Hoarding the rain
THE temporary check dams (locally known as bandharas) across streams, have made a huge impact on the agricultural system in Hivare, a drought-prone village 35 km from Pune on the Pune-Saswad road. Even a year ago, the villagers of Hivare wouldn't have dared to dream of watering their fields all day -- in the dry season. The small bandharas have raised the groundwater level, boosting the water table in the wells. As a direct consequence, the misery of the seasonal migrations to the cities has almost been eliminated. Part of the kudos go to VANARAI, a Pune-based NGO that motivates and provides practical assistance to the villagers.
It all began when some Hivare farmers noticed the positive impact of building check dams in the nearby Ketkawale village in '90. They immediately approached VANARAI to work out a similar plan for them. VANARAI agreed under some conditions like shramdan (voluntary community work for a day every month). "We found that such conditions would really help the development of our village and we readily agreed to the conditions," recalls 50-year-old Miruti Sadashiv Kudale. "Basically, we wanted to conserve every drop of water, which is to farming as blood is to humans," he adds.
Agriculture in Hivare depends mainly on the monsoon, when jowar, nachini (ragi) and vegetables are cultivated. The average annual rainfall rarely exceeds 200 millimetres and, although wells are a major and emergency source of irrigation, poor rainfall and minimal percolation tanks have lowered the groundwater level. Low water availability makes farmers avoid cultivating the water-guzzling but highly profitable crops like sugarcane and paddy.
Even when they are cultivated, they are mostly harvested prematurely to avoid total crop failure. Says Panadharinath Ramchandra Gaikwad, "It has been difficult for us to raise even a single crop in a year as the rainfall is unpredictable. We often have crop failures".
The village is not exactly awash but there is more water following the novel idea of using stone and sand-filled gunny bags to construct check dams, right after the monsoons. NAVARAI project officer Kodre Arunkumar explains that it is the villagers who decide how many check dams to construct and where. They found that 25 people working for 6 hours can construct a bandhara that is 5 metres long and 1 metre each in width and height.
Community involvement has been a key factor to the success. Irrigation management in India, where farmers have virtually no say, has very often led to corruption. It was not always thus. Indian farmers have been traditionally managing water resources, accumulating a wealth of knowledge on the way. According to Mohan Dharia, president of VANARAI, "The rural development approach must cover the entire requirement of the community." But he adds that unless villagers agree to a community effort, no work should be initiated.
In Hivare, where the construction of bandharas started immediately after the monsoon in '93, gunny bags filled with locally available stones and sand were arranged in rows across the rain-fed village streams to arrest the water flow. So far, the villagers have constructed 23 small check dams across streams. The details of the construction are discussed in the village council and announced to all villagers. Everybody joins in the construction, but not as a matter of order: everything depends on individual convenience.
The check dams are already paying dividends. "We now have sufficient water in the wells to cultivate a second crop," says Hamid Shaikh, a 24-year-old actively involved in organising villagers to work for the dams. "The increase in the water table has also taught us not to harvest the sugarcane before it is fully grown. Earlier, the water scarcity reduced our yields by more than 50 per cent." Panadharinath Ramachandra Gaikwad, another Hivare farmer, maintains that the water level in his well has risen by about 5 metres. Gaikwad also feels that check dams have reduced soil erosion.
The increased availability of fodder has resulted in the raising of the groundwater level and successful afforestation. Social fencing ensures that the animals are fed in stalls, as a result of which the daily milk production of the local cooperative has increased from 60 litres in '92 to 150 litres today. Gaikwad points out that the saplings on the village commons have thrived as stray animals are restrained by the villagers. According to Shaikh, owners are fined if their animals are found straying on to the commons.
The check dams have also helped to solve domestic drinking water problems. Earlier, the village women had to walk to distant places in the summer in search of drinking water. Says Alka Panadharinath Gaikwad of Hivare, "We used to search for drinking water and now it is available in most of the wells."
Another significant spinoff from increased community involvement has been the banning of alcohol in the village. The ban, whenever practiced in the breach by any individual, invites the censure of the village council.
Attitudes are rapidly changing in Hivare. The village sarpanch, Maruti Kondiba Gaikwad, explains, "I will now shift my cropping pattern from minor millets like jowar to more profitable crops like sugarcane." Realising the importance of hoarding water, the villagers of Hivare are also eager to share the expertise with neighbouring villages. Kudale maintains that if the water is stored for about 3 months after the monsoon the water table in the wells will not decline till the next monsoons.