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Small water conservation schemes stand out amidst 'unviable' mega Ken-Betwa project

By Bharat Dogra* 

People of Markhera village had been facing increasing difficulties due to water shortages. Water table was declining and water level in wells was going down too. Hand pumps were often reduced to just a trickle. As women here bear most water related responsibilities, their drudgery in fetching water from more distant places increased. Many of them had back ache from drawing water which was too low down in wells.
The situation in this village of Tikamgarh district (Madhya Pradesh) had been better when the government had constructed check dams on the Chandokha nullah which flows near the village. 
However, with the passage of time there was wear and tear and the not-so-good construction work started breaking sooner than expected. Now its capacity for quenching the thirst of villagers was almost gone as rainwater flowed away in a rapid torrent without the possibility of being conserved for dry month use.
It is in this condition that a social activist named Mangal Singh contacted villagers. He told them that the organization he belonged to (Srijan) had a programme of digging saucer shaped structures in water courses or seasonal nullahs so that some of the rain water would remain in them for a much longer time for the dry season. As this is exactly what the villagers needed, they agreed readily.
When this work was taken up, villagers could also take the silt that was taken out and they carried it away for bund construction in their fields. The main benefit from the conservation of water in the newly constructed structures, called dohas, started being visible all too soon. 
Soon the demand for more dohas upstream and downstream came up. These benefited more and more farmers including those in neighbouring villages.
While this work was being taken up the activists developed a closer relationship with the community and together they reached an understanding that to get fuller benefits, the broken structures, like check dam gates, also needed to be repaired. 
Here again the initial results were so encouraging, with substantial benefits of increased water availability resulting from an expenditure of just Rs 20,000 at one repair site, that there were demands for repairing other structures upstream and downstream of this. When this work was also completed, the water scene of the village changed from one of acute scarcity to abundance.
As this writer was told by several villagers at the time of a visit in early January, many more farmers are now able to irrigate their farms properly and crop yield has increased for several of them by about 50% or so. Some of them are able to take an additional crop as well. The water level in wells and hand-pumps has risen so that drinking water too can be obtained more easily. 
Women do not have to spend much time in getting essential supplies of water, nor do they have to take up very tiring work. It has even been possible to obtain the water needed for creating a beautiful forest, not far from the water course and the main repair work site, which in turn would also contribute to water conservation. 
As a young farmer Monu Yadav says, the benefits have been many-sided and far reaching. One of the less obvious but nevertheless important gains in fact relates to increased cooperation for tasks of common benefit. 
As the benefits of dohas would be lost after a few years if these are not cleaned and not maintained properly, groups of farmers have been formed with farmers closest to a doha being made collectively responsible for maintenance work.
Such water conservation work can be very cost effective. The entire work of repairs and pits at this place has cost just around Rs 4 lakh or so while many-sided and durable benefits have spread to several villages. 
In fact, in its entire planning for water conservation work Srijan has identified such work relating to doha pits as well as repair and renovation of already existing structures. Nearly 460 dohas have been dug in five districts under this programme. 
In neighboring Niwari district, the experience of dohas dug in Gulenda village nullah has been particularly encouraging. Apart from more routine crops, here cultivation of flowers too has benefited from improved irrigation facilities.
In Bundelkhand region, Ken-Betwa Link Project involves axing 23 lakh trees and its viability has been seriously questioned
Another benefit of such small scale water conservation works is that in such cases the prospects of involving the community in planning and implementation and benefitting from their tremendous knowledge of local conditions are immense and therefore such small water conservation schemes are invariably more creative and successful compared to big, costly, centralized ones.
Keeping in view the enormous potential of improving water availability from these and other small-scale schemes, clearly it would be advisable for official policy to give more attention to such schemes instead of blowing up most resources on mega projects of highly suspect value. 
In the same Bundelkhand region, the Ken-Betwa Link Project, for example, involves the axing of 23 lakh trees and its viability has been seriously questioned by several eminent experts for other reasons too (for example non-availability of adequate water in Ken river for transfer to Betwa river). 
Despite this a sum of Rs 44,604 crore has been pledged for this project over the next 8 years. A shift to small water conservation works should be a national priority, and this is all the more important for Bundelkhand region.
A farmer scientist of Bundelkhand, Mangal Singh, has come up with the invention of Mangal Turbine which can lift water without diesel or electricity and as stated in official reports (for example the Maithani Report prepared at the directions of the Rural Development Ministry), its spread can be very useful over a wide part of the country but all the more so in Bundelkhand. 
Its ability to cut down massively on diesel consumption makes it very useful not just for reducing costs of farmers but in addition also for reducing GHG emissions. Such inventions which bring out the creativity of local people in terms of finding solutions to their problems should be encouraged.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food', ‘Planet in Peril’ and ‘A Day in 2071’. This is the fifth article of the series on sustainable farming

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