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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Babita Rajput: Water warrior of Bundelkhand

Bundelkhand has become infamous for drought and perennial water stress. At such a time 19-year-old “Water Warrior” Babita Rajput and her “Jal Sahelis” (Friends of Water) have come together to revive the village ponds for water security in the Chhatarpur district of Bundelkhand region.

“For years, the residents of the village were suffering from a water crisis. While they had access to a 70-acre lake in the vicinity, the water body was dry. Moreover, the little rainwater the village received drained-off from the other side of a hill and merged with the Bachheri River,” said 19-year-old Babita Rajput, a resident of Agrotha.

Due to the lack of a catchment area in the village, the monsoon water used to run off into the forested hilly terrain instead of being collected in the village talaab (pond) spread over 70 acres. “We always thought about diverting the rainwater to one side of the hill and channelizing it to fill the talaab (pond). But the hill belonged to the forest department and digging even an inch of land is not permitted,” Babita said.

The women of the village would often have to walk long distances to fetch water in the scorching heat. Due to the scarcity of water, it becomes impossible for the women to do their household chores properly.

Babita, with the help of 200 women from the village dug a 107-meter long trench after getting the necessary permission from the Forest Department. Now, their seven months of laborious work have paid off. “Everyone knew that diverting water was the only solution to the never-ending crisis. But the Gram Panchayat did not take the necessary step towards it, citing legalities,” Babita said.

Another big challenge faced by “water warrior” Babita was the issue of land encroachment. “Some farmers had started using empty areas of the lake to farm and were using the limited water resource for their benefit. If rainwater filled the lake, they would lose the land. Hence, they opposed any possible development in this regard. The women constantly complained and demanded steps to solve the crisis. But the efforts were futile,” she says. “Children dropped out of school so they could travel long distances to fetch water in summer months. The farmers could not cultivate more than one crop, which adversely affected the income,” she added.

In mid-2018, Sri Sanjay Singh, founder of the NGO Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sanstha along with his team visited the village to resolve the problem in the drought-prone area.

“There was a deadlock among the women and the rest of the village, with the former desperately working for the crisis to be resolved. They were ready to take the necessary steps for it. Hence, 12 women came together to become Jal Sahelis (Friends of Water). The group was named Paani Panchayat. Babita spearheaded the movement,” said Shri Singh. According to Singh, initially, a few volunteers helped by digging three check dams along the mountain line in the summer of 2018 to gain the trust of the villagers.

“The efforts reaped benefits, as the water table within a 1-km radius was elevated and helped the villagers post-monsoon. However, we told them they would have to put in laborious work so the future projects could benefit all,” he added. The NGO also gave assurance to villagers to coordinate with the Forest Department and provide required technical support for digging.

Babita informed the Forest Department about the unbearable difficulties faced by the villagers on a regular basis. “We explained that water availability would help the wildlife in the area. The villagers also promised to assist the forest department in afforestation drives and other environmental conservation activities,” she added. The permissions were approved in late 2017 and work started in January 2018.

Sanjeev Jha, the then Divisional Forest Officer, said, “The concerns of the villagers seemed genuine and the solution would benefit the people at large. Hence, permissions were granted by the Joint Management Forest Committee (JFMC) on the grounds that villagers will contribute in forest conservation.”

initially many people were skeptical when the Parmarth staff urged the villagers to do something concrete about water security. Later, with the help of long discussions and meetings, the actual work started. “While the work started, the village residents did not have the confidence and trust that such efforts could bear results. Hence, about 20 women began the work initially. Due to social and cultural constraints, women are not allowed to step out of their homes. The farmers who encroached the land on the lake created a few hurdles. It hindered the initiative. But as the work progressed, more women joined, and eventually, the number of participants reached 200,” Babita said.

The women dug a 12-foot wide and 107-meter long trench, to cut the hill and make way for the rainwater to change its course. “We all worked through the peak summer heat and early monsoon as the work needed to be completed before the monsoons. Eventually, some men began contributing to speed up the work,” she added.

The instant effect after the monsoon was that the villagers managed to collect more water in the lake. “It rained less than normal in 2019, but regardless, the quantity of water in the lake had increased. About 40 acres of the lake can accommodate water. It will need more rain to fill the entire water body. However, our needs of water were met, as even the groundwater recharged in the process,” she said.

Besides these some 250 saplings have been planted in the forest area about two km away from the village. The work on the Agrotha pond has also been appreciated by the Forest Department, said Parmarth field staff Dhani Ram. The women are practicing organic farming in their backyards to earn additional income for the family. The groundwater recharge helps the soil to remain moist and manages to get second crops like mustard and peas.

In spite of receiving less rainfall in 2020 a farmer named Ramratan Rajput told, “Despite poor rain, I have been able to take up cultivation on the entire farm. Though we have not become self-sufficient in terms of water, the crisis has reduced drastically. Earlier the shortage of water began in the late winter months and extended until the monsoon. However, it has now been limited to summer months.” The villagers of that area are working to build check dams and recharge groundwater in the coming months.

The 19-year-old young activist, Babita Rajput began her journey in 2018 and led the movement from the front to ensure a peaceful life for 1,400 villagers in the drought-affected region of Bundelkhand. In her words “It is good to see that the lives of the villagers have improved.”

(Featured Image Source: The Better India)

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