Brown dominates the colour palette: the grass, the rundown path, even the trees, which are leafless and lifeless. A harsh sun beats down on a group of journalists who make their way to a village in the middle of nowhere.
There is acute water crisis in Patna village, located in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh. Chhatarpur, located in central Bundelkhand, has some of the lowest per capita income levels and human development indices in the country.
Haritika, a livelihood project that looks to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty in Bundelkhand, tied up with the Coca Cola India Foundation’s Anandana project, an undertaking that supports social projects in water sustainability and renewable energy. The foundation has completed 27 projects across India.
In Patna, a village of about 500 people, the situation is grave. “The main source of income for the villagers is picking flowers from Mahua trees, which grow all over the region. The flowers, from which oil can be extracted, have medicinal properties, and can be used to make locally-consumed alcohol too. But this wasn’t enough, so they took up agriculture.” Avani Mohan Singh, Chief Functionary at Haritika, says.
Farmers could grow just two crops a year and the women had to walk a minimum of four or five hours daily to get potable water. “The villagers used to grow crops in one season and seek work as labourers in the other,” Singh says.
The Anandana project invested ₹67 lakh to build a check dam at Patna to conserve water. “If we get good rains in July and September, the water in the dam lasts us the whole year.” one villager says. After the construction of the check dam, the groundwater level has risen by 50 feet.
“We were approached by Avani with a proposal. After seeing the low social indices in the area, we decided to take on this project,” says Himanshu Thapliyal, Programme Manager, Coca-Cola India Foundation, adding that the foundation has spent over ₹1 crore on the project at Patna alone.
“Earlier, a farmer used to earn ₹25,000 annually; now they earn ₹80,000 to ₹90,000 a year. The villagers have also been able to cultivate an orchard where mangoes, gooseberries and guavas grow.” Singh says.
Ramadhin, a septuagenarian who owns about two-and-a-half acres of land in the village, says: “Previously, we couldn’t even grow corn on this land. Now, I grow almost four crops on my land, as compared to just two earlier.” he adds.
Another villager, Govind, says that the young people now stay back and work in the village instead of migrating to urban areas.
“The main goal of the project was to make the village self-sufficient. We have also installed solar-powered street lamps, laid a concrete road, helped set up solar-powered bore-wells and built toilets in the village to ensure better sanitation,” Thapliyal says.
The closest Primary Health Centre from Patna is at Kishangarh, 6 km away, which is also where the villagers go every week to buy supplies.
The local school has classes only up till the Std 5. After that, the children go to a school at Kishangarh. “There is a hostel in Kishangarh where the girls stay and finish school,” a woman says. Fifteen-year-old Savitri Pal, who wrote the Class 10 Board Exams last month, says that her future, academic and otherwise, depends on her parents. “Girls in the village are not discouraged from studying, but most are married off young.”
At present, the check dam is almost dry, but the villagers aren’t worried. “It’s a miracle the water lasted us this long despite it not raining in September,” Govind Singh, a farmer, says.
Boys play in the water as a woman fills her pot. She hoists it on her head and walks back toward the village. She’ll be home in a matter of minutes — something that wasn’t possible a few years ago.
(The writer was at Patna on the invitation of the Coca-Cola India Foundation)