India's water crisis: Replenishing Jharkhand's parched hydrological system, one pond at a time

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.

Read all stories in the series here.

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Ranchi: The villagers of Rajbandh have lived under the shadow of violence and unrest. A region once ravaged by the Maoist insurgency is now hoping to rewrite its destiny, by reviving local water bodies.

The 120-odd ponds in Dumka's Rajbandh panchayat are key to a new lease of life for the villagers in the area and home to Jharkhand's first 'machli panchayat' or fishery cooperative. Aimed at turning the smaller water bodies in the panchayat into a source of livelihood for the people, the machli panchayat now promises a source of income.

Yogesh Murmu, the ex-headman of Rajbandh, says that though fish farming is prevalent in the area, the quality and quantity of the produce isn't fit for sale in the market. "Whatever we produced was consumed in the village itself. It is difficult to rear fish without a proper setup and though a handful of families used to rear fishes in the local farm ponds, the people had zero access to the markets," he says.

A dried up farm pond in Jharkhand's Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

A dried up farm pond in Jharkhand's Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

"When farm ponds were dug last year as a part of a state-wide project, we expanded the fishery business in the village with almost hundred families using these ponds to rear fish," says Murmu. "But we had glitches, especially with the supply of seed to cultivate the fishes. The government finally pitched in and allotted funds both for the maintenance of the ponds and rearing of fishes. Now, families in the village will be able to supplement their income through fishery."

2,000 ponds to be revived by year-end

The story of Rajbandh is not an isolated one. Over 2,000 ponds are being rejuvenated and revived through the efforts of the agriculture and water resources ministries of Jharkhand, in a bid to improve the situation of water resources in the state. The state's ambitious project of digging 1.4 lakh farm ponds to replenish the underground water level and to meet the irrigation demands in the rural pockets is making a difference.

In the second phase of the pond-digging initiative, the project is being extended to the revival of government and public ponds in both rural and urban areas by the state agriculture department. Already, 2,000 ponds below five acres which need maintenance have been listed and the agriculture department is working on their revival.

Pooja Singhal, secretary for the state department of agriculture, says: "We are targeting the revival of 2,000 ponds by the end of 2018. The process involves de-silting of the ponds so that they can retain water in the dry season."

A woman fishing in waist deep water in a farm pond in Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

A woman fishing in waist-deep water in a farm pond in Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

Singhal says water retention in the dry season is the biggest challenge. "Be it irrigation or fishery, a certain water level needs to be maintained for the ponds to effectively work as a feasible resource for the people. The agriculture department has taken up 2,000 such government and private ponds which are being deepened by removal of silt deposits in them. We will be distributing fish seeds in the same so that they could alternate as a source of livelihood to the people around."

As Raghubar Das, chief minister of Jharkhand, recently observed, "A paltry 13 percent of the farmlands in Jharkhand are equipped with irrigation facilities. The pond revival initiative will help improve the outreach of irrigation facilities in the state and help spread awareness about rainwater harvesting- techniques among farmers. The outreach of the drip irrigation techniques also needs a boost in the state. Five representatives from each district will be sent overseas to study the utilisation of drip irrigation in countries like Israel."

6.53-point growth in state's water-index score in a year

Initiated this May, the project has revived 600 ponds already. "The goal was to reach a target of at least 1,400 ponds before the monsoon. But we are working on it and the district administrations are being roped in to speed up the process before rains start," says Singhal.

De-silting at Bariatu located Joda Talab in Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

De-silting at Bariatu located Joda Talab in Ranchi. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

In the capital Ranchi, which is itself battling a major water crisis, the rejuvenation of larger ponds is underway. The Karamtoli pond, which has become shallow owing to slime and silt deposits, is being deepened and de-silted. The pond will be used as a fishery. The water from these ponds will also be used to irrigate over two lakh hectares across the state through a network of pipelines.

And it is not just the pond revival initiative that is re-scripting Jharkhand's water-management story. Rainwater harvesting is also being promoted. In Khunti district, 455 ponds have been constructed as part of rainwater-harvesting systems.

"Percolation tanks are also being constructed across Jharkhand," says Singhal. "Around 600 such tanks have already been built and are being utilised to recharge the underground water levels. These tanks are designed to recharge the groundwater at locations where land is permeable enough to easily recharge the groundwater through a surface water body. Since Jharkhand is in a rocky terrain area, they are highly effective in recharging the groundwater levels in the state," added Singhal.

The state cut a sorry figure in the NITI Aayog's recently released Composite Water Management Index, scoring the lowest among the non-Himalayan states. Though there has been 6.53-point growth in Jharkhand’s water-index scores in the past year, the total score of Jharkhand remained 35, which was much lower than the average score of 49 for non-Himalayan states.

Water in Ranchi's farm ponds has been drying up due to increased silt deposits. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

Water in Ranchi's farm ponds has been drying up due to increased silt deposits. Image courtesy Debjani Chakraborty

But, the state's new policies to revive its water resources and improve utilisation have pushed it to second place among states with the highest incremental growth in the sector. According to NITI Aayog's index, the percentage of over-exploited water bodies that saw a rise in their water tables before the monsoons has increased from 17 percent in 2015-16 to 50 percent in 2016-17.

The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jul 24, 2018 13:22 PM

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