Feature story

Diversionary tactic

More than 9,000 farmers in 229 villages of Maharashtra have been boosted by a water-centred breakthrough

Dogha More remembers the period when cultivating his farmland was laborious and frustrating. Water was the worry for the 61-year-old from Umrane village in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, with lack of irrigation facilities and poor soil health forcing him to cultivate millets on his 1.5-acre spread. Low yields and paltry profits constantly left Mr More struggling to provide for his 10-member family through the year.

That was two years ago, a time when Mr More and his wife had to double up as farm labourers to try and make ends meet. Then a change of fortune fuelled by solutions focused on water — its availability, quality and conservation — showed Mr More and more than 9,000 farmers from 229 villages in Maharashtra’s Nashik and Ahmednagar districts the way to a better future.

Paving the path for Mr More and other farmers was the ‘water resource development and management’ (WRDM) initiative, launched and implemented by Yuva Mitra, a nonprofit, with support from the Tata Trusts and other stakeholders. There are three interlinked pillars in this programme: diversion-based irrigation (DBI), desilting of water bodies and strengthening water user groups under a sub-project called Jalsamruddhi (or water prosperity).

Eknath Pawar, a beneficiary farmer from Sonambe village in Nashik, in his capsicum field

Security and self-reliance

“The Trusts' overall objective is to promote water security by addressing supply and demand management of water and make villages self-reliant for their water needs. The project with Yuva Mitra focused on reviving and maintaining existing water structures to ensure water availability for both drinking as well as irrigation purposes,” says Mallika Jagad, programme officer with the Trusts. “This partnership has strengthened our interventions in the water sector to create integrated and sustainable livelihood options for the communities in our areas of operation,” explains Ajit Bhor from Yuva Mitra.

The DBI component, which took off in 2007 to revitalise the irrigation system along the Dev river, provided a simple and economical method to direct water from rivers and streams to adjacent cropping areas through an elaborate network of canals and sub-canals.

Mandabai Shelke, from Sinnar Vajivaran village in Nashik district, is among the farmers who have benefitted from the WRDM programme
Mandabai Shelke, from Sinnar Vajivaran village in Nashik district, is among the farmers who have benefitted from the WRDM programme

Some of the canal systems in the region were developed during the British colonial rule in the late 19th century. Neglect and lack of awareness about their importance had rendered these systems defunct over the years, resulting in a decline in groundwater levels and ecological degradation. Under the WRDM programme, 22 canal systems have been revived along the Dev and Mahalungi rivers, benefitting some 4,000 farmers in Nashik’s Sinnar subdistrict.

But DBI by itself was never going to be enough. Silting had reduced the storage capacity of the water bodies in the two districts and this was a problem that had to be settled. Jalsamruddhi, launched as a pilot in drought-prone Sinnar, saw desilting being carried out at 51 dams in 31 villages in collaboration with the district administration.

Community counts

The success of the pilot led to Jalsamruddhi being extended to other subdistricts of Nashik and Ahmednagar districts. A total of 285 sites were cleared of silt under a project that has been an excellent example of public-private partnerships, with the community placed at the heart of the solution.

Desilting the water bodies was no easy task. It required effective planning, a good understanding of topography, mobilising the community and working within a tight budget. Farmer meetings were convened to convince people about the idea and its objectives, and desalination committees comprising farmers were made central to the planning, execution and documentation of the work undertaken. The Tata Trusts' support in providing excavators and funds for maintenance enabled speedy desilting process in the villages.

The desilting work served another cause. The excavated silt, rich in nutrients, more than suitable for cropping, was unloaded in barren farmlands to improve soil fertility. The health of thousands of acres of farmland was restored and this was a boon for nearly 6,000 farmers, Mr More among them.

Besides soil fertility, the reused silt helped in recharging the groundwater table. Setting up ‘water user associations’ (WUAs) in each village have been critical to the success of the WRDM initiative. WUAs are at the forefront in spreading awareness about managing water resources, educating local communities about their responsibilities with regards to water, repairing and maintaining water infrastructure, and establishing each village’s legitimate rights over water use.

Covid 19 spanner

While WRDM has met with considerable success, there have been challenges aplenty in keeping the programme on solid ground, from delays in government approvals to having villagers take ownership of the water bodies. Adding to these challenges was the Covid-19 pandemic, which threw a spanner in the works. But success has been secured thanks to the concerted efforts of everybody involved, not least Yuva Mitra.

The results have been a thirst quencher, with improved groundwater levels, easy availability of water for irrigation and, consequently, an increase in productivity and land prices as well. “Our farms now give us income throughout the year and my family does not have to work as daily labourers anymore,” says Mr More. “My grandson is in standard VII and I’m sure he will not have to leave school and work as a labourer to support us.”

A 'water literacy' meeting in Sonaj village in Nashik district
A 'water literacy' meeting in Sonaj village in Nashik district

Success by association

Water rights and the rules and regulations governing water utilisation used to be things the residents of Tisgaon in Nashik district were ignorant about. Not so now.

The village has a water body fed by the Tisgaon dam right at its doorstep, but people here had to face frequent and acute water shortages. While their neighbouring villages managed to reap three harvests a year, Tisgaon’s residents struggled to secure even one. The reason: insufficient water to irrigate their fields.

As part of the ‘water resource development and management’ initiative — backed by the Tata Trusts and implemented by Yuva Mitra — Tisgaon’s villagers were mobilised to form a ‘water user associations’ (WUA). Typically such groups are set up in places where farmers get an assured supply of water from big dams or canal systems. To make them work, villagers have to take ownership of their water resources.

A typical WUA comprises up to 15 committee members, including women representatives. These associations have been formed in 61 villages under the programme. Their primary responsibility is to draw up a water resource development plan that identifies the water resources. Water and agricultural needs are then assessed and the modes to fulfil these pinpointed.

WUAs were the fulcrum in undertaking the desilting process of existing water bodies, a crucial component in the programme. A committee with a director on board was also constituted to help villagers claim, use and manage available water effectively.

Yuva Mitra strengthened the WUAs through training on rights and responsibilities, rules and regulations. The nonprofit’s labours soon started yielding results and a good example of this is Tisgaon, where villagers, led by the local WUA, started standing up for their legitimate rights and stopped the illegal drawing of water from the dam.