At the Swar Gate bus-stop my attempts to find out which bus would take me to Srigonda Sugar Factory lead to blank stares. After repeatedly trying to elicit information about Srigonda (Maharashtra) from the khaki wearing employees I turn to other travellers also waiting at the stop. It turns out I was at the correct terminus and the couple I spoke with were also headed the same direction. My conversation with the couple attracts a few other passengers who seem very interested about my destination. I feel right at home – it is only in the villages that curiosity and personal questions are accepted without challenge – and I have quite a few questions myself. I tell them confidently that I am on my way to meet Mai Salunke, I had been assured by Mai’s brother Anil Ghanwat, a journalist from Ahmednagar, that the name Salunke is famous around these parts.

The journey to Srigonda Sugar Factory was uneventful and much of the countryside was typical of the Deccan Plateau with plenty of contradictions. Some of the farmlands we pass are lush with sunflower, sugarcane, jowar or bajra crops and elsewhere I see vast barren landscapes. The soft morning sun is on its way out and we are fast heading towards what text books refer to as Rain Shadow Area.

The Sahyadri Ranges run almost parallel to the Western Ghats. The Ghats are the source of many east and west flowing rivers. Cauvery, Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers are east flowing and there is also the short westward flowing river Saraswati. Deccan plateau adjoins the Sahyadri range and most of the area here comes under its rain shadow and is almost perennially drought stricken. Only in an occasional year, the peaks of Sahyadri let some water-bearing clouds pass, it is only then that these areas get a few showers. Racing along the highway, we pass a few canals and a river. The shore of the river is lined with not less than fifty pump sets, all presumably pumping up water for irrigation.

Co-passengers in the bus tell me that although the rest of the country is rejoicing this year’s monsoons – it hasn’t been all well here. They tell me that there has been no rain here since three years, although I don’t really see evidence of that in the lush sugarcane fields we keep passing from time to time. In these parts I have seen a sugar mill at the outset of every three villages or a town. A lucrative cash crop – sugar is a symbol of power in Maharashtra. In the past sugar barons have held key ministerial posts in the state. I wonder how well the sugar lobby here is taking to the idea of replacing sugar with a less water intensive crop.

Outside the Srigonda Sugar factory the village is busy. Jeeps and Tam-tams (passenger autorickshaws) hawk their destinations. One Tam-tam driver is gracious enough to re-route his beat just because I am Anil Ghanwat’s guest. He agrees to charge me only twenty rupees for a drop outside Ghanwat’s house. I share the rickshaw with a three ton sack of hay and six locals. When I look at other tam-tams I realise that this one hasn’t been loaded to its full capacity because of my unsure presence. The locals are extremely kind to my urban ways almost to the point of ignoring me. The hay notwithstanding, I settle in as comfortably as one could in a diesel contraption let loose on a kutcha (unpaved) road. My co-passengers immediately launch into a discussion about the water situation in the area. I overheard one of them commenting on the sparse sky as an unfavourable omen. But before I mustered enough Marathi to make an intelligible conversation it was time to get off.

Mai Salunke and Anil Ghanwat are few of the many in Maharashtra who back Anna Hazare’s work. In the villages in and around Srigonda, Mai is a role model to many women. At a time when Maharashtra is torn over debates on property rights for women, Mai firmly believes that women’s empowerment is complete only when you provide sound legal backing to women. Women need to feel that they are not weak – a daughter and a daughter in law – both need legitimate safeguards of their rights. Mai’s entire family works towards advocacy – her brother Anil Ghanwat was busy that day with a Morcha asking the local government to release water from the dam. He told me that most villages have been severely affected due to scarcity this year. The canals that run through the village had dried up; the water supply tankers were hardly reliable and worst of all the ground water table had dipped.

Faced with such a situation the villagers had turned to the nearby river for deliverance. Ghanwat says, “People have been left with no choice other than turn to the river and draw from there. They individually lift the water from the river in order to irrigate their fields. In this manner the river water is carried sometimes 7 – 8 km away. Sand mining is also prevalent here. You might have seen boats in the river with pumps installed. These are diesel-operated pumps. The mouth of the pump is left deep in the river bottom from there both sand and water are pumped out to the river bank through a sieve. So the sand remains in the riverbank and the water flows back.” Like elsewhere in the country sand quarrying has turned into a lucrative enterprise for locals here, however the consequences of sand quarrying is felt especially during scarcity years when all available sources of water dry up.

Anna Hazare's Hind Swaraj Trust and the Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) have been catalysts for advocacy and training.
To counter this sort of ignorance and apathy Ghanwat and Mai organise sabhas (meetings) & awareness camps and spread the word of watershed development. They tell me that this sort of advocacy is possible only because of the support and backing of groups like Hind Swaraj Trust (Anna Hazare’s) and the Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART, autonomous and funded by the Ministry of Rural Development). Ghanwat says “We visit villages affected by water shortage and construct check dams or other watershed projects. We also try to make the villagers aware of the scarcity issue and encourage them to conserve water. Additionally we encourage them to grow crops which do not require much irrigation. We are starting to see the results now. People have started accepting the concept that their water is retained in the soil by using watershed techniques like check dams, nalla bunds or contour bunds. Most of our work is through Shramdan (volunteer work) and about 50% of our volunteers are women! But on the flip side, inspite of the success rate, I feel a lot of people have not yet internalised this work as their own. Many of them participate because perhaps the village mukhiya (elected head) has asked them to.”

From Srigonda, Mai Salunke and I head towards Ralegan. I was told that Anna Hazare would be there and I did not want to miss the opportunity of meeting him. In Ralegan we are greeted by a sudden downpour. The rain set the mood for the rest of my stay here, apparently the cloudburst and my coinciding entry was taken as a good omen! Anna was addressing the assembly at his school. I admire the Ralegan example because it is not limited to just one village or one set of people. The Adarsh Gram Yojana was an inspiration to an entire generation of youngsters who are now spreading the word wherever they can. I remember reading one quote by Anna which says “One grain has to bury itself alive to give birth to a swaying field of crop. By burying itself, the grain does not die. India today needs activists like that grain.”

Santosh Khade, a teacher at Anna’s school, was with me throughout my stay. It was with great sense of pride that he meticulously guided me through every kind of watershed and development work being done in Ralegan. The village is a lesson in watershed work. For an amateur conservationist a tour of the village can be very revealing. Every text book technique can be seen along with proof of its practicality. I got a crash course in loose boulder structures, gully plugs, staggered trenches, brushwood dam, continuous contour trenches, live check dams, percolation tanks, Gabian structures – practically all kinds of watershed structures. Doubtlessly I was impressed by the extent of work that had been carried out here, hard to believe but all of this had been achieved through village participation and volunteer work. Khade then took me to the Watershed Training Centre; here I met the former principal Thakaram Raut.

Today Raut is fully committed to working with the Hind Swaraj Trust. He told me about the training centre, “Here we train others in water conservation. We train three categories of people; first we provide technical training to skilled people like engineers and agriculturists. The duration of this training is for 1-½ months. We take them on field trips and gear them with aspects of taking surveys and preparing project reports. The second group that we train is the farmers. For them the training is shorter and lasts for 3 - 4 days. Their training generally comprises of field visits and practical understanding of watershed techniques. We also try to make their experience more cultural and holistic. For instance, when people from Rajasthan visit they like to go to Shirdi (place of religious significance), which is near by, so we arrange a trip for them. The third categories are the visitors. They come in hoards not only from India but abroad as well. All of them are curious about our work. So we arrange guides for them to take them around to near by villages. All those who attend courses here get a certificate from us. They are all qualified to work towards watershed development in their area.”

The very core of training activities and watershed work are the young engineers and volunteers who come from all over the country to contribute to rural development. None of them seemed to be missing urban lifestyles or snazzy way of life – everyone I met had a vision for India and its people. Different parameters defined their idea of success or failure. Khade, 27, wanted to learn all he could here and take it to his village and work for its transformation. Ashok Gaikwad, 28, volunteering as the secretary of the Watershed Association in village Panoli, hopes that his village too can emulate the Ralegan example. Dinesh Patil, at 29 nine years was the oldest volunteer I met. A civil engineer, he always dreamt of working in the villages. He is the Watershed Development Team Leader for a development plan that includes several villages adjoining Ralegan that share a common water source.

A continuous contour trench

About 6 km away from Ralegan is Panoli, a village that despite being adjacent to Anna’s village has only recently woken upto the Ralegan example. This is one of the villages where Dinesh works. We walk upto a hillock that belongs to a local farmer, the beginnings of the watershed treatment can be seen here. CCTs (Continuous Contour Trenches) were dug here in April 2003 just before the Monsoons. Dinesh says, “CCTs are dug at 2 ft width and 1 ft depth and are made continuously. Near it we have dug a pit about 1 ft wide and filled it – so if we plant anything here there is loose earth upto 2 ft depth. This makes root development easy for the trees that we have planted here. All over the hill you can see the trees that we have planted, there is Karanj (local fauna), Neem (Margosa), Custard Apple (fruit tree) – infact we’ve planted upto two hundred Custard Apple trees – we are trying to work it out as a part of our horticulture development."

"In order to protect this CCT and the refilling we have dug a trench in the upper reaches, it is 1 meter in length and breadth, and this is called WAT (Water Absorbing Trench). So a big portion of the runoff gets checked right at the beginning. If you want to work on the watershed of an area you have to work on the principle of top to bottom. Starting from the very top, the area where the flow of the water originates. Another thing is that the drainage lines in Panoli start in another village, so we need to include that village as well in our work. From Panoli the drainage moves forward to Pimpale – a village about 4 kms from here. So although the total area of the village is about 1582 hectares, we actually take into account 1995 hectares, this includes all the four watershed areas. Earlier all the watersheds were scattered, a few villages were picked and treatment was initiated there, it was never integrated. So our effort is to integrate the watershed development."

"Here the work started in August 2002. So far we’ve been successful in watershed marking, integrating the community in the work, setting up of a watershed association, and a peoples’ direct programme. But there are some prerequisites for watershed development: The village should be depending on water tankers. The ground water table should be low. More than 30% of the area shouldn’t be irrigated by canal water. In Panoli canal irrigation is next to nil and all other prerequisites are met with but additionally what makes our work here easier is the interest of the community in watershed development. This increases our scope.”

"The first step in watershed development is sketching the village map. Once all the village boundaries are in place a watershed map is prepared, this very often includes adjoining villages that share water sources with the target village. Concurrently volunteers go from house to house and take a social and economic survey. This household record comprises of information like the size of the family unit, the male female ratio, literacy level, size of land holdings, yield per hectare and so on. With the help of this social mapping a project outline is drawn. Many of the villages here that have undertaken watershed development have adopted the five tenets as told by Anna Hazare – Nashabandi (ban on alcohol), Nasbandi (sterilisation), Kuranbandi (ban on grazing), Kurhadbandi (ban on tree felling) and Shramdan (volunteer work). In Panoli all the three hundred households contribute two days every month. Dinesh Patil says, “It is only through participatory development that we become aware of the problems faced by the people and the resources available to them and then we are able to chalk out long term solutions for them.”

Just walking through Panoli one can’t help notice the parched backdrop and the scattered foliage, a marked difference from Ralegan just a few kilometres away. At the watershed museum in Ralegan I had seen photographs of what Ralegan used to look like, Panoli’s present plight was not too different. In the village I met Sanjana Sanjay Thorat. Sanjana’s family is into dairy farming and owns ten Jersey cows. With the drought since the last three years the dairy business is becoming increasingly difficult to support. Sanjana says, “We sowed Jowar seeds for the Rabi crop after the showers this year. But with no signs of rain I don’t know how we’ll save the crop. We don’t even have fodder to feed the cows; we have to buy it from nearby villages. Even giving them water is getting difficult. We have to wait for the bullock-carts that supply water to the village. Managing all this is getting too much for us. Even if we wanted to we cannot sell the cows because we won’t get the price we bought them for.”

Sanjana and her family have not directly participated in the Shramdan. Her husband, who is also the Chairman of the local Dairy Association, contributes Rs. 90 every month towards village watershed work. Although Sanjana spoke mostly about the work involved in maintaining her farm and taking care of the dairy, she couldn’t tell much about milk prices or fodder cost. It was apparent that these tasks were managed by her husband. Dinesh then spoke about a perplexing outcome of watershed development, “When watershed development takes place, the worst hit are gender related issues. In the villages, most of the manual labour is provided by women - whether it is in the form of household chores or helping out at the farm by tilling land. So when the environment gets recharged with watershed development, they have much more work lined up. They have to work on farms or if they have a dairy then collect fodder and with an increase in milk production their workload increases tremendously. Even during the treatment process, it is the women who contribute the most.”

Panoli women play a critical role in watershed development

Manjusha is a 23 year old social worker. After her MSW at Ahmednagar University she decided to work in the villages. Today Manjusha is associated with the Watershed Development Programme in five villages around Ralegan. Manjusha primarily works with women and provides them with guidance to set up Self Help Groups (SHG). In Panoli the SHGs have been a success. Most of the households in Panoli are nuclear units, with the disappearance of joint family system important issues like money matters which were handled jointly have become individual concerns. Most people here have land holdings and depend on agriculture for their survival, but in the absence of rain and failing crops, these households reached crises point. It is then that the women of Panoli heard of savings scheme in SHGs that are a part of watershed development.

I met Parvati Vasant Ingle who was attending the weekly working committee meeting along with her daughter-in-law Sunita. Parvati was responsible in getting her daughter-in-law to join the SHG, she says, “We got interested because Manjusha - the social worker here - told us about a new way of saving our money. After making our group we are able to save a lot of money which we wouldn’t have been able to do earlier. So I told my daughter-in-law Sunita that she too must participate – this way our family can develop better.”

Almost all the women in Panoli are part of a Self Help Group; they meet regularly and discuss common issues and possible solutions. And most importantly, each SHG that is a part of the women’s working committee contributes to watershed development through Shramdan. Indubai Shivaji Thorat, a member of the working committee tells me what she understands of watershed development and how it has changed her life, “Watershed means that water should be stopped where it falls. This way our wells get recharged and there is no soil erosion. We hope that with watershed treatment our water problem will reduce or completely disappear. After this watershed treatment has started, we have started understanding the importance of trees – the fact is that there are so few trees here and that is why there is no water – if we save our trees and plant more trees it will benefit us. We have also come to know about the Self Help Groups. I believe that when a woman is alone she can do nothing, but when so many women get together, with this unity we can achieve a whole lot more. Similarly when it comes to Shramdan it is not just one person’s contribution but all of us get together to create something a lot bigger. This is our empowerment.”

Work may have just started in Panoli and a lot still needs to be done. But if the grit and determination on the faces of the women I met is anything to go by – it may not be such a long haul for the villagers here.