Common people, uncommon zeal
AURANGABAD: A little over a year ago, a sub-divisional officer in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state was given an unceremonious welcome. The villagers were pelting stones in protest — there was a delay in dispatching water tankers to their parched land. Today, however, a mood of celebration has replaced the protest. Now everyone is singing praise of the same district machinery because it has helped revitalise defunct water-storage systems and change the landscape.
Several hundred kilometres away, farmers in the villages of Wardha district are now working in tandem with district officials towards sustainable water supply systems. Until recently, these very farmers were crying hoarse about the government’s faulty water schemes. A similar story is being scripted in Nagpur as well, where cooperation between the government and the community is altering the nature of rural water supply and use.
The common thread
underlying these projects is that the three officials spearheading this
change have made a departure from the bureaucratic style of functioning
by involving the community in the management of water supply schemes.
Also, this transformation has come about without costing the government
exchequer any additional funds!
During the peak of summer this year, the villagers of Sarola in Aurangabad district congregated at a percolation tank for a jal pooja (thanksgiving prayer for water). One of the 700 villages in the district affected by scarce water, Sarola had no water problems this year and will not require tankers for the first time in several decades. "Without the government spending a single penny, Sarola has become a model for rejuvenating traditional water systems that had fallen into disuse," says V. Radha.
She vividly recalls the scepticism of villagers last year in April, when she proposed the revival of a 30-year-old percolation tank that had been dug during the 1972 famine. However, she managed to convince them to excavate the tank. Although the government did not provide any grants, it did give them an incentive — the silt dug out of the tank could be used by the farmers free of cost. This provided the spur that egged the people on.
Meanwhile, in Nagpur, farmers are rejoicing the fact that an additional 7000 hectares of land have been brought under irrigation without much investment. The CEO of the Nagpur Zila Parishad galvanised the staff, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the community to build 434 low-cost dams in 310 villages. The expense was clocked at Rs 3,00,000, while cement dams would have cost over Rs 7 million. Quite apart from the moderate expense, 750,000 cubic metres of water was channelled because of these dams.
In Wardha, on the other hand, Manisha Mhaiskar (Wardha Zila Parishad CEO) initiated a move to address the two basic needs of the villagers — potable water and irrigation for agricultural land. Three schemes are under way in this district — in Jalada, Sampada and Vasundhara. The innovation in Jalada, focused on drinking water, lies in the consolidation and sequencing of existing schemes to make water supply sustainable. And the innovation depends on involving the community. "The main problem," says Mhaiskar, "is that the government initiates schemes but the community is never involved."
According to Mhaiskar, the Jalada innovation was born out of the experience of the past year’s water scarcity. This experience revealed that 80 per cent of the scarcity was the result of imperfections in scheme design or maintenance.
Again, the scheme did not involve any government expenditure. Money which had already been invested by the government in the district but which had not been utilised properly or lay unutilised was put to good use. Among the first things done was the installation of blocks or gates at various places during the rains, to store water. The involvement of the community was ensured at every stage. It was decided that estimates of repairs would be given to the community in Marathi, the local language, and that bills would not be cleared until the gram panchayat (village council) passed a resolution saying the work had been done well. "Engineers and contractors did have reservations, but they went along," says the CEO, "and once the villagers realised that the officials did not have a personal interest in schemes, they cooperated as well."
The district administration realises that handing over imperfect schemes to the community resulted in the users’ lack of interest in maintaining them. It is now envisaged that unless three senior officers certify that a particular scheme is technically sound, the community would not be obliged to sign its acceptance.
The journey through each
of these projects has not been easy. To begin with, the proposals of all
three officers met with scepticism but the women’s persistence proved
to be stronger. Both V. Radha and Manisha Mhaiskar lay emphasis on the
crucial role of a good team. "Once team spirit develops, the work
gets done," they say. Each of three women certainly has a story to
tell; it appears as if the entire state is listening to them and many
other districts hope to replicate their initiative. WFS