How over 12,000 people gathered in Madhya Pradesh to help the state conserve water


The article was published on 'The News Minute' web-portal.


People from over 400 villages gathered in Jhabua’s Hathipawa hill to dig contour trenches to trap water and increase the water reserve.

Magan Mohaniya deftly swings the geyti (pickaxe) to deepen the contour trench on Hathipawa hill, in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district. The sun beats down on the Bhil tribal’s back, but he keeps digging. The intensity with which he works shows his purpose: the trench will trap water and increase the water reserves in the nearby areas.

Though Magan hails from Umariya Darbar, a village 30 km away, it is the spirit of community service that brings him to Hathipawa hills, as it has every year for six years. This spirit of community service, called ‘Halma’, is a Bhili tradition of the community coming together and helping one of their own fight their troubles.

This year’s Halma brought together more than 12,000 tribal men, women and children from 400 villages to Jhabua on February 17 and 18. The event was organised by the NGO Shivganga.

Dhuliya Damor, a farmer from Khandiya Khal village, also in Jhabua, has been doing the Halma for about 10 years now. “We learn techniques here and implement them back home in our village. We dig lakes or take up plantation through Halma in our village,” he says.

Halma is not just for the grown-ups. Even children take part in it enthusiastically. Antesh, a Class 6 student from Kheda village, has come for the first time, but there is no doubt of his purpose here. “I came for the Halma because it will benefit everyone,” he says.

The tradition of Halma is simple –  when a member of the community needs help, the entire village chips in. Over the years, Halma has been called for agricultural work and the building of houses, among others.

The tradition, and its underlying principle is now being applied to involve the tribals of Jhabua and parts of Alirajpur district to conserve water by way of contour trenches, ponds and earthen dams. The focus is on environmental sustainability through indigenous community methods

Also in attendance at this year’s Halma were over 520 visitors, including students from Bombay, Pune, Delhi and Roorkee, as well as several social workers, academicians and public figures. Rajya Sabha MP Basavraj Patil Sedam was present on February 17, when the participants went on the Geyti Yatra through the Jhabua town. They carried their tools – geyti (pickaxe), fawda (spade) and tagadi (pan) – on the 3.5 km-long processions from College Ground, through the town and back. The procession was accompanied by cheerful sloganeering, singing and enthusiastic drum beats.

Rachit Jain, a chartered account and shop owner in the Jhabua market, watches quietly as the tribals stream past his stationery store. “This (Halma for water conservation) should happen everywhere so that there’s no water problem. (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s Swacch Bharat will not be possible without water,” he says.

Halma, the main event of the two-day programme, was conducted from 6.30 am to 11 am on February 18. Everyone – tribals and visitors – climbed up the Hathipawa hills to the site marked by the Forest Department. In an area roughly measuring 1 square mile, 8,000 trenches were dug and many of the 35,000 existing trenches were cleaned.

“This project cost us Rs 8 lakh, while it would have cost the government nearly Rs 70 lakh,” says Shivganga co-founder Harsh Chauhan. He estimates that about 4-crore litres of water will be collected, thanks to this undertaking.

Harsh, a Bhil tribal himself, explains that the hills of Jhabua have been denuded of trees from the time of the British, and after. This killed the water-retention capacity of the landscape, leading to a severe scarcity.

Jhabua, with tribals forming 87% of its population, is an agrarian district. Bhils form the majority of the tribal population, followed by the Bhilala and Patelia tribes.

For a part of every year, several tribals migrate to Gujarat, which lies on the western border of the district, as daily wage labourers in agriculture and other sectors.

One reason that Gujarat is a destination of choice is its proximity to the district. Dahod (in Gujarat) is barely an hour’s journey from Jhabua, while MP state capital Bhopal is 350 km away and Indore is 150 km away. Other reasons include the scarcity of water for agriculture and a lack of other sources of livelihood.

“The first aspect that emerged from our discussion with the tribal villagers was that the biggest problem is water, or a lack thereof. That’s why we decided to begin working on water-retention,” says Harsh.

Shivganga has been coordinating the Halma event for the past 10 years. In the first year (2008), 900 people participated. The number rose to 1,600 the following year, then 2,500 in 2010-11, and jumped to 10,000 in 2012.

Shivganga uses the mythological tale of the Ganga’s arrival on Earth as a basis for their event. As the tale goes, Bhagirath prayed for water and so Ganga came, but had to be routed through Lord Shiv’s jata (matted hair).

Shivganga tells the tribals that they are recreating Lord Shiv’s jata through contour trenches. The water conservation work begins at Hathipawa hills each year, and is taken up by different villages in their own capacity.

“It was the people that suggested that we call this event Halma, named after their spirit of community service,” Harsh adds. “The tribals return with the confidence that they can work together for everyone’s benefit, and then get more work done in their own village.”

So far, 2 lakh contour trenches have been dug and 52 earthen dams built in 225 villages in Jhabua, all without government aid. The work in the villages starts after Holi and continues till June. Halma in these villages is also extended to community forests and road repairs.

For instance, the residents of 16 villages in Jhabua dug a lake near Saad village after last year’s Halma. The lake, with the capacity to hold 72-crore litres of water, was dug in in 45 days. While the tribals worked through shram daan, the cost for bringing material and equipment, about Rs 13 lakh, was borne by Infosys. Again, Harsh believes the same work would have cost the public exchequer close to Rs 3 crore.

Vijendra Amleyar, a resident of Saad, was the gram engineer for this work; he was trained by Shivganga, and had help from other engineers and college professors.

Before the lake project was taken up, women had to fetch water from another lake 2-km away. People had begun to lose faith in the government, after many broken promises. Even the practice of Halma was disappearing.

“We would get one type of crop in a year, and now, since we got this lake, we are able to grow two varieties,” says Vijendra. The water from the lake is also used for drinking purposes and for cattle.

Thanks to this lake, he adds, a well in a village, 5-km away, remains full all year long. Now, he says, the villagers have renewed hope.

However, Jhabua is not new to watershed development programmes. The Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Development (RGMWD), started in 1994, also involves people in all aspects of land and water conservation activities in their areas. An ICAR case study notes that there was a dramatic positive change in “water availability, afforestation, agricultural production, food security, fodder availability and migration rates”.

Even the Christians work on the Hathipawa hills. In February, a group from the community watered the shrubs on the hill, under the leadership of Bishop Basil Bhuriya.

Among the participants was a group of students and professionals led by Empathy Connects, a for-impact initiative which organises immersive travel programmes and ground learning workshops to create informed citizens with experience of grassroots realities. Nitesh Sachan, the founder of Empathy Connects, has come for Halma four times since 2011. He believes that more and more people are disconnected from grassroots realities and he hopes to correct this.

“I am trying to sow the seeds of empathy. Besides, it’s amazing to watch so many people come here and work selflessly, where ‘me’ becomes ‘us’. The sense of extended self is very strong here,” says Nitesh.

Tribal teacher and artist Sumit Gunjan, who also came here to experience the spirit of Halma, says, “Preserving the holy traditions and culture of our Adivasi communities could be the key to liberation for being independent.”

Meanwhile, Aatika Singh, a law student in Kolkata, was initially puzzled by the presence of Hindu gods and goddesses in a tribal practice. However, Halma showed her the community struggle of Bhil tribals in Jhabua and how, through it, they are overcoming the environmental crisis.

Eshita Gupta, an environment researcher and current associate director in KPMG, says, “Climate change may be a global phenomenon, but it has to be solved at the local level. Besides, everything can’t be done just by the government. Such initiatives will help maintain the groundwater level.” She adds that it is now important to measure the impact on the groundwater table in the area where water conservation work was done.

Harsh echoes Eshita’s belief: The government has its limitations, so work done through Halma is necessary. He says, “The government can add to the work the community does. This is our community, our work. We should do it ourselves.”


Leave a Reply

nineteen − 5 =