Mumbai and its suburbs are thirsty, and villages around pay the price as the government plans to increase the height of dams instead of de-silting reservoirs to increase water supply. This would result in more displacement and another round of submergence, says Yogesh Pawar
It's that time of year again — when the sun beats down mercilessly, the mercury rises and everybody looks skywards for signs of rain. This includes not just the cotton farmer in Maharashtra's Vidarbha region but also the average Mumbaikar, alarmed by reports on dipping levels in the six reservoirs that supply water to the megalopolis, consuming 3,500 million litres of water per day (MLD) at the turn of a tap.
But shouldn't that be enough for the city's nearly 12 million people? It could be, but it isn't. "The problem is not need, but greed," says Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network Dams Rivers and People. "At a time when cities like Singapore and Hong Kong use sea water to flush toilets, more than half of Mumbai still largely uses filtered, chlorinated drinking water to flush. And I'm not even talking about the losses due to pilferage and leakage."
But correctives don't appear to be part of the agenda. Slaking urban India's ever-growing thirst has become a convenient excuse for politicians to press for building more and more dams or raising the height of existing ones, causing widespread displacement and destruction of forests. This, when there are low-cost alternatives available. And Mumbai is a good example of this.
De-silting is one obvious option. 'Water in Mumbai: Is the Crisis Over?', a report by Dhaval Desai of the Observer Research Foundation, points out, "De-silting just one reservoir providing water to Mumbai, Tansa, will yield an extra 33 days of water." "This will not involve destroying forests or displacing people and destroying their way of life; nobody wants to do this," Desai says. In fact, such is the apathy to this alternative that authorities did not want de-silt reservoirs even when lowered levels due to the poor rain in 2009 made this possible at a lower cost.
But why? Environmental activist Krishna Gholap throws up his head and laughs. "De-silting will not bring in as many benefits as floating tenders for new dams or raising heights of existing ones. Obviously, our bureaucrats and politicians frown on it."
And Maharashtra Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare had this to say, "The amount of money it will cost us to de-silt dams and reservoirs will be enough to make a new one." No further elaboration was forthcoming.
Paying the price
The result of this reluctance to take the logical way out is that dams are raised to increase reservoir capacity so Mumbai and its suburbs get more water. And villagers are the victims.
Like those who live in and around the banks of the dam on the Barvi river at Badlapur, 90km from Mumbai. With every centimetre added to the Barvi dam's height, they fear they move closer to displacement — yet again — from the land they had been rehabilitated on when the dam was first built.
The river bed is being blasted to buttress the dam's walls. And come monsoon, fears Balkrishna S Bangar, homes and fields in his village Tondli will be submerged. The apprehension finds echo in Kachkoli, Mohaghar, Tale and Kolewakhel villages, home to the Agri, Kunbi and adivasi communities, with a population of around 8,000.
Over 3,000 acres of prime forest land will probably get submerged, according to the project plan. Never mind the fact that under the tribal sub plan of the Planning Commission, this belt falls under the eco-sensitive zone of the Western Ghats. The villages and forest area are ensconced between undulating hills in Murbad taluka of Thane district on the banks of the catchment area of Barvi. Built at a cost of Rs3.5 crore in 1973, the dam, originally 38.10 metres high, displaced around 2,000 people from seven villages and submerged over 4,750 acres of dense forests.
The villagers, among them Bangar, were offered equal amounts of land for what they lost. "We are being uprooted once again from the land we were given for rehabilitating us then,'' says the 65-year-old. The rhythmic whirr of machinery is discordant with the hypnotic drone of the dragonflies. But only just. It doesn't break the serene monotony of the silent mountain air in the valley.
The history of the dam, inextricably linked with that of Tondli village, runs deeper than its deceptively calm waters let on. The village, originally situated exactly where the dam now stands, was shifted to its present location when the dam was built.
What the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) omitted to tell the villagers was that they would be relocated plum in the middle of what would become the dam's catchment area! "We lost our homes and fields and were hoodwinked into moving by being offered an equal amount of land here," says Umesh Bhoir, sarpanch of Tondli village.
Each of the project-affected families is to get a plot of around 0.5 acres of land at Murbad, off the MIDC industrial belt. Girija, an adivasi, scoffs, "How can we adivasis, who've lived for generations in forests, take to city life?" The non-tribals who own land live off it, while others work as farmhands on others' fields. But they are entirely dependent on forest produce, selling wild fruits, flowers and palash leaves.
Displacement & rehab game
How many times can a community be called upon to sacrifice for the greater common good? Once? Twice? Thrice? In the case of these villagers, this will be the fourth time: the height of the dam was raised from the original 38.10m to 44.7m in 1979, to 52m in 1985, 66.5m in 1999, and now is being raised to 72m this year. And who are they being asked to sacrifice for? Their urban counterparts, of course.
Rapid population growth in Mumbai's suburbs has increased the demand for water so work on raising the height of the dam was started, says MIDC superintendent engineer Vijay Panikar. "The total storage capacity will be enhanced from 174 million cubic metres to 347 million cubic metres. All civic bodies like the Thane Municipal Corporation, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivli, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi-Nizampura, and Mira-Bhayander have emerged as the fast-growing far suburbs of Mumbai. This augmentation will address the increasing water needs of 5.4 million people."
Breaking the leopard corridor
Local activists like Kishore Gholap also wonder why this project does not take into account the fact that this is a well-established corridor for three different leopard habitats. On one side are the Naneghat hills, on another is the densely forested Malshej and on the third is the jungle between Murbad and Kalyan. "If a big cat like the leopard finds enough prey-base here, then we are talking of a well developed ecosystem to sustain this food chain," he points out.
"Successive height-rises have eaten more and more into this thickly forested habitat and soon the cats will not be able to cross over. This could lead to in-breeding, weakening of the gene pool, and ultimately wiping out of the leopards."
Five months ago, a leopard killed a young tribal girl in Kolewakhel village. The irate Katlkari villagers gave chase when they heard the girl's screams and killed the leopard.
Not only Barvi
The narrative in Barvi — where silt accumulation reduces dam capacity, which is then followed by the debatable choice of raising the dam's height, causing another round of submergence of forests and displacement of villagers — is not an isolated one.
This is a story that cruelly plays out along most water sources which are dipping to unusable levels. India can no longer draw water from 81 of its most important dams and reservoirs as levels have fallen to muddy lows.
This is borne out by Central Water Commission data which shows that dams across India have never been de-silted, leading to a decrease in their water holding capacity. Mumbai's Upper Vaitarna reservoir's capacity has been reduced by 22%, the capacity of Maharashtra's biggest dam, the Koyna, has been reduced by 26.5% while the capacity of one of India's biggest dams and certainly its most silted, the Hirakud, has come down by 27.25%.
Says British engineer Rodney White, author of Evacuation Of Sediments From Reservoirs: "About 1,500 cubic km could be lost before the middle of the century. Intensifying climate change could hasten this loss with an increase in the severity of storms which worsen erosion."
According to him, deforestation is a major contributing factor. "The levels of erosion from hillsides planted with crops can be 150 times higher than from similar forested land." To build dams, forests are cut down. This leads to erosion and silting. As the capacity reduces and demand for water rises, either the height of the dam is raised or newer dams are planned, which means more deforestation and silting. This is a vicious cycle in emerging economies where urbanisation-led migration is making the problem chronic, he explains.
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report echoes concerns over water wastage in developing countries since 2001. "About 60% of the water used for irrigating crops is wasted or used inefficiently, and 50% or more of the water distributed in cities is lost to silting, leaks and poor management," says the report, which names India as the top water waster followed by Brazil and China.
"Around 6,000 children die every day because of inadequate water and poor sanitation. The poorer you are, the more you have to pay for water," it adds.