The district set a record for creating 1,121 farm ponds in 30 days in September 2021, in line with the recently launched state climate mission
In September 2021, Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district set a record for creating 1,121 farm ponds in 30 days by leveraging the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
The initiative’s aim was to ensure adequate water for agricultural and domestic purposes throughout the year while creating assets that would make the local communities more resilient to imminent climate disasters.
Each of the ponds were built to hold about 3.6 lakh litres of water on farmer-owned lands in 541 village panchayats. This was an addition to a potential storage capacity of 40.69 crore litres.
These ponds will help recharge local wells and other water bodies and contribute to water sustainability during non-monsoon periods.
This initiative in Tiruvannamalai assumes enormous significance in light of the recently launched state climate mission in Tamil Nadu. Most of the water-focused activities undertaken here can also qualify as resilience-building measures against climate change.
Their benefits could be in terms of an increase in crop area, crop diversity and crop yield. An enhanced provision of water will also cater to domestic needs and can support drought-proofing measures to manage climate risks in the long haul.
The Union government increased the allocation for MGNREGS-related job boost by Rs 40,000 crore in the wake of the reverse migration triggered by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Approximately 130 million workers availed work under the scheme in the financial year 2019-20. It is also one of the focus areas in the Centre’s Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package announced in May 2020.
In guaranteeing social protection for rural households below the poverty line through its mandate of providing 100 days’ annual employment at a minimum wage, the MGNREGS is simple in the idea that intends to harness the potential of unskilled rural people living in extreme conditions and offering them livelihood options.
The bulk of work undertaken in MGNREGS relates to water conservation and harvesting, irrigation, afforestation and rural connectivity, which could contribute significantly to the creation of much-needed rural infrastructure.
It has also demonstrated the potential for empowering women by providing them opportunities for paid work at par with men.
Direct and indirect benefits
It is known that climate change will impact the poor and marginalised communities the most due to limited livelihood options and high dependence on natural resources.
A projected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is expected to impact food insecurity and stress further, making these communities even more vulnerable.
Interestingly, MGNREGS’s country-wide mandate to create employment and the range of activities it undertakes, can also effectively build and fine-tune climate resilience practices, create a window of opportunity for new skills and strengthen local institutions.
Besides water conservation, the Tiruvannamalai administration also focuses on green infrastructure through interventions like creating mini-forests, greening hillocks, nursery raising, sylviculture, pastureland development, desilting of water bodies, rejuvenating the relevance of common property resources, etc.
Implementing MGNREGS in Tiruvannamalai at the envisioned scale could yield several benefits: From direct gains like enhanced agricultural production and irrigation facilities, improved socio-economic conditions, economic security and rural infrastructure to indirect ones like environmental sustainability, climate change adaptation and long-term community empowerment.
An example in convergence
The Tiruvannamalai instance is still a work-in-progress, but it has immensely demonstrated the significance of convergence, collaboration and capacity enhancement. The activities undertaken are based on sound scientific assessments and quality technical inputs provided by various internal and external agencies.
At every level, from planning to implementation, key stakeholders from various government departments, professional technical and research institutes, funding agencies and experts working in respective domains were consulted to fine-tune the plans and processes.
The biggest asset was the introduction of geographic information system-based planning tool and grooming the technical staff at the village panchayat level to analyse spatial and non-spatial data.
This has helped identify key water challenges and implement place-based climate resilience measures. The on-ground actions demonstrate the value of collective wisdom and collaboration.
A major challenge in mainstreaming resilience is in the convergence of policies and processes and coordination among different sectors, departments and actors to deliver the intended outcomes.
In Tiruvannamalai, the process established for consultations involving various state departments and engagement of relevant officers, building accountability among the field force helped the progress of the project.
The administration led the way skilfully, creating a novel convergence of both top-down and bottom-up processes.
Challenges to fix
Through the resilience lens, a challenge with MGNREGS lies in breaking complex scientific information into data that could be understood and acted upon by line departments.
This will help leverage their experiential knowledge and motivate them to monitor and evaluate the impacts continuously using appropriate tools for staying on course. This must be prioritised, and must percolate to the leadership and supporting institutional infrastructure at the panchayat level.
One of the missing links in the MGNREGS landscape is the engagement of the private sector. There is currently a heavy burden on state entities to carry forward their vast mandate shouldering enormous responsibilities.
Along with civil society organisations that have been supporting state initiatives, private sector organisations with experience in project management of large-scale interventions can be roped in. This will help in the skill development of local communities, extending digital information services and providing forward and backward market linkages.
Tiruvannamalai has demonstrated the value of striking the right chords to create an ensemble. Leadership, understanding local needs, co-designing context-specific interventions aligned with requirements, quality technical inputs and investment in training and skill development have emerged as stimuli for positive change.
These are critical factors that will help build climate resilience. This example demonstrates the value of using existing mechanisms, an inclusive approach to facilitate resilience.
It provides impetus to the ideas conceived by the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests to transform the state into a climate-resilient society.
While the ensemble is still in the making, it is certainly a story to watch and learn from.
Nambi Appadurai is director, Climate Resilience Practice, World Resources Institute India. Sowmthri VR is technical expert, GIZ India.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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