Located 10 km from the Yavatmal city in Maharashtra, the Nilona reservoir has been the primary drinking water source for its residents since 1972. As in many other parts of the country, the 1990s saw the city growing and the population increasing. The Yavatmal residents, who had not experienced water shortage till then, started facing acute drinking water shortage. Rubbing salt in their wounds were the authorities who cut the household water supply to half--from 64 million litres to 32 million litres weekly--in 2014. “Yavatmal witnessed such acute drinking water crisis that the frequency of water supply to the residents was reduced to once in seven to eight days in summer,” says Kamal Bagadi, a social activist from Yavatmal.
Siltation as the main culprit
As per the government estimates, the nearly 700-metre-long lake, which had the capacity to hold 6.39 million cubic metres of water, was reduced to just a third of its size due to soil washing into the lake. The siltation resulted in the storage capacity of the dam going very low with not enough water to be supplied to the city. According to the residents, there has not been any effort from the government to improve the situation which frustrated them. The urban local body or the ULB did not have enough resources to improve the situation. To resolve this crisis, a few individuals of Yavatmal got together and mobilised people to work for the revival of the dam.
In July 2014, they organised a lecture by Dr Avinash Pol, a doctor-turned-water conversationalist. During his lecture, Dr Pol narrated the story of the people of Jalna, a water-stressed district in Maharashtra, who managed to revive the Ghanewadi dam. This story had an impact on the Yavatmal residents and also planted the seed of “Mission Deep Nilona” or MDN--a movement to revive Nilona. The motivated residents, along with Prayas, an NGO working in Yavatmal, worked hard towards the mission to revive the Nilona dam to improve the drinking water situation in Yavatmal.
In their bid to desilt the dam, the enthusiastic volunteers of the group began meeting various officials of Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran, a government body, and other government departments. But unfortunately, the rainy season arrived and the desiltation was stalled for a while. There was another hurdle, too: Reviving Nilona needed funds.
Crossing the hurdles
When the rains stopped, the Prayas team, along with some volunteers, decided to repair the check dams connected to the Nilona dam as the first step to cleaning up the dam. Check dams needed to be repaired to improve the storage capacity of the reservoir and also to improve the water quality. The repairing of the check dams also helped prevent wastewater from flowing directly into the reservoir. Another NGO, Dilasa Sansthan, was contacted for technical support. In April 2015, government departments like the PWD, the district council, the municipal council, the forest department, Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran and more joined hands with the Prayas group to desilt the dam. After the repair work, the storage capacity of the check dams improved. With it grew people's participation in desilting. The group also motivated people to plant trees in the catchment areas to stop soil erosion.
The enthusiastic participation of people did not stop there. To contribute to MDN’s work, the students of Savitri Jyotirao Social Work College in Yavatmal conducted a survey of farmers who were interested in procuring the silt from the Nilona dam. The silt is an excellent source of humus for farmers. The silt was provided to more than 300 farmers free of cost with the farmers having to bear only the cost of the transportation of the silt. “The farmers who used the silt have benefited from it. Their farm production has grown substantially. The moisture in the soil is now retained for a longer period, which is good for cotton production,” says 63-year-old Marut Rao, a beneficiary of Nilona's silt.
Results begin to show
“By 2015, the MDN had removed 35,000 cubic metres of the 6.3 million cubic metres of silt clogging Nilona,” says Dr Alok Gupta, project director of MDN. The work was crowdfunded. Help also came in the form of dredgers, trucks and labour that were given for free. Result? The government estimated the cost of digging canals from Bembla to Nilona at Rs 25 million but MDN managed to dig the canal at just Rs 3.8 million. “More than 12,000 people volunteered to clear grass, weeds, pebbles and mud. In 2016, the MDN had removed another 2,46,000 cubic meters of silt. The budget for desilting Nilona in 2016 was Rs 1.10 crore which was still less than the cost estimated by the government,” says Gupta.
The effort made by a few residents of Yavatmal and Prayas to revive Nilona has so far been successful in terms of mobilising students, residents of Yavatmal, the NGOs in the region and the government departments for conserving water and environment. This initiative was also successful in bridging the gap between the government departments and the people. “The government officials appreciate the mass movement for the Nilona’s revival and helping people of Yavatmal in every possible way to mitigate water crisis”, says Dattatreya Gaekwad, a senior government official in the district’s agriculture department.
“Earlier the drinking water crisis in Yavatmal started from March. After the initiation of MDN’s work two years ago, we are now getting water supply till May. The frequency of water supply, the quality of water and the government support to the residents have also improved to some extent. We feel motivated to work further and improve the storage capacity of the reservoir. The drinking water problem is not solved yet and it would take couple of years more to improve the overall situation, but the effort taken by MDN has definitely improved the water availability for the people and reduced the time period of the water crises that we used to face earlier”, says Amol Sakharkar, a resident of Yavatmal.
The MDN initiative is inspiring the residents of the neighbouring districts to take their problems in their hands and work towards solving them. Well, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.