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The do-it-youself guide to tackle water scarcity: UP villagers show the way

Rohit Ghosh | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:20 IST

A lifeline snapped

  • The Bakulahi river was a natural boundary between Allahabad and Pratapgarh
  • Like other north Indian rivers, the Bakulahi caused floods during monsoon
  • The UP irrigation department diverted its course in 1991

River runs dry

  • After the diversion, the region lost its water source for irrigation and domestic purposes
  • People had to depend on hand pumps
  • Those who could afford installed underground pumps
  • Soon the water table started falling in the area
  • Young men found it hard to find brides

A Waterman and a motivator

  • Environmentalist Rajendra \'Waterman\' Singh advised the villagers to rejuvenate the Bakulahi
  • Samaj Shekhar, a native of Poorey Turai, started motivating villagers to dig up the river bed
  • Villagers who had encroached upon the river bed opposed the move

A collective effort

  • Shekhar managed to draw thousands of villagers to start digging in 2011
  • They even employed earth movers
  • Villagers chipped in to meet the cost of Rs 12 lakh
  • Now they have dug up an 18-km stretch and are awaiting rainfall

It seems a freshly dug trench, about 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep, between Allahabad and Pratapgarh districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Walk along the meandering trench and you will see it filled with water in places. That's when you realise the trench is actually a river bed.

The river, Bakulahi, had not only irrigated acres of land once but also led to devastating monsoon floods. Now people living on both sides of the river are trying to revive it.

The person leading this endeavour is aptly called Samaj Shekhar. Samaj, in Hindi, means society. "People don't believe its my real name. They think I have adopted it," says Shekhar.

As Shekhar stands at the bank of the dry river in Poorey Turai, the village he hails from in Pratapgarh, a villager walks into the trench to go to the other side.

Shekhar chides the villager: "Why don't you use the bridge? Don't you consider this a river? Would you have dared to cross it had it been full. Show some respect and use the bridge."

Overawed, the villager climbs out and starts walking towards the bridge at a little further down the path.

"The Bakulahi acted as a natural boundary between Pratapgarh and Allahabad. Some 40 villages on either side depended on the river for irrigation as well as domestic needs," Shekhar says.

Like many other river in north India, the Bakulahi overflowed its banks during the monsoon, causing floods year after year.

Perhaps all that was required was a dam. But in 1988, a myopic state irrigation department diverted the flow of the river, says Shekhar. The process was completed in 1991 and all that remained was a trench.

"At that time, people were more worried about the floods and did not foresee the problems that would arise from changing the course of the river," says Shekhar.

Thousands were deprived of one of the most basic natural resources. Soon farmers started to feel the pinch as there was not enough for the fields.

Those who could afford, started using underground pumps. "But what about those who could not?" asks Kanhaiyya Lal from Poorey Turai. "We had to flock at the homes of the rich for water or had to depend on hand pumps installed by the government," he says.

Matters took a turn for the worse when the water table started falling in villages along the Bakulahi. Soon the shortage of water became a social problem. "Young men could not find brides," says Shekhar.

Then, in 2003, Rajendra 'Waterman' Singh visited Poorey Turai. "My father, who was the director of the Nehru Yuva Kendra in New Delhi, invited him," says Shekhar says.

Singh told the villagers that the only solution to their water woes was to bring the river back to its original course. At that time, Shekhar was a student.

Taking the matter up with the district administration was fruitless. Whatever was to be done would have to be done by collective effort.

Shekhar says it took him eight years to motivate people to try and rejuvenate the river. It was not easy: Since 1991, many had levelled the river bed.

There was opposition from some peasants who had encroached upon the river bed and started farming there. "But they had to relent when more and more people started supporting me," he says.

It August 2011 thousands gathered by the Bakulahi and started digging its bed. "We worked relentlessly and now we have dug out a stretch of about 15 kilometres," says Kamlesh Pratap Singh, former headman of Soraon, a village near Poorey Turai.

When digging got tough, villagers hired earth-movers. "Impressed by our passion, many of those who owned the machines did not charge us for using the earth-movers," says Singh.

The project cost about Rs 12 lakh. "Villagers chipped in. Even the poor were ready to pay," says Vishwanath Singh of Babupur village in Allahabad.

By June 28 this year, the villagers had dug an 18-km stretch and are waiting for the rains.

The monsoon has been sparse this year, not enough to regenerate the river fullly. But Shekhar is hopeful: "Once it rains, Bakulahi will again become a gushing river."

Once regenerated, the Bakulahi will help irrigate 7,000 acres of farmland in UP

Impressed with the effort, Allahabad Commissioner Rajendra Shukla has assured Shekhar of all possible help in the future. "When the river again flows by its original course, there may be floods. We will take steps to check them," Shukla told Catch.

Once it starts flowing, the Bakulahi will irrigate 7,000 acres. "Some 40 villages will benefit directly. Thousands of people in another 200 villages will benefit indirectly," says Shekhar.

"Reviving a river, especially when water is becoming scarce, is commendable," says Rakesh Jaiswal, an environmentalist who has been working to make the Ganga pollution-free. "People in other parts should follow the example."

First published: 10 September 2015, 9:49 IST