About 4,020 ponds have disappeared in water-starved Bundelkhand region in the past decade, the Uttar Pradesh government has admitted in reply to a Right to Information (RTI) query.
The government has offered no explanation on where the ponds vanished, except for in one instance where it said land demarcation issues were to blame.
Local residents, however, believe the land sharks have filled up these water bodies and grabbed the plots.
Apart from these water bodies, 4,424 ponds and pools were found to have been encroached upon during a survey carried out last year, prompting the government to launch a massive anti-encroachment operation.
Ashish Sagar, an RTI activist had in November 2012 sought details of ponds in the entire state, especially in the seven district of Bundelkhand — Chitrakoot, Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Jhansi and Hamirpur.
He had also sought information about the difference in the number of ponds in 2000 and 2012, the extent of encroachments and the number of ponds cleared of illegal occupation by a squad set up under the directions of the high court in 2012.
"It took them a little over a year to provide me the replies," said Sagar.
According to the reply, a total of 4,020 water bodies have vanished from Bundelkhand — 151 in Chitrakoot, 869 in Banda, 541 in Hamirpur and 2,459 in Jhansi. Jalaun and Lalitpur, the records show, have lost none and gained none.
Except in Hamirpur, where officials said land demarcation factors were responsible for fall in the number of ponds, the government has offered no explanation why the ponds have vanished in other places.
Bundelkhand has one of the lowest levels of per capita income and human development in the country, largely due to frequent droughts caused by water scarcity. Agriculture experts have said a well-knit system of community-managed ponds and other water harvesting structures has eroded over the years.
An interesting nugget of information in the RTI reply had caught Sagar's attention: in Mahoba a total of 1,402 water bodies had increased over these years.
"I realized they have counted all those small ponds that are dug up under NREGA (rural employment scheme) while I wanted them to tell me the status of ancient and traditional ponds," says Sagar.
The government reply also shows encroachments had been removed from a total of 3,852 water bodies. The total number of ponds, pools, reservoirs and wells in the state is 875,345.
"People and the government do not understand how important ponds are for the region. Actually, they are as important as rivers. Just like the Ganga river authority there should be a ponds authority in the country," Sagar said.