Rajasthan and a number of states were reeling under a severe drought in 2003, and the farmers were the worst hit. Their tale of woe spread fast and caught the attention of Amla Ruia, a social entrepreneur and wife of Ashok Kumar Ruia, Chairman and Managing Director of Phoenix Mills. It saddened her, even more, when her native village Ramghar was affected. With help from the villagers, Ruia managed to build more than 200 ponds to recharge the groundwater. But she was keen to develop something more sustainable that would help the farmers in the long run. Three years later, her organisation Aakar Charitable Trust came in to construct check dams, with 40 per cent contribution from the local communities.
To date, Aakar has constructed 270 check dams for harvesting water and directly improved the lives and economic conditions of 1,56,000 people across 115 villages. From less than 20 per cent of arable land, these villages now have water throughout the year, and 80 per cent of the total land is now cultivable. People can grow two crops a year, rear cattle and access clean drinking water near their homes. What's more, another 1,30,000 people in 193 villages indirectly benefited from these activities. With better harvests and animal husbandry, there has been an additional revenue of Rs 500 crore.
It was no mean achievement, and Aakar has spent about Rs 16 crore over the past 14 years to get the projects completed. The funding came from Ruia's family, followed by generous contributions from well-wishers. But none of it came from any government grant even though authorities spend big money on irrigation. "I do not want to get into it because I do not know how to get things moving, things are not very ethical there," says the 72-year-old chairperson of Aakar.
Ruia says she is planning to scale up the operations of Aakar, which will construct 90 check dams a year from the current 30 and will start similar projects in states like Odisha, Bihar and Haryana. As of now, Aakar spends about Rs 2 crore a year.
Asked what her greatest achievement is, Ruia does not think twice. "Some people in the areas where we constructed check dams had not even seen how wheat is grown and now they cultivate wheat. The economic condition of these villagers has dramatically changed, and that gives great satisfaction," she says.