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Marathwada drought: Man versus nature

Even as scores of villages across Marathwada search for water and wait for rains, there are a few islands of relative calm. Places that have done watershed development are better off compared to others, clearly a model to be followed by others, notes Nivedita Khandekar.

Nivedita Khandekar | New Delhi |

Nanded: Sanguchi Wadi is a small village with about 300 houses. Off the Nanded Hyderabad highway, the place is about an hour’s drive from Nanded. It is a classic case of contrasts that is the highlight of this year’s severe drought in Marathwada. The village’s main road is being converted into a four-lane cemented highway. Tankers bring water twice a day for the road construction work but not for the villagers, who are reeling under acute water shortage. The village has a piped water supply scheme, rendered dry since December 2018. Water level in the sole well that supplies water to the overhead tank has gone down more than 60 feet and it is bone dry. Since then, there is no piped water.

The Gram Panchayat then acquired a bore well that, fortunately, still yields water. It is on the lower side of the village that is at the foothills. Incidentally, it belongs to the village head. There is a functional handpump, water from which is used for general purposes.

“Villagers get water for drinking purposes twice a day even as filling it up from the borewell and taking it home is a drudgery but a necessary evil,” Parubai Shriram Nirle and Diwakubai Nanu Nirle, two ladies from the same family, inform. It is blazing hot yet they are on the road.

Concurs Sunanda Prahlad Warkar, “Each of us needs to walk at least half to one kilometre to fetch water from the sarpanch’s (village head) well and the handpump.

We end up making at least 20-25 rounds per day.” This is around 10 June. Farmland around the village is almost dry. There is no trace of rain and many of the farmers have just started preparation for kharif sowing, not sure if the rain gods will shower blessings this year or not.

Around the village is a totally undulating area, agriculture land is black cotton soil in most places but towards the hillocks ~ it is murum and rocky. The village has just two small bunds and two farm ponds. With no rains since monsoon 2018, one of them is completely dry and the other has little water. Only those who have their own wells or borewells in their farmland, could get some rabi crop in the 2018-19 season. “Our village saw only about 20 per cent rabi crop this time,” Shyamrao Ghume, a young resident says. “They bring machines and cut trees at night.

Over last few years, the entire jungle has been cleared off. How and where will water hold?” he asks. The village head’s bore well is yielding water here. But in several villages, even that does not work. Then, tankers are sent to those areas where the borewells do not yield water even after going 600 feet deep. It is the sarpanch or the village head, who recommends it to the tehsildar.

Severe drought

Drought of 2019 is severe, villagers note. “More severe than the infamous 1972 drought,” elderly people across Marathwada assert. During the last two decades, there have been droughts of various intensities for almost 10 years, 2016 being the worst. And it is not just Marathwada, large parts of India have not received enough rains for many months now. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said the pre-monsoon rainfall this year (up to 31 May) has been 25 per cent deficient. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, parts of Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and many of the northeastern states have received deficit rains but it is Karnataka and Maharashtra that are worst hit. The assessment reports by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been warning of the erratic rainfall patterns due to changing climate. They talk of lesser number of rainy days but those that will see much of rainfall, possibly extreme rainfall events too. Kawtha is a village about 25 kms downstream of Baarul dam built on a percolation tank. There is a 40-kms long canal originating from the reservoir and supposed to irrigate about dozenodd villages downstream. “But we have never seen it filled in last 4-5 years,” Kawtha villagers said. Result: There is no rabi crop in the village, not for many years, surely not in 2018-19. Drinking water for the village comes from a borewell that has been temporarily acquired by the administration, but with just one source for the entire village with a population of about 2500, it is a fight for survival at its worst. As we travel across Nanded district, village after village witnesses similar situation. Empty, barren fields, dry wells and lakes and almost nil water supply of its own. The undulating landscape in the region makes things worse. In Nanded district, areas under Loha, Kandhar, Mudkhed and Deglur tehsils have undulating areas with a common geographical feature being a village or two situated at the base of bowl-shaped hillocks surrounding it.

Cropping pattern

Vaijnath Bombale of Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal, Sagroli, an NGO that works for rural livelihood and watershed development works, said rainfall uncertainty started since 2012. Till about 2005-06, it was mostly traditional crops. That year, the area was introduced to cash crop of Soybean. In winters, it would be Bengal gram (chana). It fetched good value, even the rainfed crop yielded good results, farmers were happy. “Year 2012 onwards, rainfall started getting erratic. Some years, even the sowing would fail, sometimes it would be height of the crop and yet some other times, the standing crop would burn due to lack of rain (water),” he said. Aavraal is one such village of about 1100 households. On a hillock outside the village is the overhead tank that gets water piped from a percolation tank beyond the hills. The village then gets water at their doorsteps. But with the percolation reservoir almost empty, the piped water supply has been erratic to say the least. For now, the government has connected the pipeline directly to a dug well in the middle of the village. “See for yourself, the amount of water that is coming and see how many of us are here,” said Rukminibai Pandhurang Pawale as she pointed to the pipe directly sending water into the well. (Image: Maharashtra drought story 4) As another villager Ramesh Vyankatesh Kadam confessed, no watershed development work was ever done. “Now we know the importance and are ready for watershed works. Rs 41 lakh has been sanctioned but no work has started yet,” he informed.

Leaders speak

Former head Trymbak Bhujangrao Pawale faults the government and the current functionaries in the local set up for delays and alleges corruption, a charge none of the others speak about. Taking us to be government officials, he says he will start a dharna (sit-in) at Kandhar tehsil (his village falls in that tehsil) if their water problem is not solved soon. But “soon” is a tricky condition. The IMD has already forecast that Maharashtra would receive rains only after 21 June as the overall monsoon has been delayed across the country due to Cyclone Vayu and other factors. Madhavrao Chitale, former Union government secretary and an expert on water issues, said, “Government does not have a mechanism to check or keep tabs on who extracts water from what depth. We need meters for water.” He also blamed the administration for not taking enough action against farmers. “We need increased awareness. Also, strict policy decisions are needed ~ why are there sugar factories in water-starved Marathwada?” Equitable distribution is the key.

Traditional wisdom

Amid the dreary picture, there are these small pockets that bring joy, albeit temporary. Talyacha Pangara is a village with a Nizam era 200-acre Pangara lake. As many as five villages are dependent on the lake for drinking water. The lake gets its name from an ancient Pangara Mahadev temple. The Shiva temple is over a century old. In January itself, when it was clear that there was not enough rainfall and there might possibly be drinking water problems later, Pangara Gram Panchayat unanimously decided not to open canals for rabi crop. Only and only that decision has ensured that there is some water remaining in the lake for all five villages to use judiciously and survive till the rains. Dayanand Ramchandra Ghorband, Gram Panchayat member, said the lake stores less and less water. “There has been no serious desilting effort till recently.” Khudyachi Wadi is a small village with barely 1,000 population. Situated on a very undulating landscape, the village is lucky that it gets drinking water from bore well pumps almost daily and water for other usage is available on alternate day. Rohit Rama Metkar said there has been no farming activity after monsoon ~ the village has the smallest agriculture land holding ~ 10 gunthe (less than even an acre) to 20 acres. Jagdevrao Pundlikrao Khude, an elderly in his late 60s, said a 21-acre lake on the east of the village is reserved for livestock. “It has a little water…for now manageable.” Rabi crop was barely 10 per cent, possible only for those who had their own dug wells or bore wells and drip irrigation. “It took us 40 years to get one lake for ourselves…I spent all my life fighting the sarkari system and then uniting the villagers to have a lake for ourselves. Nothing will happen if we are not united and we do not cooperate,” Khude asserted. That’s exactly what the many villages in Biloli tehsil did ~ to conserve water.

Community participation

Katkalamba is a village with a population of about 5,000. It had all the typical problems of a water-scarce village. Then the village took to watershed management work after 2012-13. It has a little back story to it. Ahead of the local polls, a social worker from the village, Baburao Guruji Basavade, took about 50 people, both youngsters and elderly, on a sensitisation and awareness trip to Ralegan Siddhi, Hiware Bazarm, Shirpur and Kedar Vadgaon. All these places have carried out massive watershed development works, essentially through community participation. The impact of the sensitisation trip was amazing. The elderly conceded the need for watershed development and convinced the village to elect the incumbent team to bring about the change. It was 2015. The first work the community took up was that of nalahwidening. An NGO contributed the initial amount to widen the 5.5 km long nalah. A handson training to dig continuous Contour Trenches (CCT) was given by a Punebased organisation in 2016 and the work was carried out with villagers’ shramdaan.

The area is undulating and has hillocks all around. While transportation of piped water is very problematic, it is helpful in watershed development. “Maatha te Paaytha” (Marathi slogan for conserving water from the top of the hillock to the base) works were carried out. That ensured water seeped into the earth and recharged the groundwater, at least the shallow aquifers. The 40 feet wide nalah is a natural depression running amid the hillocks. It starts at Barul lake and, via the last village Kawathe, merges into the Manyad river. On both sides are 20 feet tall sloping walls. “The Gram Sabha passed the resolution in 2016. It was also decided that there would be no electric motors pumping up water from the nalah. Farmers can dig wells in their own farmlands,” said Govindrao Patil Wakore, deputy Sarpanch of the village. Along the length are four cemented bunds (called bandhara in local language). Then there are earthen bunds every 60 metres. This helps in creating pools of water that recharge the ground at that point. There was a small waterbody on the village outskirts towards the hill side since the 1970s. Kamalabai Kolgire said the waterbody ensured their shallow dug well in their courtyard had regular water till about 1982. Then came the piped water scheme. And the shallow dug well was neglected. The waterbody is a small 15- acre natural depression on a slope of a hillock to the east of the village. Over the years, it was never de-silted and hence not just the carrying capacity reduced drastically but resulted in rainwater flowing away, carrying with its valuable soil from the slopes. “Last year and this year, villagers joined in for the shramdaan for de-silting. Now, using the earthmover machine, the plan is to dig up to 20-25 feet deep,” said Subhash Hanmantrao More, Gram Panchayat member. Nearby, on the slope is a farm plot belonging to Raghunath Maruti Chorade and tilled by Ganapati Shankar Telange. The well in this farmland that had not seen much water for years, now has water in peak summer season too. And it is not just this well, several other wells nearby have water even in summers. This included an almost 40-feet deep well near the roadside with a nice stone-built wall around it. Thanks to availability of water in the wells and the borewells, the villagers decided to go in for RO plant of their own. The Gram Panchayat-run plant gives filtered water round the clock. The villagers pay Rs 3 for 20 litres for normal water and Rs 5 for 20 litres of cold water. Daivshala Kamalakar Kamble, Harubai Devrav Kamble and Lalitabai Babu Kamble (of the same clan but not of same family) were just too happy. “Now, we use filtered water. Earlier, we used to run from one well to another.” Harubai said now it is relatively easy. It is her husband who fetches water from the Gram Panchayat filter tank thus saving her the drudgery. Up to now, work done on surrounding hillocks is just 25 per cent. “Nabard has sanctioned a project from 2019-20 till 2024 for the remaining 75 per cent work,” Sainath Vishwanath Kolgire said. Inspired by Katkalamba, surrounded villages such as Kawatha, Halda and Rautkheda too have adopted watershed management and are hopeful of similar benefits. Rohit Deshmukh of the Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal, Sagroli, points out how community participation is the key. “Why our programmes are successful and why the government’s much-hyped programmes often fail is that they lack the most important aspect: community participation. People’s ownership is the key for sustainable work.

Overkill Laat (Khurd) is a village that had started watershed development work way back in 2008. Till about 2005, water availability was good and borewells and dug wells yielded good water. But thanks to over exploitation, the village needed tankers in the summers. The village, with a population of about 3000 and the neighbouring Bhandar Kumthechi Vadi with 1500 population joined in a watershed development plan. Barely two years later, the villagers did not need tankers after 2010. “The farmers then decided: No water guzzler crops; in case anyone plants sugarcane, it will be using drip irrigation only,” said Shankar Giri. Sanjay Baliram Ghorband, president of the Watershed Development Committee, Laat Bhandari, said, “Our village has become a seed village ~ thanks to availability of water, we now grow seeds and sell that. Our per acre income has gone up.” Watershed worker Chandrakant Anandrao Babhale said, “Cotton, pumpkin and bitter gourd nurseries are in the open while chilli, tomatoes, lady finger and bottle gourd are grown in shed net set ups.” The fruit orchards have meant biodiversity addition to the villages. If on the one hand, monkeys play spoilsport when the fruits are ripe, it is the range of birds that have returned to the village and made their homes at these orchards.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi.