130 India – A Dream Called Water: Ankita Shelke

16 May 2024

(ANS – Ahmednagar) – For most people, dreams involve aspirations of wealth, success, freedom or luxury. But what of the hinterlands of Maharashtra, where for generations villagers wake up to a new day aspiring for the most basic singular to existence itself - water?

As the summer sun bakes the parched earth, Bhamabai, a 53-year-old who lives in a mountainous village in Ahmednagar, sets out on an odyssey now cruelly familiar to her weathered feet. She walks and walks to a solitary hand pump still clinging to muddy traces of life-giving water five kilometres downhill, across a landscape crusted with the despair of drought.

When she finally reaches the hand pump, Bhamabai pumps with calloused hands to secure a few precious litres in her steel pots. She’ll need to make the treacherous return journey back home. “My age is catching up, and so is my sickness,” Bhamabai whispers, squinting towards her tin house in the shimmering distance. “I dream of the day when we can turn a tap and quench our thirst."

Bhamabai’s dream echoes across the drought’s unforgiving grip on the Ahmednagar and Beed districts of Maharashtra. Thousands of villagers share desperate hopes of rehydrating their parched farms, reviving malnourished cattle, and having enough water to truly live and not just survive. But year after year, their dreams evaporate into the cracked earth.

This is the bleak reality across generations in this rain-shadow region where the most basic gift from the heavens has become these villagers’ cruellest deficiency. “The rainy season lasted for a very few days this year. The duration of monsoon just keeps decreasing every year,” says Vishwanath Palve, an 83-year-old elder. “Now only God knows how our next generations are going to survive in such situations,” he says, weakly smiling at the ground.

Many local leaders neglect the water crisis, except during election times. They make big promises of regular water supply to get votes. However, very often, once they are elected, they conveniently forget their promises.

Into this harrowing landscape, a humanitarian force has emerged with an equally relentless dream. Bosco Gramin Vikas Kendra (BGVK) has worked for over three decades across Maharashtra’s most marginalised communities striving to holistically uplift lives through sustainable development and self-reliance. As far back as the late 1980s, BGVK recognized that true holistic progress cannot happen without water security.

"Our pioneers especially Br Alex Gonsalves, realised the futility of farmer training, livelihood programs or any other initiative without first addressing water scarcity at the grassroots level," explains BGVK director, Fr George D’Abreo. “So watershed development became the foundation to revive drought-hit villages.” “Tavha bandhare bandhale, mhanun aaj bore la paani lagatay. (Because the watershed bunds were constructed back then, we get water from our borewells today),” says a villager from Beed.

Since its inception, BGVK has facilitated integrated watershed projects in 27 villages across the state, recharging aquifers and breathing new life into over 47 villages. Pioneering interventions like check dams, farm ponds and soil conservation methods created decentralized drought-proofing models and have impacted more than 15000 families.

However, the past few years of below-average rainfall put even resilient the watershed regions under extreme stress. With no contingency plan to tackle such a prolonged dry spell, many villages slipped back into the dark ages of water insecurity. And now BGVK has witnessed visions of progress withering amid the drought’s chokehold in Ahmednagar and its surrounding regions.

Their integrated approach begins with quenching that most fundamental need and lost dream - access to clean drinking water for survival in the scorching summer. Hence, Water Campaign was initiated with a mission to replenish empty household tanks. Over 1.6 million litres of potable water has been distributed to over 14 villages as of 9 May 2024. with a mission to replenish empty household tanks, quench the thirst of families, and sustain the fragile thread of hope that tomorrow the rains may finally return.

“My grandchildren crowd around the tanker with pure joy and wonder. To them, and all of us, that’s what clean water feels like these days - a miracle,” says Parubai Rathod, a migrant tribal settled in Ahmednagar. For many villagers, BGVK’s water truck arrivals are no less than dreamlike mirages transforming into reality. An opportunity to fill their pots at their doorstep.

Yet BGVK’s campaign is just the beginning of an uphill battle to turn the tides on this region’s recurring calamity. More tankers, more villages, and more funding are needed to sustain a vision shared by all those who’ve witnessed humanity’s dream shatter year after year by the forces of nature. But is nature the only culprit here?

While the harsh drought is punishing, human actions have worsened the situation. For many years, too much groundwater has been taken out while little planning went into preserving it. Rapid industrialization and deforestation have also taken a heavy toll on water sources. Poor farming methods and excessive irrigation lead to wastage of water. Reckless use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides makes the soil lose its water-holding capacity. Barely any rainwater seeps down the earth to become groundwater. “Organic and sustainable farming are very crucial for water conservation. Hence, we help these farmers implement it so that the groundwater level increases and their future generations don’t face the same problem,” says Dattatrey Gaikwad, a senior staff at BGVK.

BGVK’s efforts have become a beacon of hope, empowering villagers with tools and knowledge for effective water management and sustainable farming practices. “Our dream is to make clean water sustainable and permanently accessible across every village,” declares Fr D’Abreo. “From fulfilling these emergency needs to empowering communities for the long-term through watershed management.” The impact of watersheds transcends water self-sufficiency. “As groundwater tables rise, incomes and quality of life improve through diversified livelihoods like horticulture, dairy, poultry and beyond. This vision of drought-proofed prosperity is what BGVK hopes to see across every last vulnerable village,” adds Fr D’Abreo.

As blazing days stretch endlessly towards another monsoon season, the race to sustain hope burns brighter. Every effort to conserve and supply water by BGVK reaffirms that water isn’t just a resource, but the very dream at the core of human existence and dignity. Without this, all other dreams of progress and development cannot take shape.