Bhaktaraj Garje failed to understand the reason behind his students not attending school. The primary school teacher from Kulalwadi in the Sangli district of Maharashtra tried every means to entice them before he realized that water scarcity was the root cause; that and the linked issue of forced migration. He decided to take the matter head-on and inspired the villagers to plant over 25,000 trees. The efforts of the 33-year-old teachers transformed the village and led to the conservation of millions of liters of water.
Bhaktaraj Garje’s efforts have doubled the income of the villagers. They are no longer forced to migrate to the cities in search of jobs. He first came to Kulalwadi in 2010 to take up his job as a primary teacher. But he was disillusioned as students hardly attended school if the dilapidated building could be called that. The school, with 97 students, remained closed for most of the year. His best efforts proved unfruitful. He didn’t initially realize that the cause lay somewhere outside. He realized that the villagers were more concerned with the dwindling water resources than about their children’s education.
He decided to involve himself in efforts to reforest the region. Rainfall was a mere 300 mm annually. The villagers migrated with their children to work as farm laborers elsewhere or migrated to the cities in search of jobs.
He began by planting saplings on the school campus, which had only 8 trees. He encouraged his students to participate in the conservation efforts both at school and at their homes, something which he had only taught them in class so far.
Between 2011 and 2016, he and his students planted 1,000 trees. It was then that Bhaktaraj Garje and his team got the support of the Paani Foundation, an initiative started by actor Aamir Khan, to make Maharashtra drought-free and prosperous. The rapid destruction of forests and poor water management have turned large parts of the state into barren land.
The foundation introduced the ‘water cup competition’ to help in water conservation efforts. Bhaktaraj Garje encouraged the villagers of Kulalwadi to participate in it. They were guided by the foundation members at workshops conducted in the village.
Took Time And Patience For Bhaktaraj Garje In Convincing
Gradually villagers opened up to the idea and realized the benefits that it could bring to their lives. They even contributed to the effort and volunteered in digging trenches, clearing the land of the boulder, and making small check dams to conserve the scarce water in their area.
The efforts of the villagers under the guidance of Bhaktaraj Garje led to the completion of a facility to store 2.3 lakh cubic meters (around 8.12 million cubic feet) which comes to around 230 million liters of water. Even one good spell of rain if properly conserved brings millions of liters of water, says Bhaktaraj Garje. They had by then planted 3,500 trees on barren land surrounding the village.
Guided by Bhaktaraj Garje, the villagers spent the next three years nurturing the saplings and ensured their survival. They used innovative methods to maximize the use of the limited supply of water. They put sand in pipes along with the roots to help water percolate the rocky land. The use of agricultural wastes and dry leaves as a protective layer on top of the soil ensured better retention of soil moisture and helped the trees from drying out.
The villagers learned the use of organic fertilizers like jeevamrit. It is made from a mixture of manure, gram flour, cattle urine, water, and jaggery. Its use enhances the microbial activity and adds nutritional value to the topsoil.
Donations worth $4,000 came in from the US and UK. They won prize money of INR 8 lakhs ($10,774) and villagers pooled in with another INR 10 lakhs ($13,468).
Help came from the forest department who planted 100,000 saplings on 190 hectares (469.5 acres). The village now has surplus water and has now shifted its focus to organic farming. Bhaktaraj Garje has helped villagers draw up plans to plant crops depending on the availability of water. This will help maximize the use of water.
Bhaktaraj Garje focused his efforts on his students. He says that the scientific execution of traditional methods has helped. That and the dedicated efforts and sheer willpower of villagers inspired by a champion like Bhaktaraj Garje.
All Image Credits: The Better India