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Springs flow, birds sing, forests breathe in hundreds of acres of parched land

Story

By Chandrika Patnaik

5 March 2022

Burdened by the water crisis, women revive a spring and restore their forest.

Women watering the plants in the nursery.

Photograph by Santosh Kumar Rout

Mukta Majhi, 25, is transplanting paddy seedlings in her 0.5 acre land in Pergunipada village. The village is 30 kms away from Thuamul Rampur block in Kalahandi district, across the slopes of the hills surrounding the village. While Mukta is busy in the paddy field, her mother-in-law, Panadei Majhi, 55, is keeping monkeys off their one acre land where they grow pink lentils and chickpea for their own consumption. “I finish my household chores everyday by 8 am to work in the field. My husband and parents-in-law also set out early to cultivate our field. We survive on whatever we grow so throughout the year my entire family is busy farming.” Mukta lives in the village with her husband Rama Majhi, 26, their six year old daughter and parents-in-law, Sunadhara and Panadei Majhi.

Sunadhara Majhi, 58, owns 1.5 acres of cultivable land on which his family grows paddy and lentils. He owns another five acres of land which is not conducive for farming and has converted the land into a cashew orchard. Since 2017, Sunadhara has earned ₹1,58,000 from the orchard. With the money he has earned so far, he has been able to renovate their old house, buy a new motorcycle, buy another acre of land in the village, and a pair of bullocks to help cultivate their land.

“My family cultivates paddy and pulses twice a year to make sure we are  never short of food. My husband is a Treasurer of the Village Development Committee (VDC). Apart from cultivation, he also attends village meetings and maintains the expenses incurred for various development work in the village. In January 2020, Gram Vikas contacted him for plantation work to rejuvenate the springs located on this hill,” says Mukta, pointing towards a hill in the distance.

28 households belonging to Pergunipada village received piped water directly to their homes in 2011. The water was sourced from a spring through the gravity flow system which fed the main overhead water tank in the village to supply tap water to all the households 24*7.

In 2018, the spring started yielding less water during summer months. In subsequent years, the spring dried up completely during the summer. This forced the residents to walk to the hill to defecate behind shrubs and walk 500 metres to a spring to bathe. Women flocked to a tube well in the village and waited their turn every day to wash clothes and clean utensils.

In January 2020, Gram Vikas approached Mukta’s husband Rama Majhi to mobilise residents for a meeting on watershed work on the hills surrounding the village. He immediately agreed. “In the hot summer months, the spring dries up resulting in severe shortage of piped water supply in the village. When Gram Vikas reached out to me, I immediately agreed, because it was in the interest of the village that we come together and find a solution to the water crisis,” says Rama Majhi.

Mukta Majhi is a member of Maa Indrani SHG in the village. The group along with Mukta’s husband, Rama, took up the responsibility of mobilising residents for the meeting. A meeting was arranged between the residents and Gram Vikas in February 2020. In this meeting, Gram Vikas staff spoke about the importance of springs and how they can be protected and developed to make them sustainable for years. The team highlighted the urgent need to revive the spring for the residents who depended on the spring to meet their domestic water needs.

Mukta says she got a lot of clarity and knowledge about water sources and the trees that cover the hills, “They explained with images how springs can be revived through aquifers that feed these springs through a process of watershed development, which is a community participation model in which the entire village takes part. The watershed development work impacts the water sources and the forests existing on the hills. Spring discharge is reported to be declining due to degradation and erratic rainfall. Land use changes and rampant felling of trees in our hills has led to our springs facing the threat of drying up.”

The process of watershed management involves simplification of knowledge and embeds understanding of water as a common pool resource. The artificial recharge work involves raising of seedlings in a nursery, digging of trenches and gully plugs across the hill to slow runoffs to increase the infiltration of water into crevices of rocks underneath the soil which recharge aquifers and planting of trees. “At first we thought everybody in the meeting understood the importance of the watershed work and how when implemented on the ground would impact our lives,” said Mukta, “but many residents did not believe what was being said. They simply refused to spare time for it. Most of the members of the two SHGs in our village, Maa Indrani SHG and Maa Tarini SHG, excused themselves from participating citing household chores, looking after small children at home and working on their fields as it was the paddy season. Men felt that it was not their responsibility to take care of the water sources since they were busy in farming activities. Some said that Gram Vikas should get the work done by themselves.”

However, communities and inhabitants of catchments need to have a stake, ownership in any such process of planning and management. To instil a sense of ownership to ensure  sustainability of its water sources, Gram Vikas continued to engage with the community and mobilised them through meetings for over a month. By the end of March 2020, Mukta, Jandei Majhi and Ranidei Majhi of Maa Indrani SHG decided to set up a nursery with the help of Gram Vikas and raise the seedlings for plantation on the hill.

“We have had a shortage of water in our village for the past four years. Gram Vikas came and told us that we can avoid similar situations in the future if the residents of our village participate in the watershed work and take complete ownership of the natural resources which belong to us. They offered us ₹30,000 to raise seeds. We demarcated an area at the foothills to build the nursery. Other members of our group did not offer any support initially citing heavy workload at home and small children to look after. Mukta, Jandei and I decided to set up a nursery in April 2020. With the money Gram Vikas gave us and the with the VDC’s support we procured soil, manure, good quality seeds, bamboo and polythene bags for raising the seeds,” said Ranidei Majhi, 28, who has two daughters, eight and six years old, and a two year old son.

Janadei Majhi, 30, has three sons, ages 9, 11 and 12 years old. She says, “Even we have children and other family members at home to look after. It is extremely hectic and tiring to complete household chores, work in the field and head to the nursery to tend to the seedlings. But if planting trees and digging pits on our hills will help in restoring our springs and increase the forest cover then what is the harm in sparing some time? After we set up the nursery, the other seven members of our Indrani SHG got motivated and joined us in raising the saplings in the nursery. We raised healthy saplings and sold 9000 saplings to Gram Vikas at ₹3 per sapling in July 2020 earning a total of ₹42,750.”

Mukta adds, “We raised Simaroua, Karanja, Chakunda, Mahalimba, Gandhari and Jackfruit saplings. The 9000 saplings were planted across an area of fifteen acres. After a few weeks we found some of the saplings did not survive. Gram Vikas purchased another 2500 saplings from our nursery to replace the ones which died. We earned another ₹11,857 for the 2500 saplings.”

The women had to struggle yet again to motivate other families in the village to participate in the digging and planting process. They visited each household individually to encourage both men and women to take part in digging staggered contour trenches (SCTs) and continued contour trenches (CCTs) over six acres of land spread over the hill. Also, regular meetings were held with the SHG members urging women to encourage their men and other members of their families to participate in the work. Finally fifteen women and seven men came forward for the digging and plantation work.

Community participation is key

Men and women together dug 472 SCTs, 4119 gully plugs and 127 CCTs in August 2020. Thereafter, they dug 9000 pits to plant the saplings purchased by Gram Vikas. The women and men made up to 7-8 trips in a day carrying 8-10 saplings on their heads. Since the watershed work coincided with the ongoing paddy season, the work was completed in the second week of September 2020. Anita Majhi, 26 years, a member of Maa Indrani SHG, says, “I dont have anyone to help me cultivate the 2.5 acres of land my family owns. My husband works in Kerala. I have to cultivate paddy and lentils on my own for my family. Therefore, I was hesitant to commit time during the paddy season. During a meeting in our group, we decided to take turns to look after the saplings in the nursery which helped most of us spare time for the watershed work.”

Mukta remembers, “My husband Rama is very supportive. While Janadei, Ranidei and I spoke to women everyday to take part in the watershed work, my husband reached out to the entire village through regular meetings. He also participated in digging the pits and carried saplings to the top of the hill. As a treasurer of the village committee he maintained the records for the money that came in from Gram Vikas for setting up of the nursery and for the entire watershed and plantation work on our hills and presented the audited reports during a General Body meeting in the village January 2021. Those of us who participated in the watershed and plantation work on the hill earned ₹7000-₹8000, depending on the amount of work we did.”

The watershed work in Pergunipada changed the traditional role of women, helping them assume a catalytic role as those who determine the priorities of their village and spearhead changes that affect the whole community. These women transformed their communities by mobilising people to undertake the work. “It is upto us to save our hills which have sustained us for the past hundreds of years. Sparing a few hours wasn’t such a big thing. Despite the difficulties encountered, we managed to spearhead the entire watershed work and motivated residents to actively participate. This has given us confidence and a sense of purpose. We hope in future too the village works in unity to protect our valuable water sources and forests for our future generations, ” said Jandei Majhi.

Saplings being raised in the nursery by the women.

Photograph by Santosh Kumar Rout

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bidyutprava Praharaj, Thematic Coordinator, collected the data for the story. Ganesh Chakravarthi edited the story.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chandrika Patnaik leads content production within the Communications team in Gram Vikas.

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