Amit Vilasrao Deshmukh, an MLA from Latur in Maharashtra, started VDF (Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation) with the aim of contributing to nation-building initiatives in the areas of arts, education, environment, livelihood and sports.
Between 2011 and 2016, agriculture's contribution to India's GDP is estimated to have grown from $56 billion to an all-time high of $80 billion for the year ended December 2016, according to a report by Trading Economics. While the growth in agricultural output was indeed impressive, the agrarian economy has continued to be beset with challenges, especially on account of climate change.
Looking at the various issues weighing down the country's agriculture sector, Amit Vilasrao Deshmukh, an MLA from Latur in Maharashtra and a chemical engineer by education, felt the need for a different approach that was built on sustainability, is long term at the macro level, while positively contributing to daily life at the micro level.
Background and starting the work
“As an MLA, I have been active in raising the issues faced by people of Latur and Marathwada, asking around 250 questions in the Assembly on burning socio-political issues, including on women, child welfare, law and order in the state, water scarcity in the Marathwada region, the Kelkar Samiti report, problems faced by farmers, drought and farmer suicides,” the 40-year-old politician says.
He demanded in the Assembly that the government make micro irrigation mandatory for water-intensive crops, and went to the extent of filing a PIL in the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court for the same.
With water scarcity needing immediate attention, Amit put in place various initiatives pertaining to water and soil conservation, farming techniques, reforestation, and, most importantly, ones that would make farming a profitable option for the youth.
Building the team
In 2000, he started the Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation (VDF)—named after his late father who was the former chief minister of Maharashtra — as a not-for-profit organisation, with a vision to significantly contribute towards nation-building initiatives in the areas of arts, education, environment, livelihood and sports. The foundation works as a facilitator by piloting programmes and developing institutions that show potential for systemic change.
Amit roped in engineering experts from Vikas Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, the sugar mill in Latur, environment science experts from agricultural universities, retired engineers from the government, and a young team of students and volunteers for the foundation.
“For each programme, we create groups with the people of the region who understand the issues and have expertise in the relevant areas, and we tackle the issues, always keeping a balance between ecology and sustainable development,” Amit explains.
Bringing in rainwater harvesting
A programme undertaken by VDF, specifically pertinent to Latur, is one on rainwater harvesting. “Latur, in Marathwada region, is geographically challenged. As the mountains stop the rain clouds, the area receives little rain. This, along with the impact of global warming, has left Latur vulnerable to depleting water resources, and increased use of groundwater,” says Amit.
Realising the need for increasing water resources, the foundation wished to take on large projects. But seeing as they were expensive and took time, VDF looked at other options to help farmers. This was when seasoned engineers came up with the idea of using the land's geological makeup to its advantage, instead of concentrating on the disadvantages.
The method uses the topography and geography of the land of Latur, which is a layer of Basalt, a relatively impervious rock, below which lies Murrum (red gravel), which holds water and can be drawn from wells and borewell.
Amit explains the hard rock layer makes water penetration difficult, with hardly any entering the soft soil from where it can fill up the water table. This means that even if it rains, the water runs off rather than penetrating the ground.
“The engineers recommended using a traditional form of water conservation. The idea was implementable. So a few years back the engineers built the necessary canals etc., needed for the implementation,” adds Amit.
The hard work behind the success
Canals were dug around the perimeter of the village. So when the rains came, the channels filled up and a small portion of it entered the rock. However, as it percolated, it hits an impervious layer. So following the contour of the canal, the rainwater then moves laterally, pouring into a large man-made pond — a deep reservoir in the soft soil —created by the villagers.
The water collected in the dugout permeates the ground, raising the water table of the entire village. To further augment these efforts, farmers built smaller bunds on their land at shorter distances, to allow rainwater to collect and percolate into the ground, thus recharging the subsoil as well as the water table.
Amit adds that the next big challenge was ensuring there are enough trees in the city of Latur, as the geographical and climatic challenges of the area needed a holistic approach.
A project that has had the most impact was the one undertaken to conserve water in Babhalgaon. Amit notches the success of the initiative in the rising levels of the water in the well that had gone dry due to the drought.
Bringing in the water
The groundwater tables can now provide a steady source of water throughout the year. Women now have easy access to water. The foundation and work for this initiative were done many years ago. Amit says,
“Unfortunately, with no rainfall, we could not experience the effectiveness of the initiative. But with people part of the solution, there is a feeling of pride and commitment to its success, as the programme involved the community. The villagers pooled in funds and contributed towards building this system.”
In 2016, with abundant rains, the success of the water percolation method adopted in Babhalgaon motivated other villages to adopt rainwater harvesting measures. Rainwater running through farms is diverted to a bore by constructing sections.
The collected water is stored in a 10x10x10 foot pit that has four-foot-wide stones at the bottom. Over that are placed small stones measuring 20-30mm for three feet, further topped by a two-foot layer of sand. The two-guntha area (approximately 100sqm) surrounding this pit is reserved for absorbing water diverted from the farms as well as rainwater. By this method, running water from 200-300mm rainfall in an area of a one-acre land collects 8-12 lakh litres of water for the borewells.
The water purified from these sections is then let in the borewells.
Bringing in a green cover
With development across Marathwada in the last few decades, there has been significant depletion of green cover. “Latur has a forest cover of only 0.85 percent. VDF is recognising the need of greening as part of the solution, and has been actively involved in an initiative called Latur Trees – which is focusing on increasing the green cover of Latur City and Latur District,” Amit explains.
Latur Tree initiative, which aims to plant five lakh trees in Latur City, would help in improving and maintaining groundwater levels as well. VDF is playing an active role in the planting drive, connecting with various communities. Today, over 20,000 trees have been planted in Latur.
Focus on the future
Environmental conservation being a key focus area for VDF, the team is looking at first creating awareness by planting and adopting more trees and teaching farmers about water and energy conservation. It is also creating awareness amongst farmers on sustainable farming, drip irrigation, organic farming, etc.
Speaking of the future, Amit says that the foundation will continue to support such programmes through facilitation, funding, project management, and by seeking counsel from experts.
“With Latur Trees, we will coordinate collaboration from various stakeholders to achieve our target of five lakh trees. We will spread this initiative across Latur District,” concludes Amit.