A woman from West Bengal’s drought-prone Jhargram rallied hundreds of local women to develop and lay water conservation measures. Here’s the inspiring story of Lilabati Mahata.
During the monsoons, the undulating topography of Jhargram in West Bengal allowed its residents to grow only one crop, paddy. The rest of the year, the residents rely on the forests for nutrition and nourishment by chopping and collecting wood, searching for food, hunting animals, manufacturing ropes, or other menial tasks.
This has been the case for decades, but thanks to the intervention of Lilabati Mahata, a 31-year-old ‘water champion.’
As a result of her efforts, a large number of households now produce seasonal vegetables to usher in better times.
Jhargram, which is part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau, became West Bengal’s 22nd district in 2017, after splitting from Paschim Medinipur, and is suffering from a particularly severe drought. Only 3% of the population lives in cities, with the remainder living in rural areas.
The thinly populated hamlets, known as lal-matir desh because of their rusty red laterite soil, have limited water resources.
Despite receiving approximately 1,400 mm of rainfall between June and September, due to a lack of water conservation and irrigation management, precipitation flows from upland to downstream, joining the river, causing severe water stress and frequent crop failure.
Lilabati, an agricultural laborer from Dhobakhuria village in Binpur 2 block, rallied hundreds of village women to develop and lay water conservation infrastructure in this water-stressed region. As a result, the community has begun to grow vegetables for both consumption and sale.
Because of her outstanding work, the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) named Lilabati a “water champion” in its publication, “A Compendium of 41 Women Stewards.”
Lilabati, who married at the age of 16, had to drop out of college after completing her first year to care for her two daughters.
Lilabati founded a self-help savings group (SHG) with women from her neighbourhood in 2011, and it grew to a sizeable savings over the next few years.
Lilabati said, “In 2016, I obtained a loan from the SHG and leased three bighas to grow vegetables. I earned roughly Rs 120,000 during a four-month period. This was enough to convince the villagers that they could earn money from growing their own food even if they didn’t own the land.”
As her popularity grew, she assisted in mobilising women to demand the right to work from the Panchayat under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which entitles them to 100 days of paid labour to construct water facilities of their choosing.
Lilbati has spent her earnings from vegetable farming on a Scooty, which she uses to reach out to village residents who seek her advice on crop selection, growing, and water saving.
“In 2014, PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), a non-governmental, non-profit organisation that works in seven of the country’s poorest states, hired Lilabati to promote new, less water-intensive farming practises among farmers.”
I was chosen because I had the highest level of education in the village. Because the water levels in her town were dropping, the locals decided to construct a pond to retain water and gradually refill the groundwater table.
The Panchayat, on the other hand, declined to fund the village pond. However, the 500-strong womenfolk’s perseverance and two-year persistence forced the Panchayat to surrender, and the womenfolk received their pond as well as adequate remuneration for their work.
This display of bravery and perseverance inspired the surrounding villages, who demanded the right to work from their local Panchayats.
Lilabati has effectively mobilised her community members to engage in rigorous engagement on issues like as soil and moisture conservation and natural resource regeneration, resource mapping, patch demarcation, and problem identification.
Through her involvement with the community, she has been successful in implementing effective water use in agriculture, which has aided in improving agricultural methods, as well as better productivity and economic situations.
So far, 1,250 households scattered throughout 85 villages have adopted water conservation strategies after learning about various natural resource management practises.
Lilabati explains, “In the previous six years, we have erected over 1,000 staggered trenches, contour bunds, filtration pits, seepage tanks, and other irrigation structures to help irrigate agricultural areas.”
The villagers now raise watermelon, brinjal, tomato, chilli, and other vegetables.
Lilabati Mahata concludes, “I desire to develop women’s identities as farmers in society through natural resource management.”