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AS GUJARAT gears up to face another summer of water riots in the cities, the farmers of Shankerpura village in Panchmahal district will continue to irrigate their fields: they have their lift irrigation systems, run collectively and set up with help from the Sadguru Water and Development Foundation (SWDF).
Shankerpura is inhabited by 200 Bhil households, mostly marginal farmers with an average land holding of 1.5 ha. Today, 120 ha of wheat, maize, gram and pigeon pea are irrigated in Shankerpura by the lift irrigation systems (LIS) built on the nearby Machhan river and local streams. The systems consist of a check dam across a stream or river and a powerful pump that lifts the accumulated water to underground channels and distribution outlets. These outlets are built on top of hillocks to maintain the water flow that then can be diverted to the fields.
"The water crisis in this area has been mitigated by the LIS. Even though the Narmada canal will bypass us, we will not need its water," asserts Harnath Jagawat, director, SWDF. According to co-director Sharmishtha Jagawat, the villagers themselves came up with plans to set up LIS and "we only modified the ideas to overcome the technical limitations".
The systems in Shankerpura are run by a cooperative set up by the villagers. Explains Hirjibhai Damod, chairman of the cooperative, "Once a LIS is set up, it becomes common responsibility. The cooperative committee, selected and paid for by the villagers, has to look after the operations, maintenance and distribution of water, and collect payments." A farmer is charged between Rs 50 and Rs 200 per ha depending on the crop. The committee also settles disputes.
Popular participation is a key feature of LIS. "The most important part for people's participation is the management of these systems," says Rajesh Kumar, in-charge of the LIS cell at SWDF. Devchand Magan, member of the village committee in Thuthi Kankasia, a hamlet of Shankerpura, explains, " The villagers decide our salaries. But if a government official operates the system, the villagers would lose all control over it. Now, they control their own employees." The villagers know that their dependence on water is crucial and they would like to remain in complete collective control over it, he adds. So strong is their stress on the collective that the villagers of Hadmat Kuntha ostracised their headman who was trying to corner all the water for himself. "The ostracisation of a headman is unheard of in this area," says Kumar.
The cooperative committees have one employee each to run the pump and carry out minor repairs. The committee also settles disputes over the diversion of water and payments. "Although these conflicts are few, we sometimes have to intervene and the dispute is settled in front of the entire village," says Magan. "If we see any field watered in excess, we just charge it to the owner. This simple measure normally prevents water theft."
The construction of LIS has brought in higher yields and the cultivation of an increased variety of crops like pigeon peas and grams. "Earlier, the tribals barely grew enough wheat to feed themselves. Now, with water from LIS available, cultivation is no longer restricted to the monsoon," says Kumar.
Increased production has also stopped seasonal migration, which has gone done from 75 per cent to a trickle of 5 per cent. "The villagers now realise the value of community action: the real benefit of the cooperative committees," says Jagawat. "They are now aware that depending on external aid indefinitely does not help."
This realisation resulted in the creation of a community fund in 1989 by the villagers of Thuhti Kankasia. Says Magan, "Initially there were suspicions about what would happen to the money, but the transparency of the system reassured them." The fund runs on a 5 per cent contribution from labour payments, which then goes into a Gram Vikas Mandal account, used for loans for seeds, medical care, schoolbooks, uniforms and other such expenses.
The fund has accumulated Rs 30,000 in the past 5 years. The idea has struck such deep roots that individual households are contributing to make the fund bigger. "The contributory fund is the surest sign of an emerging prosperity in this traditionally deprived area," says Kumar.