than five years, and without central funding.
The Jal Shakti minister had even said in Parliament that Telangana is the only state with piped water to every household. So in a journey of 13 days, I trailed water for over 2,500 km to test his statement. From the dry, red soil of Zaheerabad, Sangareddy with its tank irrigation, to green and water-secure Khammam (thanks to the Nagarjuna Sagar project and reservoirs), Aswaraopeta, the Lakshmi barrage at Medigatta, the lakes of Hyderabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and more. I touched the Godavari, swam in the Munneru river and drank water from thousands of the village wells, and prayed at the Ramappa Temple and lake.
How was this possible?
After seeing the countryside, it was time to see the heart of water security in Telangana ― Project Bhagiratha for drinking water, and the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project, which is the world’s largest multi-stage lift irrigation project, watering most of the state. The journey took me into a deep cavern of the Ranganayaka lift pumping station, a modern engineering marvel with surge pools 150 ft underground. Then we headed off to see high blue water reservoirs in the system.
The foundations of Project Bhagiratha were laid in Siddipet 1996-97 by Chief Minister KCR, even before Telangana was created, and cost about Rs 100 crores. Water from the Lower Manair Dam reached all households in 180 villages across Siddipet constituency. Later, this was used as a model for the rest of the state. By connecting the Krishna and Godavari rivers with barrages, pipelines and pumping stations, the project now circulates river waters to most parts of the state.
Water is stored in a high-elevation tower in every village and town and reaches every household at given times. There are stop checks to prevent over-drawing, and wastage is minimised. This project, as per Gajewal sarpanch Shekhar Patel, 43, provided water security to his area and freed up women. “ Earlier one person, usually a woman, had to stay at home to fetch water. Now, they are free and we get pure drinking water. This is helping us transform our village life,” Patel said.
It’s the same story for farmers across the state, who are getting water and making the red and black soil bloom. Earlier restricted to millets and pulses, these areas now grow sugarcane, paddy, cotton, etc. This was possible because of the tank irrigation scheme linked with the Kaleshwaram waters.
After seeing these feats of modern engineering, I travelled to Ramappa village, whose temple is a UNESCO heritage site. Behind the temple lies an enormous lake built by joining two hills in mediaeval times. On the banks, V. Prakash Rao, chairman of the Telangana Water Resource Development Corporation, awaited me. Rao has been known for his water work and his proximity to KCR since the early days of the Telangana movement. But he continues to work with his autonomous body for water security in Telangana, and is not involved in active politics.
“Since Independence, no state has been able to provide clean drinking water to its villages, but Telangana has done so in record time between 2017-18, with no central funding. This was possible only with the vision of our chief minister and the effort of our people,” Rao told me.
But Modi was present for the inauguration of the Bhagiratha project ― why was there no funding? “Modi has come to Telangana and even appreciated the project in Parliament,” said Rao. “In fact, representatives of 11 states (many of them BJP) have also come and seen the project, yet they are not approving any central funds for the mission Bhagiratha and Kaleshwaram projects. We have covered about 99% of the state and most of the work is done by taking loans from banks, so that Telangana doesn’t go thirsty anymore.”
“We have not only laid pipes into villages like in the Jal Jeevan Mission, but connected every household with running water and an interconnected water system. They copied our Mission Bhagiratha project, which includes optical fibre. About 16 cables are attached to the water pipes, so with one pipeline we have connected water and essential services like internet, phone, etc. Under the water mission, we have also de-silted and repaired over 28,000 water bodies by ourselves. We are getting World Bank funds through the government of India for hydrology mapping, rainfall data, etc. But none for the water, which people of Telangana need,” he added.
The setting sun had tinged the waters of the lake. What is the government doing to prevent water wastage, I asked. “ In the drinking water project, we have many stop-checks against overdrawing, so that every household gets enough water. As for agriculture, we are thinking of creating crop colony clusters defined by the agro-climate of the region. By providing incentives for millets and pulses and spreading water awareness training, we are creating water discipline. Hopefully, people will understand and help the government achieve this noble aim, too,” Rao said.
Indra Shekhar Singh is former director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @Indrassingh.
This article was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.