Free Press Journal

Maha Drought: Villagers dip into ‘potli’ to pay for river de-silting


Aurangabad :  In Mhatrewadi village, an hour’s drive from Aurangabad city, a group of men is in a huddle in the local Ganpati temple. Most of them are in their mid 30s and 40s. They are waiting for Suhas Ajgaonkar, an agro-economist attached to the Savtribai Phule Mahila Ekatma Samiti Mandal (SPMESM), Aurangabad.

Suhaas and SPMESM have been working in several villages in the area on improving water shed works, building bunds on the fields to prevent runaway flow in the rains, de-silting and deepening water channels in the local rivers and streams, erecting tiny earthen reservoirs to hold water and recharge ground water, building farm ponds with earthen walls, etc.

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Today Suhaas and his team will break a coconut on the new earth moving machine that has arrived to deepen the channel of the Bordi River, running through the village. The channel deepening and de-silting is expected to create a reservoir that can store up to a crore litres of water and recharge ground water by five times as much. In all, just this one tiny reservoir will create water reserves of six crore litres. There are eight such micro reservoirs being created in and around the area. To put it in perspective, an acre of sugar cane needs around two lakh litres of water daily. So that’s really not all that much water.

The good news though is that Mhatrewadi and villages around it are keen on moving away from water intensive cropping patterns while adopting water conservation methods, a double barrel approach that they hope will pay off dividends in the coming years. When drought struck for third year in row this year, some of the villages pooled funds and approached the SPMESM which was already working in the area for watershed works.

“We were pleasantly surprised when the villagers came to us with a potli full of cash asking us to help them construct watershed works without waiting for government assistance,” says Prasanna Patil, Director Resources at SPMESM. Adds Sandu Eknath Wagh of Mhatrewadi, “If we had waited for government help, we would still be waiting.”

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SPMESM is now working in eight villages around Mhatrewadi, deepening and de-silting waterways, constructing mud bunds, farm ponds, etc., with the villagers contributing around 30% of the cost and the rest coming from corporate contributors such as Praj Industries. At the neighbouring Padoli village, this year the villagers are contributing Rs 10,000 each to de-silt a river that was first de-silted in 2001.

The organisation has also been working with farmers to change the cropping patterns to less water intensive ones. Wagh, for instance, has moved away from growing cotton and wheat on his 0.5 hectare farm, to cotton supplemented by vegetables. “Now I get enough from the vegetables to run my household, while cotton generates the bulk of my annual income.” After the cotton is harvested, Wagh also manages a crop of unhaali jowar, or summer millet, for his domestic consumption. This year the summer crop will be missed on account of the water scarcity.

SPMESM has also roped in the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to help the farmers. The biggest issue faced by the farmers is the abysmally low rate of return on agriculture, says Sandeep Nagori, CII president for the Aurangabad region.  “Most of the money goes to the middleman, especially at the APMC mandis, the average farmer makes profit of 30,000-50,000 a year for his hard work. Most of us in the cities would walk from an enterprise like that,” says Nagori.

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CII is helping the farmers of Mhatrewadi to set up a cooperative that will clean grade and package the village produce and market it directly to the consumers. Mhatrewadi grows cotton, soyabean, maize, pulses as commercial crops that are sold to nearby industries.

“At the forefront of this move towards change is the younger generation. And the older ones support us fully,” says Bhagwan Mhatre, a 40-something cotton and maize farmer. Mhatre proudly points to the field that has been set aside for sorting exercise. “After the next harvest, this is the field where the sorting will take place under plastic tents. We have already leased it from the owner,” he says. To make movement between farms easy for transporting grains, the villagers have spent the lean drought months constructing motorable roads between the farms.

As the farmers of Mhatrewadi and its neighbourhood attempt to take charge of their own destiny, rather than wait for the government’s largesse, it seems appropriate that the company and the brand under which their products will be marketed, is called Bhudhan, or ‘Wealth of the land.’