Scaling up strategies to combat drought in Maharashtra

In drought-affected districts of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, women’s agricultural groups have been eager to learn more about low input, adaptive farming to ensure food security. These women’s groups have persuaded government institutions—Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK)13 and the Agricultural University-to recognize women as farmers. This recognition entitles women to training and technical assistance to promote low-input, sustainable agriculture, which they previously were unable to access. To apply adaptive farming techniques, women have negotiated for small plots of land to demonstrate adaptive farming techniques, which have increased farm productivity, incomes and food security in the face of recurring drought. The women’s agricultural groups have also worked closely with elected village councils and district officials to rehabilitate or construct local water harvesting structures on their land through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.


Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), meaning Self Education for Empowerment, is a learning and development organization that empowers grassroots women to access social and economic opportunities by providing technical support, promoting women’s entrepreneurship and facilitating institutional partnerships. This movement of women’s self-help groups dates back to the reconstruction process following the 1993 earthquake in Maharashtra, after which SSP mobilized grassroots women’s groups to take public leadership roles in the government-led, self-help housing repair and strengthening program. This catalyzed the participation of large numbers of women who then began to collectively address their long term development concerns. Today, SSP partners with 25 grassroots women’s federations comprising more than 100,000 members across seven states, working on development concerns including improving access to health care, upgrading water and sanitation, and scaling up women’s enterprise.

Mobilizing women farmers, mapping risks and promoting adaptive farming

Four consecutive years of drought across the arid Marathwada and Vidharba regions of Maharashtra compelled communities to search for solutions to acute water shortages, falling agricultural productivity and food insecurity. The widespread cultivation of sugarcane as a cash crop in the region has lowered the water table, and the high use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has depleted the soil.

Sakhi Women’s Federation is a coalition of self-help groups, facilitated by NGO partner SSP. In 2011, the Federation responded to drought conditions by mobilizing 3,000 women farmers in 100 villages across the three districts of Osmanabad, Nanded and Washim in Maharashtra, forming Krishi Mahila Mandals – women’s agricultural groups. After mapping disaster risks and vulnerabilities in 30 villages across three districts, the groups prioritized the need to revive sustainable, low cost agriculture practices, improve infrastructure, water availability, nutrition and health and strengthen livelihoods. SSP then supported women farmers through Huairou Commission’s Community Resilience Fund14, financing grassroots women to address these concerns. The Sakhi Women’s Federation managed this fund, using it as a revolving fund to promote low-input based agriculture, multiple cropping with water efficient plant varieties and germination of local seeds. Women mainly grew vegetables and pulses for household consumption and sold the surplus. The low input techniques reduced overall cultivation costs and reduced the need to buy hybrid seeds.

Partnering with agriculture research and training centers

At the same time, grassroots women’s federation leaders approached the KVK officials, to convince them of the importance of recognizing women, previously perceived as farm labor, as farmers in their own right. Impressed by women’s accounts of adaptive farming initiatives, agricultural scientists visited their villages. On witnessing women’s adaptive farming initiatives, KVKs agreed to train women farmers on soil testing, water testing, seed preservation, use of drought resistant seeds and land mulching. Once they were trained, women from 100 households began germinating their own local seeds, which were used to cultivate more than 200 acres of land. This resulted in substantial savings as seed prices had increased threefold over the past few years.

Negotiating for land to implement adaptive farming

Women negotiated with their families to set aside small half-acre plots of land to test their new organic farming practices such as bio-composting, vermi-composting and seed preservation. They adopted mixed cropping to simultaneously increase their yields, restore soil fertility, and optimize water utilization. With this, combined with organic and collective farming methods, the women farmers increased productivity over the next two years.

Women also secured drip irrigation equipment and other equipment at subsidized rates from the government, thus further reducing water consumption. Women were able to reduce cultivation costs by 30 percent. Additional training in sales and marketing strategies from Sakhi Social Enterprise Network15 allowed women farmers to sell their surplus produce, raising their incomes by 25 percent. Encouraged by the positive results, women asked their families for more land and requested more training from KVK and other institutions. More landless women also began to collectively lease land and expanded their organic farming practices. Several men joined this effort, reducing sugarcane cultivation, which helped to increase ground water levels in these villages.

Accessing the government’s Social Protection program to build local infrastructure

Soon after the adaptive farming initiative began, women from Washim and Osmanabad districts mobilized their communities to map their land holdings to identify water sources and water harvesting structures during a severe drought. They held dialogues with district officials to explore solutions. Upon learning how the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS)16 could be utilized to build or repair water harvesting structures, they applied to village councils to participate in this program. Women regularly followed up with district and sub-district officials to ensure that their applications were received and registered. This was part of reducing corruption as women realized that village councils would try to promote projects proposed by politically influential community members.

Through NREGS, over 300 water bodies have been recharged in the Osmanabad, Nanded and Washim districts. Water levels in various water bodies have increased by an average of two meters in more than 40 villages as a result of these efforts. In addition to improving local infrastructure to mitigate effects of severe drought, 450 women farmers de-silted reservoirs and used the extracted silt to increase soil fertility in their farms, an innovative technique they learned from KVK. More than 750 acres of land have been enriched in this way. Since then, at least seven of the women’s groups have accessed various government programs, gaining agricultural loans and equipment. And with free saplings from the Forestry Department, women have planted 7,000 trees to reduce soil erosion.

Grassroots-led transfers, training and awareness-raising

Women’s agricultural groups have been steadily scaling up climate resilience strategies, disseminating their experience through awareness-raising and transferring specific practices to grassroots women in and outside of Maharashtra. In November 2011, farming practices introduced by women in 10 villages were adopted in another 30 villages. In March 2012, SSP facilitated a four-day training workshop on low cost sustainable farming practices for 20 grassroots women trainers. These 20 trainers have since trained 1,230 women farmers in 41 villages. At least 1,500 women farmers are now sowing local seeds for two crops each year. Peer learning exchanges organized in 2012 and 2013 led to awareness raising and practice transfers to women farmers in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. From this, more than 2,000 women across these two states have adopted similar strategies.

Grassroots women are increasingly recognized as experts in adaptive farming and are being formally appointed as trainers by government agencies. The KVK in Osmanabad District appointed 10 women farmers as trainers, who have effectively transferred sustainable farming, organic, bio-composting and local seed preservation practices to neighboring villages. In 2014, Osmanabad and Washim District administrations requested grassroots women’s federations to conduct awareness campaigns on drought management as a result of which two hundred grassroots women leaders are currently organizing campaigns in 70 villages on water conservation, water efficient crops, and recharging water sources. Despite these successes, women continue to face difficulties accessing bank credit as they do not own collateral such as land. While governments see the value of grassroots women promoting sustainable, low input adaptive farming practices that address both food and incomes, there are no formal incentives that promote organic, sustainable climate resilient agricultural practices.


By demonstrating their commitment and creativity, women’s vegetable farming groups have shifted the perception that they are merely labor on family farms. Agricultural Universities and KVKs that tend to work primarily with male farmers were convinced to provide training and technical assistance to women’s farming groups, who are using their new skills and knowledge to secure food and incomes in drought hit communities. In engaging both village councils and district officials to access the NREGS to rehabilitate water sources, grassroots women are also playing a vital role in increasing transparency and accountability, ensuring effective delivery and optimal utilization of this social protection program. Grassroots women’s initiative and leadership has compelled government agencies to recognize these women as knowledgeable farmers who are not only practicing sustainable agriculture, but also have the capacity to train and disseminate strategies that are crucial to the survival of drought-hit communities.