A watershed project in Uttar Pradesh’s Neduwa-Baraicha village has transformed degraded ravine land into fertile fields, bringing bumper yields and prosperity to Dalit farmers

A drop of tear rolls down the cheek of Dhuniya’s half-veiled face. It is a tear of happiness, though. She says in an emotion-choked voice, “My family now does not have to go to Delhi as migrant workers where we sat on the road not knowing where to find a shelter, where even to go for toilet. I cannot tell you all the difficulties I faced there. But now that our land has given us enough to eat, we will never go there.”

The change in Dhuniya’s life was brought upon by a watershed project in Neduwa-Baraicha village in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district that was supported by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and implemented by voluntary organisation ABSSS. This project has drawn the attention of senior officials of the State government for its ability to convert ravines into high productivity farm fields.

As in many other villages across the country, Dalit and other weaker section households in this village had received land under the land distribution programme, but only in the most unfavourable locations. The land was highly uneven, prone to soil erosion, lacked rainwater retention capacity and had no irrigation facility.

Thus the land remained uncultivated most of the times since even very hard work yielded little. Moreover, the Dalits even earned the ill-reputation of not being interested in cultivation. However, as soon as the watershed project provided conditions conducive for cultivating the infertile land, the same Dalits emerged as the most hard-working farmers in the region.

The project helped agriculture here in four ways. Firstly, land-levelling was taken up, mainly through manual labour but also by machines at times. Secondly, land bunding was done on the fields of land allottees and other farmers to provide for soil and water conservation. Thirdly, lift irrigation facilities were provided by making arrangements to lift water at five points from a nearby river and nullah. Last but not the least, the mobilisation of beneficiaries in a watershed committee to properly implement the project helped to increase local participation.

The overall impact of these steps was that many villagers who were earlier forced to migrate for sheer survival can now feed their families round the year on the food grown on their fields while also meeting their cash needs. Bihari Kori is a typical example. He says, “I have not only been able to grow enough wheat to feed my family, in addition I also got a bumper crop of groundnuts which fetched me Rs. 17,000 in the market.”

Sanjay, an upper caste farmer, says that although his own land was not covered by the watershed, he found the entire experience so encouraging that he took out time to help the Dalit farmers and also promoted vegetable cultivation among them.

The project has also been appreciated for keeping land development costs per acre at very reasonable limits — much below the normal official budgets for such efforts. However, the limited funds could help in the development of only a part of the ravine land. The villagers are now eagerly waiting for an expansion of the project which could lead to the entire village emerging as a model for development.