Remember the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup, a yearly competition that celebrity couple Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao started in Maharashtra in 2016? The task was to engage villages in soil and water conservation activities, which would thereby tackle the problem of drought the state is prone to. The village of Warapgaon in the drought-hit Marathwada region had participated twice in the competition — in 2017 and then in 2018. While it did not win either year, it has gone on to become a water-sufficient village, which is a big win in itself given that it battled scarcity for decades.
It was only a few years ago, in 2015, that Warapgaon village — located in Beed district’s Ambajogai taluka — was in the grip of a deadly drought. Residents either had to walk long distances to fetch water or were dependent on tankers. That year, Beed recorded only 297 mm of rainfall while the state average stood at 678 mm.
‘Rural India lacks scientific knowledge’
Senior citizens such as Chandrakant Raut have witnessed the life-changing droughts that hit Marathwada, first in 1972 and later in 2015. He shares that a couple of decades ago, they could find water within six metres of digging up the ground. But after the 2015 drought, borewells 244 meters deep had dried up, indicating the extent of the drop in water levels.
But the village has a different story to tell today. “Now, after water-shedding work, our wells and hand pumps are recharged, and we can irrigate our farms continuously in summer too,” Raut says. “This helps farmers to dare to go for cash crops such as sugarcane, cotton, mulberry, and vegetables.”
This success story can be credited to Prasad Chikshe, an activist from Ambajogai taluka, who is engaged in rural education and water conservation works in the region. A master’s graduate from the College Of Engineering Pune, he’s presently the head of the Ambajogai chapter of Jnana Prabodhini, one of the NGOs with which he has been working towards his cause.
“I could feel the helplessness of the villagers. Every day, the number of farmer suicides was increasing. Marathwada was becoming the hub for such cases,” he says. Beed recorded 1,681 incidents of farmer suicides between 2001 and 2018, the highest in Marathwada, where the predominance of cotton cultivation under unirrigated conditions pushed farmers into low yields and debt traps.
Chikshe was working with youth and children in the region when he noticed the issues with water that the residents were facing. Before developing a plan to counter the water scarcity, he carried out a survey to get to the root of the problem — he found that poor irrigation methods for the last 50 years, uncontrolled borewells running more than 300 metres deep, cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane, lack of activities to recharge water bodies, sand mining in rivers and soil erosion had contributed to the drought-like condition in the district. “The real problem in rural India is the lack of scientific knowledge of irrigation and water management,” he points out.
In May 2012, the activist started Jagar, a water awareness campaign, with the help of Jnana Prabodhini and Tata Trusts, Mumbai. He was invested in this project for a couple of years, during which he organised group meetings in villages located within Ambajogai. At these meetings, he highlighted the need for water harvesting by showcasing success stories of villages like Hiware Bazar in Ahmednagar district.
Soon after, he began a pilot project in Vivekwadi village — around 10km from Warapgaon — where he, along with the NGOs, educated residents about sustainable methods of inter-cropping and crop patterns and how they affect the environment. Chikshe took the lessons on conservation and implementation he learnt from Vivekwadi to other villages of his Ambajogai taluka, including Warapgaon.
‘We have water all-year round’
According to Vivek Giridhari, a senior fellow from Jnana Prabodhini, the 2015 drought in Marathwada underlined the need for water harvesting projects in the region. But it was the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup announced in 2016 by Paani Foundation (NGO started by Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan along with the Satyamev Jayate team) that gave villages the impetus to come out of the crisis. The prospect of fame and glory got them involved in watershed management and conservation work, Giridhari says, adding that while many NGOs like Manavlok had already been doing great work in this space, other non-profits expanded their work to Marathwada because of the competition.
Warapgaon, located only 12km from the Ambajogai taluka headquarters, could not have escaped the drought conditions had it not been for the involvement of local villagers in 2017. Though high school teacher and social worker Navanath Mali recalls that it was not easy to convince them to participate — back then, they needed to devote time to wait for tankers to collect water for their homes and fields despite being located by the Amravati river. But Chikshe, along with Jnana Prabodhini and Manavlok, took up the initiative of motivating them and explaining to them the need for this water-shedding work, which ultimately brought the villagers to participate in labour camps in Warapgaon.
Thereafter, residents of the village came together to carry out irrigation work; they dug the riverbed for desilting, strengthened the dams, carried out rainwater harvesting and also bore the expenses involved in operating machinery and vehicles. Reservoirs were overhauled with the help of state-sanctioned funds; Mumbai-based Samasta Mahajan assisted with the procurement of necessary equipment; the three NGOs pulled together financial aid of Rs6.5 lakh, whereas residents pooled in Rs3.5 lakh for many of the activities to be carried out for the Water Cup.
Pandurang Veer, a farmer from Warapgaon, is thankful to Chikshe and the NGOs for their conservation efforts under the competition. “Earlier, we couldn’t irrigate our farms, which resulted in low agricultural development. But we are now capable of modern techniques of cultivation,” he says.
Raut, the elderly farmer who watched his village transform over decades, says that desilting the dams had helped immensely in tackling the water problem, allowing them to farm round the year — unlike earlier when they could only cash in during the kharif season and miss out on the rabi season due to their dependency on rainfall alone. “Earlier, we could not imagine irrigating farms as we didn’t have water to drink,” he says. “The water crisis in the village has ended, and now, Amravati flows till March and we can utilise water from the reservoirs for irrigation till May. This assurance of water from irrigation has helped farmers try their hand at new crops like sugarcane and vegetables.”
Ankush Shinde, former sarpanch of Warapgaon, is proud of how his village sets an example for others in Ambajogai taluka. “We might have lost the [Water Cup] competition, but we stand out strikingly among all other villages because we rejuvenated our river; it flows all through the year now,” he says.
He continues, “We carried out extensive river-deepening and widening work. Of the 24 small dams and reservoirs around our village, four medium-sized dams were deepened and strengthened. Our village farmland of 650 hectares has some 200 pits stored with water, in addition to wells, borewells and hand pumps with water available from six meters. Our village is now water-sufficient — for drinking and irrigation purposes.”