Supporting communities for centuries, the area of irrigation under Dhamapur tank in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurga district is now steadily declining

Dhamapur Tank, nestled snugly amidst lush forests in the Malvan taluka of Sindhudurga district in Maharashtra is a glowing example of how an intelligent and sustainable local system can support communities and wildlife. What makes it more special is that it is a tank formed by perhaps one of the oldest earthen dams in Maharashtra built in 1600.

Initially built to irrigate lands in two villages, today it supplies drinking water to a population of more than 20,000. At a time when Maharashtra is witnessing a number of irrigation scams coming out of the closet, the Dhamapur tank stands as an example of the potential of community-managed small-scale structures.

According to the Central Water Commission’s National Register for Large Dams, the height of the Dhamapur dam above the lowest foundation is 11 metres; it is 271 meters long with a live storage of about 2.441 MCM, and reservoir area of 115 ha. Its created irrigation potential is 110 ha, of which 77 ha is utilised.

According to villagers, the dam was built entirely by local funds and shramadan (voluntary labour), the project was led by Nagesh Desai. Its canals and paats (branch canals and distributaries) were made in local laterite soil and can still be seen. These canals went on for kilometres, even in deep gorges, and irrigated every corner of the two villages. Till as late as the 1950s, the canals flowed 24X7 till the Panchmagha Nakshatra (third week of August) after which its outlet was sealed by villagers using wood and mud. This was then opened based on need for summer paddy, coconut and betel-nut gardens. The canal system was cleaned and repaired collectively on Akshay Tritiya (during summer). The entire system was based on participation and negotiations.

According to Jaiprakash Desai, descendant of Nagesh Desai, “Dhamapur tank accidentally came on record and control of the Minor Irrigation (MI) Department only in the 1950s. Earlier, it was entirely managed by villagers.” In 1980-81, the Department concretised parts of the dam wall to check leakages and then realised that Dhamapur Tank did not feature in any of its records. Immediately, it was brought under the control of the Revenue Department. From here, the communities were alienated from their talav (lake). Mr. Desai says, “Since the time the MI Department came in, irrigated area of Dhamapur has been decreasing.”

In 1999-2000, PVC pipes were laid inside the existing paat system at a huge expense to “increase the efficiency and reach of the paat system”. However, the system did not even work for a single year. According to the villagers, there was no capacity building or help for the water users’ association formed from MI Department, quality of pipes used was so bad that they started leaking and obstructed the flow through paats. Lack of water supply made many farmers in the area give up cultivation subsequently.

Now, the locals say that this scheme has been revived in 2011 with an increased cost estimate. The current plan is to concretise the existing paats and put two PVC pipes in place. Mr. Desai says, “Villagers are completely in dark about this scheme and no information is being shared with us.”

In the meantime, in 1997-2000, a drinking water supply scheme was set up by Malvan Municipal Corporation at Dhamapur Tank. Water is pumped and taken to Malvan city, 16 km away, and four more villages. While villagers are happy with the tank’s usefulness, they worried about the ever decreasing area under irrigation.

The catchment area of the tank is covered with dense and luxuriant forest, making desilting unnecessary; it has not been desilted in living memory. It has shoals of protected local fish which are fed by devotees. The MI Department has released exotic fish here and conducts bi-annual auctions in which the locals never participate. A villager says, “The population of local species has declined after introduction of exotics and auctions. Earlier, there were shoals of big fish.”

Dhamapur holds so many lessons about sustainable water management, distribution, catchment management, ecosystem approach and negotiations.

On the banks of Dhamapur lies an ancient temple of Bhagwati Devi. The history of temple tanks in Konkan and Sindhudurga is very rich. This region itself has four temple tanks in the vicinity, all of which supplied water for irrigation in the past and now for drinking also. Each of these tanks has a unique story; they have supported people, wildlife and forests of this region for centuries and are still going strong.

(The writer is a member of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People)