Leading Water Conservation and Drought Coping Practices

Walki, Washim District, Maharashtra

Context

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra was once the rice bowl of Maharashtra. Unpredictable monsoons, combined with the shift to monoculture of input-intensive cash crops like cotton and soybean, wreaked havoc on the region’s ecosystem. Today, Vidarbha faces the twin threats of food- and water-insecurity. The villages of Vidarbha reflect this grim reality. An overwhelming 90% of the residents of Walki village in the Washim district of Vidarbha, Maharashtra rely on agriculture as their chief source of income.

Walki relies on seasonal rains for irrigating their crops. However, the high returns from the cultivation of cash crops lured farmers from Walki to change their cropping patterns. In the last two decades, the farmers moved away from traditional crops like sorghum (jowar), millets (bajra) and cereals to water-intensive cash crops like cotton and soyabean. When climate change began playing spoiler, untimely rains and long summers made farming conditions more challenging. The farmers’ difficulties were compounded by the rising cost of agricultural inputs (seed, fertilizers and pesticides) that made farming unviable. The intensive and widespread use of chemicals also adversely affected the ecosystem – leading to soil degradation, ground water pollution and pest resistance.

Traditionally, the crop residues from jowar became the feed for their livestock. However, the shift from traditional farming to cash crops also decreased the availability of fodder. The prolonged years of severe drought also affected the water table in the region. The reservoirs and wells dried up and the population of livestock began to dwindle. The skewed emphasis on chemical-aided cash crops at the expense of local and low cost food crops also added to the food insecurity of the community. As the debts began piling up, the hapless farmers had few options left to explore. According to an estimate by the National Crime Records Bureau, 8702 farmers committed suicide in Vidarbha between 2001 and 2010. In the case of Walki, 71% of the farmers defaulted on loans taken for agricultural purposes from banks.

To meet crucial living expenses, many in the community had to borrow from informal local moneylenders. Food- and water-insecurity led to malnutrition. Bacterial infections like dysentery and typhoid fever became common and the majority of the women became anemic.

The Community Disaster Resilience Journey

SSP facilitated the detailed mapping of the village and identified the key issues that the women’s groups wanted to address – water scarcity, health and sanitation, soil erosion and food security. Many SHG meetings were conducted and a Gram Sabha was organized to discuss the issues and explore solutions. At first, the men and the village elders, habituated to making all decisions, were skeptical about the efforts that the women’s groups wanted to initiate. Doubts were also expressed over the ability of the women, who had so far been relegated to their households, to accomplish all that they had set out to do.

“The men have always dominated agriculture and all the decision making whether it was farming or local issues and this was one of our biggest challenges. Earlier they never called us for Gram Sabha or discussed anything related to the matters to our village with us.” Vandana Bai

Gradually as the groups linked with the PRIs, district authorities and other institutions to access government schemes like the MNREGA and relevant information on agriculture, the men and other village leaders changed their opinion.

Building partnerships and capacities: SSP facilitated a partnership with the Agricultural University at Akola to train the community on new practices and techniques in agriculture. This resulted in the setting up of an Agriculture Formation Centre in the village. These formation centers were advised by Krishi Doots, agriculture practitioners who taught other farmers about the benefits of friendly pests, use of bio-pesticides, steps in seed preparation, soil testing, timing for sowing and ways to reduce the use of chemical pesticides. They also helped the farming community in Walki to optimize the efficient use of appropriate chemical fertilizers and provided them critical information on available government schemes.

The Krishi Doots thus began to slowly change the attitude of farmers, which led to the adoption of more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. Apart from working closely with the Panchayat Samiti and district and block agricultural departments, the women’s groups also initiated partnerships with other institutions like NABARD, Cooperative Banks, and Dr. Panjabrao Krushi Vidyapith for agricultural/technical knowledge support, credit facility and access to relevant schemes and services. They also tapped into available technological advances through the agriculture information centre. The community used mobile-based technology supported by Reliance Foundation and MSSRF to receive updates on the market rate, weather etc.

The women’s groups tackled water scarcity, another high-priority issue, by introducing efficient water management practices like recharging community water sources like wells and ponds, constructing new structures where needed, and planting trees. As much as INR 150,000 were mobilized through Government schemes and the MLA Fund and over 70% of the community came forward to volunteer their labor and time.

Partnerships with the district authorities, access to the Gram Vikas Yojana, and a government fund of INR4 lakhs were crucial facilitating factors in carrying out the water conservation initiatives in the village. The women led a campaign to recharge the existing wells through diverting rain water, the deepening and widening of ponds, wells, and the construction of check dams and bunds to increase the water level. Effective techniques of land mulching also improved the surface water availability on farm land, soil moisture and reduced evaporation losses, thereby improving soil fertility. Use of efficient irrigation systems such as drip irrigation and sprinklers also helped reduce the overall water consumption.

The local authorities were persuaded to repair the access roads to the village. The community contributed their labor for the desilting of a local nala (drainage system). Over INR 1.25 lakhs was mobilized towards planting of 2000 trees along the roadside in collaboration with the Forest Department to improve the green cover in the arid region. Another notable achievement was the creation of a 2-km-long, 80-foot metalled road, constructed at the cost of INR 1 lakh, sourced from the 13th Economic Plan.

The fertile soil extracted from wells and ponds was sold to the farmers for a small fee of INR 150. The farmers then used these in their fields to rejuvenate their pesticide-polluted cultivable lands. The community lobbied with the NABARD and Panchayat and received a sanction for the construction of loose boulder structures, plugs for water percolation and contour building. All these water harvesting activities transformed Walki from a drought-ravaged area to a model village, a leader in water conservation and drought coping practices.

Impact of Community Disaster Resilience Initiatives

The transformation of Walki over a period of two years inspired over 500 women from nearby villages and districts to visit the village and learn from their success. Watershed management and techniques for using and implementing the recharge pit program became the key focus of these peer learning exchanges.

As many as 90 recharged pits have been constructed across Vidharbha and Marathwada, following the Walki model. The women’s group from Walki has visited more than 20 villages in the district to share their knowledge and experience of resource management and building disaster resilience.

Over the last two years, greater awareness of the harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers has encouraged other villages in the area too to adopt low-input based organic farming. This has resulted in a steady drop in the use of chemicals and today each family manages to save at least INR 2000 per acre. Also practices like soil testing, vermi-composting and local seed preparation saves each farmer INR 6000 per year.

Walki today is a water-secure village and has enough water reserves for the next two-three years for drinking and irrigation needs.

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