Barely a few minutes off the Ahmednagar-Pathardi highway and one sees the first signs of trouble. Little children, mostly girls, in groups of 2 or 3, carrying water on their heads.
Published on December 21, 2020 at 2:46 am
Updated on March 20, 2021 at 06:49 am
Women empowerment is integral to L&T’s ICDP.
L&T’s Integrated Community Development Programme is leading to stories of hope from a drought-stricken region
Despite it being widely known as a water-stressed area for decades, Pathardi received little to no institutional aid before L&T began its project in 2015
Barely a few minutes off the Ahmednagar-Pathardi highway and one sees the first signs of trouble. Little children, mostly girls, in groups of 2 or 3, carrying water on their heads. A few kilometres further inside Pathardi and another distressing visual – a group of women doing the day’s laundry by the side of a small pond. Drive around the tehsil for an hour and scenes like these start to feel normal, part of the milieu. A casual city slicker may even find such imagery charming, in a slice-of-the-rural-life sort of way.
However, there’s nothing remotely charming about women and children having to carry water on their heads. It’s a sad and ugly sight. A reality that shouldn’t be. For the residents of Pathardi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district though, it is about as real as it can get. The scarcity of water is a bitter and punishing truth that affects life in Pathardi in every way imaginable. From farmers not being able to grow crops in their fields to girls not being able to pursue education to youths having to migrate to cities in search of employment, lack of water has a very visible impact here.
The tehsil, one of the driest in Maharashtra, has 134 villages with a combined population of 27,211. The general climate of Pathardi is hot and dry, except during the south-west monsoon season. With an average rainfall of 566 mm during the season, it’s not as if Pathardi doesn’t get any rains. It’s the geology of the place which lets it down. Pathardi’s basaltic soil, reddish-brown in appearance, cannot hold water for long – it either percolates too quickly or gets washed away into the low lying areas nearby – leading to shortages post-monsoon.
Low-cost water conservation technologies are adopted under ICDP.
For the local population, dependent largely on agriculture, life is hard. Farmers rely mainly on kharif crops like paddy and nachani while a great many migrate to nearby cities to find temporary employment. The women and children left behind by the migrant farmers often have to shoulder the additional burden of the household such as caring for the livestock and looking after the fields. It adds to the drudgery of the womenfolk and affects children adversely, not just in terms of their education but general health as well.
It’s a depressing cycle impacting lives and putting precious futures in jeopardy. And at the root of it lies one problem – scarcity of water. Address it and many of the attendant challenges cease to exist. This is an idea that is at the core of an ambitious project currently being implemented by L&T’s CSR team across six villages in Pathardi.
L&T’s is an Integrated Community Development Programme (ICDP) directed towards improving the lives of villagers living in Khandgaon, Joharwadi, Dharwadi, Dongarwadi, Gitewadi and Damalwadi through watershed development. With the aid of NGO partner WOTR (Watershed Organisation Trust), the Company’s CSR team is helping implement measures that seek to conserve rainwater through low-cost techniques, treat degraded land and promote sustainable agricultural practices. Besides, the project also involves mainstreaming of women through skill training and rural entrepreneurship, and initiatives in the area of health and sanitation.
An effort contingent on people’s participation and ownership, for the project L&T is working hand-in-hand with the local community. The aim is as simple as it is profound – bringing prosperity to a largely neglected pocket and elevating the lives of those struggling on the fringes.
L&T’s presence at Pathardi is no accident. Far from it, it’s the outcome of an elaborate exercise of water-starved areas conducted at the conceptualisation stage. Despite it being widely known as a water-stressed area for decades, Pathardi received little to no institutional aid before L&T began its project in 2015. NGO partner WOTR mapped the tehsil and helped identify the six-village cluster for ICDP and it is WOTR’s reach in the local community combined with the technical expertise of L&T that the project has attained its success.
After receiving L&T Board’s approval for commencing its activities in Pathardi, the CSR team began implementing the programme first with a series of meetings and awareness campaigns for the villagers. Through these, they were familiarised with how watershed management could actually help address the challenge of water scarcity. Subject matter experts made farmers aware of various measures for soil and water conservation which could be undertaken to prevent soil degradation and ensure greater water availability. Workshops on treating degraded land, soil moisture conservation and micro-irrigation were conducted and farmers were presented with successful instances of how check dams, farm ponds, farm bunds and other such structures had altered the face of many dry and parched landscapes elsewhere. It was a long and arduous task convincing the locals but the project team’s persistence paid off in the end.
After the initial phase of evangelising the concept, work on building various types of structures began around May of 2015. The year saw the construction of check dams, water absorption trenches, farm bunds, loose boulder structures, stone gully plugs, earthen gully plugs etc. that help trap the rainwater and recharge the groundwater tables in the area.
What made this exercise unique is that all the construction work was done by the villagers themselves. By hiring only locals for the job, the programme not only offered employment opportunities to the villagers but also made them a stakeholder in the initiative. In the first year, some 115 odd villagers found work through various activities.
Farmers learn sustainable agriculture practices at a workshop.
Apart from the watershed development work, as part of ICDP’s other key agenda that of women’s empowerment, workshops and gatherings for women were organised at regular intervals. At these gatherings, they were made aware of how Self-Help Groups (SHGs) could help them grow more independently and improve their financial standing. They were encouraged to form collectives and explore entrepreneurial opportunities.
Difficult as it was, the project team incentivised this by putting up a small corpus from which the women could take petty loans and start their own business. A formal structure was put in place for issuing loans and repaying the money. Used as a revolving fund, the money loaned to the women does not cost an interest but simply has to be paid back in easy installments so that it could be lent to other members of the group.
An apex committee comprising two representatives from each SHG was convened. This committee called Samyukta Mahila Samitee is not only responsible for ensuring that the corpus funds are used judiciously but also orienting all the members to different entrepreneurial schemes. Choosing from trades like stitching and tailoring, operating a grain mill, goat rearing, poultry business, running small shops etc. the women could borrow funds to support their businesses.
Besides their economic welfare, the programme also focuses on women’s physical and emotional wellbeing and useful sessions on health and training on things like drudgery reduction in which participants are trained on the proper use of improved farm technologies have helped further popularise the ICDP among the locals.
Through soil and water conservation activities, the groundwater level has gone up across all the six villages and the activities last year (2018-19) resulted in 21,926 number of person-days as hundreds of villagers who participated in the activity were able to find employment and supplement their incomes.
The farm bund built around Subhash Jagdale’s field near his house in Khandgaon has transformed it completely. A well in the middle of his field, which would normally begin to dry up shortly after the rains, is still full even in mid-December. “The farm bund hasn’t allowed the well to dry up like it would before. Also, there’s plenty of moisture in the soil still,” he says smilingly. Jagdale is growing custard apple on his farm this year. Even an average harvest can fetch him an impressive sum for it in the market. To water his plants, some of which are already bearing fruit, he’s installed a drip irrigation system which draws water from the well.
Janardan Gore of Dharwadi shares a similar story. A farm pond dug up on his land through the ICDP’s intervention means that his well remains recharged for most of the year, allowing him to water his fields without having to worry about the rains. “Because of this work, water will be stored in the farm pond, slowly percolating my field. I no longer worry about the uncertain rains,” says Gore.
There are 140 farm ponds and 15 check dams built through ICDP intervention. In Dongarwadi which is situated at an elevation, WOTR has helped create different types of structures including water absorption trenches, continuous contour trenches and earthen gully plugs over a vast swath at the base of the hills. The structures help stanch the flow of rainwater and retain it for gradual percolation. The work has upped the groundwater tables at both Donagarwadi and Khandgoan.
WOTR has appointed Wasundhara Sevaks to liaise between programme coordinators and the village folks in each of the six villages. Paid for their time, they act as both messengers as well as facilitators for major initiatives. In all, there are 13 such Wasundhara Sevaks across the six villages. Kisan Gite, a resident of Dongarwadi, worked on the project as the Wasundhara Sevak and coordinated between WOTR and the villagers from Dongarwadi.
Constructing rainwater harvesting structures is merely one part of the story. Community mobilisation and capacity building efforts play an equally important role in L&T’s agenda. This is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the project so that the villagers can own and continue the work after L&T and WOTR move base. As part of the effort, training, linkage building workshops and cluster gatherings are organised for villagers at regular intervals. These activities, besides expediting implementation matters, help increase people’s participation. Then there are workshops on sustainable agriculture development where farmers are taught new farming techniques and low-cost practices covering seed treatment, insect and pest management, organic ways of farming such as making vermicompost etc. Besides bringing subject matter experts to educate the farmers, WOTR also takes villagers to farming schools as part of the exercise.
Kitchen gardens are encouraged under ICDP.
As for the women empowerment component of ICDP, trainings are organised for Samyukta Mahila Samitee. Additionally, at a training programme for adolescent girls, they were taught important life skills. There have also been talks on health and sanitation familiarising women and children with the virtues of good habits and basic hygiene.
Enabling women to generate income by turning them into entrepreneurs is one of the most effective ways of ensuring the sustainability of the effort and to that end the project is seeing plenty of success. Towards women’s development in 2018-19, the Samyukta Mahila Samitee has raised a revolving fund of Rs. 4.9 lakh for Income Generation Activities (IGA) besides Rs 7.4 lakh for social development or drudgery reduction activity. The activity has so far helped 49 women to start their own businesses.
The women have been encouraged to start their own kitchen gardens as part of the intervention. Thanks to the exercise, some 480 odd women currently part of various SHGs now have their own kitchen gardens.
It’s been nearly four years since L&T first began implementing the ambitious programme in Pathardi. While it may have taken some time to find acceptance among the villagers, the watershed initiative was firmly rooted in the ground within the first year. Once water sufficiency was achieved, only then other phases were taken up. The programme has several other interventions built-in around health and sanitation such as making clean drinking water available for school children and building sanitation facilities, wastewater management system, and avenue plantation. Work on sanitation, including the construction of toilets as well as awareness generation, was started after work on water sufficiency.
In Gitewadi, for instance, the primary school now has clean drinking water for its students. Additionally, the supply of clean drinking water to the village’s water tank has also been ensured through the initiative. At Joharwadi primary school, new washrooms were built so as to inculcate among the children’s sanitary habits. It has also been given a water tank for ensuring the supply of clean drinking water to the children. Across the project area, 52 individual household toilets have been constructed while 28 more are in progress.
L&T’s integrated community development programme features many such seemingly small yet important initiatives. Things that address problems at their most basic level. And it’s a truly community-based intervention, the success of which relies wholly on the participation of the local populace.