Springs of hope in Maharashtra's Western Ghats

Driving up the winding, kachcha road to Akhegani, about 20 kms away from Panchgani, we see one of the two dams constructed in the valley on either side of the table top. The dams were built, and contain enough water, to provide for the villages in this area. And yet, the Gram Panchayat is able to supply only 30 litres — an equivalent of about three buckets — per day to each person in Akhegani, a village of 500 residents in Satara district.

Left exposed at source, a natural spring is vulnerable to contamination.

The dams are not a realistic solution for Akhegani, which is nestled on a table top along the Western Ghats. “Pumping the water from the dams up to Akhegani would cost the village a small fortune every day. Instead, they rely on two borewells and two natural springs,” says hydrologist Dr Jared Buono, who works with Panchgani-based organisation Grampari. Natural springs, Buono believes, are the most sustainable and practical source of water for Akhegani and for most other villages along the Western Ghats. Over the past three years, Buono has worked with 12 villages in the region, facilitating the revival of their springs.

A spring box, constructed at the source of the spring, ensures the water stays clean enough to drink. Pics Courtesy/Jared Buono

The Ghats are layered with basalt (a relatively impervious rock), Buono explains during the drive to Akhegani. “A small portion of the monsoon rains can enter the rock where it percolates down and hits an impervious layer. It then moves laterally and can emerge on the side of a mountain as a natural spring. Many mountains in the Western Ghats are also capped with laterite (a relatively porous rock) that absorbs much more rainfall. On these mountains, springs can be very large, providing a steady source of water throughout the year,” he adds.

Men and women from Pachputewadi worked together to restore their springs

As a result, the Ghats have tens of thousands of natural springs — most of which have served as traditional sources of water to much of rural Maharashtra. Old timers tell the story of a man who had worked hard decades ago to ensure that the springs were used optimally. During the great famine of the 1970s, he had ensured that the springs were enclosed at source. He had also laid down a number of pipelines in the region, some of which continue to carry water to the villages even today. But not much more is known about this mystery man who, just like most of the abandoned springs, seems to have been forgotten.

Spring cleaning
On reaching the Akhegani temple, where we meet Sarpanch Sahibrao Shankar Gawde, we realise just how keen the people are to begin restoring their 40-year-old spring box. Sixty-five-year-old Gawde and the village mason Dilip Sapkal ask Buono to give them an estimate and a detailed list of the materials required for the construction. “We want to begin work within the next two days,” announces Gawde.

A determined leader to the villagers for the past two years, Gawde worked in Mumbai until he returned to the village as a retiree four years ago. Perhaps his long absence explains why he had never visited the spring, in the midst of forest land, before we make our trip together. The tiny trickle of water, at the origin of the spring, could easily be ignored. Because of soil erosion over the decades, the outlet has moved away from the spring box. Left open to the mercy of nature, it is covered by a mass of dried leaves. “And animal faeces,” adds Buono. “Until recently, the villagers were drinking this highly contaminated water.”

Akhegani’s Sarpanch Sahibrao Gawde (centre) discusses an action plan to restore the natural spring on site. Pic/Moeena Halim

Gawde, along with two youngsters who have joined our party, begin to clean up the mess. But this is obviously no permanent solution. “We will announce a shramadhan (coming together of the community) and get everyone to help with the construction,” says Gawde. Two days later, he calls to update me. “About thirty people—both men and women—have started working together. We will not stop until the spring box has been constructed,” he states.
But that’s not where it ends. The tanks in the village, which store the spring water, are suffering from major leaks. Fixing these will be their next priority. “During times like these, each drop of water is precious. We cannot afford to let it slip away,” says Gawde.

Where the springs ran dry
Once construction of a spring box is finished, maintaining it isn’t difficult. “When it’s done right, the spring box needs to be checked on only once or twice a year. It can be cleaned once every four years,” says Buono. “Just to be on the safe side, at Pachputewadi, we used to send two people to check the cover of the spring box once every 15 days. It is about an hour’s walk from our village. Sometimes herders break the lid to allow their cattle to drink water, or monkeys contaminate it,” reveals Ashok More, whose hamlet Pachputewadi comes under Abhepuri village, in Wai Taluka, Satara district. 

These were circumstances More and his fellow villagers were prepared for. But three months ago, they were in for a shock. “For the first time ever, we found that our springs had run completely dry,” rues More. When a group of villagers trekked to the source, they found the area under massive development. Twelve bore wells have been dug to supply water for the construction work, leaving the springs completely dry.

A year and a half ago, the residents of Pachputewadi organised a shramadhan, pooled in their resources, and worked hard to restore seven spring boxes in the region with technical help from Grampari. This meant that the village had sufficient supply of running water. “Now, because the Gram Panchayat orders tankers for us, we barely get 50 litres per day per household. If we want more, we have to pay Rs 150 per hour to those with private wells,” says More.

The people of Pachputewadi are not ones to sit back and mourn the loss of the springs, but a strategy needs to be worked out. One of the biggest challenges they face is a weak government policy. According to state law, digging of a bore well within 500 metres of another drinking water source is forbidden. Trouble is, natural springs aren’t currently listed as a source of drinking water.

Stop the fire
Climate change and development are the major troublemakers for springs, neither of which the villagers have much of a say in. But forest fires, too, play a significant role in diminishing natural springs in the Western Ghats. “Cattle herders set deliberate fires to burn forested land, which they believe allows grass to grow with greater ease. As a result, the Ghats are left with huge zones of deforested land,” states Buono, pointing to the large yellow patches on the mountains. Deforestation leaves the soil exposed, which prevents proper recharge of water in the area.

“Reforestation can ensure that natural springs continue to flow and supply water to villages,” says Buono, who says he isn’t anti-development either. “But development must be done sustainably, keeping the area’s ecology in mind.”

Why have springs been ignored?
Just one per cent of the Western Ghats is home to enough natural springs to supply water to 12,000 villagers. “Distance isn’t usually a problem as long as the water is flowing downstream. The longest pipeline I’ve seen is a three-km long one,” exclaims Buono. But how did these traditional sources of water get to be so neglected? Rahul Bakare, groundwater expert at the Bangalore-based organisation Argyham, believes the arrogance of the borewell technology is the key factor. “It costs merely Rs 50,000 to dig a bore well. A lack of community-based thinking among the younger generation means that those who can afford to, dig bores or private wells,” believes Bakare. The Maharashtra government, not sufficiently equipped with the technical details of natural springs along the Western Ghats, has paid little heed to these sources of water until now. But Bakare, whose organisation has agreed to fund Grampari’s work with springs in the region, is hopeful that this will change in the near future.

The spring-fed temple
Godavli’s Tapneshwar Temple is an ideal example of the traditional use of springs. Built at the source of a perennial spring, the temple has a network of nullahs that lead water to a set of tanks. “One tank is for use within the temple, one for bathing, one for washing clothes and a fourth — constructed at a distance — is meant for cattle,” explains Lakshman Narayan Malushray, a resident of Godavli, a 1,000-voter strong village only a few kilometres away from Panchgani. “But it has been 10 years since the temple’s tanks ran dry,” rues Malushray, who fondly remembers taking a dip in the gau-mukh tank (pictured above) as a child. A month ago, the villagers approached Grampari for help to restore the springs. “It will mean a lot to have the water running in the temple again,” says Malushray. But what’s more exciting is that the community has promised to work on building a well for the Buddhists, who live on the other side of the village, after the spring has been restored. “This group will not benefit from the restoration of the temple springs, so it is great that there will be a shramadhan organised to help the Buddhists too,” says Buono, who is surveying the area for them and offering construction advice.  

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