Villages in central Maharashtra are among the most drought-prone areas of the country. They face a crippling water scarcity for a few months every year. Crops and lives come under threat and thousands migrate to other parts of the country. Despite drought relief programmes going back decades, little has changed. In these parts, agriculture remains largely rain-fed. Poor geo-permeability means water retention is limited. Cutting down of forests and depleting green cover has made things worse. And the water available here is poorly managed. Groundwater sources are over-exploited, recycling is completely missing and wastage is common.
Now, there is an example every one of these villages try to emulate. Hiware Bazar, a village of about 1300 people, has followed a careful plan for watershed management and water conservation that has made it one of the country’s most prosperous ones today. Hiware Bazar is spread over an area of 977 hectares in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in the foothills of the Sahyadri range. The village receives only 300-400 millimeters of rains a year.
Popatrao Pawar, a local youth returned to Hiware Bazaar from Pune after his M.Com, in 1990. He decided to give a career in the city and try a hand in politics. He was elected Sarpanch and under his leadership, the village drew up a water supply plan based on the priorities set by the villagers themselves.
Alcolism and crime were rife when he took over. Over 90% of the villagers were living below the poverty line. The village lacked basic medical facilities. And due to the bad reputation of the village, teachers were unwilling to teach at the local school. So literacy rates remained at a miserable 30%, well below the national average. The village now ranks among the richest 10% in India. There’s safe water and sanitation for all. The village has a literacy rate of 100%. There’s a secondary school in Hiware Bazaar and many students pursue careers in teaching and engineering.
Development of watershed areas has been the key. The ground water table has risen sharply and irrigated areas increased. Farmers were only able to grow crops in the Kharif season earlier because of water shortage. Only bajra could be grown in the Rabi months. Now, many farmers have switched from traditional jowar and bajra to cash crops like onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Horticulture has taken off in a big way. As area under cultivation grew, cropping intensity increased and cropping patterns changed, incomes too rose sharply.
Hiware Bazar began its watershed development program in 1992 with reforestation of hilly forest land. On individual plots, farmers have levelled land and constructed low earthen barriers along the perimeter to hold rainwater within the fields. Many farmers have plastic-lined ponds for water storage. The villagers now has trenches along the hills to trap and slow rainwater drainage.
Along the natural drainage lines, they built shallow dams of stone, cement or earth. To bring groundwater stored in the upper reaches to their farms, villagers undertook an aquifer blast, a controlled underground explosion to create cracks for groundwater to flow through. Most of the financing has come from government schemes. Funds were managed by an NGO Yashwant Krishi Gram and Watershed Development Trust, set up by Hiware Bazar’s Gram Sabha in 1994.
Funds aside, a critical component of the watershed development programme has been voluntary service by the villagers themselves. To ensure quality structures when government funding was inadequate, rthe villagers worked voluntarily so that funds could be used to purchase good quality construction materials. One member from each family has stepped forward for what’s been called ‘Shramdaan’.
The watershed development programme has yielded rich dividends to the area in two decades. Between 1991 and 2014, the number of families below the poverty line has gone down from 168 to just 3. In the same period the number of landless farmers had come down from 22 to 6. The per-capita income has risen from Rs 832 in 1991 to Rs 30,000 rupees in 2014.