When 20-year-old Vinita married Komal Singh Yadav, a resident of Parasai village in Bundelkhand, she was well aware of what her life would entail. Several times a day, Vinita, along with other women from the village, would walk a couple of kilometres balancing pots precariously on their heads to fetch water from the only available bore well in the area. Having finished chores at home, the women would head to the fields where they would spend the rest of the day under the scorching sun. The low water column in open wells meant that the women had to spend 10 to 15 days (40-50 hours) irrigating a single hectare of wheat crop. The Yadavs own 6 hectares of land. “Our day began and ended with worrying about water,” recalls Vinita, now 28.

But those days are now a thing of the past.

Today, Parasai village is an oasis, with lush green fields and fruit orchards, thanks to the fact that the groundwater table on an average has increased by around 2-4 metres. “Water is available in all the dug wells and bore wells in the village. All we have to do is walk a few metres to the nearest bore well,” says Komal Yadav, 29. “It has given farmers like me the opportunity to cultivate my land twice a year. I grow Kharif crops like green gram, sesame, peanuts and Rabi crops like wheat, barley, rye, mustard. My wheat yield has doubled,” he says. The Yadavs have two children, who are the first generation in the family to go to school in Jhansi, a fact that brings immense pride to their father.

Much of this has been possible due to the watershed interventions that have shown the villagers the benefits of water conservation and rainwater harvesting. In 2013, Coca-Cola India Foundation (CCIF), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) along with CAFRI (Central Agroforestry Research Institute) and Haritika, a local NGO, teamed up to launch the integrated watershed project in the Parasai-Sindh region. It was a project that changed the lives of thousands of villagers in the region.

Bundelkhand, the chosen land

Three villages in Bundelkhand’s Jhansi district -- Parasai, Chhatpur, and Bachhauni, covering nearly 1,250 hectares, were selected. Why Bundelkhand? “Because forest cover was reduced greatly in the region, and recurrent droughts had become the norm. Surveys by Central Ground Water Board showed that Parasai Sindh region is a recharge zone, which meant that with the help of check dams, stop dams, farm ponds and other water conservation techniques, the ground water level could be recharged,” explains Avani Singh, the man behind Haritika, the NGO that took charge of roping in the villagers for the project.

Bundelkhand has been facing water stress which impacts the livelihoods in the region. “The main occupation of people is agriculture. However, water scarcity due to inadequate rainwater harvesting impacted the growth of rabi crops, resulting in poor grain development," says Rajiv Gupta, Program Manager, Coca-Cola India Foundation.

Watershed intervention was the need of the hour. “As a part of the project, storage capacity of 125,000 cubic meters was created by constructing a number of rainwater harvesting structures from upstream to downstream locations,” says Dr Kaushal Garg, senior scientist, ICRISAT.   

Getting villagers on board

A watershed committee of 10 members was formed, with the then sarpanch of the village Kalyan Singh leading the group. There were regular interactions with the community, the committee was even tasked with identifying potential locations where check dams could be made, and then supervising the work at those check dams.

“Villagers were taught about soil and water conservation practices, how to increase productivity, crop diversification and intensification, tackling pests, among other activities. In fact, we did participatory crop improvement programmes where we asked them to cultivate half their field with their seeds using traditional techniques, and the remaining using improved crop seeds, fertilizers and suggestions from experts, which doubled the yield,” says Singh. Once they saw the results, they started participating whole-heartedly, he adds.

Fruits of labour

“Interventions through the Integrated Watershed Project have increased water availability, promoted livestock activities among farmers and have helped farmers increase their income through higher crop yield and more dairy production," says Gupta, about the initiative that has changed thousands of lives in the three villages.

Wheat yield before the watershed interventions was in the range of 1500 to 1800kg per hectare. It increased to 3500-4000kg per hectare. Almost 100 hectares of fallow land was converted into productive land. “Not only did the farmer’s yield increase, but they were able to grow multiple crops in both Kharif and Rabi seasons. Fodder availability too was enhanced (from 5 ha to 70 ha) which triggered dairy business. The income of farmers tripled within three to four years of the project,” says Dr Garg.

Open wells enabled 1-2 hours irrigation during Rabi season due to low water column. The women would spend 10 to 15 days irrigating one hectare of wheat crop. Now, with the wells supporting round the clock irrigation, all it takes to do the job is a single day!

Long-term impact

Word of the success of the project has spread, spurring a number of policy makers, researchers (from India and abroad), to visit the watershed site to replicate it in other parts of the country. ICRISAT is currently implementing similar projects in other dry areas in Telangana and Karnataka as well.

The NITI Aayog, a policy think tank of the Government of India, commended the Parasai-Sindh watershed project for “Best Water Practice” in April 2019. Meanwhile, the UP government wants to develop similar models in all seven districts of UP Bundelkhand region. The success of this project has also prompted the UP government to take up the much larger Doubling Farmers’ Income Project in all of Bundelkhand.

Meanwhile in Parasai, the Yadavs and other farmers are making good use of the extra time they have on their hands. “Now I spend time at home with my children. Sometimes, I try to read their books,” says Vinita. “And I have had to spend a lot of time answering the questions of people from other villages who want to know more about how the fate of Parasai village has changed in a matter of just a few years,” says Komal.