"Had it not been for Anna (Vijay Anna Borade), I would still have been eking out an impoverished living working on rojgar hami yojana (the Employment Guarantee Scheme)", says Sushilabai Jale from Kadvanchi, a village in Jalna district of the drought-prone Marathawada region of Maharashtra. Tears roll down her eyes as she gives all credit to Borade for helping her rise out of abject poverty and into a sustainable good life. She isn't alone with such praise; the others with her - Manjulabai Gayake and Vatsalabai Kale - too once lived a tattered life and now are able to afford sending their children to school, a sign of relative prospoerity in this poor region.

Kadavanchi receives an average 400 mm of rain annually, and has been perpetually in the shadow of drought. In 1997-98, Jalna's Krishi Vidnyan Kendra under the leadership of Marathawada's renowned visionary agriculturist Vijay Anna Borade undertook a soil and water conservation project for the development of the watershed covering 2000 hectares of land in Kadavanchi. The project received funding from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) of about Rs 1 crore under the Indo-German Watershed Development Programme, and was completed by 2000. Much emphasis initially was on capacity building, preparing the villagers to participate in the project; the enthused villagers eventually contributed 16 per cent of the project cost, i.e. about Rs 14 lakhs, as their shramdaan.

Under the Matha te Payatha - i.e. from the peak to the foot - approach, the entire area was targeted for conservation, so as to harvest nearly all the rainfall, and allow it to percolate. The driving philosophy is that conservation efforts cannot merely catch the much-needed water for immediate use, but must additionally support the systems around it too. Conserving the soil is one of the most important of these other areas of focus. Says Borade, "it may rain again next year, but the top soil once lost will not be replenished over even hundred years."

In 2002, the Kendra undertook a socio-economic survey of the 335 beneficiary families of this watershed and found that the income from the land rose from Rs.76 lakhs before the intervention programme in 1997 to Rs.450 lakhs - i.e six times. The average family income rose tremendously from Rs.23,000 per annum to Rs.1.35 lakhs. Farm productivity improved more because of soil conservation than the increased availability of water. Says Pandit Vasare, project coordinator of Krishi Vidnyan Kendra, "even if this quantity of water was available but the topsoil had continued to be eroded, this level of productivity would not have been achieved."

Besides, the decentralization of watershed development ensured availability of water all over the region. Harvesting water in the low-lying areas only recharges wells there, but capturing water at every stage - including high ground - allows it to percolate there too raising the water table all over. This benefits everyone in the region and not only those farmers in the valleys. And more importantly, it arrests erosion of soil. During heavy rains the excess water that gushes out from the tail end of this watershed appears clear, whereas rainwater leaving the adjacent watershed looks heavily muddied.

Soil lost once, lost forever
Excerpts from interview of Vijay Anna Borade

Watershed development cannot be complete without soil conservation. While arresting rainwater runoff, you would get only water but by arresting soil running off with the water, you would get both soil as well as water. This should be the main principle. Watershed cannot be developed through just water conservation. Although soil conservation is costly, the administration should place emphasis on this. Soil is not the personal wealth of any farmer. It is the topsoil, which is fertile which is there in just about 5-6 cm top layer of the soil. Below this topsoil is the soil that holds the water. Farmers till the land before the monsoon to make the topsoil loose for sowing. If the field does not have proper bunding, this loose soil can easily get carried along with the rainwater and settle in nalas, rivulets, rivers and dams. This silt also lowers the storage capacity of the dams. So it is doubly harmful; it takes away topsoil from fields where it is most helpful and on the other it lodges this fertile soil in water bodies where it is most harmful. Therefore, it is very important that the speed at which rainwater flows out taking along the topsoil should be impeded. This is the principle of watershed development through soil conservation and not alone water conservation.

Take the example of the Jayakwadi dam near Aurangabad on Godavari river which originates in Trimbakeshwar in Nashik district. The river carries topsoil from fields from Trimbakeshwar downwards into the Jayakwadi reservoir. This surely will reduce this dam's life (which is normally expected to be around 100 years). But importantly, all the topsoil carried into this dam cannot be transported back to fields in Trimbakeshwar even if you think of laying a special railway line for this purpose. If we do not arrest this erosion, what will the next generation grow on the topless land?

If watershed development is undertaken at the present pace then it would take 60 years to cover entire Maharashtra state. And this pace has to increase because if the water flows away, it can be availed again, but soil once eroded will not be replenished again. Watershed development through the soil conservation method used here will require Rs.6000 crores just for the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. But this is roughly what the government has spent on the flovers in Mumbai alone; if there is political will the money can be found.

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With water available, the farmers have taken to horticulture - growing tamarind, amla, custard apple, pomegranate, grapes, etc. Importantly, the beneficiaries have also come around in a consensus never to grow sugarcane, rice and banana; this happened even though they had no knowledge of Maharashtra's Pani Panchayat movement (where people collectively decide the judicious use of available water resources). Within 2-3 years, farmers established drip irrigation systems that reduced power needs and water use too. Even the landless labourers - about 10% of the families here - found their conditions improved because of availability of work all round the year. In just 3-4 years, 200 of these 300 farmers own two wheelers and 5-6 big farmers own jeeps. All have good houses and far better living styles than before.

And this transformation took place in a drought prone region that receives only 450 mm rain. Villagers say one or two vahavani rain (rains with good runoff) is enough to see them through the year now as every drop that falls on their land is arrested and percolated. As per their own calculation, one 50 mm rain within an hour or two is just about sufficient, one more such is quite enough and if there is a shower in September and again one in December, then there is prosperity. And yet they never tempt themselves into growing water-guzzling cash crops.

Borade's Krishi Vidnyan Kendra has so far executed 25-30 such watershed development efforts, through water and soil conservation techniques. However, massively scaling up this activity is not possible for such a small organization; that would require a big administration that may end up like a government department, admits Borade. "So our work can at best show the way but ultimately it has to evolve from within the communities," he says. And informing the communities is the task of the government. Now Borade's organization acts as a catalyst. For example lately, it took up capacity building in Shivani village where the people's response to their proposals was so good that on Kendra's recommendation, the government administration provided the funds and the villagers got the scheme implemented under Kendra's guidance and supervision.

Vijay Anna Borade was amused when the womenfolk made complaints in jest that with water availability round the year, they have to labour thrice as much. Earlier they worked in farms only once during the monsoon. Now they take up work on two more crops - in the winter and summer. But they admit that the hard work on their own farms is a pleasure.