“I learnt how to recognize rock formations and understand their properties, how they behave with water. I learnt to figure out which rocks are porous, which hold water, and how much water, what structure will work in what kind of rocks and so on. I’m good at Maths, not at writing. Now I make the estimates when we do technical surveys. Our own relatives and own panchayat members ask our advice. We have more izzat now.”
Jitendra Jadeja, called ‘Jeetu,’ recounts the process by which he became a ‘Parab’ para-engineer and the change this brought to him and others in the program. Parab is the Gujarati equivalent of the Hindi word ‘piyau’ – free public drinking water source, but in this case it refers to community-based ground water management.
In the arid desert lands of Kutch, Gujarat, that receive an average of 333 mm of rainfall, frequent droughts and blistering summers, Parab was conceived with one simple aim: to create locally sustainable water sources. The program sought to train local para-engineers in understanding the hydro-geology of the region, design and implement the construction of wells and tanks, enhance and maintain watersheds, and facilitate the community mechanisms required for sustained maintenance of the water systems.
Deciphering the ‘Janamkundali’ of rocks
Most of the Parab para-engineers have never graduated from high school. There is a rich assortment of work experience in the team – shop attendant, factory worker, NGO staff – apart from their traditional occupations as farmers or shepherds. All of them are literate, and some are particularly good at numbers. Virtually all of them were hurtling from one unsatisfying job to another before joining Parab. What transformed their lives was not merely the systematic acquisition of new knowledge and technical skills but their key role in making scores of villages water secure.
One of the biggest challenges in implementing the water program was the communities’ lack of faith in their own uneducated youth to decipher the ‘janamkundali’ of local rock formations and related water patterns. But slowly, as the para-engineers went about conducting an intensive survey of the topography and hydro-geology of every single village in Abdasa taluka and detailed the results in what they call the “Peene ke pani ki Gita,” or the Bible of Drinking Water, the skeptics started to come around. This professionally produced reference document is now a vital public resource. Even those who may not have followed the story closely were impressed by the end result – the water facilities that have been created under the supervision of the new superheroes of the Kutch desert – the barefoot geologists.
Barefoot talent in India
Para-professionals or ‘barefoot’ engineers, doctors and teachers, are not new in India. The concept has evolved and spread extensively over the last few decades. Under SETU, a program of the Kachchh Navnirman Abhiyan, para-engineers were trained in various spheres such as health, water, veterinary science and agriculture between 2005 and 2007. The Parab program differed in that it did not merely train para-engineers in the technical skills of geo-hydrology, but also enabled them to do all related paper work and handle site supervision during construction of watershed enhancement or construction of wells – right up to completion certification. The Parab engineers’ responsibility now extends to continuous monitoring of the 145 wells that have been built as part of this program in Abdasa taluka.
Traditional wisdom to solve local problems
According to Ambrish Patel, who heads the Government of Gujarat’s Watershed Development Unit in Bhuj, it is now clear that drinking water scarcity cannot be solved without hydro-geological knowledge, which enables us to have optimum storage of ground water.
Getting the support of the Government wasn’t easy though. Jeetu explains that government engineers dismissed the para-engineers at first: “They openly challenged us – saying what will craftsmen and labourers know about managing water systems?” he says. “But there was a 180 degree change in the attitude of those who saw us work on the ground, like the staff of WASMO (Water and Sanitation Management Organisation).”
To give an idea of the extent of efforts in this direction, NGOs in Kachchh have been working to improve access to drinking water for at least two decades now, and many have also run extensive training programs. The Vivekananda Research and Training Institute (VRTI) spent over 20 years building check dams and deepening tanks in Abdasa taluka, but, according to Kishore Chauhan, a civil engineer at VRTI, this work was done without proper geological knowledge. In the Nalliya gram panchayat alone, the government spent between Rs.1 and 2 crores on improving water access, but the benefits were paltry in comparison. The work was based on a simplistic and random approach: deepen a well here, dredge a talab there, dig a bore well here.
The Parab program changed all this by creating effective and sustainable solutions – both in terms of engineering and finance. But the most significant gains were rather subtle. “In the old days people had a vision, a long range view of society,” says Mavjibhai Baraiya, who has headed the VRTI centre at Nalliya for more than 20 years. “People gave time to samaj (society) and considered village property as their own responsibility. This began to change about 25 to 30 years ago as people became more concerned with their own personal property and less concerned with common property.” Pani Thiyo Panjo and the Parab factor may not alter this reality, but it has brought back a sense of collective endeavour to build and maintain common facilities for the whole village.
Training the water seekers
From their own experience as local people the para-engineers know that there is little scope for surface storage of water. A basic introduction to rock formations – marine deposits, volcanic rock, basalt, laterite – and different kinds of water below the surface – fresh water deposits, old marine water deposits, new salt-water ingress etc is followed by a theory and practical component.
Working with a base map of the area, the engineers are taught how to add on that map, the rivers, drainage channels, roads, tanks as well as contours at an interval of 20 meters. The 45 days of training are broken up into 6 day long modules. After each week of training the trainees get a week off to go back to their village and attend to other work.
Jayantilal Gorasiya, a trainer says, “Initially we had problems in explaining the technical information to grassroots workers. Some do grasp faster and better than others. Some have a better mind for calculations. Those who are better tend to teach and help the others who are having difficulties. For all assignments we have a two person team – so there is a balance of capability.”
Villagers now treat the para-engineers as professionals, and some panchayats even demand more work from them. People are hungry to learn. And there is clearly a passion among most of the para-engineers to put their knowledge to good use, to help other people to acquire this knowledge and to be part of sustainable solutions for both drinking water and methods like drip irrigation which maximize water for agricultural purposes.
Scaling the Parab program
WASMO, which has played a key role in the government and NGO interface, is now short of funds. Private companies may be willing to support individual projects from their CSR budgets. But there is need for some overarching facilities and coordination. Consequently, at present, the para-engineers are still under-utilized. But while they get respect and recognition within the community and from formal engineers who have seen their work first hand, they get none from scientists, policy makers and bureaucrats, says Yogesh, another trainer.
Ambrish C. Patel, head of District Watershed Development Unit since 2008, is keen to absorb the para-engineers into government machinery. Such locally rooted skills are essential because every district, every taluka, has its own ‘taseer,’ or unique qualities, says Patel. “The senior bureaucracy should leave a grey area for us to innovate as per local needs.”
Though Parab is still in the midst of figuring out how to expand the program, its approach has been widely replicated. The success of the program led VRTI to commission the para-engineers to train 16 young men in the villages of the Rukmavati river basin in Mandvi. After the training the para-engineers themselves made a presentation to the village and went beyond their original brief. Along with an analysis of the water situation they put together an assessment of how food and fodder production in the area can best be maximized for local use. For example, if one village produces 100 quintals of wheat but consumes only 70 quintals, this surplus village can sell the wheat to the next village which is wheat deficient but fodder surplus.
Empowerment of the para-engineers and their communities is palpable, and it has inspired new thinking in those who have seen visible progress, such as Kailasba Jadeja. “My dream is that there should be a women para-worker,” Jadeja says. “I am from the Darbar Samaj, a kshatriya jati, a community in which girls are very restricted. I want Darbar girls to get education and move out into the world.”
(adapted from a case study on Parab, written by Rajni Bakshi for Arghyam)
Photos by MS Gopal