Bundelkhand region in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, faces a deepening water crisis. Photo: Flickr / Waterkeeper India

One of India’s most “water-stressed” zones is getting some help from an unlikely quarter. A lonely Hindu priest has been working for years in the Bundelkhand region of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, to clean up local lakes and make the water drinkable.

For Krishnanand, cleaning up water sources is a full-time job — he starts his day at 7 am and works until 7 pm — except that it rewards him not with money, but with contentment.

The work itself is fraught with risks. “Once, when I was digging, a mound of sand, as heavy as 10kg, fell on my foot. I came down with fever and my foot was swollen for three days as a result of the accident,” he says.

But this good samaritan gets no help from the villagers. “Despite my hard work, the villagers don’t acknowledge me. No-one has ever asked me in for a cup of tea or offered to help. But, over the years, I’ve become strong enough to endure any kind of strife and pain.”

Their indifference is inexplicable in view of the fact that the villagers have been witness to the priest’s struggle for many years. A villager named Vidyasagar Yadav says: “Babaji spends all his time cleaning the lake. He has been tirelessly chasing his dream, without any concern for his health.”

Pointing at the mountains of sand around the lake, he adds: “Whatever silt you see around has been dug up by him.”

Krishnanand hasn’t received any support from the government either, although a few individuals have given him some funds. “I received Rs 20,000 (US$300) from a woman politician in 2014. I asked her if she was doing this to strengthen her vote bank or really wanted to help out with the digging. I called her up once later, but she never responded. Another time, I received a cheque of Rs 10,000 from a lady named Meenakshi Arora who has a private environment channel in Noida.”

He says the funds received are insufficient for the scale of the task he has set himself. “I have to buy tools and brooms, etcetera, to clean up the pond and the [nearby] temple. Besides, I have my own personal needs and no source of income since this is what I do all day.”

Whatever the challenges, however, they have failed to dampen his optimism, “I am on a mission to dig out the sand from the lake and develop the ghat [steps leading to the water], and I am not giving up come what may,” he says.

Bundelkhand’s water woes

The Bundelkhand region, home to 18 million people spread over seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six districts of Madhya Pradesh, has been reeling under droughts for almost a decade now. Neeraj Singh, a railway contractor from Panchkurha, says: “Rainfall rarely ever happens in our village, and when it does, it’s usually of no good for our farmlands since the season is not right and it destroys the growing crop.”

The Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan, a nationwide campaign group seeking to ensure water security, along with civil society organizations including Jal Biradari, held a National Water Convention in December 2017, in Khajuraho, aimed at resolving the drought situation in Bundelkhand.

Data shows that over 200 farmers in Bundelkhand, driven to desperation by failing crops and rising debt, have committed suicide in 2017-18, and that more than 80% of people don’t have reliable livelihoods. As a result, some 50% of marginal farmers have been compelled to migrate to other places – including Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, and western UP – in search of work. About 70-80% of the farmers are knee-deep in debt.

Krishnanand has been toiling away for years to keep local lakes clean. Photo via YouTube

The water level has witnessed a dramatic fall in the last decade. Almost 70-90% of the area’s wells and 50% of its hand pumps (only 5-10% of which are functional) have dried up, as a result of which villages have faced an acute drinking water crisis. Almost 50-90% of the bodies of water in Bundelkhand have dried up due to siltation. No government scheme – including social security, crop insurance and water supply schemes — has been adequate to address the effects of water shortages.

In such dire circumstances, the priest’s work is making a difference in Panchkurha at least. Social activist Jalees Khan says: “The pond in question, which is spread over five acres, is a good source of recharging underground water. Cleaning it will help recharge underground water and raise the water level of the village. This, in turn, will ensure that handpumps within a 1-kilometer radius of the pond have water. Recharging the groundwater will also help farmers greatly. However, public participation is indispensable to saving and preserving water.”

Another activist, Devendra Gandhi, says that the priest’s efforts have resulted in the pond being full of water throughout the year. The nearby land is regaining moisture and where there was barren land, crops have started to grow. “However, his mission is incomplete as people are not aware of the need for water conservation,” Gandhi says. “This would have gone a long way in addressing the water crisis in the region.”

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