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When Parched Villages Become Water-Sufficient

As water sources dry up, the menfolk of tribal villages in Palghar district’s Mokhada prepare to migrate. But not too far away, other villages that once also suffered from water scarcity have reversed the migration trend. 

Nidhi Jamwal

Residents of Ambepana village in Palghar pack their belongings in a vehicle as they prepare to migrate for work. Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story 

Mokhada (Palghar), Maharashtra: It’s a winter afternoon but the sun’s rays are harsh, signalling the advent of an early summer. Barefoot kids run squealing around a steel-grey Bolero parked under a tree on a dusty road in Ambepana village. Not too far away, a few women squat, deep in conversation and oblivious to the young man loading sacks into the vehicle. 


A tough year lies ahead for this tribal village in Palghar district’s Mokhada region. Fast running out of water, the fear of a drought looms large, and villagers have started to migrate to cities in hordes. It’s a yearly ritual for the menfolk, who live away from their families for nearly half the year to earn a little cash.    


The Bolero will transport about ten men from the village and will return to pick up more. “I am taking them to Ghoti to work as farm labourers,” said the driver of the vehicle as he strapped more sacks on the vehicle’s roof for the 50-to-60-kilometre drive to Ghoti in neighbouring Nashik district.


Maharashtra, the third largest state in the country, is already reeling under drought-like conditions. Several parts of the state have suffered years of sustained aridity and water scarcity, leading to crop failure and inevitable migration to cities. Several NGOs have been working in the state’s villages to combat water scarcity and reverse the migration trend.

Women on their way to fetch water from the village well pose for a picture in Mokhada taluka of Palghar district, India. Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

“No water means migration for the men. But for us women who have to stay back, it’s a curse,” snapped Kausheeli tai, wearily making her way to a dugwell on the outskirts of the village. The dugwell, about 20 to 22 feet deep, usually goes dry in March-April, after which the women have to trudge two kilometres to the Wagh river to fetch water. This year, they may have to do it earlier, as only two feet of water remain in the dugwell.


On January 21, the day The Migration Story visits the village, several women are at the dugwell, one of the two that are the only sources of water for the entire village of 120 families. “In another two weeks, it will go dry. Then we will have to walk to the river,” lamented Jamni Sakru Dakhne, who has to fetch water for the 20 members of her joint family. Jamni’s family rents a few acres of farmland every monsoon to grow paddy, but with no irrigational resources, the rabi (winter crop) season is an idle one. Jamni’s four sons then migrate for half the year to labour in big cities.


The frail septuagenarian Mahini Amruta Gaikwad narrates the ordeal of her son, who migrated to Trimbakeshwar last year to work as a labourer. “He slogged for three months but hasn’t received his payment of Rs 7,000,” she said. “The middleman who took him there has absconded.” 


Almost 90 percent of the men from Ambepana migrate, said Vinod Wajhe, a young villager. “After the two wells dry up, the government sends water in  tankers but that is not enough to meet our demands,” he pointed out. “Until the water problem of Ambepana is addressed, villagers will keep migrating and remain at the mercy of middlemen. And in a drought year, the exploitation increases manifold.”

Teenager Ashwani poses for a picture as she leaves for her daily chore to fetch water in Ambepana tribal village in Mokhada, Palghar district, India.Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

Manmade scarcity


What accounts for this acute water shortage in a district that is blessed with  heavy rainfall? “The tribal villages of Palghar are a classic example of the government’s misplaced priorities,” said Rahul Tiwrekar, founder-director of Diganta Swaraj Foundation, a non-profit that works to address water scarcity and help provide farm-based livelihoods in Palghar’s tribal villages. “The large dams constructed in Palghar supply water to Mumbai but the villages remain parched. This is the story of almost all the villages in the tribal district.” 


An official in the state government asked The Migration Story to refer to the government’s Jal Jeevan Mission data to corroborate the abysmal water connectivity in Palghar. Only 54 percent of households in the district have a functional tap water connection, a statistic that is way lower than Maharashtra’s 84 percent and the country’s 74 percent. The official, however, preferred not to comment himself. 


The government’s misplaced priorities apart, there is also the fact of its indifference to specificities. “Mokhada alone has 3,000 check dams (bunds) built by various government agencies, including those under the Jalyukta Shivar which aimed to drought-proof Maharashtra by 2019,” said Tiwrekar. “But the construction of these structures is inappropriate.”

Women use containers to fetch water from a drying well in Ambepana village in Mokhada taluka of Palghar district, India. Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

The activist explained that although the state has six agro-climatic zones with different soil and rock structures, the same norms of constructing cement-nullah-bunds are followed throughout. “Mokhada, for instance, like the neighbouring Jawhar area, is in hilly terrain lined with basalt, which does not allow water to seep into the ground,” he said. “A check dam that is suitable for, say, Nagpur will not work in Mokhada. But government agencies don’t make these distinctions.”


Tiwrekar’s non-profit has built 50 modified check dams and set up 66 solar lift irrigation systems with the shramdaan or participation of local communities. Through its donors and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partners, it claims to have brought 500 acres of land in Palghar under irrigation. “There are villages in Mokhada where we have constructed bunds on rivulets to harvest water. This allows farmers to grow three crops a year and has stopped distress migration,” said Shraddha Shringarpure, CEO of Diganta Swaraj Foundation.


The transformation is visible in Baldhapada and Adgaon villages, a mere 25 kilometres from water-scarce Ambepana. Rabi farming, which was unthinkable a couple of years ago, now happens here.

Farmers pose in front of a solar panel in Baldhapada village in Palghar, where a solar lift irrigation project has revived farms and checked migration to cities.Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

Water management arrests migration


It is the rabi season and the fields of Baldhapada (80 families) and the adjoining Adgaon (130 families) are lush-green with mustard, wheat, groundnut and black gram crops. Despite a shortage of water in the surrounding villages, farmers here can be seen irrigating their lands. 


“In 2015-16, we held meetings with local villagers before setting up solar lift irrigation systems in both villages,” said Dileep Bhau of Diganta Swaraj Foundation. “The 10-kilowatt systems with a 7.5-horsepower pump lift water from a nearby river and supply it to farmers through an underground pipeline. The projects were done under CSR, so the farmers didn’t have to pay anything upfront. But they have to take care of the irrigation systems’ maintenance and ensure their daily functioning.”


To this end, farmers’ committees have been set up in both Baldhapada and Adgaon. “Every month we contribute Rs 50 each and use the money if any problem arises,” said Parshuram Shivram Gavit from Baldhapada. “For instance, a cable of our lift irrigation system was stolen. We collected Rs 7,000 on our own and replaced it.”


Thanks to the solar lift irrigation systems, many villagers have stopped migrating in search of work. They now cultivate three crops in a year—kharif, rabi and summer crops—and sell their harvest in the market. Some traders even come to these far-flung villages to collect the produce directly from the farmers.


“Until five years ago, my three sons and I would go to Nashik to work as construction labourers,” said Sakhubai Laxman Choudhury. “We stayed in shanties, breathed dust and never had enough food to eat. But now I cultivate paddy and ragi in the kharif season; corn, onion, groundnut and seasonal vegetables in the rabi season; and also plant an additional summer crop just before the monsoon.  We no longer have to go to the cities in search of work.” 

A farmer shows her lush wheat yield on her farm in Baldhapada, Palghar district, India. Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

It’s the same for all Baldhapada villagers, whether they own 13 acres of land like Parshuram Gavit or 1.5 acres like Hiraman Pakhane. “I used to leave the village post Diwali and return only when the monsoon arrived,” said Gavit. “Despite working for so many months in the city, I was able to bring home only Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. “Now in every season, I earn Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 in my village. Irrigation water has changed our lives.”


Pakhane, on his part, has not migrated for the last five years. “I grow wheat, chana, groundnut and methi in the rabi season. Right now my field is lush green,” he said with pride. “We are now thinking of getting some cattle and starting a dairy business for additional income.” The farmers are also planning to adopt drip irrigation to save water.


In Adgaon village, Bhaurav Shivram Choudhury owns 1.25 acres of farmland. “Right now, I have onion, wheat and garlic growing in my field,” he said. “Last year, I earned Rs 15,000 from my onion crop. The vyapari (trader) comes to our village to buy our groundnut harvest.”

A woman shows flowers of the Son Chafa plant in Dohrepada village in Jawhar taluka of Palghar district, India. Nidhi Jamwal/The Migration Story

The Scent of Success


In neighbouring Jawhar, bunds on a rivulet and a solar lift irrigation system have transformed Dohrepada village (72 families) into a beautiful vista of flowers. Son chafa (Michelia champaca) flowers worth lakhs of rupees are sent daily from here to Mumbai’s Dadar flower market. The village that once faced acute water scarcity has blossomed incredibly, with farmers earning between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 per day in the peak season from Diwali till January. 


Residents of Dohrepada say it is their young sarpanch, Vishnu Ramu Pawar, who transformed their village by introducing flower cultivation. “Initially we struggled, as flower cultivation requires water, and in our village all water sources dry up by February-March,” said Pawar. “But after the construction of the bunds and the solar irrigation project, we could take up floriculture in a big way.” Villagers also grow jasmine and roses using drip irrigation.


Water being the elixir of life may be a cliché. But nothing illustrates it better than the dividing line between Ambepana and Baldhapada-Adgaon- Dohrepada and their differing fortunes.


Edited by Radha Rajadhyaksha

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based journalist. She reports on environment, climate, and rural issues.


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