Editor's note: A recent NITI Aayog report on India's water resources presented an alarming state of affairs. The country, according to the think tank, is in the grip of the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million Indians faced with "high to extreme water stress", resulting in 2 lakh deaths a year. Firstpost will run a series of ground reports from across the country to determine the extent to which depleted reserves have affected daily life.
Keonjhar, Odisha: Talabaitarni, a small village of some 50 houses in Odisha's Keonjhar district, witnessed spells of severe water crisis during summers, until Dhaitari Nayak, a 70-year-old farmer, decided to take it upon himself to draw a canal to the village. In an effort that earned him the moniker of the "Dashrath Manjhi" of his district, Nayak not only resolved the problem of water scarcity in his village, but also provided his people with cleaner water than what was available to them earlier.
Nayak's tiny hutment that houses 13 family members was one among the many households in Talabaitarni that were struggling with the basic requirement of clean water.
The village, along with a cluster of adjoining ones, is situated in the remote hilly and forested regions of the Banspal Block, around 35 kilomtres from the Keonjhar district headquarters. Talabaitarni lacks proper public transport connectivity and has experienced drought-like situations in the recent past.
Four years ago, Nayak decided to stop suffering in silence and embarked on a painstaking journey. He made a vow to himself that he would bring water to his village and get rid of Talabaitarni's dependency on the monsoon to dispel their water worries.
Luckily, the Gonasika hills are close to his village. Near the hills are some streams that could be used to irrigate around 100 acres of cultivated land in Talabaitarni but were lying unutilised as there was no channel to drain the water in the direction of the village.
Nayak knew that modifying the terrain of the hills to redirect the part of its water discharge would be a Herculean task, but he took it upon himself to accomplish the dream, only to be later known as the "Dashrath Manjhi" of his district.
An engineer without formal education
The septuagenarian, often seen in the village with his grey hair well-combed, sporting a beard and dressed in a vest and dhoti with a cotton towel around his shoulders, is now the most revered person in Talabaitarni. The villagers who once mocked him are now his followers and leave no opportunity to thank him for transforming their home. Although Nayak has no formal education, his contributions have made him a star. Many now love to call him the "Waterman of Odisha".
Nayak, however, claims that the idea to dig the canal was not spontaneous. It was undertaken only after it became evident that the government was not going to help his village. "Once an engineer visited our village and analysed the issue of bringing water from the hills," he said. "He told us that to improve the water situation, a major project was needed and went back. I understood then that there was no option left but to chip in to get the work done our own way."
It was in 2014 that Nayak struck the hard surface of the Gonasika hills for the very first time to carve a path through the terrain, which could bring water from the streams towards his village.
"Earlier, the water used to go unused. We worked on breaking the hill rocks first and worked on the hard soil beneath the hills later to ensure that a path is carved and stretched till our village," said Dhaitari Nayak's brother Gopal Nayak.
To make the dream a reality, the "Waterman's" younger brothers joined him in the task. Besides the rocks and soils, the Nayak family also cleared the bushes that were in the path of their canal.
Seeking govt support to strengthen canal
Nayak's endeavour provided relief to the lives of the villagers as they could access the water from the nearby hills. Now, the whole village was able to utlise water from the canal to irrigate their fields. Nayak said there was no discrimination over who could access the water, and that it was free for anyone in the village to use.
Farmers in Talabaitarni use the water to cultivate wheat, onion, potato and other crops. The canal has become a lifesaver for the villagers as the only hand pump and the four water tanks of the village did not provide them water, especially in summers.
The villagers said farming suffered to a great extent when the canal water did not reach them, and the whole of Talabaitarni depended solely on the unpredictable monsoon for irrigation. Many said the percolated pits and water from the nearby pond were used for their myriad water requirements.
Those who initially mocked Nayak and were sceptical of his ambition had a change of heart after experiencing the benefits of the canal he carved out. "We are now at least relieved that against our earlier dependency on drain water and ponds, we are getting some good quantity water. We are really thankful to Dhaitari Nayak for this," said Balia Gada, a farmer from Talabaitarni.
He added that while the village was getting water through the canal to irrigate farmlands, it has yet to receive good roads and safe drinking water, among other basic amenities.
The "Waterman of Odisha", however, does not want to end the journey here. He said he was seeking government support to strengthen the canal so it can function for a longer period of time. He also plans to replicate the same model for other nearby villages suffering a similar scarcity of water, with the aim to end all water woes in the region.
The author is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 13:59 PM