Hope sprouts in the harsh agrarian landscape

Even as thousands of farmers are facing an unprecedented crisis, a few initiatives offer the promise of water and improved livelihoods

Updated - January 20, 2018 04:23 pm IST

Published - January 01, 2017 01:32 am IST - CHENNAI:

By several accounts, Tamil Nadu is in the thick of a severe agrarian crisis after several seasons of crop failure. The death/suicide of farmers, being reported across the State — five deaths were reported on Friday alone — is probably the far end of the spectrum. Every day, however, farmers rue the lack of rain/water and their faces wilt, just as their crops have. In some places, entire families get into suicide pacts. While a ‘Cauvery Management Board’ and a Regulatory Authority that could bring some relief to delta farmers are yet to be constituted, for the rest of the State, dependency on wells and irrigation tanks is high since they are mainly rain-fed.

In the north of the State, where agriculture is by and large rain-fed, a failed monsoon spells the death knell. As the State heaves under the strain of yet another failing crop, with the harvest season just around the corner, some villages in the northern part of the State are, with the aid of experts, trying out various innovations that have enabled them to survive this harsh year. Among those who have helped the farmers are researchers at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the National Agro Foundation. A slew of methods, including rejuvenation of tanks and open wells, have provided relief. On the other hand, the scalability and sustainability of such ventures must be discussed seriously.

Intervention bears fruit

“The irrigation tank dries up regularly and those with milch animals are not able to provide them with water. Things are really bad... just one day of rainfall would help,” says a farmer of Villupuram.

Another 45 farmers in Villupuram district, a dry area with rocky soil, however, have benefited due to some scientific interventions and extra funding for specific needs. Thanks to these interventions, the farmers managed to restore their wells in time for last year’s monsoon.

Parameswari Jayakumar, a farmer of Chinna Nerkunam in Tindivanam taluk, one of the beneficiaries, says ₹80,000 was advanced to her by VA Wabag, a company that works in the area of water treatment and recycling, as part of their CSR activity. It helped rejuvenate her well that was in a dilapidated state. “I had earlier invested some money on the well and when my name was chosen for this loan, I took an additional loan by pledging jewellery and borrowing from a chit fund. I now have a loan of ₹6 lakh and hopefully, will be able to repay it. Though we did not receive any rain and the lake has run dry, there is still about 10 feet of water each day in my well with which I manage to water my vegetable and pulse crops.”

Part of the solution?

In that, perhaps, lies part of the solution. Non-paddy crops are easy to manage with less water. Certain varieties of paddy, on the other hand, require more water, and water retention in the field is essential to help the grains mature. They sometimes require solid irrigation seven times during the crop’s duration.

Ms. Parameswari too is worried about this. “My paddy crop will be badly affected due to the lack of rain. In place of 35 bags of produce, I will get only about 10, which is not enough to cover what was spent on the crop. But it will have to do. I will make up for the loss next year,” she says, putting up a brave face.

For farmers, getting a loan to dig a well or strengthening it, is akin to winning the lottery. The hard sell that banks indulge in for advancing housing and personal loans in urban areas is completely missing in the rural areas, farmers say. There is very little help from banks and governments when it comes to creating water sources, including open wells, tanks or channels. The only assistance they get for irrigation is in the form of solar pumpsets that are provided by the government at subsidised rates to a few farmers in some districts, they say.

“Banks have a colour coding for the 365 blocks in the State. Very few come under the white category (those that have water). Most are grey and some black (no water). Banks are cautious regarding loans for digging wells,” explains a retired official of the agriculture department.

Another beneficiary, R. Periyathambi of Keezh Edaiyalam, in the same taluk, whose well was also restored, has not planted any paddy and so, is able to manage.

“I was able to increase the acreage under cultivation thanks to the well. Despite rocky soil conditions, my bore gets me water. Last year, I made a profit of ₹1 lakh in place of my usual ₹ 20,000 per acre. I deepened the well to about 45 feet and each day, I draw about 10 feet of water,” he says.

But the farmer is now worried about his neighbours, whose wells have not been rejuvenated.

“Why cannot the company or the government give us some money to restore the wells. Ours is a dry district and without water from wells, cultivation would not be possible. Many are unhappy at not finding a place in the list of farmers who benefited from the company’s CSR project,” he says.

Venkatesan, his neighbour, says if he had ₹20,000 in hand, he could save his paddy crop by deepening his well by a few feet. “I asked my son for the money but he said he had none to spare. The government has been unearthing such large amounts of money in the raids. Why cant they spend some of it on our wells. Banks do not give us loans for digging or restoring wells,” says the farmer in distress.

Cooperative set up

Wabag sources say a grant of Rs. 45 lakh was given to assist 45 farmers to rejuvenate dilapidated wells in Keezhadayalam, Nallamur, Chinnanargam, Kanniyam, Thazhuthazhi, and Koralur. In this participatory initiative, a village cooperative was set up through which a revolving fund was generated. Each farmer was given ₹80,000 for rejuvenating wells. There has been a three-fold increase in the groundwater table in these areas, the source adds.

S. Varadarajan, Director and Chief Growth Officer, Wabag, says: “Our objective for agriculture is to promote efficiency in water consumption and enhance productivity and production so that contribution to the GDP is enhanced.”

Wabag works with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in reaching out to farmers. Jayashree B., principal scientist, MSSRF, explains: “Since Villupuram district is water-deficient, we identified the need to rejuvenate the wells. And Wabag too came forward to provide funds. We wanted farmers to also participate in funding the restoration of the wells. Since the work was completed before last year’s rain, the wells got enough water and this year, farmers have been making a good profit.”

A similar water augmentation project was implemented in the South Vellar Basin of the Bio Industrial Watershed by MSSRF. Here, eight farm ponds, two percolation ponds; three check dams, two community tanks, and one community open well were set up, benefiting the farmers. This project received the Boomijal Puraskar, National Ground Water Augmentation Award 2010 from the Union Ministry of Water Resources.

If farmers were troubled by excess water in the 2015 deluge, those in the villages in Madurantakam taluk in Kancheepuram district are now reeling under the impact of drought-like conditions as most waterbodies have dried up. The once lush green pastures in these villages now are dry. Located about 30 km away from Madurantakam, Vellamkondaagaram, Pudupettai and Vilambattu are typical villages where residents are largely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood and lack alternative livelihood options.

Vellamkondagaram or V.K. Agaram could have gone that way too. But today, it stands as an island of green amidst a swathe of villages that have been pushed to the brink by this year’s monsoon failure compounding the damage from last year’s floods.

Residents of V.K. Agaram recall that their agricultural fields were covered by several feet of sand washed away from the bund of neighbouring channels and water bodies. When the fields were prepared for cultivation, they realised that water resources were scarce. The surplus channel of V.K. Agaram lake that runs between the fields brimming with water was the only solace for the villagers. “This is the only source to feed our cattle and recharge ground water,” says Boopalan, a farmer.

Volunteering effort

What began as a volunteering effort during last year’s floods to reach out to the affected has now helped farmers save water. When employees of iNautix Technologies India Private Limited stepped into these villages during December last year for relief work, they found that several waterbodies and channels were damaged.

This is when National Agro Foundation (NAF), an organisation involved in sustainable rural development activities, was roped in to rehabilitate the flood-affected villages as part of its corporate social responsibility initiative. Besides funding the projects, nearly 400 employees volunteered in batches to rebuild the damaged infrastructure and help farmers sustain their livelihood for nearly a year, says Mohan Narayanaswamy, managing director and chief operating officer, iNautix Technologies India Private Limited.

What makes the project different from others is that the volunteers bonded with the villagers and visited them frequently to plant trees, desilt and deepen the channels and create new percolation ponds. The surplus channel of V.K. Agaram lake runs for a distance of 240 metres and is among the canals that have been widened and deepened to store a minimum of 40 lakh litres of water and feed livestock.

In contrast, at neighbouring Pudupettai, some farmers are busy tending green chilli crops – on the bund of the water channel that has been improved.

A few farmers have managed to cultivate black gram and cowpea crops. But, these too face the threat of drying up as waterbodies don’t have resources to cater to irrigation needs.

With worry writ large on his face, P. Nija Kannan, a farmer, says “Groundwater has turned saline as there has not been much rain for recharge. We manage with drinking water from V.K. Agaram. We are waiting for rainwater to fill the new ponds created by the efforts of NAF and volunteers from the corporate firm.” The villages now have new ponds to divert and store excess floodwater, rainwater harvesting structures and rejuvenated tanks and channels to tackle irrigation and water needs.

S. S. Rajasekar, Managing Trustee, NAF, says the organisation works towards multi-pronged sustainable rural development through economic improvement, education and environment safety in over 500 villages across India. Besides creating infrastructure for water conservation, the organisation also promotes the use of water saving technologies in agriculture.

Similar initiatives are also being carried out in Tiruvallur district. With improved infrastructure in place, farmers and volunteers await rains to reap the benefit of their hard labour.

Farmers in the State are hoping for more such experiments and help in the form of funds. “Even a small amount is enough to give that push to farmers to take up well and pond rejuvenation works,” says an agriculture extension officer.

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