The Naganadhi river with its catchment area in Vellore and Tiruvannamalai districts had dried up many years ago. The groundwater in the area reduced subsequently making the area bore-well dependent.Over a 1000 women from 21 villages of a revenue block in Vellore district built recharge wells and check dams to recharge groundwater which, in turn, revived the river.The groundwater recharge work has now been extended to nine other districts led by close to 20,000 women. Vidhya Bhaskaran is back home in her village Salamanatham in Tamil Nadu from three days of training for the self-help group (SHG) members at Yercaud, a hill station in the state. The SHG in her village, that she is part of, is engaged in creating livelihood opportunities, like tailoring, cattle rearing and making agarbatti (incense sticks) and appala (papad), for women. In the last few years, Bhaskaran has got busier, becoming somewhat of a real-life influencer in her village. She is one among 1200 women in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu who played a stellar role in transforming their villages from arid, parched pieces of land to mosaics of green that are now water abundant. Located upstream of the Naganadhi river that had dried up decades ago, every summer had the residents of Salamanatham village in Kaniyambadi block in Vellore district wondering what future held for them. Their lands and wells were getting drier, so were their hopes and dreams. Young men were leaving the village for city jobs realising there is little work for them in their villages. Vellore district has almost always found a place in Tamil Nadu state’s list of drought-hit villages in summer. After the Naganadhi, a tributary of Palar river with its catchment area in Vellore and Tiruvannamalai districts dried up, the groundwater in the area reduced, making the villages on its banks dependent on bore-well for water. In 2014, a few volunteers from the Art of Living foundation approached the village with a novel idea of a recharge well. “We did not believe them initially when they said a recharge well will solve our water problems,” Vidhya says. The volunteers, under the leadership of Chandrasekharan Kuppan were convinced that creating recharge wells to capture the rainwater and to recharge groundwater will rejuvenate the Naganadhi and solve the water scarcity in these districts. They had the prior experience of rejuvenating the Kumudavathi and the Vedavathi rivers in the neighbouring Karnataka state. They had perfected the method. What they needed was the support of the villagers. With no villagers coming forward, they gathered volunteers from Chennai, bore the cost themselves and did a pilot project creating five recharge wells and three boulder checks in Salamanatham village. “In a month’s time, we were called back by the president who was glad that the open wells near the recharge wells were filling up. It was a huge success,” says 49-year-old Kuppan, the foundation’s youth leadership training programme mentor. Kuppan took the idea and the data from the pilot project to the Vellore district administration and the rural development officers to convince them of the feasibility of the plan. The officers gave permission to implement the project and engage the villagers employed under the government programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for this. Vellore district in Tamil Nadu. Map from Datawrapper. Women come together to create recharge wells Vidhya, who was the worksite leader for MGNREGA works and her fellow villagers were amazed to see water in the open wells in their village. Vidhya quickly realised that this could be a game-changer in her village. She gathered 20 other women from her village and came forward to be part of the project to rejuvenate the Naganadhi. Says Vidhya, “Under MGNREGA, 100 days of work is guaranteed to one member of each family. My husband is a school teacher and my boys are employed. I took up the work.” They were given 15 days of training in Chennai on every aspect of building recharge wells — from mixing soil and building cement rings that line the wells to curing and setting them, etc. Soon enough Vidhya, in her late 40s now, realised what awaited them was hard physical labour. “The wells were six feet in width, 15 feet in length and 20 feet in depth. We would work from morning 8 am to 3:30 pm on the cement rings to line the wells and work on recharge wells till 7 pm. We, women, did all the work. Four women had to go down the wells to dig them deeper. There was a lot of work but we made the work enjoyable by sharing amusing stories and singing Tamil film songs while at it,” Vidhya says. The work that started in late 2014 went on till 2017. These women made 36 recharge wells and many check dams. Around the same time, similar works resumed at 20 other villages in the same block. All in all, says Chandrasekharan, 1200 people participated in creating 349 recharge wells and 207 boulder checks in these villages and 99 percent of workers were women. With work in the Vellore district completed, the work has now been extended to nine other districts (45 blocks) and not less than 20,000 women are participating in the rejuvenation of various rivers and lakes near their villages. Santha Ashokan of Sathupalayam village in Vellore district says that she along with other women in the village has built 10 recharge wells and 10 check dams so far. “Only women work on recharge wells while check dams are built by both men and women. Some 100 villagers have taken part in this work,” says 47 years old Santha, a mother of three, whose husband works as a daily wage labourer. She says the hard-rock terrain made the work even more difficult. “We needed to dig very deep for the well. We had to lift the heavy cement rings and lower them down the well, all of which were done by women,” says Santha.