Gopipur village (Manikpur block of Chitrakut district, U.P.) has no shortage of wells and handpumps – the only problem is that most of these do not provide any water to the thirsty people of Gopipur when they need this the most. It is the first week of May and Nathu Yadav says, “Already most of the wells in our village are dry and hand pumps yield at best a trickle. I shudder to think of the next two months.”

In these difficult times a well built around a small natural source of water (chauhra) has provided a big relief to the over 1500 people of this village. This well is located at a distance of about one and a half kms from the main settlement. A family which owns a bullock cart is able to fetch one drum of water in three hours. A family which needs three drums of water in one day needs the services of at least one adult (or two children), besides the bullocks, for nine hours a day just to meet the family’s water needs. The poorer families who don’t have bullock carts have to fetch water in pitchers and the entire family may have to get involved in fetching water.

Ram Lakhan says, “As the summer advances this well will come under a lot of pressure and as its water is reduced, people will have to wait till the natural source yields enough water to fill the next bucket.”

Clearly this well constructed by A.B. Samaj Seva Sansthan (ABSSS in short) a few years back has provided a last resort for villagers affected acutely by water scarcity. The experienced activists of ABSSS realised the potential of the small but perennial water source and erected a well around it. This helped to protect the source and also to collect its water so that villagers could use it better. At many other places similar ingenuity in improving the potential of small natural sources has enabled ABSSS activists to meet the needs of some of the most water scarce hamlets of Patha region.

Patha is a rocky, hilly part of Chitrakut district which has been in news all too often for its water starved villages and hamlets of Kol tribals. There has been no shortage of expensive water supply schemes but their success rate was too low. One reason was corruption. But perhaps an even more important reason for this failure was an ecological one. As long as forests in hills were being destroyed and water table was going down, the newly constructed hand pumps and wells could not prove very useful.

So ABSSS is now concentrating on water harvesting, afforestation, soil and water conservation as well as related work in Tikariya and Paatin water sheds. While the former work has already yielded encouraging results, the later, even more promising work is still in its early stage.

The Tikariya watershed work was taken up for the government (DRDA) by ABSSS during 1995-2000. In this watershed development old tanks were repaired and a series of new check dams was constructed. The rejuvenation of Pushkarni tank provides a good example of how cost-effective the restoration of traditional water sources can prove. Earlier the tank could not even fulfil the bathing needs of people and drinking water needs of animals during summer season. Now these needs are adequately fulfilled throughout the year and in addition irrigation needs of about a dozen farmers are met. It was a treat to see birds, animals and people together sharing the coolness of this tank in the scorching May afternoon. And such a change which benefited so many people and other forms of life cost only Rs. 85000, less than the construction of two rooms in a city.

A series of five check dams has been constructed in this watershed area, making it possible for hundreds of farmers to obtain irrigation for the first time and raise their yields substantially. It has also been possible to bring earlier uncultivated land under cultivation; overall farm production has increased very considerably.

No less important is the fact that due to the storage of water for a few months, the water table has gone up in surrounding areas. This process has been helped further by other soil and water conservation works including bunding, gully plugs and afforestation. As Dharampal says, “earlier we had to go to Dhonda village to fetch water, now some of our relatives in water-scarce areas want to come here during the summer.”

The promise of water harvesting is even higher in Paatin watershed area due to the presence of steep hills over a vast area. Raj Singh, project coordinator of ABSSS explains, “So far we have completed only 10 percent of the work, but already some good results are available in the form of higher moisture retention and improved farm productivity in some patches of land.”

The work has started on hills in the form of gully plugs, bunds and trenches. This will help to check the fast flow of water at several points so that the capacity of rainwater to rapidly take soil and stones with it with decrease. Water will remain in trenches for a longer time adding to the overall moisture and raising water table. Tree planting will be taken up after the first rains. This area is already rich in neem trees and demand for neem seeds for making eco-friendly pesticides and other products is increasing.

As Bhagwat, the young dynamic director of ABSSS explains,” Instead of deposing rubble and damaging the fields below, the gentle flow of water will help to raise water table and increase moisture. Apart from improving drinking water availability in many thirsty, water-scarce hamlets, this will also help to increase the prospects of agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and afforestation.” In this way the foundation for sustainable development is established, while the short-terms needs of villagers are met by employment in watershed development work.”

The work in Paatin water shed, supported by NABARD, has been so cost-effective that 64 gully-plugs could be erected using funds meant for 39 gully plugs. While at the same time the full payment of legal wage was ensured to all workers.

Infact such is the level of transparency maintained in this work that all workers receive a full record of the work done by them and the payment made for this. If they have any doubts, they can get these clarified even later on the basis of the records in their possession. Funds are handed over to the villagers’ own committees, and the payments are made by them.

It is this honesty and transparency that has raised a hope among Patha villagers that the results of these water harvesting and watershed development works will truly help to quench the thirst of the land and people of Patha. Paatin watershed (798 hectares) is being followed by the even bigger Ittwa watershed project (1394 hectares). If all goes well, a series of watershed development projects can truly change the face of Patha and its kol tribals known in mythology as the friends and followers of Lord Rama during his years of exile. (This report is based on a field visit in year 2004).