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The Ahmednagar lesson drought-proofing is about managing both plenty and scarcity
A kolner village resumed its lucrative floriculture in 2005--three years after abandoning it due to drought. Raghu Thange, a farmer, has earned Rs 5 lakh this financial year selling chrysanthemums. The 15-metre open well on his 5-ha plot has water up to 6-8 metres. He has now bought five cows and plans to use organic manure for the next phase of floriculture.
The village has learnt bitterly from the drought, says Anil Mehetre, former sarpanch of Akolner. The memory of this period--spread over three years from 2001 to 2003 has still not disappeared. The first ever cattle camp had to cater for more than 400 animals in the village; fodder was scarce, prices shot up to Rs 600-700 per tonne; crops had virtually failed even as people drilled deeper and deeper to extract groundwater for irrigation.The village became notorious as the 'tubewell-village' as the flower and vegetable farmers struggled to keep their operations going. "Ten tankers visited the village every month to provide relief for water scarcity," says Mehetre. He recalls that the entire village was in a state of deep crisis. People asked him to resign from the post of sarpanch.
When the state soil and water conservation directorate approached the village for work under egs, there were ready takers. The agricultural department suggested work on small water structures. "During that period, almost 2,500 people worked on these structures in the village," says Mehetre. The officials of the directorate explain that during the drought, the village treated almost 400 of its 2,000 ha area for soil and water conservation by building bunds along agricultural fields. In addition, the five micro-watersheds in the village were worked upon--200 ha of continuous contour trenches were dug to hold water and over 100 earthen plugs--loose boulder dams were made on the drains to impede the flow of rainwater and to recharge groundwater.
The difference, the village leaders say is noticeable. While floriculture has resumed with added water in the wells, the big change they see is in the attitude of people. "In the past, when we had good rainfall we still needed tankers to provide us water in peak summer. But we have not seen a tanker for the past two years. Now when it rains, the water stops," says Thange. "The water level in the wells, which had plummeted to about 90 metres in 1998, is now stable at 10.5 metres in 2007," confirms Sarode Sarkale, the block agricultural officer of Nagar block.
The challenge remains as villagers continue to exploit groundwater. When asked whether the village had any restrictions on the crops it grew, Mehetre voiced his helplessness. He said it was not possible to restrain villagers from exploiting groundwater or growing water-guzzling crops. But he also said there was one difference in this good rain period now people were taking on drip irrigation so that they could better conserve water.
Thange confirmed this. "I do not want to repeat the experience of the last drought," he says, adding that he has already put in drip for his vegetable and floriculture field. He believes he will have answers when next the rain fails.
This is the question that haunts the district. Every two-three years the rains fail; sometimes for over three years in a row. When this happens the district goes from prosperity to near destitution. Every time it is more difficult to recover farmers are deeper in debt and more distressed. But this year there is a new confidence. "We can cope with less than normal rainfall because we have invested during the drought in soil and water conservation," explains Vikas Patil, director, department of agriculture of the district.
Ahmednagar district lies in the Maharashtra plateau, with flat agricultural land on undulating terrain In most seasons, the hills are bare and dry. Farmers survive mainly on groundwater and levels are declining. Rainfall is variable. In the past 15 years, many years the rains have almost totally failed--even when rains have been bountiful water has been scarce. The average rainfall is around 400-500 mm. But it's persistent failure that breaks the district's back--this happened from 2001 to 2003. Drought and devastation took over.
In Ahmednagar, there was a clear correlation between the intensity of drought and egs spending on watershed work and soil conservation (see graph Clear correlation).In 200 3-04, the critical drought year, spending shot up to almost Rs 106 crore, a big chunk of the total of Rs 338 crore spent between 1995-96 and 2006-07. This Rs 106 crore went towards making 201 farm ponds, doing 20,000 ha of continuous contour trenching, another 3,400 ha of compartment bunding and building over 1,000 check dam-like structures in different streams and drains to improve water harvesting. In this period the district built over 70,000 water-harvesting structures. In addition, it treated through trenching and field bunding another 190,000 ha. Of the district's area of just over 1.7 million ha, roughly 11 per cent was worked upon for soil conservation. "We have in these years of scarcity used funds to plan for relief against drought," says Patil (see graphic Ridge to valley).
The impact is tangible, say officials, citing three indicators. First, there has been a drastic decline in the demand for employment in the last few average and high rainfall years. In 2006, the district spent as little as Rs 7 crore on building water structures. "No one is ready to work on our public employment programmes. This is because agriculture is booming and labour is short," says Uttam Rao Karpe, the chief executive officer of the district's zilla parishad. This year he says nearly Rs 50 crore lies unspent of the funds for soil and water conservation. A look at the employment demand statistics shows that April-December, 2007, only 7,000 households demanded work, as compared to the 30,000-odd in 2006-07 under nrega.
Secondly, the area under crops has increased, farmers have moved to cash crops and yields have risen. "Agriculture has become productive and lucrative," says Karpe. The best indicator is that while during drought there was a desperate shortage of fodder and farmers preferred not to sell sugarcane but use it as fodder, now there is excess sugarcane in the district, say officials.
Thirdly, and key, is the improvement in the water table of the district because of soil and water conservation. In the district, roughly 20 per cent of the 1.2 million ha of cultivated land is irrigated. But the bulk of this--75 per cent--is well irrigated. Farmers use dug-wells, which tap the shallow aquifers, and increasingly deeper and deeper tubewells for cultivation. The district groundwater authorities monitor 200 wells to check water levels. Their data shows, on average, there has been a 5-metre rise in water levels between the peak drought period of 2003 and 2007. Analysis of individual wells across different watersheds confirms this trend. While water levels dropped to 19 metres during the drought of 2003, the near average rainfall the following year has seen an increase and stabilization. Less than average rainfall is not a problem anymore.
The key challenges in the future will be to improve productivity, with use of techniques to minimize water use and changing cropping patterns. "The district administration is promoting drip irrigation to counter the increasing use of borewells," says Patil.
The next big challenge, say officials, is to protect watersheds--mostly lands under the forest department. "Till now we have mainly worked in the storage zone and recharge zone, not in the upper areas of the watershed," says Ajay Karve, deputy director, district groundwater department.
In some cases, labourers could not be motivated to work in the hilly areas due to the lower wages prevailing there, says Mahesh Baosar, the forest range officer who supervized watershed works in upstream areas. "In some villages of the district the areas under watershed projects were treated twice, both by the forest department and agriculture department which has implemented majority of watershed works in the district," says Baosar.
"The next phase needs to focus on runoff or hill areas," suggests Karve. This will ensure the district is drought-proofed.
The message from Ahmednagar is clear if we can create productive assets then drought relief can become drought-proofing. Currently 330 districts in India are implementing nrega. The question is what will the money for employment be spent on? Between 1995 and 2006, Ahmednagar spent Rs 340 crore, or Rs 28 crore a year on soil and water conservation. This has allowed it to cope with drought.
Under nrega, each district, on average, has spent Rs 44 crore, but the bulk of this has not been on water conservation. Despite the officially stated 'non-negotiable' focus on water and soil conservation, funds in most states are being spent on roads and buildings. Till July 2007, 22 other states have negligible allocation for water conservation. Three states--Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan--accounted for 96 per cent of water conservation works under nrega.
The second lesson is 'how' the drought relief money should be spent to create productive assets. In Hiware Bazar, the village panchayat evolved a five-year plan. It then used the money provided by different government schemes--from egs to the Total Sanitation Programme--to work its plan. It first treated the forest and the catchments for its village wells; it then took up water conservation and soil conservation. It used short-term drought relief funds for long-term development.
This will be the biggest challenge for nrega. Conceptually, decentralization is part of the scheme. The village has to make a development plan; the district has to make a perspective plan; the projects have to be cleared by the gram sabha and implemented by the panchayat. The question now is how this scheme can indeed replicate the lessons of Hiware Bazar.
The third lesson is the role of coordination between the 'on what' and 'how' factors.
In Ahmednagar, it is clear that the potential of water conservation will only be realized when the watersheds under the control of the forest department are part of the programme. But even that is not enough. These watersheds, which are used intensively by people to graze their animals, will only be protected if people are involved in planning and reap the benefits. Similarly, all the water recharged through soil conservation and water-harvesting work will not be enough if people overuse and over-exploit. This will require the management of plenty as much as that of scarcity.
It is here that village institutions like those in Hiware Bazar hold the key. While every village may not be able to curtail the use of water or control cropping patterns, it is clear that local leaders will have to find ways of dealing with sustainability. They know that the failure of rains is inevitable. The question is if they can make sure that when the rains fail, drought is not inevitable.