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| Last Updated:: 29/08/2023

Traditional Water Management Systems of Eastern Vidarbha










Water harvesting is an age-old concept in India. Traditional systems are specific responses to ecology and culture of the region in which they evolved. Traditional systems have benefited from collective human experience since time immemorial and in this lies their biggest strength.


Traditional systems of water management are found in different regions of India. The techniques used in these systems, the reasons for choosing that particular technique, resources utilized for building the structures, rules and regulations of using the system, decentralization of decision making and integrated approach for management of the resource, are some important aspects.


One such traditional system of water management exists in the eastern part of Vidarbha, known as Zadipatti. We have been observing that water is valuable for the area of scarcity and people of those areas design such systems of wise use of this precious resource. The Zadipatti region receives 1200-1500 mm rainfall & yet, people here developed an intricate management system which is being used effectively even today.


The area of Bhandara, Gondia, Gadchiroli, Chandrapur and partially Nagpur districts is known as Zadipatti. This area is part of the broader area known as Gondwana. The area was under the reign of Gond Kingdom. Historically the area of zadipatti was divided in three kingdom of Gonds; Deogarh, Mandla & Chanda.


As per the name of area, there was dense forest in the region. But for generating revenue and maintain a kingdom, it was essential that the area had human habitation and agricultural lands. A Gond King, Hirshah of 16th century issued two Farmans (orders). One was, “a person who clears the forest and sets up a village will receive a title of Sardar of the village” and the other was, “a person who builds a tank will get all the land irrigated by that tank, as khudkast (reward)”. These orders led to setting up of prosperous villages dotted with hundreds of tanks in the region.




History of Tanks



Kohli community of Zadipatti has major contribution in the lake building activity in this area. According to anecdotes, kohli community was settled in Zadipaati by the Gond King from Benaras, while he was on pilgrimage. He saw the expertise of this community in water management and invited them to his country. They honored the request, came to this area and used their skills of lake building.


Kohli community was known for their exemplary skills in site selection for tanks. They have chosen tank sites where least bunding is required for tank construction. Till date, parts of the Kohli community reside in the area of Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh along the bank of Wainganga River, in Bhandara, Gondia and Chandrapur districts and in Wadsa tehsil of Gadchiroli district. Later, Ponwars, Gonds, Kunbis and Brahmins also constructed tanks in this region.


Bhandara District alone had more than 15000 tanks and smaller bodies, irrigating varying areas of land. Some of the largest tanks, like Navegaon Bandh in Sakoli Taluka of Bhandara, were built more than 400 years ago by the Kohli community. When constructed, the catchment area of Navegaon tank was 23 sq. miles, and it irrigated about 2250 acres of land. Navegaon Bandh has been declared a wildlife sanctuary.




Network of Tanks



Though there has been sufficient rainfall in the area of Zadipatti, communities of this area tried to construct as many tanks as possible and irrigated maximum land. Tanks were constructed at every possible site. If water was flowing over the waste weir of one dam, another tank was constructed downstream. At many places, cascades of tanks can be seen. Almost each tank is a part of some cascade and there are some villages which have more than one cascade of tanks.


The excellent piece of this traditional wisdom can be seen at village Aashti in Tumsar tehsil, Bhandara district. This village has three cascades of tanks with a total of 76 tanks! All these tanks are linked with an intricate network of canals.


Water from upstream tank can reach at any downstream field. The available water is used for growing sugarcane, and all the sugarcane produced in village is converted into jaggery in village itself.


Many houses have small units of jaggery production. Due to this there were many incidents of fire. The drainage line before every house is connected with the canal network and in case of emergency water is made available at doorstep. It is hard to believe that all this work has been done in the period when sophisticated engineering equipments were not in existence.



Features of Tanks


Tank types



Locally, tanks are divided in five types, based on their size and purpose.


The biggest tank is called the Bandh. Bandh provides irrigation to more than one village. Bandhs are few in number.



A Talao generally irrigates area of one village or less. It is also used for domestic purposes like washing clothes and utensils, bathing, water for livestock, etc. If the tank is very close to the village it is called as Gaon Talao (Village Tank).



Bodi is smaller than the Talao and there can be more than one Bodis in the command of big tank. Water of bodi has been reserved for growing rice, locally called parhe. Bodi was not a perennial source of water. Indeed after irrigating the first crop, the bodi was used for cultivating wheat, chana etc., because of its excellent soil moisture.



Water from bodi was distributed by turns. However, if crops were water stressed, bodi’s water was released in channels and used by everyone. Depending on the rain, number of bodis could vary from year to year. If rains were good, then the land of and around the tank was used for cultivation, but in case rains were scanty, then the bodis were used exclusively for water storage.



Kutans are smaller tanks made to store rain water. One type of Kutan was made upstream of the bigger tank and in case of emergency; the water from this kutan was used as a measure for watering a drying crop. When turn at irrigation from a bigger tank came, the farmer stored this released water in the Kutan.


The other type of Kutan was made in the downstream of a big tank. These are small bunds; 3 to 4 ft high running parallel to the bund of tank at a distance of 50 to 60 ft. Water from big tank was first released in these kutans, due to which, water was distributed evenly and then released in channels, minimizing the chance of eroding channels due to excessive pressure of sudden water release from the bigger tank.


Excess water from paddy fields was stored in a small pond at the lowest point of field is called Dob. This water was used for irrigation in the downstream.



Structures and features of tanks



Integral features of various types of tanks are: the catchment of the tank (locally called as Yewa), the embankment (Paali), gates for releasing water (Tudum), the canals/channels for distributing water to fields (Pat) and the waste weirs (Pharas or Salang).


Yewa (catchment) The catchment area and network of smaller streams which feed in the tank was called the Yewa. Every year, before rains the catchment was inspected by the beneficiaries and cleaned thoroughly. Any obstruction to the path of water was removed, sometimes using bullock and plough. All beneficiaries took active part in this process.


Paali (embankment) The construction of embankments, their thickness and height was decided depending on the texture of the soil and location of the tank. After every layer of mud, bullocks made several rounds on the embankment, strengthening it. If, due to pressure of water, mud did not stay and leaked, a mixture of lime, jaggery and mud was used to set it.


These days this practice is replaced by stone pitching and trees on the Paali are cut down. However, earlier, Vetiver grass and trees like Mango and Tamarind were especially planted on the Paali to hold the soil and strengthen tank walls. Even today a number of mango orchards bloom on these Paalis.


Tudum :  is a stone structure for releasing water from the tank into canals. These were crafted out of a specific red stone, which is soft when excavated and becomes hard with contact to atmosphere. Inside the tank is a step-like structure and each of these steps have a hole. When water was to be released, this hole was opened. Before rains, the hole was closed by a flat stone cemented by a mixture of mud. This was very effective and did not allow any leakage. In case of any problem, everyone in the village was trained on how to repair the Tudum.


Salang or Faras Salang is an overflow channel which is parallel to land, or if need be, slopes towards the outer side. Because of this structure, the fish spawning upstream during breeding season could easily enter the tanks and go back. Their eggs were retained in the tank. Eventually, the tanks became remarkable banks of biodiversity.



Social characters of tanks in Eastern Vidarbha



More remarkable than their unique technical features, are the social norms and rules that surround the tanks in Vidarbha. It is this system of values and beliefs which has significantly added to the sustainability of these systems, which are being used till today.


Most of the usage and maintenance rules are clear cut and involve active participation. The waterways and streams joining the tanks are to be cleaned by all the tank beneficiaries. Beneficiaries also work on desilting the tanks, repairing the Paalis (embankments) and Paats (channels).


The alluvial silt excavated from the tanks has been prized as a fertilizer and the decision as to who should take how much silt was taken collectively. Desilting was done once every two-three years.


The decisions related to management & upkeep of the tanks were taken collectively by the beneficiaries. Interestingly, decisions regarding water sharing were taken only after setting up a water balance. This was done by a person known as ‘Pankar’ who was supposed to be unbiased & had knowledge about the region & its hydrology.


Only a ‘Pankar’ had the right to carve out new channels and provide additional water. If anyone broke a channel to get more water to his fields, he was fined. Many such Pankars still exist in Bhandara, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts and are playing an active role in equitable water management and conflict resolution. They are nominated by the informal village tank samiti and are generally landless laborers. In olden days they were paid with a part of harvest, but these days they are paid according to their time.


Tanks as a part of the village system


Initially the tanks in this region were built specifically for agricultural use. However, over time, they were being used for a number of purposes.


After years of acclimatization, the tanks have become an integral part of the ecosystem, which supports numerous species of fish, amphibians and reptiles, insects and water birds. Water plants and rushes also grow along the tanks and all these resources are sustainably harvested and used effectively by the local population.


Allied activities like fisheries, harvesting of Vetiver (khus) grass, water chestnut (shingada), louts roots (kamal kand) are also supported by the tanks. The grasses on the tank banks are used as fodder for animals, and for making roofs and brooms. These non irrigation benefits still play an important role in the fragile village economy, especially for the landless and low land holding families.



Thus, tanks which were meant to be tools for irrigation were slowly integrated in the fabric of the social life in Vidarbha.