Water-stressed in India: JSA helped Tirunelveli farmers look at options

As farmers could not sow paddy due to water scarcity, Jal Shakti Abhiyan officials urged them to plant other crops 

By Shagun
Published: Friday 20 March 2020
A farmer in Tirunelveli’s Achankuttam village will soon harvest cucumber and lemon on his four-acre land. Photo: Shagun Kapil

When district officials in Achankuttam village in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district urged farmers to grow crops other than paddy in 2019, the response was discouraging.

The village under Achankkutam Gram Panchayat (GP) had been dry for two years. The groundwater level was 16 metres. Farmers mostly grew paddy, but with little or no rainfall, the level dipped further, making it difficult for them to cultivate the water-intensive crop.

To deal with the problem, block officials under union government’s Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA) in 2019 held a meeting to convince farmers to cultivate water-efficient crops. Only two farmers came forward.

While K Chellachamy (62) agreed to cultivate cucumber and lemon on his four-acre land, Navaneethakrishana Perumal decided to go ahead with mango, guava and lemon on his farm land.

Both were paddy cultivators but could not sow it since 2017 due to water scarcity.

For now, Chellachamy is dependent on cattle rearing: “I have two cows which fetch me around Rs 15,000-20,000 a year. After the plantation, I am hopeful that my income will increase. The cucumbers are almost ready to be harvested.”

Out of the three Tamil Nadu districts that were ranked in the top ten on JSA charts, Tirunelveli was the only one which undertook plantation of these crops. The officials took it upon themselves to provide seeds and oversee tilling of land and plantation and irrigation activities for the first six months.

The work was done under MGNREGA. The cost incurred on one farm was Rs 120,000. 

The district ranked seventh among the 255 others. 

 “While the district received good rainfall in 2019 compared to previous year, Achankkutam GP did not,” said Paul Moses, assistant executive engineer (AEE), Alankulam block, one of the semi-critical areas in the district. 

“The four adjacent GPs of Achankuttam, Vadiyoor, Kurichampatti, and Navaneethakrishnapuram get very less rainfall. Other parts of the district receive average rainfall,” he added.

Under Alankulam block alone, 1,660 works at a cost of Rs 13.97 crore were undertaken.

However, some officials claimed work was exaggerated or duplicated. 

“It is possible as every district wanted to be ranked the highest. Average block level works came out to be over 75,000, which did not seem likely in all blocks,” a district official, who did not wish to be named, said. 

The government also constructed earthern bunds in the fields.

About 13 kilometre away from Alankulam, in Keelapavoor block, Athisya Moses introduced his 3.5-acre farm and talked about how his coconut yield increased in the last few months because of the earthen bund made under JSA.

A bund is an embankment that helps check excessive run-off water during rains. It increases the time of concentration of rainwater where it falls, hence letting it percolate into the soil.

Before JSA, Moses did farming on his 1.8-acre land in Melamengapuram village. “Before the bund, water would overflow during rains. It used to go from my farm to the next farm and so on. Now, it can be stored. I have been able to plant banana and coconut trees,” he said. 

Moses and his brother planted 1,200 robusta banana trees and earned Rs 30,000 from selling 300 bunches in 2020. He will harvest the rest after April. 

 He last harvested coconut on February 23. The yield increased to 8,900 in 2020 from 6,000 in 2019. 

In Keelapavoor block, which receives an average rainfall of 12 mm, 98 such earthen bunds were built in ten critical GPs. 

Other works include deepening of wells, revival of defunct wells, construction of individual and common soak pits, trenches, and check dams. 

In Pulichakulam village in the block, a 30-year-old defunct well was revived by connecting it with anganwadi building and village panchayat service centre building.

Earlier, the water in the well was 40 feet; it later rose to 10 feet. Besides recharging groundwater, the well water is used for roadside plantation. 

“The JSA has brought back the focus on water conservation. It gave us the freedom to work on good ideas for the same,” P Poochendu, assistant engineer, Keelapavoor block, said. 

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