The fruits of water

Orchards in Vansda transform distant dream into reality as people unite to store and use the water that would usually run off

 
By S Rajendran
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The fruits of water

-- COMMUNITY participation in constructing and managing check dams and the use of water through lift irrigation has transformed the local ecosystem of 37 tribal villages in the Vansda taluk of Gujarat's Valsad district. Cropping patterns, incomes, employment and even the social system have undergone remarkable changes. The villagers are now energetically into orchards, fodder crops, vegetables and fuelwood. Mulberry cultivation has also been introduced on an experimental basis in some villages.

A newfound prosperity has been brought about through the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF), a Pune-based non-governmental organisation. BAIF undertook in 1982 to construct check dams to provide water for irrigation for 40 households in 14 villages. The programme was later expanded to include 37 villages. Today, over 6,000 farm households are participating in the effort. Rs 15 lakh is transacted annually, for instance, in the village-operated Vasundhra cooperative society.

Although the annual rainfall is as high as 2,000 mm, most of the water runs off Vansda's undulating terrain and there is an acute shortage of water in the dry season. The monsoon floods also wash away the fertile topsoil, exposing an eroded landscape dotted with hard black rock. The population of Vansda is predominantly tribal: Kuknas, Naykas, Varlis, Dhodias, Kolchas and Kotwalias. Most of them are marginal farmers who cultivated only rainfed paddy.

Participation pays
BAIF's agriculture programme coordinator, Rajendrasinh Mahida, explains that Vansda was found to be particularly suitable for mango orchards. It became a question of motivating the people to collectively harvest rainwater through check dams and lift irrigation. "The development of the community should take place in its own natural environment through the active participation of the people," says Girish Sohani, vice-president of BAIF.

BAIF started work in 1982. The farmers built bunds, and terraced and fenced the hilly, uneven land. Contours were carved on the slopes to hold in the rainwater and retain topsoil. Live fences of cactii and agave were planted on field parameters, with BAIF initially paying Rs 15 to 20 a day to the 40 participant farmers.

Many streams flow through Vansda. After the monsoons every year, the local farmers construct 50 small check dams across the streams. Twenty-seven diesel pumps have been installed to lift the water into small cement tanks on the upper reaches of the farms. With sufficient static, on-demand water, all the 37 villages now have orchards.

Over 100 households in Piplkhad village have proved that community participation in managing water resources can increase incomes and stop the annual migration to urban jungles. Says Chhanabhai Manabhai, a farmer in ***Piplkhad, "Before the dam was constructed in 1990, only grass could be obtained in the dry season." Manabhai explains that the people lived in the village only for about 4 months during the monsoons and migrated to nearby cities like Gandevi and Navsari to work for a pathetic Rs 10 a day for the rest of the year.

Enter the orchards
Realising that the local soil quality is suitable for orchards, BAIF decided to stress more on fruit crops. The wadi (orchard) programme emphasises a 3-tier cropping system. First, contours are laid on undulating land to prevent run-off. Orchards are then established by transplanting about 100 mango saplings on a single hectare. Finally, various crops like wheat, pulses and vegetables are cultivated between the rows of trees in the kharif and rabi seasons. Bamboo and trees like subabul, and teak , which yield fodder, timber and fuelwood, are also planted on the bunds.

Things have improved so much since then that most villages do not need check dams any more. Babanbhai Jivanbhai Deshmukh, a Kukna farmer and sarpanch of Ghodmal village, says, "Check dams and irrigation are not required for the gardens as they have grown older." He cultivates mangoes on 0.8 ha of land. Deshmukh has come a long way, from migrating to Navsari in the dry months to earning Rs 15,000 from his mangoes.

Manubhai Chavda, agriculture scientist and BAIF's dairy officer, still holds that "check dams have transformed Vansda". A side business in timber is occasion for a little extra money. Mangalbhai, former president of the Vasundhra cooperative, says, "Trees planted on the bunds provide poles for house construction, timber, fuelwood and fodder." He adds that the bamboo plants also provide raw material for basket-weaving.

Raising nurseries and grafting mango saplings have also opened up income avenues. Says Bhanju Shamji of Umarkui village, "I sell teak saplings worth Rs 8,000 every year and earn Rs 40 per day from the farmers for grafting." Scorning fears of reduced yields, Shamji successfully raised 6,000 teak plants in a hectare which he inter-cropped with mango, guava, sapota and jackfruit.

Internal conflicts
Despite the fecundity, quarrels and conflicts among villagers have set the programme back in a few areas. BAIF officials are usually rendered helpless. Says Mahida, "We cannot get involved in local disputes because we might be driven out from the region." He suggests that the government ought to intervene.

Vasundhra procures the mangoes, processes and markets them as pulp, juice and pickle. The society started with 294 members in 1985. By 1993, the membership had gone up to 1,808. Although Vasundhra was started for the tribals, most officials are from BAIF, the reason for discontent among some farmers. They allege that some farmers are harassed during the procurement of mangoes.

Recently, BAIF introduced the cultivation of mulberry in 8 villages, where 60 farmers have been given a start-off with technical guidance and saplings. BAIF's sericulture programme coordinator, Rajendra B Valad, explains that mulberry cultivation does not need intensive water use and is ideally suited for the region.

Somewhere in this is a lesson: that community work can beat a history of poverty.

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