The undulating landmass of Jhargram in West Bengal provided its inhabitants with the opportunity to grow only one crop i.e. paddy, during the monsoons. For the rest of the year, the locals derive sustenance and nourishment from the forests by cutting and collecting wood, foraging for food, hunting animals, making ropes or doing menial jobs. It has been so for generations but thanks to the intervention of 31-year-old ‘water champion’ Lilabati Mahata. Due to her efforts, scores of households now grow seasonal vegetables to usher in better times.
An integral part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau, Jhargram became West Bengal’s 22nd district in 2017, having split from Paschim Medinipur and has a particularly severe drought situation. A mere 3 per cent of the population here are urbanites while the rest is rural.
Known as lal-matir desh with its rusty red laterite soil, the sparsely populated hamlets have scarce water resources. Though the region receives about 1,400 mm of rainfall between June and September, due to lack of water conservation and irrigation management, the rainwater flows from upland to downstream joining the river resulting in severe water stress and frequent crop failure.
In this water-scarce region, Lilabati, an agricultural labourer of Dhobakhuria village in Binpur 2 block, mobilised hundreds of village women to erect and lay water conservation structures. This has led to the community taking to growing vegetables, both for consumption and sale. Thanks to her exemplary work the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) in its publication, “A compendium of 41 Women Stewards” has identified Lilabati as a ‘water champion’.