It has been said that ‘water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium’. Undoubtedly, water is intrinsic to life. While its absence parches land and impoverishes people, its presence in abundance is a growth engine that spurs progress.

Analysis of Standardized Rainfall Anomaly Index (SRAI) data for Wet and Dry years of 116 years (1901 – 2016) over West Bengal showed that numbers of dry years are increasing alarmingly. This is an extremely worrisome news for water resources planning and agricultural.

70 – 80% of national income and employment is contributed to by rainfed farming. Research results project that 15%–40% of current rainfed rice producing States may be at risk from climate change by 2050. The small-holders of land in these States often have limited access to financial markets or crop insurance, and so these projected climate-driven declines in rainfed rice cultivation would be expected to be detrimental to local livelihoods.

To ensure water security, rejuvenate rivers and improve productivity of land, BRLF entered an agreement with the West Bengal MGNREGA cell and seven civil society organisations (CSOs) in 2017 to launch the Ushar Mukti programme.

Translated as ‘freedom from barrenness’, this mega watershed programme covers 384 gram panchayats in 55 blocks across six districts in the state: Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram, Birbhum, Paschim Midnapur, and Paschim Bardhaman.

Our CSO partners engaged in field implementation of the project include Pradan (the lead CSO); Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC); Tagore Society for Rural Development (TSRD); Rural Development Association (RDA); Shamayita Math (SM); Loka Kalyan Parishad (LKP); and Prasari.

The project employs a ridge-to-valley approach that leads to the restoration of rivers and their catchment area, while mitigating soil erosion and replenishing groundwater through plantation and water harvesting.

Through our interventions, BRLF aims to rejuvenate 750,000 hectare of landacross 10,091 villages through 2,344 micro-watersheds. This is expected to benefit about 500,000 households.Dharasevaks (watershed volunteers) and project monitoring teams have been deployed in all micro-watersheds and trained on watershed principles.

In the process, we seek to develop a climate-resilient community; improve existing farm management practices; generate additional and alternative sustainableincome; stem forced urban migration; and build strong relationships among the people, Panchayati Raj institutions and government.

In two years since inception of Ushar Mukti, it is becoming apparent on ground that the project is an implementation maximiser.

There has already been a positive impact on the rehabilitation of uplands, which have traditionally been left fallow, and have lost topsoil over the years. For example, in the village of Kharujor in Birbandh block, 26.25 acre of fallow uplands have been covered with social forestry along with appropriate soil and water conservation interventions. Twelve water-harvesting structures have been created in series, which harvest 45.7 lakh cubic feet of water.

In fact, in FY2018-19, Ushar Mukti has been a resource mobiliser to the tune of Rs 47.07 crore and a human capital mobiliser and maximiser, generating 470,000 person days, while building greater accountability and transparency into the system—no small feat!

Indeed, Ushar Mukti is testament to BRLF’s beliefthat despite the vagaries of nature and climate change, upscaling civil society action in partnership with government can renew and replenish natural resources, create sustainable livelihoods, strengthen communities, and drive development through capacity building.

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