This is a story of a remote, barren village in Maharashtra that transformed itself from poverty to prosperity

Wankute, settled at the foothills of the Sahyadri in Western Maharashtra, was, like many of the villages around, teetering on the edge of disaster – riddled with poverty and rife with politics. The landscape stretched black and thorny – black basalt rock that heated up in raging summers, and the few cacti that managed to survive them.  Sitting on the top of the hills in a rain-shadow region, it was water starved. All the rain that fell rushed out into the valleys. 3 months in a year, water tankers lumbered up the hill to distribute water to Wankute and the neighbouring villages. The rest of the year, the women trudged long distances to fetch water and firewood for the family, while the men went off to the nearby towns in search of work and wage, leaving families behind. With just 5 hectares of land under perennial irrigation and 20 hectares under seasonal irrigation, and just over 150 hectares that completely depended on rain, there was just not enough food produced to support the families.

Did Wankute have a future? It did.

Wankute had been hearing about watershed development projects transforming poor, brown, barren villages like theirs into rich, green, fertile places. After visiting these villages and seeing the transformation first hand, Wankute decided that this was what they needed for themselves.

But the transformation of Wankute from parched to lush was not about to happen overnight. It came with its own share of challenges and difficulties. With WOTR acting as a catalyst and enabling partner, the people worked together to find solutions for their water woes and all the challenges that came with it.

The greatest challenge faced was trying to unite a village that had been used to being divided on the basis of caste, class and gender. In addition, villagers found it difficult to stomach the ban on tree felling and free grazing of cattle, which they depended on for firewood and fodder, respectively. The ban was required for the regeneration of trees, grasses, and biomass and a non-negotiable requirement of WOTR’s Watershed Development approach. Eventually, the sceptics and those reluctant to participate were won over by the constant demonstrations of the benefits of the ban and persistent persuasion by WOTR and committee members.

Together, through measured monetary contributions and volunteering labour, the villagers began to own the project, coming together and building a series of technical land and water treatment structures like farm bunds, contour bunds, check dams, etc. using only locally available materials.

The village also came up with a united vision of the future and then prioritized, implemented and monitored all the activities at the pace best suited to their needs. Over time, the future they envisioned became the reality that they are living today.
Wankute, today, is visibly different from what it was 7 years ago. The hill sides and wastelands, once rocky and cacti ridden, are now covered with 110,000 trees and grasses, reducing soil erosion and increasing ground water levels.

It also enjoys sufficient water all year round, no longer having to depend on tankers for three months in a year. With this assurance of water supply, agricultural employment increased from just 3 months a year to 8 months in a year. So, while previously upto 60% of villagers were migrating out of Wankute in search of jobs, now Wankute not only has enough jobs for their own residents, but has to import labour from other villages to help in their farms.

This is not all. 142 Wankute women set up and run 9 self-help groups. Through these organizations, the women were trained on issues concerning women’s health, growth monitoring of their children, nutrition using local resources, personality development, and legal and entitlement literacy.

But beyond just training, the women took their futures in their own hands. With the ban on felling trees for fuel, the women purchased solar lamps, hot water chulhas and smokeless chulhas to reduce their dependence of wood as a source of fuel.  Says Rohini Hande, “Before the solar lights, I used to be harassed by the kerosene lamps. I had to walk 7-8 kilometres to bring the kerosene from the outlet. Sometimes, I had to make 2 or 3 trips as there was no way of knowing whether the shop would have the kerosene. But now with the solar lights, I have forgotten all about the kerosene issues in the last 2-3 years.”

Wankute’s future was all tied into this increasingly scarce resource: water. Despite all the initial reluctance, scepticism and even a fear of giving up the old way of doing things, a united Wankute not just implemented a successful watershed development project, but also proved that progress need not always come at the cost of the environment. Even without the much deserved recognition they received through the TOI-JSW Earth Awards, Wankute is a winner.