The Jal Shivar Campaign is a novel approach that may be the answer to Maharashtra’s never ending water woes, writes Keshav Upadhye
To put it simply, and contrary to what some may believe, Maharashtra is not greatly favoured by the rain god. Rain in the State is rare and irregular. When there is rainfall it often comes at an inopportune time. This is the sad but true picture of things.
The effects of this unreliable rainfall are there for all to see. Farmers, who rely on rain to cultivate their farms, are the worst hit. Over the past years, a grim picture has emerged. A picture that is a collage - of dry rivers, deepened but still dried up wells and bore wells, an ever increasing water scarcity in villages, consequent animal fodder shortage, dehydrated crops and an all-encompassing aridness. Farming became a loss-making venture and farmers turned to suicides. In the 15 years prior to the present BJP government coming to power Maharashtra, 10 farmers have committed suicide daily on an average. Over 60 thousand farmers have committed suicide during this period.
On the whole, these are grave times for agriculture in the country. As profits in farming dwindled, employment in this sector, throughout India saw a downslide. But the condition of farmers in Maharashtra has been even worse. Two years ago, while the rate of growth of agriculture in neighboring states went up, the growth rate in the State showed a negative, a decline.
This underscored the need for a different kind of thinking to be applied to solve fundamental problems of farmers in Maharashtra. Bold and innovative decision-making was crucial. Humans cannot influence the arbitrariness of nature but thought needs to go into how to get the maximum advantage out of whatever situation nature presents.
The situation in Maharashtra presents the ruling political system with a great challenge. The 15-year Congress-NCP regime saw a slew of announcements but this did not result in any irrigation for the farmers. As a result, the drought never really left the farmers’ lives. The Congress and NCP may have derived some satisfaction from the announcements of loan-waivers and packages, but they did not manage to solve the problems of either sustainable irrigation or farmers’ suicides. Maharashtra has witnessed, for quite a few years now, the announcements of big irrigation projects, then the delay in their execution, ultimately leading to scams.
Against this background, a different and effective experiment is being seen in Maharashtra in the form of the ‘Jalyukta Shivar (Farm With Water)’ campaign. To realize its utility, one must first take into consideration Maharashtra’s geography. As per the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, 44 per cent of land in the State will remain non-irrigated even when the irrigation capability of the state is utilized fully. 42 percent of the state’s area gets scant and irregular rain while 159 lakhs hectares of agricultural land lies in the ‘rain shadow’ region. Given these facts, drought seems to be an issue which will constantly plague Maharashtra.
Hence, the BJP leadership had to look for a solution that would provide a supply of water even when rainfall was irregular or unavailable. For this it decided not to follow the trodden path but search for a new approach which Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis made clear at the onset: ‘Every Drop More Crop.’ In other words, not a drop of rain should go to waste. And so, to make a permanent – instead of arbitrary – arrangement of water for villagers and to work at a time bound plan to actually remove drought from Maharashtra by 2019, the Jal Shivar Abhiyan was born.
In the past, before big irrigation projects became the norm, streams, ponds and wells in villages used to be the primary source of water. In the pursuance of large schemes, these resources were neglected and the water bodies were filled with the accumulation of silt. Thus, the rainwater, not having a place to accumulate began to flow away. Moreover, as large amount of water was simultaneously being pumped out of the ground, the groundwater levels went down.
If instead rainwater is soaked into the farmland and the groundwater level goes up, many problems can be addressed simultaneously. The water level in the wells and bores in the village can go up. The net effect can go a great way towards the effort of drought eradication.
Recognizing this, the digging and widening of streams, nullahs and ponds have begun in the villages. Efforts to remove sludge and bring the water sources back to their original form have begun. Bunds are being built at various places to be able to collect water. The government provided the finance for this effort but also an appeal was made to NGOs, the corporate sector and political parties to participate. At many places, the villagers themselves registered to participate. Today, at many places, nullahs that were previously filled up with silt have been dug up to five or six feet, till the original rock base.
As a result, five to six feet of water has begun to accumulate where hardly a foot of water was stored before. Whatever little rain Maharashtra received last year went on to not only prove the success of this scheme but also revealed added benefits. It was realized that when water accumulates in the streams and nullahs, it irrigates the soil for up to 1.5 kms on both sides of the water body.
As the people realized that the intention of this policy of the Fadnavis government was honest and sincere, demand for the Jal Shivar started to grow from village to village. Not only this, the farmers along the rivers, nullahs and streams started, on their own, offering their lands for the Jal Shivar.
Importantly, as large dams do not need to be built for the Jal Shivar, large tracts of land are not needed and so land acquisition hasn’t been an issue. But even the little land that is required to increase the width of water bodies has been offered by farmers themselves as they stand to benefit from the soil around the water body soaking up the water.
Besides this, the silt dug up from the water bodies enhances the fertility of the land it is spread out on. Earlier people used to ask for money to take this silt to their farms but now they are doing so without payment and on their own initiative.
Finally, here are the numbers from last year that stand testimony to the success of the Jalyukta Shivar campaign. The scheme runs currently in more than six thousand villages. During the last monsoons, 24 TMC of water was collected. This campaign proves that even something as arbitrary as nature can be used to the people’s advantage if there is governmental will. Rather than hollow announcements of welfare of farmers, the farming community needs sustainable irrigation. This government is trying to provide it. However, because the Jal Shivar is a scheme that has the potential to transform Maharashtra, the success of this novel experiment should be seen beyond political angles. A prosperous Maharashtra is not a slogan for this government but a determination.
Keshav Upadhye is a spokesperson of the Maharashtra BJP