The farmers of drought-stricken Darewadi village in Ahmednagar had given up. The rain gods hadn’t been kind, their homeland was on the verge of desertification, and the young had already left for the towns and big cities. The women had to walk four kilometres for water and the tired soil produced enough for only three months. But this was more than ten years ago.
Today, the hard earth has been renewed by that lifegiving agent of agricultural production, water. The fertile fields groan under the weight of bajra, onions, tomatoes, wheat and jowar. The women now merely walk from their huts to one of the five water tanks to fill their pots. All this because of an amazing community effort called WOTR.
The Watershed Organisation Trust was set up in 1994 to harvest rain water, by a German Jesuit, Hermann Bacher, and is now run by a Harvard-educated couple Crispino Lobo and Marcella D’Souza. They have introduced agrometrology, solar-heating systems, microfinance, livestock management and set up schools. Lobo, who wanted to become a missionary, was influenced by Fr Bacher, who called him to Darewadi. Husband and wife decided to work here because as Lobo says, “It was our calling.’’ With multiple degrees, the two could have landed fat-cat corporate jobs anywhere, but chose one of Maharashtra’s driest districts as their office.
Living in Darewadi is not easy. In the summer, even standing for a few minutes in the fields makes one dizzy. Naked trees stand tall on the hills and spotting a bird is a rarity. But the villagers are strong. Hamlets are far-flung and with very poor transport walking hours for a small errand is the norm.
Today their NGO supports 896 villages in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Awarded the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize at the World Water Forum in Istanbul this year, the couple’s efforts to carry out rain water harvesting in an inclusive, equitable, sustainable and gender-sensitive manner have been saluted internationally. The focus on involving marginal groups like shepherds, women, landless labourers and tribals won them 28,000 USD.
At every step, the villagers were taken on board. Sarpanch Chimaji Kondaji Avhad explains, “We were banned from allowing free grazing and then asked to give shramdaan.” The onion farmer recalls how many landless labourers didn’t want to help because they didn’t know what the benefits would be like. “When the results came in, we had water to drink and for irrigation too.’’ Today, unemployment isn’t a problem. In fact, Darewadi’s farmers now hire labourers from outside.