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Water of life: The rebirth of Surodi

By Shrayas Jatkar

A firsthand account of how the villagers of Surodi got together to construct and repair bunds in their village, transforming it from a poor, drought-prone village into a thriving model of self-sufficiency

"Give me a pickaxe...tell me where to dig...quick, before the monsoon sets in!" I left the village of Surodi with great enthusiasm after having witnessed, firsthand, how by constructing bunds and wells the villagers were able to enjoy water most of the year round.

Surodi is situated in a drought-prone area between Pune and Ahmednagar in the western Indian state of Maharashtra . I had been invited here, along with seven other people, by Ashok Rupner, a native of Surodi now living and working in Pune.

Rupner has been the motivating force behind this fairly homogenous village of 680 people, inhabited mostly by Marathas (80%), Dhangars (5-6%) and those belonging to various scheduled castes and tribes such as the Chambars, Bhils and Mangs (14-15%).

Rupner's passion and excitement was inspiring. And I was further charged by the fact that this was a wholly new experience for me: my first visit to a village in India (any country for that matter) and my first exposure to a watershed development project. This was the first time I was visiting an AID-funded project. I had been a volunteer of AID (Association for India 's Development) while living in Albuquerque , New Mexico , USA .

Rupner guided me around the village, showing me various bunds that had been newly constructed and pre-existing ones that had been repaired since 2001. Bunds are walls of varying dimensions built along a stream. They can be either earthen, concrete, a mix of concrete and stone, or composed of loose boulders. Accordingly, the flow of water in the stream is slowed, preventing precious topsoil from being washed away and also allowing the impounded water to percolate into the earth and recharge groundwater. In loose boulder bunds only the soil is halted; the water is allowed to pass through.

Standing atop a bund and looking upstream to see a series of walls is truly awesome! This is in fact the reason I have come to India : to learn about watershed development from those who have actually done work in this field. And, hopefully, to do some of the work myself.

Of the 42 bunds in Surodi, 21 were constructed by the villagers over four years. The rest had been built by the government earlier and were badly in need of repair and reconstruction; 27 are earthen and 15 made up of concrete/stone.

Several things must be kept in mind whilst selecting the site for a bund. First, bunds are created along streams so that water can be easily harnessed. Second, bunds are built near existing wells so that the impounded water can recharge groundwater, and, in turn, help raise the water level in nearby wells used for domestic purposes. Finally, cost is a major concern especially in a village as poor and isolated as Surodi, which makes acquiring materials such as cement and sand an arduous and costly task.

Surodi's villagers chose to construct most of their bunds along the narrowest parts of the stream, to reduce the amount of material and labour needed.

In order to construct an earthen bund a trench must be excavated to the depth where one strikes hard rock. Then, the same earth is used to backfill the trench; in Surodi it was packed down at regular intervals using a JCB machine. The earthen bunds were sited where the flow of water was slow and the pressure light. In contrast, concrete/stone bunds were built where the flow was quick and the pressure heavy.

In both cases local knowledge and experience helped determine the site and design of the bunds. The use of locally available stone from a nearby quarry helped keep costs to a minimum, lessening the need for imported sand and cement. Still, the villagers ensured that the concrete/stone bunds remained watertight and that frugality did not jeopardise the integrity of the structure. The height of the bund was carefully determined so as not to submerge people's lands, while still allowing the structure to serve its purpose.

The amount spent on the construction of 18 new bunds, and the repair of five out of the total 22 pre-existing ones, was Rs 2.65 lakh (slightly over $ 6,000). This is equivalent to the average spent by the government to build just one bund!

The Pittsburgh Chapter of AID provided most of the funding for this watershed development project. Originally, however, seed funds were granted by individual members of Vidyanvahini -- a network of scientists who organise a mobile science laboratory, travelling to villages that lack such facilities, in order to give primary school students the opportunity to conduct scientific experiments. "After it became evident that the people of Surodi would strive towards an integrated development model through watershed work, we invited AID volunteers to visit Surodi," said Madhukar Deshpande, founder of Vidyanvahini. Jayant Dixit, a civil engineer and member of the group, solicited the help of Hydropneum -- a civil engineering firm based in Pune -- that contributed with personnel and equipment. Together, the two civil engineers visited Surodi to carry out broad surveys of the area, noting water levels, gradient and other basic technical aspects that would help the villagers design their bunds.

The villagers put together a limited budget, and every villager between the age of 15 and 60 -- about half the total population -- participated in shramdaan (voluntary labour). They were involved in every aspect of the job, from the design and planning to the construction. They chose which day to work, with each person contributing an average of one day or eight hours. Each day saw a diverse work crew of between 13 and 20 villagers of every caste, class, age and sex. Often someone would volunteer to build a bund that did not necessarily benefit his plot of land or drinking water source.

As in other successful examples of watershed-based development, this combined effort is not only critical in guaranteeing the completion of a scheme but also in building unity among the villagers and helping ensure equity in the distribution of benefits from the project. Another key element in the success and sustainability of watershed development programmes is local ownership of the project and the sharing of knowledge and skills. In the case of Surodi, nearly all the work was executed locally with the help of outside professionals only in the design and engineering. Although there is no specific leadership development programme for Surodi's villagers, many were involved in attending workshops outside Surodi, meeting with government officials and visiting watershed schemes in other villages. Some people from Surodi are helping other villages in their watershed development work.

The village, however, had no reason to immediately rejoice as minimal rains during the first two years and a near-drought in 2003 meant that the wells ran dry by January and the soil remained parched during summer. In 2004, the villagers refused to do any work. Then, halfway through that year, the rains came, bringing with them significant proof of the project's success.

Visits to other villages highlighted similar experiences and drove home the important message that persistence, flexibility and physical effort by the community are central to the success of any watershed development programme, especially in drought-prone areas like Surodi. It is important to stress here that such watershed work can only lessen, not remove altogether, the villagers' dependence on the monsoon.

When I asked Rupner why Surodi chose to start with watershed development work, he recalled the first meeting he had with three 20-year-olds who were the first from Surodi to graduate from junior college, located 11 km away (a 30-minute ride by scooter). All of them expressed frustration that despite an abundance of natural resources Surodi remained impoverished and lacked basic services and infrastructure such as a bank, post office, hospital, public transportation and sewerage. "Everything is there -- land is there, people are there -- except for water," explained Ashok adding, "Our main profession is agricultural labour".

The four organised a trip to the village of Ralegan Siddhi , 45 km from Surodi, which is a model of people's power, self-sufficiency and integrated sustainable development. When they learnt that the average rainfall in Ralegan was similar to theirs -- around 300-400 mm a year -- they returned home optimistic that they too would be able to rejuvenate their village, starting with the watershed development programme.

Thanks to the 42 bunds dotting the Surodi landscape it's been two years since a tanker was needed to deliver the village's drinking water supply. When I visited in May, the hottest month of the year, the wells were full.

The impact of the water conservation effort has spread to other areas such as dairy farming. Due to increased water availability there is enough grass to feed the cows. Consequently, milk production has more than doubled since work on the project started, leaping from 450 to 1,000 litres every day. Says Ashok: "Anybody can buy a cow and make a business out of selling milk." More indirectly there has been greater assistance from the state in administration matters as well as transportation to and from the village. After former member of the legislative assembly Shivajirao Nagawade learnt about Surodi's progress he allocated funds for the construction of a permanent office and meeting space for the gram panchayat. And, the state transportation bus now stops in Surodi.

The significance of this increased self-sufficiency was impossible to miss in the villagers' optimism, hospitality, and eagerness to begin work on their next project. This was, in fact, the reason for our visit to Surodi that day: the villagers gathered to hear about possibilities in other areas such as healthcare, sustainable agriculture and alternative energy. When we got back to Pune I asked Ashok what the next likely undertaking would be. Without hesitation he reminded me that there was still one more bund to be constructed as part of the current 'macro watershed' development programme. After that, plans had already been made for a 'micro watershed' programme -- constructing earthen bunds on individual plots of land to promote soil conservation. This would benefit villagers' farmland more directly. Perhaps next on the list was equipping every home with a toilet to improve sanitation and hygiene.

The highlight of the trip for me was my time at the village well, which, as mentioned, was full even in the middle of May. After watching a group of women collect water from the well, using buckets tied to a thin rope about 20-25 feet long, I asked them if I could have a go. I tried hopelessly for nearly 10 minutes and then gave up. I was given some expert advice: First turn the bucket on its side and let it collect some water; then dunk it in until it's full. That's how I learnt how to draw water from a well, while the women had about 10 minutes of hilarious entertainment.

For more information on Surodi, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2005