Saving raindrops for thirty years

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Recently Indian Railways had run water specials by are called BTPN rakes to transport water to the parched districts of Latur in Maharashtra. A similar exercise was undertaken to the dry areas of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh. I recall during my posting in Bikaner we were ferrying water tankers to several drought affected areas of Rajasthan. My colleagues and seniors in railways have also performed this task. While the harried recipient waits for water supply in an anguished state, we in our control offices monitor the rakes at tenterhooks.
Meanwhile serpentine queues for government-supplied water tankers are a common summer sight in several parts of Rajasthan. But in Laporiya, a village 80 km from Jaipur, a collective effort to harvest water by 350 families has been defying drought for over 30 years. While ground water has depleted to 500 feet in nearby areas, it is found at 15-40 feet in this village. Not only does lush Laporiya have adequate water for population of nearly 2,000, it even caters water to some 10-15 adjoining villages.
This journey from scarcity to self-sufficiency began in 1977 when an 18-year-old Laxman Singh returned to his village only to find that it was gripped by poverty, caste conflicts and malnourishment. The school dropout soon realized that the only way to stop this vicious cycle of misfortune was to make the area agriculturally prosperous. But water was a big challenge – it was available at a depth of 100 feet.
“Back then, there were hardly any means to pump out water at such a depth. I decided that if we cannot go down, the water has to come up,” said Singh. He then devised the chowka system based on a traditional method of water harvesting in Rajasthan and founded the non-profit organization Gram Vikas Navyuvak Mandal Laporiya (GVNML).
Under the chowka system, small, interconnected, sloping rectangular pits, nine inches deep, were made in pasture land. The pits are bordered with bunds (mud embankment). As water assembles in one chowka and it flows into an adjacent chowka and then spreads evenly because of the bunds. After crossing several such chowkas, water finally moves into a pond.
This method of preserving rainwater makes the top layer of soil moist, recharges ground water, and also enables growth of native grasses and shrubs.
Over the 15 years, the chowka system was developed on about 400 bighas of pasture land. The villagers came together and contributed money and labour to develop bunds. With the soil gaining moisture, villagers were able to harvest their rabi crop without irrigating their fields. “As there is no withdrawal of ground water for the rabi crop, it gets recharged and is used during summers,” adds Chotu Singh, a farmer.
Villagers adopted some smart techniques in face of adversity. Villagers stay away from water-intensive crops. During summer, cultivation of only green fodder and vegetables is allowed and that too in fields that are close to the well. And we learn in Maharashtra that cultivation of sugarcane has resulted in reduction of water table and has contributed to the present agrarian distress.
The discipline reaped some additional benefits. As the pasture land became green, fodder was available to animals. An indigenous breed of cow (Gir) was procured from Gujarat and dairy farming was promoted. Gir produces 8-10 litres of milk in a day and each house now has at least two of them. “Each household makes about Rs 30,000 – 45,000 a month by selling milk. It’s more for those who have over five cows,” says Arjun Singh, a volunteer of GVNML. This example has now been adopted by nearly 58 neighboring villages and is fast spreading to other districts.
We too can do something for our society. Let us all volunteer and pledge to make this a better world for ourselves and our future generations.

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