Santosh Barik and his family — his wife, parents and two sisters — have been farm labourers in his village in Jalangi, in Balasore district, for as far as he can remember. His 2.5-acre landholding would yield just enough paddy to feed the family, leaving nothing to sell in the market.

Life for Bibekananda Pradhan of Dahamunda village was not too different. His family, comprising his wife, his parents, sisters and brothers and their families, found it difficult to make ends meet out of their two-acre farm. Ranjan Patra of Chak Sartha village, too, was in the same boat. Life was a constant struggle, with the paddy from his small strip of land inadequate to meet the needs of his large family.

The villages of Balasore district have generally been blessed with ample groundwater. However, the neglect of waterbodies down the years and clogging them with rubbish often results in shortage of potable water and water for irrigation. Marginal farmers, comprising nearly 70 per cent of the population, are badly affected by this state of affairs. It is particularly difficult for women, who trek long distances for potable water.

Today, though, life is looking up for farmers like Barik, Pradhan, and Patra, thanks to the rejuvenation of waterbodies in their respective villages, and help from agri-scientists of the Aahwahan Foundation.

In Jalangi village, the rejuvenation led to cleaning and restoring a 3.5-acre waterbody while in Dahamundatwo waterbodies covering 2.5 acres and 1.5 acres respectively were revived. In Chak Sartha, farmers and volunteers toiled to clean up two waterbodies of two acres and 2.5 acres, rendering them usable.

Restoration also involved monitoring the pH level, and making provision for checking overflow of water during the monsoon. For this, a borewell was sunk along the banks of each waterbody and pipes laid to channel the excess water underground, so as to recharge the groundwater, as Aahwahan Founder Braja Kishore Pradhan explains.

Canals were also dug to direct the additional water to farms in the village. The rejuvenation of waterbodies was accompanied by greening efforts, which saw trees like Gulmohar and Kadamba being planted all along the village roads.

These measures ensured that groundwater levels improved. Now, the villages have ample potable water, and also water for irrigation through the year. With potable water easily accessible women have more leisure and can think of earning additional income for the household.

Meanwhile, cleaning up the waterbodies saw rich tracts of fertile, cultivable land emerge along the banks. With the help of the Foundation, farmers have now taken to growing medicinal plants such as neem, tulsi and aloe vera alongside their waterbodies. Since these are in great demand for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, village communities are now making a rich haul by periodically selling the produce. The money thus earned goes into the regular maintenance of the waterbodies.

A Farmers’ Committee, which includes the village Sarpanch, is in charge of maintaining waterbodies in the village. The Committee’s activities include monitoring the pH level by adding lime and potassium every month (save during the monsoons), taking care of medicinal gardens in the vicinity and marketing the produce, and maintaining general greenery in the village.

Small-time entrepreneurs

Individual farmers, too, are reaping the bounty from these rejuvenated waterbodies.

Two years ago, Barik started cultivating banana in an acre of his land, leaving aside 1.5 acres for paddy. Scientific inputs, courtesy experts arranged through the Foundation, enabled him to earn ₹7,000-8,000 a month from selling bananas, even as his yield from paddy improved. Pradhanhas converted nearly an acre of his two-acre plot into a waterbody where he nurtures six varieties of fish. The venture has enabled him to earn ₹50,000-60,000 every three months. Patra has been helped to lease water from a cleaned waterbody to supplement his income through prawn cultivation. Having trained under Aahwahan experts, Patra earns a profit of ₹I lakh every six months.

At times, the ample land and water on the banks may also be put to use by villagers who are short of land. Once a typical village housewife, Madhusmita Sahu of Rupsa village, Balasore district, is now an entrepreneur. She has set up a 70-bed mushroom farm on the banks of a cleaned three-acre waterbody in her village and earns ₹16,000 per month. Her venture has generated jobs for 6-7 other housewives working for her, each earning ₹6,000-7000 a month,

Others, like Soumya Ranjan Pradhan of Jaleshwar in the same district, have moved out of low-paying jobs and become small-time entrepreneurs. From ₹6,000 earned monthly, in the past, Pradhan has become a poultry farmer earning ₹40,000 quarterly from his 1,500-chicken farm, facilitated by a 1.5 HP borewell fed by the rejuvenated waterbodies in the district.

Currently, Aahwahan is busy rejuvenating waterbodies in eight districts of Odisha; besides Balasore, in the coastal districts of Khurda, Puri, Cuttack, Mayurbhanj and Berhampore, and the inland districts of Sambalpur and Bolangir. In each of these, rainwater harvesting is undertaken following the cleaning of every waterbody. (However, rainwater is harvested from rooftops in Sambalpur and Bolangir, unlike in the coastal districts)

Clearly, water is not just life but also the gateway to a brighter future for these villagers in Odisha.

The writer is a freelancer based in Pune