A monumental waste: Crores spent on water-related works haven’t readied Jharkhand for droughts; here’s why

Poor planning of water conservation and water harvesting structures is a major reason

By Raju Sajwan, Pradeep mishra
Published: Monday 20 February 2023
More than 3 million farmers have applied for the Chief Minister Drought Relief Scheme in Jharkhand till February 3, 2023 (Photographs: Vikas Choudhary)

“A few decades ago, my fields produced so much paddy and maize that I would donate it. This year, the situation is so bad that my entire family is surviving on the monthly ration the government provides under the National Food Security Act,” says Surendra Korba, who owns a 16-hectare (ha) farm in Sarhua village of Jharkhand’s Palamu district.

“The village has over 200 families, but in recent years, about 75 per cent of the youth go to cities in search of work. Water shortage has made farming difficult,” says Lokas Korba, a tribal rights activist in the village.

In the last decade, 2022 was one of the most drought-affected years for Jharkhand. According to Yearly Weather Report-2022 (Jharkhand) of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the state received 817.6 mm of rainfall, which is 20 per cent below normal.

On October 31, 2022, the State Disaster Management Department declared 22 of the state’s 24 districts, covering 122 blocks, as drought-affected. Some 3.15 million farmers have applied for relief under Chief Minister Drought Relief Scheme till February 2, 2023, says the scheme’s web portal.

Of these, 1.63 million farmers were not able to sow at all this year, while 998,714 farmers have lost more than one-third of their crop. The state has promised a one-time allowance of Rs 3,500 per family to all eligible applicants.

Resident of Palamu's  Bhainsapur village say that many of their wells are close to drying outJharkhand is largely agrarian, engaging about 63 per cent of the rural population, according to Census 2011. Over 92 per cent of the sown area in Jharkhand is under food crops, predominantly paddy — the state’s main kharif crop, as per “Jharkhand-Action Plan on Climate Change”. (In 2009 the Union government directed all states and Union Territories to prepare these plans consistent with the strategy outlined in the “National Action Plan on Climate Change”.)

The other crops cultivated are maize, pulses and oilseeds. Usually, 3.8 million ha is cultivated in the state, but during the 2022 kharif season, only 1.4 million ha was sown against a target of 2.83 million ha, says the drought declaration notification of October 31, 2022. This means about 50 per cent of the farmland in the state could not be cultivated.

The reason is that the agrarian economy is almost entirely dependent on rain. Ninety-two per cent of the state’s sown area is rainfed, as per the Jharkhand agriculture department and 82 per cent of the annual rainfall is received during monsoon only, shows IMD data. As a result, deficit or untimely rain has a devastating effect on the state’s agriculture.

With changing climate, the droughts have become more frequent and severe. In sharp contrast to the observed trend during 1956-2000, the period 2001-08 witnessed a sharp decline in annual rainfall, says “Jharkhand-Action Plan on Climate Change”.

This has been accompanied by severe droughts, which have become frequent after 2000. Parts of the state have been hit by drought in 14 of the past 23 years.

In seven of these 14 years, at least 10 of the state’s 24 districts were under drought. Ghanshyam, executive director of Deoghar-based non-profit Judav, says that earlier, droughts occurred once in four-five years, but now they strike almost every year. “The situation is such that farmers in many areas do not have money to buy seeds to sow paddy in the kharif season, starting June,” he says.

The loss of soil moisture is causing the land to degrade. According to Indian Space Research Organisation’s Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, published in 2016, “Jharkhand is the state with highest area under desertification/ land degradation in the country with respect to state TGA [total geographic area], i.e., 68.98 per cent for period 2011-13. The desertification/ land degradation area in Jharkhand has increased about 1.01 per cent since 2003-05. The most significant process of desertification / land degradation in the state is Water Erosion (50.64 per cent in 2011-13 and 50.65 per cent in 2003-05) followed by Vegetation Degradation (17.30 per cent in 2011-13 and 16.40 per cent in 2003-05).”

This should not have been the case. Jharkhand has been the state where extensive works on water conservation and water harvesting have been done.

More than Rs 3,000 crore has been spent on water-related works such as watershed management structures and traditional waterbodies under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) from 2014-15 to 2021-22, shows the scheme”s web portal. A total of 2.57 million water-related works were undertaken using this money.

Of these works, 892,017 are water-specific structures, which includes over 240,000 farm ponds. Farm ponds are constructed to provide life-saving irrigation to paddy, in situations of scanty rainfall or dry-spell.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that these farm ponds alone have the potential to irrigate over 500,000 ha—20 per cent of the state’s annual net sown area. Given that a farm pond on average caters to the needs of 89 people, they are sufficient for 70 per cent of the state’s 220 million rural people.

Now consider the potential of all the water-specific structures built across the state in the past eight years. Given that the state has 32,620 villages, each village in Jharkhand should now have at least 28 water-specific structures. As per an analysis by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, just six water-related structures are sufficient for water security in a village.

So why have the works in Jharkhand not borne result? “Poor planning of water conservation and water harvesting structures is a major reason. Village residents are the best persons at understanding where structures, such as a dobha (typically, a 15 m x 30 m x 10 m water-storage pit), should be constructed, where they will hold water for long. Their help should be taken,” says James Herenj, convener of Jharkhand NREGA Watch, a non-profit.

Herenj talks about a drought to explain. “A severe drought in the state in 1993-94 made the government and voluntary organisations work together. Pani Panchayat Samitis were formed in every village to deal with water shortage. Scientists associated with the non-profit People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, also joined the campaign. Under this initiative, a large number of dobhas and check dams were built in the villages,” he says.

“But in 2016-17, works were undertaken, defying discussions and schemes drawn by the villages. As a result, accidents, such as death of children due to drowning, were reported. Today the situation is such that many check dams are lying vacant and dobhas have become bereft of water,” he adds.

The website of the state government’s disaster management department also quotes NREGA Watch as saying that if the works done under MGNREGA in Jharkhand had been undertaken as per the issues highlighted in the state’s climate action plan, 90 per cent of the irrigation-related problems would not have occurred.

Source: NREGA MIS (, accessed on December 7, 2022

Other solutions

A concept note prepared by NITI Aayog in 2015 says that approximately 70 per cent of the sown area during kharif is covered by rice in the state. But most of it remains fallow during rabi.

The utilisation of vast area under rice fallow is possible to a great extent by a shift to Direct Seeded Rice, with shorter duration varieties. This would also create opportunities to grow crops like short-duration oilseeds (rapeseed, mustard, linseed), pulses (gram, lentil, pea) and vegetables with residual moisture or with minimal supplemental irrigation (in-situ or ex-situ conserved rain water) by bunding, runoff management structures and minor irrigation tanks or ditches. There is about 1 million ha of rice fallow area, and at least 0.1 million ha additional area of rice fallow should be brought under pulses every year, the note says.

Drought perpetuates the poverty cycle. This is why the “Jharkhand-Action Plan on Climate Change” says that the state has the least capacity to adapt to climate change. With changing climate, the burden of diseases in central India, including Jharkhand is slated to go up, it warns.

“The need of the hour is connecting the communities, involving them in planning and designing of decentralised systems for source sustainability,” says Herenj.

This was first published in the 16-28 February, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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