Debating India

INDIA

A walk to save water

Anupama KATAKAM

Friday 2 July 2004, by KATAKAM*Anupama

Residents of drought-hit Osmanabad district learn from an innovative programme on groundwater conservation that local involvement and schemes at the micro-level can go a long way in saving the precious resource.

in Osmanabad

SUREKHA waits in a line for hours on end for the tanker that brings drinking water to her village. But there is no guarantee that it will come that day. Therefore, as a back-up, her husband Narayan Gade walks at least 2 km every day to fill two pots of water. The couple, like thousands of others in Osmanabad district in southern Maharashtra, have little choice but to wait for the tanker or trek to a water source nearby, if there is one. In any case the fields are dry, so there is not much else for them to do. The region has had three successive years of drought, which has resulted in almost no crop cultivation there.

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Photo courtesy Swayam Shikshan Prayog
A skit being performed during the Pani Yatra.

"The situation has become alarming," Asheesh Sharma, District Collector, told Frontline. There has been almost no rain during these years. The groundwater is almost depleted and irrigation projects have been near failures. Sharma said the current year had been particularly miserable because there was absolutely no drinking water. "Something has to be done. We keep blaming the bad monsoons, but they are not the only culprits. Osmanabad’s, or for that matter Marathwada’s, is man-made drought. It is our responsibility to reverse this situation." Sharma said that it was not wise to depend only on government schemes. Simpler methods with local involvement had to be devised to save groundwater. So in March 2004, the Osmanabad district administration along with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) launched the "Pani Yatra", an innovative programme to create awareness in the public about conserving groundwater. Its results are now beginning to be felt.

The yatra, a procession of people that passed through 40 villages in the district educating people about the importance of replenishing groundwater, carried with it a small kalash (pot) filled with water drawn from a local well. Scientists tested the water and declared that it was at least 700 years old.

It was a symbolic gesture to emphasise the value and sacredness of the water, said Sharma. "We wanted the villagers to understand that they were using up a precious resource that was of course rightfully theirs, but by drawing it at this pace they would leave nothing for future generations."

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Photo courtesy Swayam Shikshan Prayog
Women offer prayers to the kalash, filled with water tested to be 700 years old and drawn from a local well, signifying the value of water.

The Pani Yatra, supported by 40 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), had an instant impact. People came out in large numbers to offer prayers to the kalash. They listened to volunteers who spoke about the importance of water, watched plays performed by the participants of the procession and vowed to save their water from exploitation. "It was amazing to learn about what we can do to conserve water. We realised that we should help ourselves and not be dependent on anything or anyone," said Gade, who participated in the procession.

The Yatra’s success lay in emphasising the gravity of the problem and getting the villagers to become pro-active. "We told the villagers that the government could give them tankers but cannot guarantee water," said Sharma. Following the Yatra, villagers have begun to protect borewells, allowing only a restricted number of tankers to draw water. Very few new borewells have been dug. One source of water in the village area has been reserved for drinking water.

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Meena Menon
Filling water from a tanker in Ashti taluk in Beed district.

With the assistance of NGOs, desilting of wells has begun in some villages. Rainwater harvesting has also been introduced. Through the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), compartment bunding to retain water has begun. A workshop for village sarpanchs on the importance of water conservation was also conducted. "While this may work in the short term, in the long term we need to concentrate on watershed development, said Sharma. "The effects of water conservation will not show immediately, perhaps for two to three years. But for now this is a start."

Osmanabad and its surrounding districts have a history of drought. In 1972 the district faced the worst ever crisis. But the famine conditions of the 1960s and 1970s were caused not so much by a lack of water as by a shortage of grain. The current situation is almost entirely man-made, says Ajay Dandekar of the TISS. A study conducted recently by a team from the TISS’ rural campus in Osmanabad, led by Dandekar, shows that the number of borewells has increased manifold in the past 15 years and yet the total area of irrigated land has declined. A vast amount of groundwater is being pumped out but clearly it is not utilised efficiently, thereby creating a massive water scarcity, says Dandekar.

The sugarcane fields consumed most of the water. Why sugarcane, a water-intensive crop, is cultivated in a rain shadow region is an important question. As in western Maharashtra, farmers were lured by the lucrative cash crop. With half a dozen local politicians setting up sugar cooperatives and factories, farmers began cultivating sugarcane on large tracts of land. However, unlike western Maharashtra, irrigation schemes were never put in place. Local politicians did not have the clout to ensure that the area was given some importance. There are 16 sugar factories in the region, though only four are currently operational.

According to the TISS study, the cropping pattern in the district, coupled with the groundwater depletion through borewells, led to the crisis. The quantitative data for the study were collected from 40 villages (5 per cent of the total villages in the district), selected by the random sampling method. Essentially, the report states that there has been a steady rise in the number of borewells since 1985.

However, the increased exploitation of groundwater has not resulted in a corresponding increase in the irrigated area; instead, there has been a sharp decline in the irrigated area from 1995. In 1980, for instance, the number of borewells was 58 and the land under irrigation was 3,643 hectares. In 2004, the irrigated land is 891 hectares and the number of borewells, 2,271.

The report says that the pace of digging borewells has been faster than that of digging open wells. There has also been a steady rise in the number of pumps with electric motors over the past 25 years. Additionally, the groundwater level has been consistently declining since 1980, with the decline in the watertable being most prominent from 1995 to 2000.

"If the same trend continues, then the groundwater table will go down to more than 500 feet [150 metres]... the situation in the district with regard to groundwater is alarming," the report says. To top it all, post-1995, tankers began using borewell water to supply drinking water. The farmers are caught in a Catch-22 situation. The pressure to produce for the market as well as for survival has resulted in a crisis in agriculture, says the report.

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Meena Menon
A dry river bed near Beed in the Marathwada region.

To solve the escalating crisis, Dandekar says, the government will have to take some major steps. "While we shall work at the micro-level, the government will eventually need to step in to sustain any macro-level water conservation project," he says. For instance, it should review water conservation plans in the catchment areas so there is less dependence on dams. The Groundwater Act should be amended. Furthermore, if it sets up a regulatory authority to monitor the tapping of groundwater, it would be effective in controlling this precious resource, Dandekar says.

Last year, the State government appealed to the Centre to grant it Rs.1,700 crores as aid for the drought-hit districts. Earlier this year, it was given only Rs.50 crores. Soon after the Lok Sabha elections this year, the United Progressive Alliance government sanctioned Rs.500 crores as drought aid to the State. Whether the funds will go towards the sugar sector in the region or towards drought management plans is debatable.

Meanwhile, Osmanabad district is optimistic about a good monsoon. Hopefully, a good monsoon will encourage farmers and villagers to carry on the conservation work they have started and will not wash away all their well-laid-out plans, says the District Collector. "People might just forget the harshness of the drought if the rains are good."

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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