Community embraces tech & traditional agri practices to revive waterbodies in Madhya Pradesh’s Sahariya villages

Once an arid landscape, Taparpura & Machakhurd in Shivpuri distirct have been transformed into lush green fields

It was the end of March and the temperature had already soared high, as the short-lived springtime rolled into the scorching summer months in the small village of Taparpura. 

Located at a remote corner of the Pohri Block of Shivpuri district in Madhya Pradesh, Taparpura was one of the many villages that perennially suffered from an acute water shortage during the summer. Agricultural work was out of the question, since all ponds and local water bodies went dry and village folks had no other option than to migrate to the nearby cities in search of odd jobs, just to sustain their lives.

But this year, it was different. At the village chowk, we met a group of people huddling under the shady canopy of an ancient peepal tree. When asked how they would cope with the summer this year, the group didn’t look worried. 

Among them, there was Ramsewak, a man in his mid-thirties who was the first one to answer; and as he spoke, confidence was writ large on his face. “I and others like me in the Sahariya tribal community can now breathe a sigh of relief, as we no longer have to endure the anxieties of wondering where our next meal will come from like our ancestors did.”

As if taking a cue from Ramsewak, others started to chip in. Residents of Taparpura and the neighbouring village of Machakhurd, they said, now enjoyed a newfound security, as they saw the promise of rozi aur roti – a secure livelihood and enough nutritious food for themselves and their children. 

With the changes, the dry summer season no longer posed a threat of migration and they could stay in their village without worry. Now their children don’t have to miss out on school, nor have to worry about sleeping on an empty stomach. Through their resourcefulness, they have secured their future by growing crops right here on their land, even at the time when the summer is at its peak.

But it was not the same a few years back. Taparpura and Machakhurd were known to be extremely difficult places to live in during the summer months. The ponds, filled with silt and unable to hold water, went dry, forcing a majority of the villagers to abandon their homes and seek employment in nearby towns and cities. Missing school and suffering from hunger became a perennial problem for children. 

According to the government data, only 7.2 per cent of children aged between 6 and 23 months in Shivpuri district received adequate diet. Two in every five children (39.2 per cent) under five years were stunted (low height-for-age). The prevalence of anaemia was staggering, with over 70 per cent of children and 58.4 per cent of pregnant women being reported with low haemoglobin content in their blood. Around 26.7 per cent of women were reported with critically low body mass index. It became more precarious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as economic and nutritional vulnerability multiplied to aggravate the situation.

“It was a desperate situation. We wanted to put an end to this never-ending cycle of misery,” said Ramdulari, a middle-aged woman from the neighbouring village of Machakhurd. “But we were clueless until Vikas Samvad, a local non-profit working in the grassroots supported by CRY – Child Rights and You, who showed us the way to survive.”

“But it was nothing new that Vikas Samvad taught us,” Ramdulari goes on, “They just showed us how, as a community, we could collaboratively develop a strategy to fix our problem through local innovations and adopting age-old agricultural practices. And believe me, it helped!” a beaming Ramdulari exclaimed. 

She then goes on to narrate how it all happened. Huddled up for brainstorming, a group of villagers representing 30 women and 45 men realised that water scarcity was the root cause of all their problems. Realising that rejuvenating the waterbodies was essential, they saw it as the key to breaking the cycle of misery. 

In May 2022, the villagers identified two substantial waterbodies in the vicinity. The first one, located in Taparpura, was 200 feet wide and 600 ft long. The second one, in Machakhurd, measured 300 ft by 700 ft. The lack of maintenance reduced the large waterbodies to mere depressions filled with silt, no longer able to retain water. 

Once they chalked out their plan to revive the two waterbodies, they didn’t waste time. Close to 150 families in Taparpura and Machakhurd joined hands in constructing embankments along the waterbodies and planted trees on them, to retain natural moisture in the soil and safeguard against bank breaching. 

This caused a triggering effect, ensuring access to clean drinking water for humans and cattle. It also resulted in increased soil moisture, benefiting local farmers by allowing them to use water for all seasonal crops year-round. Instead of migrating for labour, families now cultivate their land, transforming barren fields into vibrant landscapes filled with crops like wheat, gram or mustard. 

Without the burden of missing school or meals, children are now able to fully embrace their childhood – play, learn and strive for a promising future. With its simple yet transformative approach to water security, this innovation created a ripple effect of positive outcomes, including economic stability, enhanced food and nutrition security and a remarkable socio-economic makeover in the entire terrain that once suffered from acute water scarcity.

Presently, close to 50 families are reaping the practical advantages of irrigation for their crops and an impressive 150 families now have access to clean drinking water for six-eight months. 

Previously, the Sahariya community could access water in the pond only during the rainy season. However, the establishment of a community-driven well at the pond’s edge facilitated groundwater replenishment, securing uninterrupted water availability throughout the year. This enhancement significantly improves accessibility for the community, providing water throughout the year. 

“It seems magical, but it is undeniably true – a future that my father and forefathers never dreamt of, where I can visualise a brighter tomorrow for the Sahariya people and their children. They don’t need to migrate; instead, they can sustain themselves by growing nutritious crops all year long,” said Ramdulari, her glittering eyes echoing her emotions.  

Even though this intervention holds a special place in their hearts, the Sahariya tribal community in Shivpuri district is determined to spread this lesson far and wide. They firmly believe that their efforts will bear fruit only if they can replicate them in other geographies, such as the neighbouring villages, anywhere in the district or even across the water-starved districts in the state. 

The Sahariya tribe in Taparpura and Machakhurd, with their open arms, warmly invites everyone to join them in learning valuable grassroots-level wisdom to combat climate change. This resilience will ensure that people no longer have to migrate, children won’t miss out on education or nutritious meals, and live with joy and happiness.

Jaya Singh is a development practitioner working with children and the community and is the programme head of CRY – Child Rights and You (north). Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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