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A farm development scheme hurts farmers, favours industry
The Centre recently came up with a new-fangled scheme for Maharashtra's drought-prone areas. The solution to increase water availability for
irrigation was found in an industrial product.
About 1,500 farm ponds are to be lined with plastic sheets in 16 cotton growing districts. The government has announced 100 per cent subsidy
for construction of these ponds that will harvest rainwater but check percolation through the soil. The farmers were initially reluctant but eventually
accepted it the way they accept most government schemes. But once the ponds were dug--at a price of 0.6 ha of prime agricultural land
each--it turned out that the companies selected to supply plastic films (see box: Roping in industry) raised the price by Rs 16-18 per
square metre on the pretext of rising fuel prices. This increased the total cost of lining a pond by Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000.
Farmers who are yet to receive any payment towards the subsidy fear they may have to bear this additional cost as well. Raged over the issue,
they have stalled construction work on all farm ponds. In Washim district, the affected farmers have presented a memorandum to the district
collector asking either to raise the subsidy amount or order the companies to provide the plastic film at the price originally decided.
Embarrassed government officials give excuses and cite reasons beyond their control. Sources in the State Horticulture Mission, which is
implementing the scheme, inform that a proposal has been submitted to nabard recommending an increase in
subsidy to meet the rising costs of plastic films.
But what is the rationale for plastic film lining in traditional farm ponds?
Farm ponds are the traditional irrigation and water harvesting structures in the water-scarce Vidarbha region. Promoters of sustainable farming
allege that the government is distorting traditional technology to benefit industries.
"The original farm pond practice was to recharge groundwater. Unlike the huge structures promoted by the government, original farm pond
structures involve a series of small ponds, of 200 square foot area and 10 feet deep, and could be constructed by farmers on their own at a cost
of Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000," says Avinash Shirke, principal of the Savitri Jyoti College of Social Work, Yavatmal district.
Agriculture experts like Nitin Mate, who works with Yuva, a Nagpur-based ngo, are also critical of the government
scheme. "Plastic film coating is at best a short term method that allows farmers to store enough water for one crop. Since it doesn't help raise the
water table, the high cost involved is hardly viable," says Mate. Neelesh Heda who works on the holistic revival of traditional water bodies in
Washim district terms the concept unscientific. "Large ponds get silted over early due to large-scale loss of vegetation in times of droughts.
Despite claims that the films would last for 15 years, the very process of silt removal can easily damage them." Traditionally, farmers in Vidarbha
have used black soil, which has low porosity, to prevent fast percolation of water in various irrigation structures, says Heda.
The government has misunderstood the nature of 'collective', says Yogesh Aneja of Paryavaran Vahini, an ngo that
carried out one of the first successful farm pond experiments in Vidarbha. "The practice also involves reviving small ponds, streams and planting
trees. Our experiment in Nagpur's Valni village helped raise the water table in the entire area. The villages didn't suffer crop loss during the
recent drought in Vidarbha," says Aneja.
Lining ponds with plastic sheets makes farmers dependent on industries and technology experts. No part of the process, right from installation to
maintenance, can be carried out without expert help, cautions Heda.
Farmers, too, admit their discomfort regarding the technology. Gajanan Amdabadkar, a farmer from Washim district, says: "We agreed to the
scheme because of the subsidy. But it seems things have again gone in favour of industry, not us."