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High Water Mark

High Water Mark

Author: Sandeep Unnithan
Publication: India Today
Date: May 3, 2004

Introduction: Barren acres become lush oases as an engineer shows an ingenious way to harvest rainwater

Aurangabad is the epicentre of Maharashtra's torrid zone. Here temperatures soar to a scorching 45 degree Celsius, turning the earth into a dust bowl. But you wouldn't know it from the Kedia farm, a bumpy half-hour ride to the south of the city. The 15- ft-high teak saplings which sway in the undulating terrain at the foot of a small clump of hills tell the inspirational story of innovation and self-help which transformed a once-barren land into a lush oasis.

Eight years ago, Vijay Kedia, 48, a prosperous industrial contractor in the throes of a midlife crisis, switched tracks to become an agriculturist. He bought 47 acres of hilly land to grow teak and fruit trees. Reality soon hit hard. When it rained, the rocky terrain failed to hold the slurry torrents that rushed down the hills and took the precious topsoil with it. When it didn't rain (and that was more often), Kedia spent lakhs of rupees to extract water from wells as the water-table plummeted lower with each passing month. Yet for all his efforts, the saplings did not survive the blazing heat. In 1998, the entire papaya crop worth Rs 14 lakh withered away.

So Kedia shopped around for technology. First he tried drip irrigation but gave it up when it proved to be expensive. Then the bits Pilani-trained mechanical engineer racked his brains and came up with a simple solution. In 2000, he made a series of check dams and trenches that were 5-10 ft deep. He lined the walls with PVC sheets and filled the dugouts with mud. With the next rains, Kedia knew the plan was a success. The water falling on the trenches percolated into the 45 reservoirs built beneath them. While the PVC sheets prevented water from flowing out, the trenches checked evaporation.

Now over 80 per cent of the rainwater which falls on Kedia's farm trickles to the underground reservoirs. The project cost of each acre worked out to Rs 2,000, plus the labour for digging pits and ditches. A week's rainfall is enough to keep the reservoirs full, equipped for a year's supply. The soil remains like a moist brown sponge, the wells are brimful all year. Kedia hasn't wasted even the long pipes he bought for his drip-irrigation project. A tailor's measuring tape stuck on them, they form ingenious devices to gauge the water level.

The motor-mouth proponent of Maharashtra Government's rainwater harvesting programme and its "Jal Mitra" (Water Friend), Kedia is carrying forth his mission: "To make rainwater harvesting affordable to all and raise the groundwater table." With a jeep-load of audio-visual aids, he has conducted about 500 meetings across the country. To the doubters, he points to the dozens of villages in Maharashtra where people are enjoying the fruits of his labour.

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