Villagers and a modern Bhagirath bring life back to dry Marathwada
An acute drought over the last three years has left Maharashtra reeling. People across the state are running from pillar to post to get government aid.
Farmers are committing suicide, cattle is either being sold to butchers or abandoned in forest areas. Thousands of tankers are being pressed into action to supply water to millions of people.
The Marathwada region of the state is among the worst hit. But while the overall picture in the state is dismal, villages in Marathwada, a few kilometres away from the district headquarters Aurangabad, have set an example for rest of the state and the country.
Taking note of the project, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, also visited the project site. The government has taken a cue from this for its ambitious Jalyukta Shivar (farm with water) project.
The modern Bhagirath
When they realised that no one, including the government, could solve their problem, residents of 25 villages in Aurangabad district joined hands with a NGO, Gram Vikas. The idea was to bring prosperity to their area by rejuvenating a river that was long dead.
Narhari Shivpure, director of the NGO, has been labelled a modern-day 'Bhagirath' by the villagers, since he was instrumental in bringing the Chitte river to life.
The success of the effort is such that while almost every village in Aurangabad district is dependent on water tankers for potable water, till now, eight of these villages have created their own perennial water sources and have become completely tanker free.
Dire situation three years ago
The story began in 2012 under the Vasundhara Project of Government of India.
The situation in these villages was so grim that farmers had almost given up on agriculture altogether. Many had even set their farms on fire since the crop was dying due to water scarcity.
They had even started migrating to big cities like Aurangabad and Pune in search of jobs and settled for whatever they could get.
"Our objective was to create sustainable water resources for around 15,000 people in these 25 villages. Since the Marathwada region is known to be a rain-shadow area, water scarcity is the biggest problem for people of the region," Shivpure says.
The 17-km long stretch of the Chitte river caught Shivpure's attention.
"We began the project to undertake soil and water conservation around these villages. River Chitte, around 12 km south of Aurangabad city, is the main river in the area, having a catchment area of 6,427 hectares. After the initial work of cleaning the streams, a thought struck us - why not rejuvenate the river?"
By the people, for the people
Shivpure started meeting people in 25 villages to spread the idea and garner their support.
"Active support from the villagers was necessary for the success of the project. We needed their financial support as well as involvement in actual ground work," he said.
Shivpure held several marathon meetings with residents of all these villages and convinced them to contribute financially to the project.
"After several meetings with the villagers, we formulated a 10-point agenda to take the project ahead. We sought active participation of villagers in the project. Once they realised the importance of the project for their future, the villagers readily contributed and raised the whopping sum of Rs 50 lakh," Shivpure recalled.
"This was the greatest help the villagers could give us, and came as a much-needed encouragement to us."
Once the villagers agreed to contribute to the project, work started with enthusiasm. Apart from the financial contribution, villagers also participated in actual ground work.
"With the help of the villagers, we removed weeds, silt and encroachments from the river bank and the river bed. Once the river bed was deepened, and the weed removed, 19 cascading check dams were constructed along the river," Shivpure said.
"Over the last three years, whatever precipitation has taken place has percolated into the ground, resulting in an increase in the ground water table."
Ground water levels in eight villages have improved, and 452 wells have come back to life after a four-year gap.
Reaping the benefits
People in these eight villages are now reaping the benefits of their hard work. The farmers who once set their fields on fire and left the villages in search of work, have started coming back to their farms. Apart from Kharif crops, they are now venturing into horticulture.
After being trapped in stark poverty for generations, villagers are now celebrating life. They are not only cultivating for themselves, but also have started allied activities such as dairy and poultry, supplying food grains, vegetables and milk to adjoining cities, including Aurangbad.
Sheikh Hasan is a young farmer from village Sindon - one of the eight villages benefitting from the project so far. The well in his farm had not seen a drop of water in the last four years.
Once upon a time, Sindon was major supplier of milk to Aurangabad, with a daily supply of around 3,000 litres. Most of the people in the business had given up and even sold their livestock due to acute shortage of water.
Today, it has ample water to irrigate Hasan's farm and quench the thirst of his family. He has a lush green crop of maize standing in his farm, ready to be harvested soon.
"I had lost hope of cultivating even grass in my farm. We had started exploring other options to earn bread and butter. But the river rejuvenation project has transformed our lives. The farms lying barren for years now have all sorts of crops one can imagine. The revolution has also helped in 'developing a dairy business in the village," says a satisfied Hasan.
Shivpure adds: "We are also happy to see that once abandoned villages are today abuzz with various activities related to farming, dairy and poultry. This is just half the work envisaged in the beginning. We have lot more to do before we stop."
First published on Catch News