“By putting water conservation at its core, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has the power to transform 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 which featured the highlights of the report on villages that have made the transformation from drought to prosperity. The webinar brought together the Jal Yodhas – the representatives of the villages who have made this possible.
Down To Earth and CSE had organised the webinar to release their findings of a country-wide survey of the impacts of MGNREGA after 15 years of its implementation. “Fourteen reporters of Down To Earth have travelled across the length and breadth of the country at a time when a pandemic was raging. 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.
He adds that 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.
“But harnessing the potential of these water structures requires that it is well planned and durable. In this way, it is not about distress employment during drought; but it will use the employment for relief against drought,” says Narain.
The districts that the magazine has covered include the following: Ananthapuramu (Andhra Pradesh), Jalaun (Uttar Pradesh), Tikamgarh and Sidhi (Madhya Pradesh), Balangir (Odisha), Pakur (Jharkhand), Bankura (West Bengal), Kaimur (Bihar), Jalna (Maharashtra), Palakkad (Kerala), Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu), Dungarpur (Rajasthan), Sirsa (Haryana), Chitradurga (Karnataka), Ranga Reddy (Telangana) and Sabarkantha (Gujarat).
The ground reports have brought back stories of how water conservation has changed the very face of the village and its development. Says the Down To Earth story: “We visited Bandlapalli in Telangana’s Ananthapuramu district, the village from where MGNREGA was launched in February 2006 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Distress migration has stopped there and the village is drought-proof now. In Barmani village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district – we had visited this village 15 years ago when MGNREGA was just being rolled out – migrant labourers have come back to resume farming after implementing massive water conservation programmes.”
“In Kerala’s Pookkottukavu village, MGNREGA has given birth to the country’s “largest group of trained women well diggers”. Such is the obsession with water conservation under the scheme that they have revived an entire river. Along with it, village after village has reaped a rich harvest in terms of increase in agricultural productivity and the resultant economic returns. In the perennially drought stricken Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and MP, there are villages that have used the programme to become water-surplus.”
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.”
Adds Mahapatra: “One of the big findings of the report is that villages have reaped economic and environmental benefits of water conservation works defying all odds. This has only been possible due to the persistence and diligence of the water warriors in India’s villages. Every panchayat is mandated to make a five-year plan to implement MGNREGA. Our investigations have found that these plans are zealously pursued. Construction of the structures is locally controlled and gives people a sense of ownership. Therefore, they reflect local needs.”
In its analysis, Down To Earth says “every pond and tank is a development instrument. MGNREGA has created millions of them. Thus, by any parameter, MGNREGA is also the country’s largest water conservation exercise. But, after 15 years, it is time we stopped counting the works in number. Government must now measure the potential harvested of these instruments. For this, it must turn its focus to track the impacts of water harvesting structures created in terms of impacts on local land and water resources. Our stories point at constant monitoring and maintenance of water works by communities so that they keep working. As government data shows half of water structures are either left unfinished or turn defunct after a few years due to lack of maintenance. This is a wasted opportunity.”
Narain gives a call to action: “For the moment, on this World Water Day 2021, let’s celebrate the good news – the potential of using water as an agent of change. It shows change is possible. It is thriving in these villages. It should become the lighthouse for others.”
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.