Natha was four when his father passed away. His mother, a farmhand, toiled in the fields and did a string of menial jobs to provide him and his younger sister with a square meal each day.
As a child, he remembers how much he wanted to study. But the opportunities were fewer and the financial restrictions too many. After completing class 10 in his water-scarce village of Jaigaon in Maharashtra’s Satara district, he moved to the city to study till 12.
At 18, he started working as a driver in Mumbai to fund his graduation. While he worked round-the-clock in the maximum city, he would return to his village to write his exams and help his mother in the fields. But who could one blame? Natha was not the only one among the youth in his village migrating to the cities in need of better opportunities.
The climate and the acute scarcity of water in the village were not conducive to survival. The wells barely had any water, and they would dry up within four months, with the villagers having to shell out money for tankers even for drinking water. The land was parched, so were their cattle.
Cut to 2018.
The village has lush farms, hilly terrain with custard apple farms, 27 wells, water bodies, and dams. It is as if the land or its villagers were never deprived of water.
One of the driving forces behind this change is none other than the same Natha. Serving as the Sarpanch of Jaigaon, it was he who vowed to make the village drought-proof.
And he did. This is his story.
When he moved to Mumbai and drove buses, luxury cars, and cabs, all Natha wanted to do was to help relieve his mother from the financial crisis and save enough to get his sister married, which he successfully did.
But the pressure was immense, and the work was taking a toll on his health.
A friend suggested that he attend a Youth Leadership Training Programme being held in the city. The course aimed to teach soft skills to rural youth and empower them to become agents of change.
“It was then that I realised how all of us were forgetting our roots and migrating to the cities in the quest of a better life. But if we didn’t go back and made our villages self-reliant, then who would?”
He must have been 23 at the time, but he was determined that he would return to Jaigaon. Once he did, he started working for the rights of the elderly and persons with disabilities, who were struggling to receive their pensions. At the same time, he started helping women with documentation work required for availing government services.
What also came in handy was an awareness drive he attended in Pune about the policies made available to the needy by the government. The direct impact of his efforts reflected in how he was able to speed up the construction of toilets for 12 families by procuring the required funds from the government under the policies.
Natha often found that when he reached out to the administrators during documentation work, he was asked what authority brought him there. Being a villager and having no authority led to red tape.
He decided he would change that by running for the village elections. His selfless work made him the unprecedented Sarpanch of the village in 2014. He was 32 years old then.
His rise to leadership was a breath of fresh air. The major project he was determined to undertake was water conservation to help the agricultural community get rid of its water woes.
And so, in association with the Art of Living Foundation’s River Rejuvenation Project, he kickstarted the ‘Stop the Water, Save The Water’ campaign, where he facilitated several workshops in the villages. The men, women and senior citizens were taught techniques like ‘lift irrigation’.
The next three years saw the community come forward with sharing their money, time and shramdaan to construct boulder dams, wells, and bunds to save every drop of water from running off the surface of the soil. They even diverted the flow of water to their farms and helped improve the quality of the soil and ensure efficient supply with the help of electric pumps.
Today, Jaigaon has 24×7 water available in all its wells, 20 stone continuous contour trench (CCT) dams, 250 hectares of new dams and 27 wells. This makes over 3.5 lakh litres of water available to use for the village each day.
In addition, the village has a stocked water capacity of 4 lakh litres too.
Jaigaon even participated in Paani Foundation’s Water Cup Competition and won the second prize in 2016 under River Rejuvenation. The following later, they emerged the winners.
In a final message to the youth of the country, Natha says,
“Our freedom fighters sacrificed their lives for the country. In today’s age, nobody is asking you to lay down your life. But use your talents, money or shramdaan to make your village and country better. Most say our country used to be a sone ki chidiya and that it isn’t one anymore. But I believe that we can make it a sone ki chidiya again. Dedicate an hour of your day, a day of your week, a week of your month or a month of the year to it. And watch it happen. ”
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(Edited by Shruti Singhal)