Maharashtra’s Chalisgaon taluka is one of the many drought-prone areas of the state. It’s privy to several bouts of water shortage, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of farmers. Drought conditions wreak havoc on the traditional crops that drive the local economy here, such as soya, pulses, maize, cotton, groundnut, and sweet pulses. This often results in farmer suicides.
But there might be hope left yet.
In the taluka’s Kalmadu village, computer engineer Gunvant Sonawane is trying to turn the tide in the favour of farmers. In the past few years, the Pune-based IT professional has helped 26 villages save crores of litres of water, which has benefitted 50,000 farmers.
Creating waves of ponds
“In 2012, I was working with Automatic Data Processing (ADP) India Pvt Ltd. when I joined a Pune-based Seva Sahyog, an NGO that works in the field of health, education and water conservation. I volunteered with the NGO for slum development by building libraries for children, as well as providing study material and computers in the city,” he tells The Better India.
To appreciate his work, Gunvant was conferred with the ADP President Global CSR award in New York in 2017. He also received a sum of $10,000 as prize money.
Gunvant decided to spend the award money to set up water filter plants in his Kalmadu and the neighbouring Indapur village. “The water quality in my village was poor, and the villagers would struggle every day to access clean and potable water. I knew the neighbouring village was also facing similar challenges. So I decided to help the residents with water filtration plants,” he says.
The 37-year-old then continued his endeavour by educating children living in and around his village, where he learned about deeper issues that plagued the region. “Many students failed to turn up for classes, and others dropped out. I was concerned about the declining attendance,” he says.
Upon inquiry, Gunvant learned the reason behind the issue was parents migrating out of villages in search of work. “The shortage of water was forcing farmers to work outside their villages. In turn, poor economic conditions were forcing children to drop out,” he says.
Gunvant learned that to help children continue their education, and for the overall holistic development of the villages, an assured water supply was a must.
“In 2017, I identified one Rajmane village which was affected by the severe water crisis. It had a British-era pond where silt had accumulated, rendering it redundant. I created awareness through water literacy programmes and requested villagers to contribute towards water conservation works,” he says.
Gunvant managed to source funds from Sakal Foundation to build trenches, canals and bunds, as well as de-silt the lake and establish concrete barrages. The villagers also conducted repair works of the dilapidated water barrages and check dams. He says the overall efforts helped arrest rainwater through catchment areas, directing it towards the ponds and replenishing groundwater.
By 2018, the villagers’ contribution had helped conserve 15 crore litres, Gunvant says.
Gaining confidence from the success, he then took up water conservation works in Aabhone Tanda village, located in the same taluka. “We revived three lakes and created four ponds through water conservation works in two years. The villagers started benefitting, and the word spread. The income of the farmers multiplied threefold,” he adds.
Since then, there has been no looking back for Gunvant. So far, he says he has helped 26 villages conserve 165 crore litres of water. “Water collection is measured considering the length, breadth and width of the water arresting bodies, and the amount they can contain,” he explains.
Rahul Rathod from Aabhone Tanda says his village was affected by a severe water crisis between 2012 and 2018. “The drought conditions affected the livelihood of the farmers who grew rain-fed crops for four months of the year. The water depleted post-monsoon, and farmers were unable to take other crops. Earlier, the villagers sourced water tankers twice a day to meet drinking and domestic water needs. Many of them would migrate outside to work as sugarcane labourers. But all that has changed now,” he says.
He says his village is drought-free today. “We have water availability and the ground wells remain filled throughout the year. Today, a farmer earns up to Rs 70,000 per acre by growing three crops a year. Earlier, they grew only cotton, groundnut and pulses. But from this year, the water availability has enabled them to grow seasonal vegetables. I had never seen okra and chillis grow in my village. But the water conservation works have made it possible,” Rahul says.
Carrying a dream of drought-free villages
Rahul adds that the residents have moved from kuchcha houses to concrete. “Students are eager to attend classes, and there are hardly a handful of families moving out in search of work temporarily,” he says.
Gunvant accomplished all the water conservation works using Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds from entities such as Vanderlande India private Ltd, Mediaocean Asia Pvt. Ltd, Naam Foundation, Sakal Relief Fund, Sahaj Jalbodh Abhiyan, MLA Mangesh Chavhan and Shivneri Foundation.
Speaking of hardships he faced, he says, “Initially, people did not put their trust and faith in me. They doubted why a person travelled 350 km to help them get an assured water supply. It took weeks to convince the villagers and a few more to bring them together for the collective cause. Asking them to forget personal differences for the common cause was also a task.”
Even after the villagers were convinced, receiving CSR funding was another hurdle. “Despite maintaining transparency, IT companies are sceptical of investing in a social cause located hundreds of kilometres away,” he says. “Some friends in my IT network also helped in supporting my endeavour. The struggle continues to date.”
Gunvant aims to focus more on increasing water literacy among other villages in the state. “I want every village to have water literacy centres to create awareness on water conservation and implement it effectively. The villages should also have a mapping of their groundwater sources. The rural schools should also incorporate the subject. Such steps will help form a more scientific and technical approach to execute such projects,” he says.
To inquire or seek help in water conservation, call Gunvant at 9158922626.
Edited by Divya Sethu