"I have never seen so much pure, clean water in decades, in fact in my whole life. It seems too good to be true. I hope it lasts till I die," Hatade said, eyes turning moist as he filled a weathered bucket from a nearby flowing stream.
Hatade is a resident of Daphalapor village in Sangli in western Maharashtra, among those benefitted by a government initiative to bring water to some of the most parched villages.
Daphalapor is just one among 2,200 villages in the region falling under a rain shadow and suffering from recurring drought.
Besides hitting crops and livestock, the drought has plummeted ground water levels to alarming depths, as witnessed by a select team of visiting mediapersons.
This is despite 11 big and small dam projects which have been taken up, hundreds of crores of rupees invested but without bringing respite to the daily sufferings.
But a unique initiative, costing Rs.445 crore, spearheaded by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan coupled with an unexpected bonanza of heavy rains, has brought smiles to the farmers and villagers.
"Instead of merely targeting the drought-relief operations, the state government decided to take up an Integrated Watershed Management Programme to make these areas self-sufficient without depending solely on monsoon," said Sangli Collector D.S. Kushwaha.
This was done in the form of constructing small cement check dams to prevent the precious rainwater from flowing into the drains, creating tiny farm ponds and percolation tanks.
In addition, desilting works were carried out in existing water sources, revatilising of old bunds and wells and augmenting locally available water resources in the 368 villages (of 2,200), which fall in Sangli district.
These measures led to electrifying results, according to Satara Collector N. Ramaswamy.
In Daphalapor, the ground water level rose from -6.92 metres in 2012 to -0.22 metres this year. In Athapadi village, it rose from -0.96 metres to +0.87 metres, virtually making it a fertile, marshy region.
The increased groundwater levels have resulted in increased water diverted to existing and new storage points in these regions, which are now flush with water.
"So far, we have constructed more than 2,000 cement check dams which have created an additional water storage capacity of 8.50 TMC or roughly equivalent to the capacity of 23.8 million water tankers," said a beaming Pune Divisional Commissioner Vikas Deshmukh.
Hatade's family is making the best of the bounty of nature's most precious resources.
"Usually, we used to get tanker waters practically round-the-year. But this year, my 10-year old daughter can afford the luxury of a daily bath, something unheard of in these areas," he said.
Abundant water has also meant a fillip to the local economy, reliant entirely on agriculture.
Farmers have furiously started sowing in advance for the Rabi season and are hoping for a bumper crop this year, said a small farmer, Manohar Pathare from Pandharpur in Solapur.
Until last year, the family was forced to work as farm labourers in sugarcane fields outside to survive.
For a change, government officials attribute the success of the scheme to the voluntary participation of the local villagers, irrespective of local politics.
Western Maharashtra is dominated by the Nationalist Congress Party, which along with the Congress governs the state.
"The locals donated labour which quickly helped construct the cement check dams in early 2013. The results we have got in just four months at a fraction of the cost of the dam projects have been just amazing," an official from the chief minister's office explained.
Now, Chief Minister Chavan wants to replicate the project in other perpetually drought-prone regions of Maharashtra to help derive maximum benefits of existing water resources, said the official.
The abundance in water supply had led to other fringe benefits. Earlier, nobody was interested in a groom from the drought-hit villages.
"This year, the situation has changed with marriage preparations in full swing," said an excited Keshav Ghatge, a matrimony organizer from Karad.
Nevertheless, there are still some who feel that the cement check dams at best offer only a temporary solution and doubt whether the existing water supply would even last till next summer.
Despite cynics, government officials are optimistic that a successful beginning has been made and the benefits would prove to be long-term and permanent in most areas.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
--IANS (Posted on 07-10-2013)