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India’s Inspiring Fight Against Drought in 330 Villages That Once Needed 90000 Water Tankers/Year

A group of individuals and organisations partnered with the Maharashtra government to bring about change in Jalna district which has been struggling with water scarcity, drought and subsequent farmer suicides for decades.

India’s Inspiring Fight Against Drought in 330 Villages That Once Needed 90000 Water Tankers/Year

It was in the aftermath of the drought in the state of Maharashtra during 2013-2016, the worst to hit in 40 years, that a fundamental shift took place in the mind of Nutan Upendra Desai aka Nutanben, now 51. 

In June 2016, when she found herself in remote Ambajogai in Beed district to oversee her team’s water rejuvenation work, she witnessed what she thought existed only in films. 

The parched and cracked earth, the emaciated and undernourished men, women and children and the cattle dying from the lack of water, all changed her perspective. As if these conditions weren’t enough, she discovered that the people there were succumbing to water-borne diseases due to the quality of water they were consuming. 

What shocked and concerned her more was that the people living there were consuming and drinking water that ordinarily one would even be hesitant to touch. The dirty, fungus-filled green water with black molecules floating around was more than just a sore sight.  

A basic human right, something millions of us take for granted, was being denied to these people, and she for one, could not live with the unfairness of it. The people were surviving on a rationed quantity of 200 litres of this filthy water for 7-8 days per family and were absurdly grateful for it. It was beyond comprehension for someone who had never witnessed or suffered such scarcity in her life and she knew she had no option but to vest herself more fully into this.

After she completed her work in 48 villages in Beed, Nutanben made her way to Jalna in July-August 2016, where she began working with her NGO ‘Samast Mahajan’, where she is a trustee based out of Mumbai, on desilting water bodies and rejuvenating water sources in partnership with the local communities. 

The locals in Jalna contributed their bit by providing the diesel.
The locals in Jalna contributed their bit by providing the diesel.

Jalna’s transformation: From 250 tankers a day to nil

Her NGO, headquartered in Ahmedabad, provided the rental costs of the expensive machines required for the job through its partnership with the A.T.E. Chandra foundation in Mumbai, while the locals contributed their bit by providing the diesel. 

Her team worked to make sure it translated into results on the ground. Although her NGO had been set up many years ago with the purpose of focussing on animal care, it had, in fact, primarily focussed on saving and improving human lives in a country prone to natural and manmade calamities where government intervention is often inadequate or even absent. Human beings, at some level, took precedence.

When Nutanben and her team began working in around 330-odd villages and talukas that comprise the Jalna district, the situation was not much better than it was in Beed. Water was very scarce, most of the water bodies in the region were silted up or bone dry and tankers were the only way of life. 

When they started working, each tehsil — there are 8 in Jalna district — survived on 250 tankers per day. Farmers were barely producing anything since there was no water for farming; meeting the basic consumption needs was a struggle. 

Moreover, when the team arrived in the district, villagers and locals were highly sceptical on whether such work could be done with community participation and through the efforts of an NGO. 

“It was primarily seen as work only the government could do,” explains Narayan Devkate, 55, a farmer in Pimparkhed, who tends to his 50-acre land parcel with his two brothers. Of the 117-odd villages in his vicinity, 78 had no water at all when the effort began, he adds. 

Painstakingly and with gentle but persistent persuasion, the work began and ranged from desilting and rejuvenating small ponds, recharging borewells, naali kholikaran (veins of the river that have got filled with silt and turned dry) and compartment bunding. 

As a result, a total of 427 km of nullahs have been opened, 19 ponds have been brought back to life and a total of 79,7443 cubic metres of silt has been removed and carted in the last 6-7 years. 

Over the last four years, work has started on cleaning and rejuvenating the 20 km Kundalika and Seena river, of which around 5 km has been done so far and a total of 900,000 lakh cubic metre of silt and a total of 405,000 cubic metre of garbage has been pulled out and carted! To see the river flowing, even if only in part, gave Nutanben and her team a spark of joy that only a few other things could manage! 

But what is perhaps only joy and satisfaction for the NGO team working on the ground, it is a matter of a far better quality of life for the farmers and the community living there. 

Laxman Sawade was growing around five quintals of cotton every year on his seven acre farm and barely managing to make ends meet. In 2013, he took the initiative of applying 300 trollies of silt on three acres of his land. Not only has his cotton output gone up, he is also growing grapes on his land since. Overall, his income has jumped to Rs 15 lakh a year, helping him build a better home, buy 2.5 additional acres of land, a tractor and a motorbike. 

Overall, the notion that almost nothing brings more prosperity and hope than water security has been amply reinforced by Jalna. Devkate says that three new factories have come up in the area, including a water intensive sugarcane factory, leading to new employment opportunities in the district. In a region that has been bereft of almost any work opportunities, this, he argues, is what has helped bring in more and more takers for the ongoing efforts. 

When the team arrived in the district, villagers and locals were highly sceptical on whether such work could be done with community participation and through the efforts of an NGO.
When the team arrived in the district, villagers and locals were highly sceptical on whether such work could be done with community participation and through the efforts of an NGO.

Making PPP work: Samast Mahajan, A.T.E. Chandra Foundation and more

For all those lamenting the failure of public and private partnerships in India, the water rejuvenation efforts of Maharashtra offers a beacon of hope. It was in 2013 that Bain Capital chairman Amit Chandra — who set up and finances the A.T.E. Chandra foundation — and his wife, Archana, started questioning why despite a lot of talk and bluster, farmer suicides in the drought-hit state refused to abate. 

It didn’t take rocket science to reach a quick answer- poor rainfall = failed crop season = farmer debt = farmer suicide. 

That’s when they came across another NGO already working on the simple model they have since adopted- silt removal and rejuvenation of water bodies. Primary research done by them showed that there are many water bodies across the country that have over the years become defunct or unable to hold much water due to heavy silting. 

The groundwater too fails to get recharged as the silt prevents the rainwater from reaching the bottom. But if someone removed the silt, the water body could be rejuvenated and even better the silt — which is usually quite fertile — could be used by farmers on their land to improve productivity

From 2016 to 2019, the A.T.E CF, along with 22-odd partner organisations, worked extensively in Maharashtra to rejuvenate over 2,700 water bodies, impacting around 4,200 villages. 

The COVID-19 pandemic dampened their efforts but did not stop. In 2020 and 2021, work continued in Rajasthan and Karnataka. In 2022, the work picked up pace once again and 916 water bodies were rejuvenated in 18 districts of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, some at the behest of Niti Aayog which had, by then, pulled in by the foundation. 

 India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated.
India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated.

Niti Aayog buys in

It was in 2021-22 that the A.T.E CF team decided to approach Niti Aayog which quickly bought into the scheme. In June 2018, Niti Aayog had brought out a report on “Composite Water Management Index”, which mentions that India is undergoing the worst water crisis in its history and that nearly 600 million people are facing high to extreme water stress. 

The report further mentions that India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated.

The model presented by the foundation to the Niti Aayog could be scaled very quickly at a fraction of the cost to unleash water security in drought prone regions. It was community-led with farmers bearing a portion of the cost and aligns almost perfectly with the Amrit Sarovar mission launched by the Indian government in April 2022 where the plan is to rejuvenate and develop 75 water bodies in each and every district of the country. 

The traditional approach of building new water bodies, dams and canals is more expensive, ecologically and environmentally damaging and often leads to large scale displacement of the locals in the area. 

As a result, in the last two years, 500 water bodies were rejuvenated with financial support from NITI Aayog. Currently, pilot projects are ongoing in Jharkhand, MP, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, with a view to extending this to all its aspirational districts and regions that are water stressed.

A senior Maharashtra state government official says that drought has been one of the state’s greatest nemesis in the last decade or so since he has been posted and based there.
A senior Maharashtra state government official says that drought has been one of the state’s greatest nemesis in the last decade or so since he has been posted and based there.

Maharashtra goes all out

Over the last 50 years, droughts and floods in Maharashtra have risen sevenfold and sixfold respectively. It was after the latest devastating droughts faced by the state in 2013-2016 that the state intensified its efforts on making defunct water bodies functional. 

A senior Maharashtra state government official says that drought has been one of the state’s greatest nemesis in the last decade or so since he has been posted and based there.

The state government rejuvenated over 5,000 water bodies across the state between 2017-2019, mostly through the GDGS (Gaalmukt Dharan, Gaalmukt Shivar) Scheme. At this time, donors were providing the rental charges for the machines for silt removal, the state paid for the diesel and the farmers for the carting of silt.

But more recently, faced with the threat of El Nino and erratic rain patterns, the state decided it couldn’t wait for donors or other philanthropic funding and that it would fund the full effort on its own steam for now. 

In April 2023, Rs 2,000 crore were allocated to revive the scheme over the next five years and over 100 NGOs were pulled in to assist. It is expected to lead to the excavation of around 44 crore cubic metres of silt and creating an additional surface capacity of 44,000 crore litres of water

In addition, a subsidy of Rs 15,000 has been provided for small farmers for the first time, to ensure that the silt can be used by them as well as the bigger farmers who can afford to cart it.

In April 2023, Rs 2,000 crore were allocated to revive the scheme over the next five years and over 100 NGOs were pulled in to assist.
In April 2023, Rs 2,000 crore were allocated to revive the scheme over the next five years and over 100 NGOs were pulled in to assist.

It takes two hands to clap

Readers may well ask what the civil society’s contribution is in cases where the entire funding is provided by the government. And the answer is – it takes both hands to clap. 

“As has been seen time and again, the projects that work best are those where the private and public sector come together,” says a former NITI Aayog official. He says that the private or civil society players bring efficiencies and levels of competence that government players often lack. Chandra echoes this sentiment in reverse by saying that the scale government can provide, no private sector player can match.

So even while the state government is willing to finance almost the entire effort, the A.T.E. CF identifies, monitors and assists the NGOs that work on the ground. It has also lent its technology app to the Maharashtra government to collect real time data on all the water rejuvenation sites across the state from the Mantralaya in Mumbai and to prioritise where such work needs to commence right away. 

In addition, the foundation also provides regular weekly training for the nodal government officers with use of the app and any glitches that may arise. Besides setting up a project management unit, the foundation’s chief operating officer (COO) Gayatri Nair Lobo, has made 24 field trips to six states – Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Karnataka since April 2022 alone. In a country as vast, diverse and complex as India, very little can be achieved from the glass and chrome edifices in Mumbai or Delhi.

Meanwhile, Nutanben and her 8-10 member team remain resolutely focussed on their work which they estimate will need another 2-3 years before it becomes self-sustaining. She knows her frequent trips from Mumbai to Aurangabad and then onwards into the nooks and crannies of Jalna and Palghar will not be ending anytime in a hurry. 

With her filial responsibilities less intense than in the past, she can afford to focus on ameliorating the water woes she first encountered when she landed in Beed seven years ago. In terms of gratification, anything she achieves in Mumbai pales in comparison.

Written by Anjuli Bhargava. Anjuli is a writer and columnist based out of Goa and writes on business and social sector issues.

Edited by Padmashree Pande.

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