Retired professor changes village’s status from ‘drought-prone’ to ‘water-sufficient’

In just two years, Ashok Sonawane has saved 20 crore litres of water by digging trenches along hills

Ashok Sonawane at one of many measured trenches dug along the two mountains. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A man works all his life so that he can retire one day and lead a peaceful life thereafter. But for some, like Prof. Ashok Sonawane, life begins after retirement.

Sixty-year-old Sonawane used his learnings of 20 years in water conservation and the services of his ex-students to make Deshwandi village in Nashik district of Maharashtra ‘water sufficient’ in just 2 years. Today, the village saves 10 crore litres of water every monsoon.

The beginning

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A lecturer by profession, Sonawane taught political science for about 35 years, but now he practices what he believes: the need to conserve water.

“I come from a humble family of farmers. My village Chincholi in Sangamner taluka is drought-prone where getting sufficient water to drink is a luxury. I have seen the struggle for water since childhood and that thought lingered in my mind all these years. During my working days, I met people like Popatrao Pawar, Anna Hazare, Vasantrao Salunke and others to understand how they successfully addressed water problems in their own villages,” says Sonawane, who wrote several newspaper articles highlighting works of such people even as he taught political science in college.

After retirement, Sonawane settled down in Nashik city with his wife and two children in 2017. Both his sons are grown ups and Sonawane would have found happiness in spending time with his extended family, but something was amiss! “Often, the visions of farmers from my birth village Chincholi helplessly waiting for some amount of rain to moisten their land disturbed me. Women queuing up at water tankers to get enough water to drink and to cook would fill me with guilt every time I opened the tap to wash my teeth. I thought I need to do something worthwhile. I can’t sit back on my armchair and see my people get harassed by the vagaries of nature,” says Sonawane.

The work

A chance interaction with his ex-students in 2018 led Sonawane to Deshwandi village, a hamlet in Sinnar taluka in Nashik. Deshwandi is a typical village from the rain shadow regions of Maharashtra that only receives sprinkles of heavy monsoon showers that flow in from Arabian sea and are blocked by the Sahyadri mountains of the Western Ghats. An idea stuck Sonawane. “Why not implement here what I had learned from water experts all round the state?” he thought. And thus began the journey of a man, armed with knowledge and the desire to do what he felt was right. His students connected Sonawane to the gram panchayat, which readily handed over to him two small hills in the outskirts of the village to take up water conservation work. Youngsters joined him to make the necessary measurements and here he was with a plan to dig Continuous Contour Trenches (CCT) along the mountain.

A Continuous Contour Trench is dug at a right angle to the slope. Continuous trenches are planned along contour lines so that water flowing downhill is stopped in its tracks by the trenches, allowing the water to percolate into the soil. The land along trenches is used for plantation to stabilise the soil. The roots and foliage of the vegetation help trap sediment that would overflow from the trench during heavy rainfall.

Related news: Mekedatu dam: Easing one state’s water shortage to make it worse for another?

Villagers contributed money on their own for JCB and other equipment. “We did not ask for help from the government or anyone for that matter. A man donated Rs 5,000, saying, ‘Keep this. If this money stays with me, I will splurge it on addictions. Better put it to some good use.’” Yuvamitra’s Sunil Pote, who unfortunately died due to COVID-19 recently, was a pillar of support for Sonawane. “Sunil would organise people, resources and get things done. He was like a Hanuman for me,” says Sonawane in a choked voice.

In May 2018, Sonawane and his team dug CCTs on 38 hectares of land of the first hill. Deshwandi received about 500 mm rainfall that year (pretty good by the region’s standards) and the effect was felt on the ground. “The water level in my well doubled. It almost felt like a miracle,” said Babarao, a small landholding farmer, whose family had been surviving on subsistence agriculture for generations. “Now I can opt for two or may be three crops in a year,” he added.

In 2019, they dug CCTs along the second hill on 68 hectares of land. Many more farmers benefitted as a result. Going by the calculations, Deshwandi today saves about 10 crore litres of rain water every monsoon. This, for a region which receives only 400 to 500 mm rainfall in a year. Imagine what can potentially happen in other such drought-prone villages!

Today, the village is self-sufficient in terms of water availability. “It means much more than having enough water to drink and to farm. Do you know people do not wed their daughters in villages that are drought-prone? Who would?” asks Sonawane. The fact is that independence from water tankers can positively impact the socio-economic fabric of a society.

Related news: Despite rains, bad water management may put TN in a spot

The way ahead

This is just the beginning for Sonawane and his team. “We are now a group of about 15 enthusiastic people, who are willing to take up more such works. I am willing to guide whosoever wants to carry out such works in his village. Building CCTs, though a skillful job, is not impossible. You do not have to be an engineer for it,” says Sonawane.

What worries the retired lecturer though is the rigidity of the society towards change. “We could have taken up similar work on more hills, but they are privately owned and people are not willing to let us in. I have seen a marked apathy of people towards water — everyone wants it, but no one wants to work to get it. It is the government’s job, they say.”

The group has undertaken extensive plantation drives on the hills now to support water percolation. COVID has tied Sonawane’s hands, but the yearning to be out there and work will stay with him forever. “I now know fully well that retirement is not the end of the game, but the beginning of my second innings… an innings armed with knowledge, desire to work and the wisdom to make it happen.”

(Prof Ashok Sonawane can be reached at: 9270973088.)

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