Innovative means of reviving rivers and preserving water is transforming the fate of rural Bengal that was once vulnerable to drought and famine, writes Tarun Goswami.
The magical touch of Mamata Banerjee has not only transformed Kolkata or the other cities of Bengal like Siliguri and Durgapur; it has also entirely changed the face of rural Bengal. Six western districts of Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Midnapore, Jhargram, Birbhum and Paschim Burdwan, which are well known for their vulnerability to drought are undergoing major changes and vegetation is now flourishing on wasteland. If things go as planned, in another five to six years, these districts will be enveloped with a green belt and will become important tourist spots wooing both domestic and foreign travellers.
The Panchayats and Rural Development Department has chalked out elaborate plans that have already been implemented. There has been maximum utilisation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme. Some of the important and rather interesting projects are vegetation on wasteland, rejuvenation of the Berai River and creating Self Help Groups (SHGs) run by self-reliant women. The schemes undertaken by the Panchayats and the Rural Development Department has caused economic regeneration of the people and this has helped uplift the overall health of the rural economy.
Unlike the usual trend where no documentation is maintained by different departments carrying out monumental work, the Panchayats and Rural Development Department has brought out a bilingual booklet titled 'Transforming Land Lives'. The bilingual 64-page booklet narrates the story of the transformation of the villages and their inhabitants. It was through a voluntary assignment that Sohan Sarkar, a young photographer, captured through his lens the development of water conservation and water harvesting undertaken by utilising the MGNREGA. Behind every development there is a story and some stories can be really enthralling. Sarkar was assisted by Dibyendu Sarkar, Commissioner, Panchayats and Rural Development Department, in providing his experiences a structured form. The booklet is a document of the success of the schemes undertaken by the Panchayat and Rural Development Department. It gives the teachers and students of Sociology and Economics detailed insight into the major changes that have altered the mindset of the rural populace. The villagers who till recently faced abject poverty due to the dry environment and regular natural calamities are now earning regular income and this has instilled in them an immense amount of self-confidence.
Ushar Mukti means freedom from drought or dryness. The rejuvenation of the Berai River, the first of its kind in Bengal, is an interesting story. Our area of operation is the Onda block in the Bankura district, where a series of projects has turned this dry area into a productive green belt.
Weather patterns are changing across the world. With rising land, sea and air temperatures, the moisture in the air and the intensity of thunderstorms are on the rise. In the low lying lands, this can lead to rampant floods. In the uplands, water escapes through the gullies, creeks and streams before it can seep into the ground that has been thoroughly dried and deprived of moisture due to the extreme heat. This phenomenon makes these places more drought-prone than before.
The economy of Bankura is closely influenced by climatic factors such as rainfall pattern, relative humidity and temperature. These factors affect the waterscape as lands get parched due to excessive heat; there is high soil moisture because of erratic rainfall and the water table depletes as there is little scope of water seeping into the backdrop of the continuous runoff.
In the undulating terrain of Onda, the soil is of two types – laterite and older alluvium. Sub-surface water occurs here in saturated granular zones between the depths of 40 to 200 metres. With a scarcity of trees, surface water faces few obstructions till it reaches low lying areas. The average elevation of Onda is several metres above mean sea level. Along with the dryness, the groundwater table is low, resulting in a near total lack of moisture in the topsoil.
With this backdrop, the project to rejuvenate the Berai River was undertaken. The task was huge. Bankura is a famine-prone district. With continuous soil erosion and degradation of forest in the higher ridges, the river Berai, a tributary of River Darakeshwar and the mainstay of water and livelihood for a large number of people, dried up. As many as 62 villages are located in the catchment area. Their income dropped and migration skyrocketed. The economy was adversely hit due to poor forest cover and dwindling water resources. A master plan was taken to reverse the trend in Onda. The length of the Berai River is 45 km, out of which nine gram panchayats stand on 32 km.
To cope with the situation, the watershed approach was adopted. A survey of the contour of the area was done by the Geographic Information System (GIS). Several steps were taken to prevent soil erosion on the banks of the river. The rejuvenation of the Berai River has completely changed the income pattern of the villagers and the migration has halted. The rejuvenation of the river serves as a model in Bengal and can be replicated across other parts of the state. The story of Berai River's rejuvenation is a successful story of immaculate planning with a complete understanding of the area and psyche of the people. The Panchayats and Rural Development Department deserves kudos for making this project a great success.
How Ushar Mukti has changed the Dunda village is rather interesting. Dunda is an example of the success that the programme could bring when there is convergence among different schemes and concerted efforts are made to change the landscape pattern in a positive manner.
Dunda is a village inhabited by 54 families with a resident population of 240. The people are largely agrarian but the fragmentation of land is acute and the average landholding by an individual farmer is quite low. There are landless households as well. The barrenness of the land has made cultivation an onerous task. The fields are mostly barren or mono-cropped or at the most, fertile enough to produce two crops per year.
The watershed management has been an immense success! The management includes orchard plantation, social forestry and farm ponds. These have helped positively transform the landscape of the area. Forest varieties have been introduced upland and on the middle-upland, especially on the banks of ponds and canals. Horticulture has been promoted in the middle-upland and middle-lowland. A mango orchard taken up during 2014-15 and 2015-16 has been built with 400 mango trees across an area of one hectare. The total expenditure is Rs 2,67,630. The garden is managed by self-help groups of women. Other areas have witnessed plantation and social forestry. The total number of trees planted would be around 4800. Thus, the Dunda village is shining now with the income of villagers rising remarkably.
Brishapatta, a unique concept initiated by the Panchayats and Rural Development Department gives the right of trees to the beneficiaries. In Binodnagar, there is an irrigation canal connected to the river Kansabati. The canal, shaped by a small gorge where water flows deep below, had empty banks on either side. On the banks of the canal, after taking permission from the Irrigation and Waterways department, the local gram panchayat planted 10,000 Akashmoni saplings in 2016-17 and gave rights of the trees to the families seeking jobs and living in the adjoining areas. Brishapatta is a unique scheme where rights over plants are given but not corresponding rights over the land. A written document specifying the plants and their varieties, rights and stakeholders have also been provided. Patta-holders are sensitised about their rights and responsibilities. The rights include maintenance of the plants, generally for three years in a row against specified wages per plant. The beneficiaries have 75 per cent right over the produce when the trees bear fruits or provide wood. This unique concept has changed the lifestyle of the poor people who have started earning by their own accord.
Close to Raotora village, an arid wasteland has been converted into a sprawling orchard with the help of MGNREGA. Ma Manosa Swayambhar Gosthi, a local self-help group run by women with 13 members, is the beneficiary of the scheme. Workers from the village who used to produce rice traditionally now take care of the orchard by regularly watering the plants, de-weeding and applying bio fertilisers and pesticides. In 2017, Onda block won an award for excellence in MGNREGA. The block utilised the award to procure submersible pumps for severely drought-prone orchards.
Dibyendu Sarkar, the main architect of the Ushar Mukti project, is confident that in the future not too distant, the six western districts will not only look green but the economic life of the people will be far more elevated. He believes that Bengal has come up as an undisputed leader in programme implementation and that has been accepted by the Centre. Anyone visiting rural Bengal can witness the marked improvement in infrastructure that includes the construction of roads, supply of drinking water in every household along with electricity and rise in the economic standard of rural citizens. Rural Bengal is now playing a major role in Bengal's all-round development.