How Aamir Khan's NGO inspired a Maharashtra village to end drought
A police inspector from Mumbai, a soldier from Srinagar and scores of others return to their village of Chichondi in Ahmednagar to pool in funds and labour in a bid to end a 20-year-long water crisis
The villagers and volunteers have been divided into 15 teams by sarpanch Eknath Atkar to build the bund that will trap water gushing down from the hills. Pics/Sameer Markande
This April, Mahadev Awhad, a deputy commissioner at the sales tax department in Mumbai, applied for leave to head back to his village. But, for the 50-year-old this wasn't the average summer holiday. Awhad, who lives in Neral with his wife and two children, made the 310 km road journey, a six-hour ride, with the sole aim of spending 10 hours under an unforgiving sun. Yet, he says, "This is the best thing that has happened to my village."
For the village of Chichondi, in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district, this has been an April less cruel. For the first time in living memory, the village's 2,700 residents can hope for a permanent end to their water woes.
Jalmitra Alia Bhatt with Aamir Khan celebrating Maharashtra Day in Latur
A call from home
Water scarcity has defined the life of the villagers of Chichondi. Mainly farmers, the villagers cultivate their land between June and August. The main crops here are cotton, jowar and onion. Odd labour jobs keep the villagers earning for the remaining months, especially post January when water scarcity is at its peak, with the village's three wells having run their course for the year. The continuous water problem has resulted in many residents moving out to seek a better life.
The village's sarpanch Eknath Atkar says that their daily water requirement is five tankers, each of which carries 10,000 litres. "We requested the Panchayat Samiti to provide us this amount, but would only receive one to three tankers on an average," he says.
PSI Arjun Kudle, attached to Agripada police station, took leave from work on Friday to travel to Chichondi for shramdan
"The government has failed to provide us with basic facilities such as water for personal and crop use. That's why our village has pledged to fight against the odds and make a bund on our own." It's to this call that Awhad responded.
Along with him from Mumbai is PSI Arjun Kudle, attached to the Agripada Police Station, who asked for leave and, on Friday morning, left for his village.
Villagers at Chichondi, Ahmednagar, work on the bund between 7 am and 12 noon. Around 40 of them have pledged to stay at temporary shelters at the project site until work on creating the bund is completed. Pics/Sameer Markande
Digging deep inside
The first step in fighting this battle was taken on February 23, when a group of six from the village including Atkar, attended a workshop on water management at Ralegan Siddhi village which is the residence of activist Anna Hazare. The six-day workshop, conducted by Paani Foundation, introduced the Chichondi villagers to the idea of building a bund (see box) on village land that would both hold water coming down from the hills and thus, also, increase the storage of the underground water table. Paani Foundation was set up in 2016 by actor Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao. It's a non-profit that aims to promote water conservation in the state. The workshop, says Atkar, taught them how to identify the best spot within the village to build the bunds and how they can be constructed.
On March 1, Atkar held a gram sabha where the village unanimously decided to build a bund by themselves using farm tools. The land is located on village grounds and the tract stretches over 21 km. A month later, on April 7, 40 youths from the village pledged to not return home until work on the bund is completed.
Atkar has divided the village into 15 teams and has chalked out a budget of Rs 40 lakh for the project. However, the villagers (all of whom contributed between sums of Rs 100 to Rs 2,000 for the project) soon realised that they weren't in this alone. Those who had migrated offered help — by both contributing money and physical labour. Between the 135 such people, a total amount of Rs 3.5 lakh has poured in. An NGO has donated another Rs 11 lakh. And, donations are also coming in the form of free diesel for the machines. While Awhad has contributed Rs 25,000, Kudle, sent in Rs 5,000.
Kudle, 29, who lives in Chirag Nagar, Ghatkopar, with his wife and 1.5-year-old son, says that during his childhood the monsoon was relatively better and the rivers would be filled with water. But, now, the change in weather has caused the villagers great loss. "Almost all youths are looking for jobs outside the village, as there is no other income source there to feed the family." Awhad says the skilled labourers who have migrated will return if the water situation improves.
Even children have pledged their help for the project which everyone hopes will change the fortune of the village, allowing residents to grow crops here year round
It takes a village
Work on the project starts at 7 am and continues till noon, with everyone in the village participating. Right from a 12-year-old child to a septuagenarian have contributed to the multitude tasks needed to be done each day — leavening the ground where the bunds are to be constructed, the digging of the soil, piling the stones in the alignment pre-decided and then plucking the grass.
Eknath Atkar, Sarpanch
The community effort has made Atkar a hopeful man. "Thanks to the shramdan, most of the work has been completed in 22 days. The remaining work involves using machinery, and will also be over soon," he smiles.
The future looks well watered for the village. "With a good quantity of water, villagers will be able to cultivate three times a year. We are planning to have bajra, wheat and fruit farms too. It will make our village a better place to live."
Chichondi's help from afar
24, Indian Navy
'I have been living away for 3.5 years and my parents and two brothers live there. I am desperate to offer shramdan, but can't due to work commitment. I am still trying to convince my superior for leave and would love to visit my village at such a crucial time'
Donated: Rs 5,000
Anil Haribhao Awhad,
38, Senior clerk at state irrigation department, Satara
'I had the good fortune of being able to visit my village and offer shramdan for a few days. I also convinced some friends from outside the village to not just help at the project site, but also donate money'
Donated: 101 litres of diesel for machinery work
50, Deputy commissioner, sales tax department
'This is the best thing that's happened to my village'
Donated: Rs 25,000 and went to volunteer at the village
The bund solution
Bunds are small embankments created to collect surface run-off, increase water infiltration and prevent soil erosion. By building bunds along the contour lines, water runoff is slowed down, which leads to increased water infiltration and enhanced soil moisture. Bunds are constructed either with soil or stones.
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