RALEGAN SIDDHI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a hot, dry afternoon at Ralegan Siddhi in India’s western state of Maharashtra, Ansar Shaikh climbed effortlessly to a hill top and pointed at the vast expanse of farmland all around.
A local guide, Shaikh uses the summit as a viewing gallery to showcase not the village’s idyllic setting, but the trenches and stone barriers on the hill’s slopes, and earthen dams on the ground to trap each raindrop that falls.
This tiny village - with a population of 2,500 and spread over 900 hectares (2,224 acres) - is located in Ahmednagar district, where the average annual rainfall is about 500 mm (19.7 inches), the lowest among all districts of Maharashtra, according to weather officials.
But Ralegan Siddhi has remained water sufficient for four decades, even in the severe droughts of 2014 and 2015 that triggered nearly 7,000 farmer suicides in Maharashtra - the highest in the country - over crop failure and mounting debts.
Nearly 24,000 farmers committed suicide in India in 2014 and 2015.
Ralegan Siddhi’s water sufficiency dates back to another drought in 1972 when social activist Anna Hazare started a project that would insulate the village from dry spells.
In the years to come, Hazare emerged as a rural development mascot and the face of a massive anti-corruption crusade.
The drought project was his first step into activism.
Barriers were erected on Ralegan Siddhi’s slopes to stop rainwater run-off which was collected in an intricate network, channelled to a giant well, then pumped into streams that fed farmlands.
“Rain is the only source of water here and we don’t waste it,” Shaikh, the guide, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Over the years, the groundwater level went up to a few feet below ground from about 200 to 250 feet (61-76 m) earlier, according to Thakaram Raut, former headmaster of the village school, who now oversees water conservation training.
The number of wells used for irrigating farmland has gone up to 135 from 35, and cultivable land has doubled to about 1,000 acres (404.7 hectares).
So has the quantity of farm produce.
Women don’t have to trek long distances for water, which is supplied through taps in all households once every two days, then stored in big, bright-blue cans.
“The Ralegan Siddhi watershed model is intuitive, organic and is rooted in compassion and empathy, not as much in science,” said groundwater expert Himanshu Kulkarni, who heads a non-profit that deals with groundwater research and education.
“The model shows how changed human behaviour can be linked to how we manage our natural resources.”
Wearing sunglasses, Dhondiba Ethoba Authi, 74, sat cross-legged on his one-hectare farmland, next to a pile of harvested millet, keeping a watch on his grazing cattle.
This was the second harvest of the year and Authi said he expected to make 35,000 rupees ($524.27) from the yield. He inherited this land from his parents, but recalls it being barren for a good part of his childhood.
“Farming was erratic then. There were no schools. There was nothing here,” Authi said. But that was before ‘Anna’s water’ started flowing into irrigation wells and household taps.
“I make money from my farmland and also from the milk my cows produce.”
Most people in Ralegan Siddhi live in concrete houses. Some households have washing machines. Most have cars or motorbikes.
“We get Anna’s water and I operate the washing machine at least five times a week,” said Swati Bhalekar, who lives in a brightly painted house, a washing machine at its entrance.
Within a decade of the project taking off, neighbouring villages started implementing various versions of Anna’s model. So far, 86 villages have joined in.
“Thirty kms from Ralegan Siddhi is Hiware Bazar village, which was inspired by the model but went a step ahead and also started water audits,” said Rishiraj Gosaki, a senior geologist with the government’s groundwater department.
Every year, village heads at Hiware Bazar budget the water collected for irrigation and consumption, and decide the crop pattern farmers will follow through the year - the latter a lesson they learned from Hazare’s village.
Farmers in Ralegan Siddhi don’t grow sugarcane - a water-guzzling crop often blamed for Maharashtra’s drought - but millet varieties, maize and vegetables that require less water.
“With watershed development, farm yield has improved. People now live in good houses, own vehicles,” said Hazare, the brains behind the village project, at his hostel-like accommodation.
On a weekday evening, as the time neared for 79-year-old Hazare to emerge from his nap, a motley group of school students, farmers and admirers gathered outside and waited under a tree to meet him, or simply see him.
A Gandhian, Hazare lives the simple life. And now he has another battle on his hands - the village reported drinking water scarcity, a first in many years, and supply tankers had to be called in from the local government office.
“Why have we reached this stage of ordering tankers? That’s because people are digging borewells,” said Hazare.
Hazare closed more than 100 borewells last year and imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees on those digging fresh ones. The water level in the village’s recharge well has already improved, he said.
But there is a cost to this progress.
“The financial status of villagers has improved. They are standing on their feet - now they don’t have time for the village which they had earlier,” Hazare said. “The village has produced doctors, government officers and lawyers.”
Babban Baburao Bhalekar, for instance, was among those who dug trenches on the hills when Hazare started working on the watershed project. “I do whatever Anna says,” he said as he made a wooden handle for a farmer’s hoe.
Bhalekar sent his daughter to school and she now works in a state-run industrial unit in Ahmednagar. She visits her parents once a week.
But migration of young people notwithstanding, Hazare is hopeful the water project will continue.
“I could do so much despite not having a good education. The youth of the village is better educated, and will take this forward,” Hazare said.
($1 = 66.7600 Indian rupees)