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Resisting drought in difficult conditions

Resisting drought in difficult conditions
On February 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an audacious pledge. “I am confident that my dream will come true. My dream is your dream. My dream is your dream.

 What is my dream? My dream is that by 2022, when the country celebrates its 75th Independence Day, the income of farmers should double,” he said, adding “Can we do it? Can we take a pledge in this regard, the states, the farmers, we all?” In the context of the current drought, many find this unachievable.

But many villages have insulated themselves from drought, including the current spell. These villages, located in India’s most drought-prone areas, are beautiful examples in difficult places. In a span of just two decades, these villages, once hopeless, have scripted economic miracles.A Village of Lakhpatis.

In the drought-ravaged Marathwada, residents of Kadwanchi village in Jalana district are least worried about the drought or the next monsoon. In fact, they have not been bothered by any drought in the past 20 years, including the drought of 2012, the worst in 40 years. Rather, as one enters into a conversation with residents, the discussion is about agricultural expansion. And not without reason: in the past 20 years, the income of its residents has gone up by 700 percent. 

Kadwanchi is a glowing example of how a well-planned government programme can help in fighting drought and raising the income of farmers. The village has seen a sharp decline in drought vulnerability since 1996 when the Kadwanchi watershed project was launched.

 At that time, 100 percent farmers in the village would report crop failure during a drought. The figure in 2013 stood at 23 percent. All that the farmers did was conserve water and soil and dig farm ponds. Add to it the carefully thought-out cropping pattern that suits the district with annual average rainfall of 730 mm.

The project launched under the national watershed programme was implemented in the village between 1996-97 and 2001-02 with a financial outlay of Rs 1.2 crore. “We did not think much of the work the officials were doing. 

They constructed bunds and trenches and planted trees in a piece of forestland in the village to showcase how effective these methods are in fighting drought. These steps slowed the flow of running water, increased seepage and recharged groundwater. 

They had an impact on the nearby areas as well. Within two years, the wells in surrounding areas started recharging and the soil gained moisture. This compelled us to understand the techniques,” says Vishnu Bapurao, 58, a farmer whose annual income is more than Rs 10 lakh. The project helped increase the total cultivated area in the village from 1,365.95 hectares (ha) in 1996 to 1,517 ha in 2002.

Once the water scarcity was over, the farmers started growing grapes, apart from rice and wheat. This required drip irrigation for which farmers constructed farm ponds. These are small ponds dug by the farmers themselves by taking loans from banks. The ponds store rainwater and provide water throughout the year. The village had 357 ponds in 2015. For grape cultivation and pond construction, the farmers received training by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) of Jalana, which also oversaw the implementation of the project. 

Grape farming phenomenally raised the income of the farmers. According to a 2012 survey by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA), the average annual income of farmers in the village increased from Rs 40,000 in 1996 to Rs 3.21 lakh in 2012—a 700 percent rise. As per the latest data by the National Sample Survey Office in December 2014, the nationwide average annual income of farmers is around Rs 72,000. Farmers in Kadwanchi earn four times the national average. The rise in income also increased the credit-worthiness of farmers. 

“Our study showed that non-institutional money lending decreased to 7.5 percent and institutional lending shot up to 87 percent. Almost all families in the village now have a lakhpati,” says Pandit Wasre, an agriculture scientist at KVK, who headed the project. “The Kadwanchi project succeeded because the community-owned the programmes,” says Wasre. “That’s why even 15 years after the programme, the structures are intact.”

Not very far, at the epicentre of the current drought, Latur, Sandipan Badgire is busy measuring his harvest. In a striking contrast to many farmers in the district who are desperately digging borewells to save crops and invariably landing up in the debt trap, he boasts: “There is no borewell in my farmland and I do not grow sugarcane at all.”

He is an organic farmer and believes in multi-cropping­—the traditional way to ensure crop security. In 1988, at the age of 35, he decided to help his father in farming their 5 ha. At that time, there was no information available on organic farming in Latur and almost all the farmers were dependent on chemicals and fertilisers. From 1988 to 1993, Badgire also practised chemical farming and realised his crop output was going down while the input cost of pesticides was going up.

Many people, like Mohan Manjhi, stopped migrating since they started organic farming in Karoundia village in Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh. “Everybody now rears their cattle and prepares their own fertiliser,” says 42-year-old Manjhi, who owns 2 ha of land. Though organic farming has its benefits, many factors determine the ease with which farmers can reap them. Lack of fodder and shrinking wasteland and grazing land make it tough for small farmers to make their fertiliser. 

 Many choose not to fully embrace organic farming as it requires time and labour. Those with bigger landholdings or other sources of income also find it inconvenient. But for small and marginal farmers, it makes a huge difference.
Informed Success,In the past 13 years, the lives of farmers in seven districts of undivided Andhra Pradesh have changed in a big way. They are not only able to cope with drought-like conditions but also grow crops which assure yield and generate higher income.

In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations launched a groundwater management programme called Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems in seven most drought-prone districts, two of which now fall in Telangana. 

The training given to farmers in groundwater management by FAO and local non-government bodies has enabled them to make feasible and informed decisions about which crops to grow depending on water availability. “Previously, I used to flood the field whenever water was available but the training made me understand when and how much to irrigate,” says G Venkata Konda Reddy, a 52-year-old farmer.

Farmers learnt to measure rainfall and groundwater level, based on which they now advance sowing to October, usually done in December, to save costs on irrigation. Before the training, Reddy was cultivating water-intensive crops, paddy and cotton. Now he has shifted to crops which consume less water, enabling better yield and higher income. “Earlier I was growing seven to eight crops but now I can cultivate up to 14 crops depending on rainfall and water availability.”

When Reddy was growing cotton, he earned a maximum of Rs 10,000 per acre. Today he earns between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000 per acre from groundnut cultivation. Depending on water availability, he also grows green gram, black gram, millet, pulses and vegetables to sustain his income. V Paul Raja Rao, secretary, Bharathi Integrated Rural Development Society, a non-profit, says, “The project has made farmers shift from water-intensive to water-efficient crops besides encouraging diversified cropping.”

The Lessons Modi made his strategy clear to achieve the fixed target through a seven-point charter: focus on irrigation; provide quality seeds and increase soil health; avoid post-harvest losses by building warehouses and cold chains, add value through food processing; have a single national market; provide crop insurance coverage; and add ancillary activities like poultry to farming. But these initiatives are not new. The villages have already adopted what Modi proposed. The only differences are in the way these villages implemented the change and the principles behind them. While Modi identified activities to increase the income, the villages have focused on local planning and the involvement of local communities in development. 

These villages, which have successfully generated employment and livelihoods from local resources, have followed a common road to prosperity. All the villages have defined their poverty as a lack of access to natural resources. One can call it ecological poverty. Thus, their primary aim has been to gain access to local resources like traditional tanks and ponds or the common grazing land. 

Secondly, community organisations have efficiently partnered with government and non-government organisations. This common road has two major roadblocks as well. Government agencies, the biggest funders of rural development, working with a conventional notion of poverty don’t see community initiatives as a viable model for employment generation and poverty eradication. 

Consequently, government policies are not tuned to the local scenario, making all the efforts futile. The most important common factor was the key role played by local institutions like community groups and village panchayats. 

The pertinent question is: how to learn a lesson from these villages and scale up initiatives at a national level to increase the income of farmers. Modi has the instrument in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The employment programme has all the required elements to replicate the above examples: it mandates the village council to plan; it has a provision of five-year plan for villages; it mandates the creation of structures relevant to local farming and water security; and more so, MGNREGA has the required funds to carry out the tasks. 

In the last decade, MGNREGA has created unprecedented 12.3 million water conservation structures. So, why water scarcity in drought-hit states? Approximately 60 percent of water structures are in the 10 states reeling from drought. It is a problem not with MGNREGA but with the way it has been implemented. 

As in Bundelkhand, hundreds of structures were created but with scant regard for the local ecology. So, most of the structures failed to do their primary work: capture rain water. The programme, if not designed for long-term development, will lead to sheer wastage of public money.

MGNREGA can meet one of the toughest challenges of India’s drought management. A study of India’s drought management approaches over the last several decades shows that India largely depended on crisis management. This is despite the fact that over a period of time there have been gradual changes in our approach, at least officially. After the 1966 drought—a situation similar to the current one—government drought management approach changed from ad-hoc crisis management to an anticipatory drought management. 

In the early 1970s, the Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP) and the Desert Development Programme (DDP) were implemented to revive the ecology in hot and cold deserts. The drought in 1987 forced a shift in the focus of the government to long-term measures such as watershed development approach for drought-proofing the country. Many of the above successful examples have adopted this approach.

 DPAP and DDP were redrafted to make watershed development a unit of the drought-proofing initiative. The drought in 2002 finally prompted policymakers and development practitioners to account for the fact that drought was perpetuated by human-induced factors such as neglect of water harvesting capacity. Since then, rainwater harvesting—specifically, the revival of traditional systems—has been given priority in drought management. All of these changes have been factored into MGNREGA and given a legal stamp for effective implementation.

The water structures created under MGNREGA—21 structures in every village till now— are the best instruments to ensure that Indian villages become drought-proof. These structures harvest water and recharge the groundwater. Going by the types of water structures created, each of these structures can irrigate one hectare of land. The average cost of irrigation per hectare using these structures come to around Rs 20,000. This is a sharp contrast to the Government of India’s estimate of Rs 1.5-2 lakh/ha based on canal irrigation.

MGNREGA has been effective in mitigating drought. This was evident in 2009 when poor and marginal farmers in chronic drought-prone areas were more prepared than the state government. It is high time we rejuvenated the programme to drought-proof the country. 

 (The views expressed are 
those of Down to Earth.)

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