AJMER, RAJASTHAR: Under the scorching Rajasthani sun of the Mehru Kalan village in Ajmer district, 300 volunteers are hard at work trying to bring water to a settlement that hasn’t had adequate groundwater in the last 5 years.
Almost entirely reliant on water tankers, Mehru Kalan is one of the 13,500 villages in the state where the groundwater level has been depleting at an alarming rate.
According to government data, the extraction of water from the soil in the state is 150 per cent more than what is poured back in each year, and over the last three decades, the number of blocks under water crisis in Rajasthan has gone up seven times.
In a state with only 1.1 per cent surface water and where 91 per cent of demand met through groundwater, the statistics have already sounded alarm bells.
In some districts like Ajmer, Jaipur, Sikar, Alwar and Nagaur, the underground water is depleting at the rate of two to three metres per year. The deeper you dig the worse it gets. 55 per cent of the ground water in Rajasthan is saline or undrinkable, says the state government.
The older generation in the village recalls a time a few decades ago when this village was actually water sufficient. “This baori is very old. When we were young, we used to drink water from it. Now it’s neglected and overgrown with thorns and thistles,” said 75-year-old Om Prakash Jain, pointing to a step-well that is now overgrown with brambles.
But strangely inspirited even in the face of dire straits, volunteers from the village are cleaning out the ancient step well and deepening the village pond.
The pace of their work is derived from a new government programme called Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan. In three years this water conservation project hopes to cover 20,000 out of Rajasthan’s 44,000 villages.
The plan is to make villages water sufficient by recharging their wells, lakes, ponds, step wells and dams.
“If we restore this lake, at least it will be a source of water for bathing of people and livestock,” said Mitthi Bai, a villager who is volunteering to deepen and repair the village pond.
Headed by Sriram Vedire, a 44-year-old technocrat adviser to the state government and the Centre for water conservation, the projects are being carried out by Rajasthan’s River Basin Authority.
The government says that for the first time, water conservation structures are being built on watershed systems based on a scientific analysis of the natural flow of water.
“We want to ensure self-reliance of a village in terms of water. We are covering 3,500 villages this year by building 1.1 lakh structures. Going forward, in the next three to four years, we will cover 20,000 villages,” said Mr Vedire who reports directly to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and has the rank of a minister of state.
The structures like bunds, mini percolation tanks, contour trenches and anicuts or miniature dams will slow down rainwater as it flows and make it seep into the ground.
The government is funding much of the project through donations. It says it has raised Rs 25 crore for the program from individual donors and organisations. And those who cannot donate in cash do so in kind – by lending a hand in the long, tedious process.
Aware of the pitfalls and the corruption involved in government schemes, Mr Vedire said he has geo-tagged every water conservation structure being built under this project.
With this data and the help of satellite imaging, he can monitor the progress of work remotely. “This leads to accountability,” he said.