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Water Conservation and Religious Organisations

Sachin Tiwale ( is with the Centre for Water Policy, Regulation and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

In response to Srirupa Bhattacharya’s article “Groundwater, Gurus, and Governmentality: Seva in the Neo-liberal Development Regime in India” (EPW, 10 August 2019), this article raises a few important questions on the modalities of the implementation and, consequently, the actual impacts of the water conservation projects run by religious organisations. Using the example of the Manjra river rejuvenation project, this article further decodes Bhattacharya’s observation of the gurus receiving “unprecedented structural cooperation” and “universal acceptability” from all, including the state actors.

In the article titled “Groundwater, Gurus, and Governmentality: Seva in the Neo-liberal Development ­Regime in India” (EPW, 10 August 2019), the author Srirupa Bhattacharya has illustrated upon the network emerging between the religious organisations, state actors, international funding orga­nis­ations and multi-national corporations while planning and executing water conservation activities in the post-­liberalisation era. Citing an example of the Art of Living (AOL) and their Kumu­dvathi river rejuvenation project, the ­author has argued that while such colla­borative efforts rope in a range of actors, the local actors, however, are either completely excluded or involved at much later stages of the project. In this article, I am taking this argument a step ahead to explore whether such nexus formulated by the religious organisations across bureaucracy, policymakers, capitalists, media houses, and experts can lead to better implementation and outcome of development projects (here, river rejuvenation) or not.

In this context, this article examines the Manjra river rejuvenation project initiated and led by the AoL and RSS Jankalyan Samiti (RSS–JS) for Latur city in Mahara­shtra in the summer of 2016. In her article, Bhattacharya (2019: 57) has, also, made passing reference to this project. This ­article analyses the process of implementation of the Manjra river rejuvenation project, explores the knowledge claims of the AoL and RSS–JS pertaining to water conservation by examining the validity of the approach of ­river rejuvenation with reference to the hydrology of the Manjra basin, and finally assessing the actual benefits in contrast to the promises made by religious organisations to gain public participation.

Despite being lauded as a successful project and even after witnessing a good rainfall—21% excess of the normal rainfall in Marathwada (IMD 2016)Latur was receiving water only once a week in 2017. The analysis reveals that the project was conceived and planned with a poor understanding of the river basin, the water needs of Latur city, and the ­existing water supply infrastru­c­ture. The assessment of the project implementation discloses the violation of ­multiple rules of regulations.

Bhattacharya (2019: 55) observed that the gurus receive “unprecedented stru­ctural cooperation” and “universal acce­ptability” from all, including the state actors. This article argues that the relationship between religious organisation and state goes beyond “acceptability” and, at some point, the state actors are co-opted by the religious organisation, blurring the boundaries between the ­religious ­organisation and the state. The state ­actors are not only silent observers of the activities of religious organisation, often violating the rules and regulations, but under their influence can ­often actively engage and perform those activities, ­violating its own rules.

Manjra River Rejuvenation

In early 2016, as a result of the second consecutive drought, all sources of drin­king water supply of the Latur Municipal Corporation (LMC) went dry. In response to this crisis, AoL and RSS–JS gathered local leaders and residents together to form Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS, henceforth)1 with the objective of strengthening the water sources of the city. The JLS decided to ­rejuvenate the Manjra river by deepening and widening the upstream river channel of the two barrages—Sai and Nagzarito create a storage of 18 million cubic metres (mcm), which the JLS claimed would be sufficient to meet the drinking water demand of the city (Gha­dyalpatil 2016; Thomas 2016) (Figure 1, p 58).

The rejuvenation work was proclaimed as a permanent solution for the water crisis of Latur city, and the residents and others were appealed to for contributing to the project that promises piped water supply to the city every ­alternate day.2 Unlike the Kumudvathi river rejuvenation case, as elaborated by Bhattacharya (2019), here, the private cor­porations, organisations and the common people, including residents of Latur city, participated in the rejuvenation work since its inception. However, this participation was limited to only monetary contribution and voluntary ­labour, while the entire idea was conceived and executed by the leading religious organisations. They successfully raised around `70 million from the people and excavated 4.3 mcm of silt using more than 25 massive earth-moving ­machines, over a period of two months. Environmentalists have already criticised such massive excavation affecting river ecology (Chari and Sharma 2016; Jamwal 2016). Therefore, I am not repro­ducing those arguments here.

Assessing Knowledge Claims

The leading religious organisations, AoL and RSS–JS, were so confident about the deepening and widening of the river that they initiated work without prepa­ring any feasibility report and detailed project report. As explained by one of the AoL leaders, Mahadev Gomare,

Preparation of feasibility report and DPR leads to wastage of time. We want to work fast. We do not want to work like government engineers.3

While interacting with the AoL lea­ders, I realised that none of them were formally trained in hydrology, geology and river ecology. As Bhattacharya (2019) explain­ed, the guru and their religious organisations are perceived as omnis­cient, and therefore, no one involved in the project raised questions over the feasibility of the project and fulfilment of its stated objectives.

In this section, I am assessing the knowledge claims of AoL and RSS–JS through three fundamental questions: (i) Is there any excess water available in the river basin before being stored?; (ii) is it logical to dig a river when the city ­already has enough water reservation in upstream dam?; and (iii) can Latur city use this additionally created storage ­capacity?

Is There Any Excess Water?

Though the JLS was intended to create 18 mcm of storage, the question is whether the basin had that volume of ­excess water to fill the additionally created storage. The analysis of water availability data at basin scale and existing storage structures constructed on the Manjra river indicates that there is no such excess water available.

As per the Godavari river basin plan prepared by the Water Resources Department (WRD) of Government of Maharashtra, Manjra basin is already facing water shortages (WRD 2017). The total water availability in Manjra basin is 623 mcm; however, the live storage capacity of completed and ongoing projects is 628 mcm. The total permitted water use is 777 mcm,4 surpassing the total water availability by 154 mcm (WRD 2015, 2017). Therefore, Manjra basin is an overdeveloped and closed basin5 where the capacity of existing water storage structures and total permitted water use is much more than the quantity of ­renewable water available in the basin. There is no “excess” water available that can just be stored by the widening and deepening of a river channel.

Is It Logical?

The Manjra dam alone supplies 20 mcm of water to Latur city through direct pipelines constructed from the dam to the city, which was enough to meet the then water demand of the city. One of the claims made by JLS members in support of their work was that the additional storage created by them would help Latur in times of distress. However, the validity of this claim is questionable. As Figure 1 indicates, the largest reservoir of the Manjra basin, with a capacity of 250.7 mcm, is located upstream of Latur city (CWC 2015). This is followed by a ­series of 14 barrages constructed on the river, before it enters Karnataka. Nagzari and Sai are two such barrages that were built to supply 4.26 mcm6 water for ­Latur city and JLS was f­ocusing on the strengthening of these ­sources through widening and deepening activities.

However, between the Manjra dam and the Nagzari barrage, over a river channel length of 50 km, six barrages ­already exist. Also, there is no major tributary bringing additional water from the catchment to these two barrages. As a result, the inflow in Nagzari and Sai barrages is mainly controlled by the Manjra dam and the six upstream barrages. Unless these upstream structures overflow or release water, Nagzari and Sai will not get adequate water to fill the additionally created storage capacity by JLS. So, the question is: In the absence of ­excess water in the highly controlled and regulated basin, how will these ­barrages get water to fill the additionally created storage?

Digging a river channel and creating a shallow water storage cannot be appropriate solutions as this would increase evaporation and seepage losses than ­facilitate water storage even in the dam ­itself. This indicates that the entire ­programme was wrongly conceived, and it could have been avoided if a proper feasibility study would have been conducted. Moreover, even if water is conserved somehow in these two barrages, then the LMC needs to officially reserve that additional water from the WRD before using it. But, with the existing water reservations exceeding total availability by 158 mcm and Latur city already having sufficient reservation in the Manjra dam, it is most unlikely that it will get official reservation of the water as it is going to create conflicts among water users. Since the basin is closed, the ­water conservation practice needs to be evaluated carefully before implementation, as it can lead to reallocation of existing water usages without official reservation. Then, Latur city will be using the water share of the downstream users. It further means that the urban water users of Latur city are grabbing the water of downstream farmers and villagers and depriving them from fulfilling their drinking and irrigation water needs.

Can Latur Use the Stored Water?

The other important question is that if water is somehow stored in the additionally created capacity, then can Latur use the stored water to fulfil its demand? Unfortunately, the answer is no. No infr­a­structural arrangement was made at Nagzari and Sai barrages to pick up the additionally stored water, treat it and pump it towards the city.7 Without cross-checking the adequacy of the required infrastructure, the widening and deepening of the river yielded nothing for the citizens of Latur, apart from damaging the river channel and riverine ecosystem.

An interview with an engineer from the water supply department of LMC ­revealed that the department was never consulted while preparing and executing the entire plan. This itself questions the participatory mechanism of the project implementers. At Nagzari barrage, which is bigger in size, the level of additional storage created by deepening was well below the existing jackwell.8 Therefore, the available infrastructure was not able to fetch the additionally stored water.9 As a result of such planning blunders, not a single drop of water from the work of the AoL and RSS–JS has reached the taps of the citizens in Latur, despite spending around `70 million for the conservation project, even after witnessing a rainfall in 2017 that was 21% in excess of the average normal rainfall in Latur (IMD 2016). Residents in Latur were still receiving water only once in
a week.

Reality vs Populism

This approach of widening and deepening adopted by the AoL and RSS–JS is a popular technocratic supply-side measure that neglects the real issues of water supply systems. The distribution network of Latur city is old and leaky, causing significant water losses. The non-­revenue water (NRW) in Latur is estimated in the range of 50%–55%. The water treatment plants are poorly maintained.10 Therefore, such efforts of increasing ­water availability at the source are questionable when half of this water is lost in the distribution network. Thus, in the year following the rejuvenation work of 2016, even after witnessing an excess rainfall and adequate availability of water in the Manjra dam, the LMC could not use its own water quota because of the bottlenecks existing in the network and treatment plants, and continued supplying water only once in a week.

However, activities like reducing losses and increasing the efficiency of the water supply system or increasing ground­water tables by rainwater harvesting in the city are perhaps not as attractive as a massive worksite where more than 25 excavators and 50 dumpers are operating and changing the landscape, with ­politically eminent people making site visits and or appearances at events to mark the project’s success (Scroll 2016; Samvada 2016), while any critical evalu­a­tion of the project’s efficacy remains far-fetched. Initially started with the objec­tive of permanently tackling water scarcity of the city, the project later became a mere symbol of success with the pictures of the deepened and widened channel brimming with water, an obvious occur­rence after a good rainfall. No one questioned whether the intended purpose was met or not. Even in a booklet published by the JLS, after the completion of the work, there was no mention of its precise impact on the water supply of ­Latur city.11

Blurring Boundaries

In her paper, Bhattacharya (2019: 55) has had mentioned the “uncontainability” of gurus and “unprecedented structural cooperation” they receive because of the belief in their omniscient nature. These characteristics of gurus and their respective religious organisations have also played critical roles during the implementation of the Manjra river rejuve­nation project (Tiwale and Deshmukh 2017). The Manjra river, being a sixth ­order stream, was not at all eligible for widening and deepening activities, which are commonly prescribed for small streams and rivulets (GoM 2013, 2015).12

At the local level, though the public officials were not officially involved in the imp­lementation processes, they were very much aware about the AoL and RSS–JS work and that it was violating multiple rules. Yet they refrained from taking any action, such as invoking Section 93 of the Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976 (GoM 1976), which empowers an irrigation ­officer to intervene in the work of modifying the river channel and prohibiting the act of damaging, altering, enlarging and obs­tructing a notified river.

An executive engineer of the WRD, who had visited the worksite multiple times when rejuvenation work was going on, when asked about his visits and about not taking any actions, replied,13

I am not officially involved with this (Manjra) case. The collector office never consulted with us (irrigation department) reg­arding this work … I visited the site as an individual citizen of Latur … I also used to visit the Nagzari barrage to ensure the safety of barrage structure and especially its foundation as deepening was going on. I did not monitor the activities of deepening and widening of the river bed.

In fact, the boundaries between the state actors and the religious organisations were so blurred that this work by AoL and RSS–JS, violating multiple rules and regulations initiated, was inaugurated, visi­ted and even applauded by bureaucrats, ministers and experts (Scroll 2016; Sakal 2016).14 Ironically, the then chief minister of the state had announced the support of `54.7 million for this project; and according to an engineer of the WRD it was the first project where the department had received money before any technical sanction.15 This explains the inertia of the state ­officials in intervening, even when the rules and regulations get violated.

This illustrates the relationship bet­ween the state actors and the gurus and their religious organisations. The guru is pervasive and manages allfrom local bureaucracy to ministers and chief minister of states in such a way that no one counters their actions violating the Constitution. In fact, at a later stage, the state ­itself is aligned with the guru, ­becomes a partner in violating its own rules, and contributes in the ruination of a river ecosystem of which the state is a custodian. At the same time, the findings from the Manjra project raise concerns over the increasing involvement of such religious organisations proclaiming themselves as water experts and the saviours of people from water crises, while tinkering with the sensitive river ecosystem with their questionable knowledge claims towards water conservation.


1 The complete name is Sarvajanik Jalyukta ­Latur Vyawasthapan Samiti but often referred to as Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS).

2 Considering the past situation of Latur city, even an assurance of alternate day water supply was promising enough to catch the attention of citizens.

3 Interview with members of Jalyukta Latur Samiti (JLS) and Art of Living (AoL) leader ­Mahadev Gomare.

4 This does not include environmental water usewater needed for natural ecosystem.

5 Closed basin is defined as a basin where water use has exceeded or approaching to the total renewable water available in the basin.

6 Interview with water supply engineer of Latur Municipal Corporation.

7 Originally, for extracting water from these barrages, two independent intake wells, water treatment plants and pumping stations were constructed at Nagzari and Sai barrages. However, over the period, LMC was gradually shifted to Manjra dam to meet its demand. In 2016, while collecting the data, the water treatment plant of Nagzari (Warwanti) was found to be not functioning for last 10 years and water treatment plant of Sai (Arvi) was barely working at half of its ­design capacity because of ageing and poor maintenance.

8 A construction of a well in a river channel to lift the water using pump.

9 Additional arrangement is needed to extract the water from Nagzari barrage, which includes installation of a pump and a new pipeline. ­According to water supply engineer, even a temporary makeshift arrangement (floating pumps and pipeline) to extract water was costing `2–`2.5 million and if water supply department wants to plan a permeant measure by shifting the jackwell at a lower level, then it is going to cost approximately `30 million. Similarly, additional investment is needed at Sai barrage.

10 Interview with water supply engineer.

11 In the post-implementation period, some members of AoL and JLS talked about increase in groundwater level and water made available for farmers, as an impact of their work. However, it is like changing a goalpost, as these objectives could have been achieved by implementing other measures (for example, watershed development) without damaging the river ecosystem and the farmlands of neighbouring farmers.

12 Stream deepening work was only permitted for second and third order streams.

13 Personal interview with an executive engineer of the state water resource department.

14 Based on information available on JLS mobile app.

15 Same as note 13.


Bhattacharya, Srirupa (2019): “Groundwater, Gurus and Governmentality: Seva in the Neo-liberal Development Regime in India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 54, No 32, pp 51–59.

Chari, M and S Sharma (2016): “Can Maharashtra Prevent Drought by Digging Rivers? The Government and Some NGOs Think So. But Ecologists Disagree,” Scroll, 9 August,

CWC (2015): “National Register of Large Dam,” Central Water Commission.

Ghadyalpatil, Abhiram (2016): “Water Train and BeyondHow Latur Is Tackling Drought,” Livemint, 19 April,

GoM (1976): “The Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976,” Low and Judiciary Department, Government of Maharashtra.

(2013): “Guidelines: Nullah Deepening and Desiltation of Existing Cement Nullah Bandh and Construction of New Cement Nullah Bandh with Deepening,” Government Resolution No RaKruYo-2011/Case No 72/JaLa-7, Water Conservation Department, Government of Maharashtra.

(2015): “Implementing River Rejuvenation Program with People Participation under Jalyukta Shivar Campaign by Convergence of Different Schemes,” Government Resolution No NaPuYo –2015/Case No 203/JaLa–7, Water Conservation Department, Government of ­Maharashtra.

IMD (2016): “2016 Southwest Monsoon End of
Season Report,” Pune: India Meteorological Department, Earth System Science Organization (ESSO), Ministry of Earth Sciences.

Jamwal, N (2016): “Playing with Water: Karnataka’s Controversial River Rejuvenation Plan,” Hindustan Times, 23 May,

Sakal (2016): “Laturachaya Kamasathi Tin Kotinchi Madat” (Marathi), 6 May.

Samvada (2016): “RSS Sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat Appreciates#JalayuktLatur Project, A Successful Water Conservation Initiative at Latur,” 2016/news/jalayuktlatur/.

Scroll (2016): “Maharashtra Minister Draws Criticism for Clicking ‘Insensitive’ Selfie in Drought-hit Latur,” 18 April,

Thomas, Prince Mathews (2016): “Let Down by Govt, Latur’s Thirsty Residents Step Up,” Hindu Business Line, 15 April,

Tiwale, S and A Deshmukh (2017): “CCombating Drought with a Haphazard Measure: A Story
of Manjara River Rejuvenation,” India Water Portal,

WRD (2015): “State Water Resource Plan: Godavari BasinDraft Plan,” Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra.

(2017): “Integrated State Water Plan for Godavari Basin in Maharashtra Volume-I: Integrated Plan,” Water Resources Department, Government of Maharashtra.


Updated On : 15th Jun, 2020


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