Umri Village, Jhabua: Jogria Parmal, a tribal farmer has just finished ploughing his 4ha farm. Standing under the blistering sun with his wife Rasli, he is now looking forward to the country’s annual tryst with the monsoons.
If the meteorological department’s prediction holds true, then it would mean that their village becomes part of the highly successful 15-year-old watershed development programme that has radically transformed Jhabua district, located in the western corner of Madhya Pradesh and once classified as backward and chronically drought prone.
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The water means a second crop for the couple—in the kharif (summer) season. Money from that will boost the family’s earnings and help the Parmals join so-called self-help groups (SHGs) that have sprung up in other parts of the district. And that, in turn, will mean that they do not have to look to local money lenders for their credit needs.
The Rajiv Gandhi Mission on Watershed Development was launched in 1994. It focused on decentralized management of water resources, people-based solutions, and the prudent use of natural resources and the environment. In Umri village in the district, the scheme covers 500ha. The government spends Rs6,000 per hectare.
Hopeful: Jogria Parmal and wife Rasli (to his right) with other family members in their field in Umri village. The Parmals say the water conservation project has helped them to go for double crop this summer. Liz Mathew / Mint
“Jhabua shows that if people’s participation is brought into the governance, it can do wonders,” said an official who worked closely with the programme which is now part of the Union government’s ambitious Hariyali project. He didn’t want to be identified.
According to the data provided by officials at Jhabua district’s administrative headquarters, between 2000-01 and 2007-08, at least 115,305ha in the district have been covered under the programme and another 44,197ha will be added by 2012. And according to the Bhopal-based National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment, forest cover, which had shrunk from 33.3% in 1964-65 to 4.9% by 1993, has increased dramatically ever since the programme was launched. The National Forest Survey 2005, shows that now 12.33% of Jhabua’s 6,778 sq. km area is under forests.
According to Jhabua district collector Jagdish Sharma, the work done under the scheme laid the foundation for the progress of the district.
“It has been very beneficial. We have created many water bodies last year under NREGA (the Union government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). But unfortunately we did not have good rain last year. But when the rain comes, these will act as foundation for a bright future,” Sharma said.
These water tanks store rainwater, which would have otherwise been wasted.
The result is a silent revolution, according to a government officer. “Water scarcity has been troubling them (the people of Jhabua) for quite some time because of the repeated occurrence of drought. In fact, more than 50% of the able-bodied members used to migrate under distress from here. That has come down since the project started showing results,” said Neeraj Laad, project officer.
Laad and his colleagues Kamji Bhagora and Ekta Waghe travel to villages, inhabited mostly by tribals, to explain the benefits of the programme.
In Umri village, apart from helping familiarize villagers with means to prevent soil erosion, loss of moisture in the soil and so-called water recharge activities, they also work on increasing the green cover in the area.
Afforestation begins on small hillsides with the planting of neem, custard apple and mango trees at the top to prevent soil erosion; then jatropha (the plant from which bio diesel is derived) is planted on the hillsides, while the land at the base of the hill is ploughed and prepared for growing crops, including wheat, corn, soya beans and groundnuts. It also includes activities such as contour bunding to prevent flooding, boulder checks to reduce soil erosion, and check dams/farm ponds to help harvest rainwater run-off.
The change is apparent: Most of the land on both sides of the Indore-Ahmedabad highway in Jhabua is ploughed and ready for the planting of kharif crops. A few years ago, it was barren.
The success of the programme has also triggered some social change: the declining dependence on local moneylenders. It has also coincided with the growth of SHGs that empower women economically and socially.
Since 1999, as many as 8,108 SHGs have been formed in the district; of which close to 4,000 are still around.
It is estimated by the zilla parishad, or district level office, that about 7,295 below poverty line families have benefited from the economic intervention of SHGs. In 2009 so far, 340 women-only SHGs have been formed in the district.
Sakku, the mother of four, runs a small farm raising Kadaknath chicken, a bird that provides black meat that is raised only in Jhabua, through the help of an SHG. “She has even opened a grocery shop with that (help from the SHG),” S.C. Lalwani, assistant project officer in charge of SHGs in the district said.