Until a year ago, Karsan Rathwa (38), could only harvest 200 kilograms of maize on his one-bigha land in Bekhadiya village of Chhota Udepur’s Kawant taluka. Spending hardly five months in his village, he migrated to cities along with his family of four to earn a living. Like Karsan, a majority of the 1,500 villagers from Bekhadiya migrated to other cities in search of work and better livelihood options as there was never enough water for irrigation or drinking purposes.
With no provision of irrigation water through Narmada canal and most of the rainwater flowing away due to its hilly terrain, water scarcity became a major concern for the villagers. A year on, migration has drastically decreased and harvests have more than doubled. Karsan got 920 kg of maize in the latest harvest.
This was made possible after the villagers came together to end their water woes and constructed ponds and check dams in their villages to conserve the rainwater by preventing it from being flown away from the hills surrounding the village.
"There was never enough water, for drinking or irrigating our farms. If there was deficit rain, there was hardly any harvest. For years, our families migrated in search of work, eventually leading to our children dropping out of schools," says Karsan. Since January 2018, the villagers constructed 21 check dams, the last one by 135 women from the villages and subsequently named Mahila Sarovar.
"All these years, we would walk at least 3 kilometres to fetch water from wells. There are four wells and three borewells in the village and the groundwater level was depleting every year. We remember spending hours in queue at the well at least twice a day to fetch water. The groundwater table depleted below 800 feet but this year the water levels have been raised to 150 feet and above. One of the three borewells is overflowing. When we were digging for the Mahila Sarovar, we found the first trace of water at 11 feet. We also organised a small feast and everybody danced of joy," said Geeta Rathwa (35) who was among the 135 women who worked on the check dam.
The check dam was constructed in 11 days by 135 women who worked for eight hours every day to dig the 30-foot deep reservoir. It was named Mahila Sarovar because all the work were done by women. The material cost for the check dams were incurred by a Rajkot-based Jal Kranti trust through donations.
Of the 21 check dams, nine are inter-linked, providing water to the eastern part of the village, and the water finally mixing with the Ashwin river. Other 12 are inter-linked, feeding the surplus water to the Heram river. Through every check dam, small canals have spread across the farms in the village providing water for them.
With Chhota Udepur recording a 73% surplus rain and Kawant recording the maximum, all the 21 check dams are filled this year, contributing majorly to the replenishment of groundwater.
A kilometre-and-a-half away from the check dams, Kapar Rathwa (32) was finally able to send his son to pursue his diploma from an ITI (Industrial Training Institute). A widower, he owns two bighas of land and a cow.
"I would bathe once in three days and go door-to-door asking for drinking water after my wife passed away. My daughter is in Rajkot who would otherwise stand in queues and fetch water from the well. I couldn’t go as I had to look after the farm here. For more than six months, I would stay away from the village working as a contractual labourer in Surat or Vadodara. But now we are able to irrigate our farms more. I have doubled my crop cycle that tripled my income. I even bought a cow this year and sent my son to pursue his diploma from an ITI. I don’t go around begging for water anymore," Kapar said.
Ratan Bhagat, one of the villagers who runs a hostel for children and has made water conservation a prime goal in his life, says that it was never difficult to convince the villagers who agreed to give up part of their lands for the construction of check dams. "This year, Kawant received heavy rain and luckily, for us, all the water has been conserved in ponds that reaches the entire village through check dams. We have roped in every person of the village to be a part of the process and reap the benefits. Not only men, but women, elderly people and even children have been a part of the process. The children in the village have planted over 300 saplings in the areas around the check dams to help hold the water and help conservation. They have themselves adopted the plants and will keep checking their growth and progress," Ratan said.
With the success of the check dams, the villagers are now planning to develop rainwater harvesting systems for houses as their next project. "We want to develop ourselves as an ideal village in terms of rainwater conservation. It is a blessing that the villagers have been quick to understand that what abundance of water can mean in terms of better lifestyle and livelihood. This water will not only be of use for us but also for villages surrounding us," Ratan added.