Greater water security, more jobs, lesser outmigration: what villages in Odisha and West Bengal have got from MGNREGA, finds Down To Earth survey
“By putting water conservation at its core, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is transforming India’s rural landscape and changing the lives of the country’s poor – our new nation-wide survey has found. What better way to mark the World Water Day than by celebrating this unheralded success story of rural India’s water warriors, our Jal Yodhas?” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and editor of the fortnightly, Down To Earth, here today, inaugurating a webinar.
The webinar featured the highlights of the report on villages that have made the transformation from drought to prosperity. It brought together the Jal Yodhas – the representatives of the villages who have made this possible. “Fourteen reporters of Down To Earth have travelled across the length and breadth of the country at a time when a pandemic was raging, reporting on what this Act has meant for India’s rural hinterland. They have covered 16 villages in 15 districts of as many states, and brought back incredible stories from the ground,” says Down To Earth managing editor Richard Mahapatra.
Villages in two districts from India’s eastern states were visited by the reporters. They include Bhuanpanda and Mandekhela in Balangir district (Odisha); and Birbandh and Kawatanga in Bankura district (West Bengal).
What did Down To Earth find?
Bhuanpada and Mandekhela: In villages like Bhuanpada and Mandekhela in Balangir district of Odisha, residents are intelligently reaping the twin benefits of employment available due to MGNREGA and improved agricultural production due to water-focused works under the programme. This has made it financially viable for marginal farmers to stay in their villages – no mean feat in a state infamous for large-scale distress migration (six of the 20 blocks declared migrant-prone in the state are in Balangir). Pushpanjali Kumbhar, sarpanch of Mandekhela, says, “As many as 3,122 workers who used to migrate for work on a regular basis are registered under MGNREGA. They need to find work nearer home and we implement projects keeping them in mind.”
Birbandh: Birbandh and Kawatanga villages, located in the arid Bankura district of West Bengal, started managing their watershed areas under MGNREGA in 2017-18. Today, the villages, prone to distress migration, have improved groundwater levels significantly, which has allowed them to cultivate two crops in a year. The conservation efforts are led by women. “When we started the water retention project, many men in the village ridiculed us,” says Shefali Mandi, a local woman in her thirties. “Now, I have gifted a chhobiwala (with a camera) mobile to my husband,” she claims proudly.
Mahapatra says finding the villages which had successfully executed MGNREGA was difficult as no records are kept of the sustainability of the works that have been undertaken under this programme. “The government only keeps a record of the ‘number’ of works done, and of whether they have been completed. But what is not known is if the structure built under MGNREGA has improved the water security of the village, or has contributed, as it should, to livelihood improvements. This is what our Down To Earth reporters wanted to find out,” says Mahapatra.
As per government records, since 2006 more than 30 million water conservation-related ecological assets have been created; this totals to some 50 water structures in every village of India. Calculations show that these structures have potentially conserved roughly 29,000 million cubic meters of water in this period and have the potential to irrigate some 19 million hectares.
Narain says: “Water is a determinant of our present and future. With climate change we will see more rain and more heat and in this the management of water will be our make or break. Water security is also crucial for livelihood security. It builds resilience and the ability to cope with weather adversities. The MGNREGA is the world’s largest social security and climate risk management programme.”
Reported by Ms. Pratyusha Mukherjee, a Senior Journalist working for BBC and other media outlets, also a special contributor to IBG News. In her illustrated career she has covered many major events and achieved International Media Award for reporting.