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A desilting scheme, under which the state waives its royalties on silt and supports NGOs in excavating it from local water bodies, has led to improved groundwater levels, increased rabi planting and more sustainable farming.

Everybody wins, Excavation of a farm pond in Malkapur, Buldana district

Amol Patil, a 36-year-old farmer from Datala in Maharashtra’s Buldana district, is evidently excited about his upcoming harvest, five acres of sweet lime, a very thirsty crop. He says he has been able to grow it only because of the improved water supply in the area resulting from the state government’s Gaalmukt Dharan, Gaalyukt Shivar (silt-free dams, silt-filled farms) Yojana.

This programme, run by the state’s soil and water conservation department, was launched by former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in March 2018 as part of the Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan (JSA). Under this scheme, NGOs are allowed to excavate the silt that collects at small dams and other small water bodies, with the government waiving the royalties it would normally have collected.

The Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana (BJS), one of the largest NGOs in the state, had inked a deal with the government for excavation in five districts. It provided the diggers, while the government paid the fuel and deployment costs. Farmers were allowed to use the excavated silt free of cost, only having to spend on transporting it back to their farms. The result was a win-win for all involved, the government saw the dams and water bodies under its management cleared of silt at a very low cost, farmers got highly fertile soil for their farms and the districts as a whole saw notable improvements in groundwater levels and water table heights. As a result, farmers have begun cultivating sugarcane, guava and grapes, which they could not earlier. Thanks to the rise in agricultural potential, rates for farmland have also shot up tenfold.

Ironically, given that this result came from a political decision, politics may end up damaging the effort. In September 2020, CM Uddhav Thackeray halted funding for the JSA and ordered an inquiry into alleged ‘improper use’ of funds. Former CM Fadnavis has protested this turn of events. The current phase of the scheme will conclude on March 31, having only been implemented in five of Maharashtra’s 36 districts.