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Malnutrition, unemployment, migration: Jhabua’s deepening water crisis

Ground Report from Jhabua, a tribal-dominated district of Madhya Pradesh, is known for drought and the misery caused by it.

By Shishir Agrawal
New Update
Jhabua water crisis

Jhabua, a tribal-dominated district of Madhya Pradesh, is known for drought and the misery caused by it. Due to this lack of water, most farmers in the district in the west of Madhya Pradesh just cultivate only one crop per season. Further, the limited land per farmer adds to the issue as with just harvest, it is difficult to manage year-long expenses. In such a situation, a vicious cycle of malnutrition, unemployment, migration and illiteracy is born here. The victims of which are the people, animals and the land.

Bawdi Badi Village of Jhabua

Uday Singh Kalia lives in his kutcha house in the Bawdi Badi village. He has three brothers and the family owns a total of 12 bighas (7.42 acres) of land. Out of this, only 3 bighas (1.85 acres) of land comes in Uday's share. But this land is of no use to them now. “My farm is lying dry. We don't have water, so I can only harvest rain”, desperately showing the field says Uday. During the rainy season, Uday is able to sow only maize and tur dal in his field. Its harvest is just enough to feed the family.

कच्चे मकान में गुजर-बसर करने वाले उदय के लिए पानी की अनुपलब्धता सबसे बड़ा संकट है।
The unavailability of water is the biggest crisis for Uday who lives in a kutcha house.
अपनी समस्या बताते हुए उदय
Uday talking to Groundreport, about the water crisis

The unavailability of water is the biggest pain in life for Uday and his family. He tells that there is an Irrigation Department’s pond in his village, yet they don’t get water for farming. “The government has made a pond and left it. Water was to reach the villagers through the pipeline. But nothing like this has happened so far, the 40-year-old tribal farmer says.

Jhabua's water crisis

Let us understand the condition of rain in Jhabua. During the monsoon of 2021, Jhabua was included in the districts of Madhya Pradesh which received the least daily rainfall. The district received, on average 10 to 20 mm of rainfall per day, (Ground Water Year Book 2021-22, pg. 15). According to data of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, in the year 2021, the total rainfall in the district was only 912.8 mm.

Under the Jal Jeevan Mission run by the Central Government, a target was set to provide water to every household. According to the data available on the website of the Ministry of Jal Shakti, there are a total of 2,08,646 households in rural areas of Jhabua district, out of which only 36.39% (69,739) households have been provided with tap connections. Uday Singh says that the water tank and pipes installed in his village 3 years ago under the Nal-Jal Yojana are now dry. They gave water for about 2-3 months, only.

Parched Land Jhabua
Jhabua's fields dry up even before the onset of summer, leaving wide cracks

The underground water level in Jhabua has decreased continuously. Rahul Banerjee, who works for the conservation of water and forests in Alirajpur, says, “Forests have the capacity of water holding, due to which the underground water level keeps increasing. But forests have been cut in this area, due to which the underground water level has also decreased.”  Rahul tells that during the British Raj, the British had started cutting the forest here to use wood as coal. After independence, even when Jhabua became a part of independent India, this harvesting continued, due to which the forests here were cleared. Rahul believes that the government is not serious about solving the water crisis, which is why the situation has remained the same till now.

Like most rural areas of the country, the people of Jhabua also depend on ponds for their water supply. But in this area of the state, the water of the ponds starts disappearing from the month of March itself. The summer season brings with it a vicious cycle of drought, debt and migration. Speaking to us, Uday elaborates on the seriousness of the situation,

“Right now, 70 per cent of our people have gone outside to work. If there are 10 people in the house, then only 2 people stay in the house, the rest have to migrate and go outside to earn.”

Farmer’s debt trap

Sunil Damor (21) returned from Rajkot in Gujarat just a few days back. He was working there as a labourer in the construction work. Talking to Groundreport, he says, “One has to go to work. There is no water here, otherwise, what will we do while sitting at home?” Similarly, Uday's wife Kanta Damor (35) told that their family still has a debt of about 5 lakhs.

“In other places, people repay their loans by growing crops, but we cannot do that. The crop is so meagre that one has to migrate to repay the loan.”

Kutchcha house in Jhabua
Uday's kutcha house is not rain-proof. And, he has to take a loan to repair it.
Indian village woman
Kanta tells that her family has a debt of 5 lakhs

A hand pump is installed at a distance of about 700 meters from Uday's house. This is the only source of the water supply for family members and animals. But to fulfil this need, Kanta has to struggle a lot. 

“I have to go 10-12 times a day to draw water. Even for the animals, water has to be brought from there. This makes my whole body ache. Now I have got the doctor injected for pain, for which he had to pay 300 rupees.” 

Kanta has become accustomed to body pain. She has to get injections every month or two months. The cost of injection is quite significant for them.

Due to the dry(no water) land, the supply of fodder for animals also has to be bought from the market. This puts additional economic pressure on the tribal farmers here. While feeding her cows, Kanta says, 

“Just two days back, they had brought 5 quintals of straw at Rs.700 per quintal. Now it will end tomorrow. Then at the rate of 5%, 10 to 15 thousand loans will have to be taken, only then the husk will come…I think that if there was water, I would be able to grow vegetables, feed the animals and grow something for the guests who come to my house”

‘Halma’: Efforts to save Water

On one hand, the government's neglect of the problem of water scarcity has normalized the despair, on the other, it has given courage to the villagers to get out of this problem by doing their own efforts. In the year 2018, the people of Bawdi Badi themselves constructed a pond by doing ‘shramdaan’ i.e. voluntary contribution of labour. This Shramdaan is a part of the ancient tradition of 'Halma' of the tribals.

Halma is a tradition of Bhil tribals which they use to deal with any problem. Rajaram Katara, who is associated with Sivagangai, tells us by giving an example, 

“If a person's house gets damaged, he would call Halma by giving Notra (an invitation). The people of his village bring all the materials to build the house. They build their house by doing their shramdaan. In return, no one takes any wages or anything else.”

हलमा करके लौटते ग्रामीण Halma Jhabua
Villagers returning after Halma

With the inspiration of 'Sivagangai', local organizations are using tribal halma to 'quench the thirst of Mother Earth'.

“We had only arranged for their food. Within about 20 days, we had made the pond,” Tolya Babariya (40) explains while showing us the pond made of halma. According to the people of the village, during monsoon, 10 million litres of water gets collected in this pond. However, when we went to see this pond, it was dry.

Halma Jhabua labours
Villagers making contour trench through Halma on Hathipawa hill of Jhabua
10वीं तक पढ़ाई कर सकने वाले दरियाव ग्राम इंजीनियर हैं
Dariyav village engineers who didn't even study till 10th

Dariyav Singh Bhabhor (35), a resident of Kheda village, has not even completed his Class 10th. But he is a 'village engineer'. Bhabhor explains, “I attended a 5-day training in Indore. In this, we were trained to make ponds, stop dams and contour trenches.” It was only after this training that he was given the title of Village Engineer. Dariyav adds, “I made the entire map of the pond that we made. I am aware of how the foundation will be, how the pond will be built.”

Ponds made of halma

The people of Kheda also built a pond in the year 2017 through Halma to deal with the water problem. About 12 lakh was spent in the construction of the pond which lasted for about 35 days. “We made this pond so cheap, whereas if the government had built it, they would have spent Rs 1 crore and the pond would not be built even in a year,” Dariyav Singh says. He also tells us, that when the people of the village had decided to build a pond on the forest department's land, the forest department had raised objections. “But now the people of the Forest Department also say that only if you cooperate, water will be saved and trees will also be saved.”

bawdi badi sarkari talab
Government pond built in Bawdi Badi
halma se bana taalab
Kheda's pond made through Halma

About 24 thousand crore litres of water is stored in this pond made by the villagers. But Dariyav believes that even this pond has not been able to end the water problem. “There are only 2 ponds in our village. There should be at least 10-12 more such ponds in the entire village, only then the water problem will end.” Dariyav says that over time the trend of getting boring (tube well) done has increased, due to which the groundwater level has reduced considerably. “Now water comes after digging 400 feet. Earlier this wasn’t the case.” 

Important to mention, under the Central Government's Amrit Sarovar scheme, 137 sites were identified in Jhabua, out of which work could be started only at 121 places. Out of this also, work has been completed in only half (60) sites.

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