Sunday, June 23, 2024

Dam Good Work in the Drylands of India

Jaipur, India – Suman Gawali, a female farmer from Madha taluka of Solapur district in Maharashtra, exudes joy at the sight of Bendwada rivulet stretch in her village Kurdu, which the community has revived. She and her mother-in-law had no second thoughts about forgoing their claim on four acres of their land falling in the catchment of the rivulet. Like the rest of the villagers, she has no qualms about relinquishing her stake, as it was a collective decision of the community to change the fate of the village inhabited by 517 families and about 9000 people with complete dependency on rain-fed farming. It had to be a massive cause for which land worth lakhs is given voluntarily to construct two check-dams where government machinery is not in the forefront, and lawful compensation against the land acquired with consent is not possible. The struggle of reaping a single crop, if it rains sufficiently by chance, or witnessing frequent drought ruining all prospects for the entire year left the villagers with only choice, to act urgently. The recurrent dry spells would force earning members to migrate in search of work or subsist on the cattle and dairy. Rigors of life are multi-fold for women who would juggle between parched farms and daily loads of duties when men would be away to fend for the family. The villagers had to be calculative this time and refused to be subdued by the painful churning of life by opting to be a part rejuvenation-drive of the water body.

In just two years, 11 villages, including Suman’s and two nagar panchayats, are reaping the benefits of groundwater recharge with this rivulet coming back to life and running across 37 kilometers. With information-savvy generation adorning the role of problem solvers, this village has set a model of transformation in the shortest possible period. How silently a handful of community knit organizations are addressing the farm and water crisis issue is missed entirely by the agitated news media and political minds. The side-stream upsurge will change the ground reality, which the mainstream has ignored by its structure and design.

The drylands in India cover 133 districts out of 634 facing drought every year, gripping nine states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. Neglect of natural water reservoirs and rivulets, encroachments on natural catchments, and ignorance about ways to revive the water bodies altogether have contributed to the agriculture crisis across all drylands, accounting for 68 percent of total cultivated land in India. Farmers know that the ultimate solution is through the availability of water for recharge and efficient use. The watershed programs of the government are demand-driven. Still, lack of transparency impedes fair allocation of resources, depriving the most deserving who may already be on the fringe of development. Community-driven initiatives last longer for the simple reason of ownership of labor and resources invested and benefits drawn. Dependence on rain-fed farming, severe water crisis, and loss of crops aggravated by credit traps are significant reasons for farmers’ migration and suicides in Maharashtra.

Along the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer is the driest district of India in Western Rajasthan, with a mere 160 mm annual rainfall. This district abounds in traditional water bodies and conserving water for community farming which are lifelines during the hottest months. Erratic climate shocks the desert zones with intense off-season showers, which these drylands invariably fail to take advantage of, as the traditional water structures await digging and cleaning to remain functional. While the border villages here are at the mercy of Border Security Forces (BSF) supplying water-tankers and serving the sparse distant population, the micro-level community-based work of non-government organizations with farmers focuses on constructing traditional Khadeen the embankment of slopes in agriculture fields. Only a handful of farmers like Kachra Ram here enjoy the benefit of better availability of water, multiplying income to at least three-fold with integrated farming approaches and seed banking. This model, combined with pasture development, could improve water reality drastically in the deserts if scaled up.

Undeterred by climatic stress and governance gaps, a revival of pasture land and traditional water bodies in the Jodhpur district in Western Rajasthan by people’s collective has kickstarted momentum in about four dozen villages spreading in adjoining dry districts of Jaisalmer and Nagaur also. With massive plantation on pasture land, construction of water tanks under government schemes, and connecting youth for the revival of dried water ponds, the unrelenting villager youth like Prakash Vyas, Bajrang Joshi, Prakash Chaudhari, and other grassroots young elected leaders rejoice with 700 feet deep water re-surfacing up-to 200 feet. Villagers are voicing their concerns for sustainable living, restoring water culture, and deriving local support to create models with participatory approaches.

Organizations embedded in the deep-dryland of Maharashtra with tragic suicides derive their strength from the wisdom of farmers, walking them into the next step of farmer’s producer federations for market linkages and income stability. Chasing a target of 10,000 FPOs (farmer producer organizations) across India and doubling farm income, the Union government of India has been pushing the farmers’ entrepreneurial zeal. In Madha taluka, the young team of Dhanraj, who leads the farmer’s collective here through Madha Welfare Society, availed all possible policy options drawing full support from Ganesh Thorat and Malhaar Patekar of NAAM Foundation. Together they are emerging as silent force hand-holding communities and organizations across water-stressed regions of Maharashtra and other states of India for lasting impacts on water, livelihood, and sustainability. The farmers Mahesh Anand, Nitin Surabhan, Hanumant Jagtaap, and others in a village Bhosare of 1894 families adjoining Kurdu share that water fathomed earlier at 700 feet of depth is now traceable at 70 feet after the construction of three check dams. This is how a revived water-body changes the flow of life. With water sufficiency and market support, farmers’ income has not just doubled but quadrupled, and each one in their village is reaping the benefit.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s highways ministry appears to be afoot to use dredged sand from the nearby water bodies for construction and paving nearby roads and highways. Connecting the dots is a more innovative way to improve the water-farm situation as the direct effect of the water crisis has been the unpredictability of agriculture income and growing demand for private wells, borewells, repair, and conservation of old community water structures, desilting, and revival of dried water bodies and supply of water tankers to fulfill immediate drinking water needs. These measures, supported by government schemes, have been more short-term. While the drylands, sustaining 40 percent humans and 60 percent livestock in India, require priority focus on clearing the catchment area of natural water bodies feeding the population in more natural ways when managed and cared for well with ordinary intelligence.

Groundwater recharge is the real game-changer. Government schemes are ample to undertake water supply, repair pipes and borewells, dig wells in river beds, desilting and deepening of wells, and tanker supply but never enough, nor timely. With the construction of gully plugs, farm ponds, check-dams, and cleaning pathways of water streams, a new wave of community-led culture is the beacon of light that must inspire us to take stock of our drylands crucial for a vibrant rural economy. Indisputably, villages will remain the cradle of our civilization which can thrive only around water.

Author profile
Dr. Shipra Mathur

Dr. Mathur is a veteran journalist based in Jaipur, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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