At a time when the state government is claiming to remove irrigation backlog of Vidarbha, trouble is brewing against Arkacheri and Alewadi irrigation projects, 280km from here in Sangrampur tehsil of Buldhana district. Farmers allege the projects are being thrust on them in the name of backlog removal.

Both the projects, estimated to cost Rs 86 crore - Alewadi (Rs 38.32 crore) and Arkacheri (Rs 47.51 crore), (i crore rupees = ten million rupees) will irrigate 1,900 hectares land but farmers say 50% of the land which will be affected is already under well irrigation.

Villagers of Sonala, where Arkacheri project is coming up, say they never demanded the project as the Wan medium irrigation project is already situated just 5km upstream of the proposed Arkacheri and is an assured source of water for the wells falling in the submergence of the new project. Besides, the new site has no hard strata which is generally needed to construct a dam.
"The project proposes to wipe out irrigation backlog of Vidarbha even though there has been no demand for it by the people here," alleged Ramdas Kothe, president, Arkacheri Action Committee.

Work on both the projects also exposes government's double standards when it comes to tiger conservation. On the one hand it talks of saving tigers and on the other both projects fall within the 10km radius of Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR). Such projects cannot be implemented without clearance from the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) under the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF).

Kothe is among the hundreds of farmers from Sonala and neighbouring Alewadi who are opposed to these two projects.
Although both the projects are covered under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP) of the central government, Union social welfare minister Mukul Wasnik and BJP leader Pandurang Fundkar in 2010 had asked chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to scrap Arkacheri project. However, the VIDC officials sent a favourable report.

"Any projects proposed in the buffer of tiger reserve have to go to NBWL. This is one of the reasons why some states are deliberately delaying buffer zones of tiger reserves. The NBWL gives site specific recommendations," said Kishor Rithe, a member of NBWL.

Conservationist Prafulla Bhamburkar of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) demanded that these projects be withdrawn as the zone is important for migration and survival of endangered animals. "The projects may cause man-animal conflict in future," he said.
The wildlife department has been kept in the dark. AK Mishra, chief conservator of forests (CCF) and field director of MTR, said there's no communication about the work. "We should have been informed as these projects fall within 10km of the tiger reserve boundary," he said.

GPS locations show Sonala is 7km from Ambabarwa wildlife sanctuary while Alewadi is hardly 5kms away. Alewadi farmers claimed regular sightings of Schedule I animals like sloth bear, hyena and leopards and herbivores like deer and wild boars. There are 3,000 mahua trees in the area which attract herbivores that are at times followed by carnivores.

"There have been sporadic sightings of even tigers. Last year, a tigress with two cubs was seen in a sugarcane farm near Alewadi," claimed Akhtar Suratne, a farmer.
The executive engineer for minor irrigation department, UM Padmane is surprised at the fuss being made. "The projects would benefit farmers and wildlife," he said. "The Melghat buffer zone was notified in October 2010 while both the projects were cleared in February 2009," he added.

Padmane added hard strata are not the sole criterion and dams can be built where there are soft strata. "The project will also require blasting near Imbabura sanctuary. Wildlife permission will be taken when we start the work in forest areas," he added.
However, a letter issued to executive engineer on March 5 by Dilip Gujela, deputy conservator of forests of Buldhana, says the entire issue needs to be studied as such projects require NBWL clearance.

Gujela said VIDC has been told to ignore the NOC granted in 2010 by his predecessor. "Three days ago, I've issued a second reminder asking VIDC to stop work immediately," Gujela told TOI.
Kothe alleged that farmers are being cheated as facts in the detailed project report (DPR) are distorted. The DPR says 80% of the land to be acquired is considered as non-irrigated whereas out of 316 hectare land required for Arkacheri, 80% land is under well irrigation.

"Life of both the projects is pegged at 30 years but these will deprive livelihood to hundreds of farmers and their generations dependent on agriculture. They will be left with no alternative than to live in penury," warned Kothe.

On the contrary, Padmane claimed only 30-35% irrigated land will be affected. The project is being opposed by only those farmers whose irrigated land will be acquired. He justified both projects will help remove irrigation backlog of Buldhana.

But he failed to provide figures to substantiate his claim saying he was out for a meeting. "Work on these projects will continue as we are implementing government orders," he said.

"Ideally, irrigation projects are set up to bail out parched lands, but farmers in Sonala, Alewadi and neighbouring villages are being forced to part with irrigated land, their only source of livelihood. Farmers draw two seasonal crops and fruits in a year," said project-affected Santosh Khandelwal of Sonala and Dawood Suratne of Alewadi.

Kothe said Arkacheri will cut off Sonala from Pingli, Shemba, Gumthi, Bhairavgad, Wari, Salwan and other villages. The only crematorium and a Hanuman temple in the village will also be submerged. "The projects have been approved by neglecting important facts which need to be investigated," Kothe said.

Unfeasible project made feasible
* Arkacheri project was to originally be located in Arnala but as 90% of the submergence area was falling in Ambabarwa sanctuary area, the project was declared not feasible
* In 2007, the project was relocated and proposed 6km downstream on Kacheri nala. However, a report submitted on October 24, 2008 by the Khamgaon subdivisional engineer had said that Arkacheri project is not feasible
* The engineer said as per topographical condition, the required height for the dam is not available within a short span due to which the length of the dam increased considerably
* Non-availability of hard strata up to a depth of 20 metres makes project unfeasible
* Of the 265 hectare land coming under submergence, 30% is under well irrigation and 20% land is under horticulture farming round the year. This makes expenditure towards land acquisition unreasonable.

Alewadi project-affected persons (PAPS) feel that they have been taken for a ride by state water resources minister Sunil Tatkare. The farmers from Alewadi were on hunger strike in Buldhana against the irrigation project from March 26 to April 1. The strike was called off following an assurance by executive engineer that talks will be held between PAPS, VIDC officials and Tatkare in Mumbai. Padmane had issued a letter to the PAPS that the decision taken in the meeting will be binding. However, on April 3, the PAP leaders who went to Mumbai were kept out and Tatkare met only VIDC officials. Padmane said, "The PAP leaders could not meet Tatkare as passes could not be issued.

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