Rajshri’s River of Hope

Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.

Rajshri Deshpande

An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.

As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.

An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.

Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.

Drought Farmer

Farmers and their fields await the monsoon in Pandhri

When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.

The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.

Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.

The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.

In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.

Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.

Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.

Dr Ajit Gokhale

Dr Ajit Gokhale’s workshop for the villagers in progress

But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.

But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads? Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.

When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.

He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.

Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.

But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)

Rajshri Deshpande Drought

The Hydraulic Excavator provided by Naam Foundation. Tractors provided by the villagers.

Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.

He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.

As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…

Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.

Rajshri Deshpande's Team

Rajshri with her champions. Dattabhau stands second from left. Yogesh second from right.

At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.

One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.

‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’ When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.

At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.

“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.

The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.

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