Conservation and efficient water management initiatives in the tribal, economically distressed hinterlands of Dang, Narmada and Bharuch have led to many water-stressed villages in Gujarat becoming water-sufficient. This is all because of the 12 year-long effort of Neeta Patel, who is now called the ‘Water Champion’.
Neeta Patel’s work on water conservation and women empowerment has influenced the lives of over 30,000 villagers, spread across 51 villages in these districts and others in the southern part of Gujarat. Every day, Neeta Patel moves from village to village on a two-wheeler, reaching out to distant Adivasi padas. She moves through these hilly regions and sometimes travels as far as 80-90 km. In each village, she works with thousands of women and raises water-related issues with the Panchayats. She also sets up water harvesting structures and creates water committees.
42-year-old Neeta Patel is a postgraduate in Rural Studies from New Delhi’s Shree Sant Kabir Training Institute. She hails from Mograwadi village in Navsari and encountered cruel poverty in her growing up years. However, she was able to continue her studies thanks to the scholarship she earned, and also because of the unhindered support from her parents.
So far Neeta has assisted in the installation of hand pumps and water supply channels in different villages in Gujarat. Visiting the tribal hamlets, Neeta realized that the hilly regions of Narmada and Bahruch were drastically lacking in vegetation though they received plentiful rains between June and October. The water went downhill joining the rivers while the villagers experienced acute water shortage. Between 1997 and 2000, people mobilized by Neeta Patel planted around 90,000 saplings in this region, which still stand there providing the village with fuelwood.
Working for nearly 10 years Patel summoned villagers to build scores of group wells, trenches, check dams, check walls and erect boribundhs (bags filled with sand put across a river) on
Khapri, Purna, Gira, Ambika, and Dhodhad rivers flowing in Dang district. Lift irrigation schemes were introduced with the financial support of NGOs, a couple of foundations and voluntary labor from the villagers. These benefited around 400 families. Neeta was also in charge of repairing 48 old check dams built by the government.
Neeta Patel’s efforts have turned many water-stressed villages into water-sufficient ones. Its visible impact is evident on both ground and surface-water availability. Neeta’s effort has led to the setting up of ‘Pani Samitis’ run by women in several villages. This works in coordination with the Panchayat for combating the water problems in the villages. She has helped create four women empowerment groups in Dang with a total strength of 2,900 members.
Neeta Patel attributes her success in water conservation activities to the liberal support she received from the villagers, many of whom were women. She says that it gives her immense joy to see how the women have been empowered and become their decision-makers. Neeta Patel was honored by the United Nations Development Program in India last year.