RC Omerga conserves water in drought-prone Marathwada

PDG Rajiv Pradhan (seventh from L), and to his right: PDG Deepak and Sucheta Pophale, and RC Omerga’s PP Sanjay Aswale with Rotarians and farmers at a desilted stream.
PDG Rajiv Pradhan (seventh from L), and to his right: PDG Deepak and Sucheta Pophale, and RC Omerga’s PP Sanjay Aswale with Rotarians and farmers at a desilted stream.

The clouds are hovering in the sky and there is an intermittent light drizzle as we drive from Solapur in ­Maharashtra to the little town of Omerga, where Deepak Pophale, when he was the ­District ­Governor of RI District 3132 during 2015–16, has ushered in a ­mini-revolution of sorts in water management.

Accompanied by Pophale, who is a member of RC Omerga, other Rotarians from the club and PDG Rajiv Pradhan from the same district, we set out to see the clutch of water conservation projects this club has done in this perennially drought-affected region. It is mid-July, and while Mumbai and Pune have been battered by copious monsoon rains, there is apprehension of a deficient monsoon once again in this Marathwada belt.

Now people here are saying that only if Rotarians are going to manage the finance, we will donate, otherwise we will stay away.
Nitin Hole, past president, RC Omerga

After a quick look at the village Rotary Nagar, in Salegaon, that Indian Rotarians had built from scratch, following the devastating earthquake of 1993 in Latur and Osmanabad, where the neatly built houses stand testimony to Rotary’s community service, we halt at two villages Balsur and Kardora to look at the hard work members of RC Omerga and other clubs in the district have done under Pophale’s leadership, which continues after his year as DG ended in 2016.

Interacting with a group of farmers and Rotarians who have assembled at a dry water stream, where the flattened earth has been scooped out through an excavator and the waterbody has been deepened, I ask the farmers what is their biggest problem.

Paani”, comes the answer in a chorus. At this monosyllable answer, the Rotarians start smiling. Not because they enjoy the farmers’ distress but because they have been working so hard, under the leadership of PDG Pophale, for the last couple of years to reach water to the parched villages around their city of Omerga and beyond.

 

Distressed farmers

So is it worthwhile for a farmer in India to grow crops today? For the money they put into the soil what kind of returns do they get? Govind Devani, a retired teacher who is also a farmer, responds grimly: “The simple answer is no. We don’t even get our capital back madam,” he says, shaking his head.

Then why will the farmer continue to grow crops?

“Nahi karenga, chhod denga (he will give up farming),” he says with conviction.

As PDG Pophale briefs me about the continuing migration of farmers from villages to cities, to do menial jobs, another farmer, Arun Patil, says, “Our problem is that in this region, there is rain for one year, and drought for three.” Chips in a third farmer, “Actually rain for one year and drought for 10!”

The Balsur River.
The Balsur River.

Arun Patil has five acres of land and like many other farmers here, now that the water conservation work by the Rotarians has succeeded in giving them some water, grown soyabean, which is mostly sent out through the Latur market, and wheat when there is more water available.

Do they get credit from the banks? No, is the unsurprising answer. “The banks like to lend only to industrialists who scoot with the money,” he grins. In the absence of bank loans, they have to borrow only from the sahukar (money lender) at exorbitant interest rates — 60 per cent and above. “I had made that mistake and the sahukar swallowed half of my land,” rues Patil. And that half comes to a heart-breaking five acres!

 

The Genesis

Pophale recalls that in 2015–16, when he was the DG, “there was a severe drought in our district which got barely 20 per cent of the normal rainfall.
I decided to concentrate on water conservation, and from the district welfare fund I purchased an excavator or earth mover.”

This cost ₹25 lakh, and he made arrangements to buy an additional machine too. “Since then we have been working on water projects and till date about 80 km of streams, rivers and nullahs, that had become flat and filled with land/soil/silt have been deepened and rejuvenated.” The total amount spent — a whopping ₹6 crore; of which about a fourth is from government funds.

Any water storage body has to be curved to hold the water and allow it to percolate into the ground; that is how groundwater is recharged. But over the years, streams, nullahs and even small rivers become flat, with the result that water is not trapped and runs away, preventing percolation and groundwater recharge.

From L: PDGs Rajiv Pradhan, Deepak Pophale, RC Omerga President Vinod Devarkar and past president Nitin Hole.
From L: PDGs Rajiv Pradhan, Deepak Pophale, RC Omerga President Vinod Devarkar and past president Nitin Hole.

“In the last four years we have been desilting the earth from these waterbodies through small projects, making the streams, farm lakes and rivers not only deeper but also wider in those deepened trenches. Sometimes we put a bund or barrages on the nullahs and rivers,” says Pophale.

Around 110 such projects have been done by 42 clubs in RID 3132 in the last four years, benefitting over two lakh people. And the work continues till date. Later, as we visit the River Omerga that these Rotarians have revived four years ago and continues to have water, the PDG says, grinning,
“I am the biggest beneficiary of this project, and the groundwater in my house is recharged, thanks to our recharging this river.”

Says past president of RC Omerga, Sanjay Aswale, “If all the borewells in Omerga town have never dried up in the last four years, all the credit goes to PDG Deepak’s leadership. He is such a devoted Rotarian; a busy doctor, every weekend he is out in the field working on Rotary projects… last ­Saturday, for example, he was in Amravati on Rotary work.”

Aswale was president of the club in 2016–17 and during his year the club rejuvenated waterbodies in Kakalgaon.

 

Farmers benefit

Apart from water available to Omerga residents for domestic purposes, the farmers around this region have benefitted too.

The crops grown in this region, explains PDG Rajiv Pradhan, RID 3132, are oilseeds, wheat and jowar, with oilseeds being the most common. Adds Pophale, “Now that the farmers are self-dependent on water, they have been growing soyabean, toor dhal, etc.”

 

Building partnerships

The government of Maharshtra is helping them too. “In some places the government gives us funds. The Kalam River is a big river, and Rotary can’t do the work alone. The required amount was ₹86 lakh and we couldn’t raise such a huge sum. Our Rotarians from Kalam contacted the Commissioner and he sanctioned a large sum like ₹50 lakh just in a day.”

This is only testimony to the trust and goodwill this bunch of Rotarians have built up in both the government and the local community through their hard, persistent and sincere work. “Now people here are saying that only if Rotarians are going to manage the finance, we will donate, otherwise we will stay away. This is a big public image exercise for Rotary,” says Nitin Hole, past president of this club.

I am the biggest beneficiary of this project, and the groundwater in my house is recharged, thanks to our recharging this river.
PDG Deepak Pophale

In all, till now, a whopping sum of about ₹6 crore has been spent on conserving this precious natural resource by rejuvenating dried up, silted and choked waterbodies. “We have used one district grant of ₹15 lakh; there is no global grant involved, all the money was raised by Rotarians, the local community and some given from government funds. And clubs from District 3131 and 3141 have also given us money for this project,” says the past governor.

An admirable fallout of this project is that other clubs have also used the excavator for their water projects, and one of them is Pradhan’s own club, RC Solapur.

 

Rejuvenating wells in Solapur district

Jayesh Patel, president of this club in 2017–18, took on water conservation work on a war footing in the drought hit region. PDG Pradhan recalled that they borrowed the excavator from Pophale, and raised the money to deepen 75 wells in a village called Harali. “District 3131 helped us; RC Pune Laxmi Road President for that year Sunita Shirguppi approached me saying she wanted to do a project in Solapur, and Jayesh Patel took the lead and we deepened about 75 wells.”

PP Sanjay Aswale (centre), along with members of RC Omerga, at work.
PP Sanjay Aswale (centre), along with members of RC Omerga, at work.

Says Patel, who worked with a lot of passion and dedication towards the water conservation project in Harali, Tomba, Uddatpur and other nearby villages in Solapur and its surroundings, “We identified 54 wells in the area which had gone totally dry, marked stretches of three-metre land that were on a slope, scooped out the earth, and when it rained, the rain water was trapped in these trenches and naturally flowed into the wells. An additional 75 wells were deepened too; and till today there is water in those wells, even when the monsoon is deficient. The people and farmers in 12 villages benefitted from this work.”

He thanks RC Pune Laxmi Road and its then president Sunita for their monetary support in this project.

 

Balsur river

We go to Balsur, about 80 km from Solapur. This is also an earthquake affected area; the 2.76 km-long Balsur River has been deepened and desilted and soon filled up with water (see picture). Similarly, several streams and nullahs have been cleared up, desilted and deepened. The monsoon rain fills up these water bodies, benefitting the farmers and others in these villages. Some of the streams dry up and get flattened again; but this group of dedicated Rotarians never tire of clearing them up for the next monsoon.

Looking at the work the Rotarians have been doing, money keeps coming in; the father of another Rotarian from RC Pune Gandhi Bhavan has donated $30,000 to TRF “and this money is in the pipeline for our water conservation project,” says Pophale.

In different villages the Rotarians work with different local groups and also the Art of Living Foundation.

But it is a herculean task to make a significant contribution to improve the lot of farmers in Marathwada, from where suicides have been often reported. As Pophale says, five acres of land in this region cannot be compared to the same extent of land in western Maharashtra. Elaborates Rajiv Pradhan, “In western Maharasthra, if a farmer has five acres of land, he can grow sugarcane which is a cash crop, because there is water available there. Also, there people do agri-related side business and get some income.”

Rotarians of RCs Pune Laxmi Road and Solapur at a project site in Solapur.
Rotarians of RCs Pune Laxmi Road and Solapur at a project site in Solapur.

This “side business” is related to keeping cows, buffaloes, which give dairy products. Pophale adds that here too the club has launched a goat bank project. In this they give a goat to a woman, who nurtures it; and “when the goat gets two babies, she has to return one to us, so we can give it to another woman, and the scheme continues.”

The farmers I meet are grateful to Rotary “which has helped us a lot. Apart from getting water when they deepened the stream, I also got fertile black soil from the land excavated, and I spread it on my farm and improved my crop,” smiles Arun Patil.

Adds Sanjay Aswale, “He had mostly barren land, which normally gave him little return. But after this soil, so rich in nutrients, went into his land, he grew vegetables such as cucumber, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, chilli, getting a crop every 2–3 months and got a bumper profit!”

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