Phad irrigation systems help mitigate risk of crop failure in drought prone Vidarbha

Communities have across diverse ecological and sociopolitical contexts devised myriad ways over time to harvest and manage water in order to sustain their lives and practice agriculture.

Many of these systems (1) continue to function and are often more sustainable, cost-effective and successfully managed by local institutions. Phads are one such community-based and managed diversion irrigation management system (2) prevailing in the north-western part of Maharashtra and date back to the early 16th century as per historical accounts. The system is prevalent in the Tapi basin on rivers the Panjhra, Mosam and Aram in Dhule and Nashik districts (3).

According to eminent water resources expert, R K Patil, the river Panjhra in the Sahyadri range on which the phad systems were rampant has a steep gradient and flows through rocky beds, a topographical feature conducive to construction of diversion weirs (4).

Monsoon rains contribute to the runoff apart from the existence of a significant post-monsoon flow that can keep substantial irrigation going, in winter as well as in the summer seasons. This provides the context for building a series of bandharas, or low water diversion weirs, between one to five metres high of stone and masonry, across these streams to divert waters for agricultural use.

The water level in the stream is raised by the bandhara to feed the off-taking canal and to pass the excess supply downstream over the top of the bandhara which forms an overflow crest. The supply to the canal(s) is regulated by a head regulator. The canals vary in length from a few hundred metres to seven kilometers.

Bandharas are constructed in a series to arrest the supply downstream. The availability of a command area at each bandhara site, is also kept in mind. Care is taken to select a site with a good foundation at a reasonable depth.

“The process of selecting the site for building the structure is carried out taking into consideration the base gradient of the river and the slope of the command area. Scouring sluices are provided at different places as per the length of the canal. This works as an automated cleaning device for the drainage of sand and silt. The average water discharge from the canal is 7-10 cusecs (5).”

phad channel

Water channels from the phad system (Image courtesy: Dilasa)

The design of the bandharas take a number of factors into concern.

“Except a few, built straight across the stream, dams are more or less oblique, with the water course issuing at the lower end. Where the rock below is not continuous, their forms are mostly irregular. In building a dam, holes are cut in the rock in the proposed line of the wall. In the holes, stone uprights, sometimes small pillars taken from the Hindu temples, are set and a dam is either built in front of these or the stones are built into the dam leaving only the backs of the uprights visible.

The dams are strong, clumsy walls commonly sloping on both sides to a narrow top. The materials used are commonly black stone, coarse concrete mixed with small pieces of bricks and the very best cement. While the dams are built with greatest care, the watercourses are laid down with strict economy (6).”

“The height of the diversion weir is selected in such manner that the excess water from the river is automatically removed with the help of scouring sluices. The water required for irrigation purpose is diverted into the main canal, with the provision of scouring sluices in between the head of the canal and the saucer. The head of the canal has no provision of a gate; the saucer and the scouring sluices present between the diversion weir and the head of the canal regulates the water flow. The length and size of the canals varies amongst the bandharas depending upon the size of the phadand the distance of water travelled from the site selected for the diversion of water through the weir. The reason for the variation of size and length of the canal was to maintain the velocity of water so that the water could flow at its own gravity till it reached the main command area or the thal (6).”

The term phad here refers to the block of land used for irrigation purposes while bandhara refers to the weir. A collection of phads (of 8 to 40 ha each) is known as a thal (7), and can cover an area upto 400 ha. A phad comprises of a number of fields owned by several cultivators, and receives water from the bandhara diverted through the canal, also known aspat. The canal has field distributaries called assarang, while the excess water was drained back into the main stream through sandwa or the surplus weir.

“The management of the phad system is under the chairmanship of the Bhagayat committee (farmers / irrigators’ committee) consisting of elected members from the irrigators. The number of members in the committee varies from committee to committee. The membership is not permanent, and usually lasts for 2 to 4 years at a time, but can be changed in between depending upon the interest of its members (5).”

Hereditary positions like hawaldar (supervisor) and jakleya (watchman) are involved in maintaining the canal system. Patkaris (waterman) oversee the water distribution process by operating the field gates (sasar) and the jerai mali community, and some other communities, are involved in the construction. People used to contribute towards the construction of the structure and these watermen used to get paid by these means.

Bandharas have also been constructed by the Britishers according to some accounts. After the enactment of the Inam Abolition Act (1955), the community defined roles and responsibilities have changed at places; many of the patkaris have been absorbed into the Irrigation Department.

Elaborate rules for irrigation exist wherein water is supplied to the second phad only after supplying adequate water to the first phad. There were no written rules in place and decisions were made on the basis of experience. Water meetings are held at the village level where the cropping pattern was decided based on previous years’ patterns.

“Usually a general meeting is held in the month of April-May (Akshaya Tritiya) where a public announcement is made for community management of the water harvesting and storage structures. Each family has to provide a pair of bullocks and 3 labourers for a day to maintain the system. Families who are not able to fulfill this commitment, have to pay Rs. 30/- for the bullocks and Rs 10/- for 3 labourers. The process of mobilizing the village farmers for the meeting is normally done through a key person of the village, who is often called a Kotwal (5).”

Numerous such phad systems exist in Vidharbha today and are in use. Some have been repaired and modernized by the Irrigation Department by providing iron gates at the scouring sluices or by raising the height of the bandharas.

A uniform cropping pattern is usually followed within the phad in a season, but it could vary across phads and over the years. Paddy is is the most common crop under the phad system in the Panjhra river; other crops like maize, bajra and wheat have also been introduced now. Because all farmers have some share of land in the main phad, an equitable system of water distribution is maintained.

Phads are used on a rotation basis. “For example in years of plentiful water, the farmer community decides to grow sugarcane in the three phads and millet in one. But in a year of average rain, the farmers would grow two phads of sugarcane and two of millet. In a bad year, they would allow sugarcane in only one phad, grow millet in two and kept one fallow (5).”


A farmer operating the outlet of the phad irrigation system (Image courtesy: Dilasa)

These systems though sustainable are facing a threat of becoming extinct. It is in this context that the attempt of groups such as Dilasa to replicate and revive the phad systems, in the overall setting of Vidarbha becomes important.

Phad systems have shown its promise in the region in the condition of medium rainfall, of providing low irrigation potential through mainstream surface and groundwater systems, and have been able to mitigate the risk of crop failure and yield reduction substantially.

Technically, the system developed by Dilasa provides a demo of pipeline-based diversion systems using post monsoon flows, which in combination with open channel irrigation is worth considering for adoption in the medium and minor irrigation systems for increasing the overall system’s efficiency.

The Government needs to consider the inclusion of development of diversion-based systems like phads as one of the activities in MGNREGA programme and amend the norms to facilitate farmers groups to take these up directly. An enabling Government resolution to this effect, will help groups like Dilasa influence panchayats to take up such activities as part of their existing programmes.

Amita Bhaduri, SPWD

This article is based on a report by the author on behalf of SPWD for the Livolink Foundation, which is the Secretariat for the Diversion-Based Irrigation Programme of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Allied Trusts. The full report presents the larger context of the area within which phad, a diversion-based irrigation system prevalent in western Maharashtra is being promoted more recently in Vidarbha by Dilasa, a Yavatmal based NGO. It goes on to discuss the livelihood systems of the area, the relevance of the system, its uses and salient management features in the particular project circumstances. It looks at the adoption of these neo-traditional diversion systems, as well as aspects related to technical design; management and use; and economic viability. The full report is available at Livolink here  and the article has also appeared at India Water Portal here 

Endnotes and references

(1) Some of the traditional irrigation systems specific to Maharashtra are Issar, Reda Pakhal, Mott, Rahatgadge, Malgujari Talao, Shivkalin Talao, Phad Sinchan, Pahura, Pavanchakki (wind mill) and the Bhal Kathode system. Phad irrigation is one amongst the above systems, which has been still kept alive by the tribals and dhangar community.

(2) A diversion based irrigation system is one which diverts a portion of water from a natural stream, water course or a river and uses it with or without intermediate storage for the purpose of irrigating crops and for other human ends.

(3) The river Panjhra, originates in the Sahyadri ranges has steep gradient and flows through rocky beds, a topographical feature conducive to construction of diversion weirs.

(4) Patil, R K, “Phad system of irrigation in Maharashtra”, 1997

(5) The Phad system, Aditya Bastola, 2007

(6) Page 188 of “Dying Wisdom, Traditional Water Harvesting Systems”, edited by Anil Agarwal et al, Centre for Science and Environment, 1997, New Delhi

(7) The main command area was locally known as bagayat or thal or an assured area of irrigation system and similarly there was also an extended area known as jirayat, or the unassured area. The jirayat land received water only in years of plentiful water flow at the Panjhra river. This land had no regulation in cropping pattern or water distribution. Each farmer practised an individual cropping pattern which was not related to the pattern governed by the phad system.