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A project in Rajasthan helps farmers conserve soil and learn water management practices

From the rocky terrains of Karauli to the rolling hills of Udaipur, communities are forging pathways to build resilience. With access to water as the first step, communities are finding ways to become self-reliant and take charge of their lives, finding hope amidst despair. This article is by WOTR Communications

Ramsingh Gurjar, a 69-year old marginal farmer from Chaube ki Guwari, a hamlet situated in the eastern part of Karauli District in Rajasthan has spent most of his life seeing the barren lands of his hamlet, devoid of vegetation. The area’s topography, characterised by rocky strata and undulating terrain, makes it difficult to store or save any rainwater, let alone allow farmers to grow crops. With no water, and no means of livelihood in the village, many like Ramsingh would go to the nearby mining quarries to earn a livelihood, or migrate to cities like Ahmedabad, Bengaluru or Hyderabad to work as daily wage labourers. 

Pokhars, earthen structures that harvest rainwater, became a turning point for farmers like Ramsingh.

Situated in the Dang Region of Rajasthan, hamlets like Chaube ki Guwariare known for their red stone quarries, where many villagers have worked for more than a decade, earning a meagre sum for a hard day’s work, and dealing with severe and often fatal lung diseases such as Silicosis. Ramsingh too has been suffering with health issues after working for almost 16 years in the quarry. However, the damage is not just to the workers. The region is marked by the visible scars of stone mining and degradation of forests.

With small landholdings, communities in these hamlets have relied heavily on rain-fed agriculture and livestock rearing for subsistence. “Baarish hove toh bajra lagate the…par sab bhagwaan bharose (If it rained, we would sow bajra, but it is all left to God’s mercy),” says Baner Singh Gurjar, a marginal farmer from Alwat ki Guwari, another hamlet close to Chaube. (Bajra is pearl millet.) The region receives an average annual rainfall of 670 mm, which is substantial. However, it faces challenges with high runoff and significant soil erosion, restricting farming to just the kharif season for most families.

Ramsingh and his family now dream of a brighter tomorrow, all thanks to access to water through the construction of pokhars and pagaras.

Subsequently, families would only have grains for six months of the year. For the remainder, many would live off grains received through the PDS (public distribution system), or would go hungry. The water fetched by women everyday, who would walk 2-3 kilometres, would only suffice for drinking, barely sustaining their families and their livestock. The situation was further exacerbated by climate variations – erratic rainfall meant some seasons would go by without any sowing, driving communities to the brink of poverty.

Fostering sustainable access to water
In 2021, WOTR along with YES Foundation introduced the Wasundhara Gram Vikas Karykram Project to the region. Implemented in seven villages from Sapotra Block of Karauli and ten villages from Gogunda Block of Udaipur District of Rajasthan, the project aimed to employ soil conservation and water management practices that could enable farmers of the region to begin practising sustainable and climate resilient agriculture. The first step was to figure out how to enable sustainable access to water. Wasundhara sewaks and sewikas (community representatives) were identified from each project village and trained to bring about awareness on soil conservation, water management and climate resilient agricultural practices. Extensive discussions with village development committees were conducted to mobilise communities to build pokhars, earthen structures that harvest rainwater, and pagaras, farm bunds built to stop soil erosion.

Kukaram and his family struggled to survive without access to water, leading to migration to nearby cities for livelihood.

For farmers like Ramsingh, this became a turning point. The abundance of water due to the pokhars ushered in newfound hope, allowing Ramsingh to begin cropping on his 12 bigha land. For the first time, he was able to cultivate through the year, growing crops such as wheat, mustard, sesame and bajra. Now, with sufficient food to last the family, Ramsingh is able to dream of a better future. “Ab ghar mein anaaj hai, paani hai, jisse mere pota-poti school jaa pa rahe hai (there is grain and water now, and my grandchildren are able to attend school)”, he says. While his eldest son still migrates to cities like Bengaluru during the summer months for additional income, Ramsingh hopes that with more interventions, there will come a day when no one from the village will have to migrate.

As land and water resources began rejuvenating, farmers began breaking away from traditional farming practices such as improper ploughing and not rotating crops. For Bhursingh Meena, a 45-year old marginal farmer from Rahir village, traditional farming practices had become a bane. “Humne jo bhi sikha hai, woh pitaji se sikha hai…toh hum bhi wohi karte gaye (Whatever I learnt [about farming], I learnt from my father…so that’s what I continued doing)”,he says. On his five bighas of land mostly cultivated for subsistence, Bhursingh agreed for a crop demonstration initiated by the project. Dividing his land into two parts, he sowed rice in both – on one he adhered to conventional agricultural methods, and on the other he used treated seeds provided by Krishi Vigyan Kendra and applied organic formulations such as Jeevamrut and Dasparniark. Employing the SRI (system of rice intensification) technique, he meticulously monitored the progress.

Over time, Bhursingh could see the difference in the height of the crop and the yield produced from the second plot. The implementation of climate resilient practices boosted his yield from six quintals from one bigha land to eight and half quintals. This allowed him to sell some of the produce in the market, providing an income of Rs 14,000 to buy manure for the next season of cropping. “Many farmers in my village had discouraged me. But hearing my success, they came to see the demo plot, because they couldn’t believe the difference it made,” he says with a chuckle. He now plans to sow wheat in the Rabi season, a first in the village.

For farmers like Bhursingh, simple measures such as making organic formulations, and adopting micro-irrigation technologies such as sprinklers have significantly reduced the input costs, and saved water in their wells. “Jo paani ek bhigha zameen mein istemaal hota hai, wahi ab sprinkler se 2 bigha mein istemaal ho sakta hai (The water used for irrigation of one bigha land can now be used for two bighas with the use of a sprinkler),” says Deviram Meena, another farmer from Rahir. Farmers were also enabled with the know-how to practise sustainable farming through initiatives such as farmer field schools, building their resilience towards climate change, as well as improving the health of their soil and the yield of their crops. As the pokhars and pagaras began changing the landscape of the region, several other interventions were also put into play.

Access to safe drinking water was an essential challenge to tackle. Through identification of shallow aquifers, solar pumps were installed, with a pipeline that supplied water to nals or taps, installed in each hamlet. This ensured easier access to water and reduced drudgery for women. With time in their hands, many young girls enrolled themselves in schools, while women were able to focus on managing their livestock and the overall well-being of their family. In Alwat ki Guwari, provision of seeds enabled 50-year old Atro Gurjar to set-up her own kitchen garden in the backyard of her house. Growing more than 25 different vegetables and fruits, she shares the organic yield with her neighbours in the hamlet. The only ‘green’ visible in the rocky terrain surrounding her hamlet, Atro tends to her garden with utmost care, despite struggling with erratic monsoons that threaten her crops. “Hamara aur sabka bhala ho, paise bache, wahi acha hai (I wish that everyone reaps the benefits, save money; that is the best outcome)”, she says.

Motkibai proudly showing the newly constructed roof of her house.

A watershed moment: turning over a new leaf
Approximately 311 miles away, in the lush, verdant landscapes of Udaipur, Rajasthan, small farmers are also finding ways to sustain themselves. Kukaram Chamna, 50, and his family of ten members in Delawaas Village of the Gogunda Block are planning the next season’s crops. A recently constructed check-dam at the foot of the hill they reside on has created access to water for irrigation. “Pehle kachu nai tha.. Baarish mein sab beh jaata (Earlier, we had no [water] left. It would flow away during the rains)”, he says.

While rainfall was plenty, communities in the region were left with no water for irrigation or to drink. The undulating terrain in the hillocks of the Aravalli Ranges in the Gogunda Block see severe soil erosion, high runoff, and a scarcity of arable land. Predominantly poor and marginalised, communities of the region have long relied on rain-fed agriculture and animal husbandry for sustenance. However, the lack of rainwater harvesting structures has exacerbated water shortages, impacting soil fertility, crop, and fodder production, rendering the community susceptible to drought during the harsh summer months. Fragmented landholdings and the pressures of climate change have pushed communities to the margins of poverty. As a result, the region has experienced high rates of migration to nearby cities of Udaipur and Ahmedabad, or in Gogunda (the nearest village). The men mostly work as daily wage labourers, while the women stay back, tending to the household chores and livestock.

When the project was introduced in 2023, the villagers showed hesitation towards Shramdaan, a voluntary contribution of the community to the interventions of the projects. However, after several meetings of the village development committees, and door-to-door check-ins by Wasundhara sewaks, communities were convinced. For Kukaram and his family, the check-dam became a lifeline. “We had no money to contribute, so we decided to contribute through our labour,” Kukaram says.

This rabi season, Kukaram and his family have cultivated wheat for the first time on their four bighas of cultivable land, and plan to grow vegetables in the summer season. Community-led watershed management activities such as constructing continuous contour trenches, water absorption trenches, as well as de-silting and deepening existing water bodies were undertaken as a part of the project. The endeavours have led to an improvement in the percolation of groundwater and significantly enhanced the water storage capacity of the bodies. Moreover, convergence with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) created ample livelihood opportunities for many within their own villages.

Ambalal Gameti’s life has changed after implementing organic farming practices.

For instance, Punnalal Gameti and his wife, Motkibai, found employment as labourers under the project. As small landholders, possessing only 0.20 hectares of land (barely one bigha), agriculture was unsustainable as their primary livelihood. Instead, they would work as daily wage labourers , earning a meagre Rs 150-300 every day. However, through MGNREGA, they began earning Rs 600-700 per day individually. From April to June 2023, Motkibai, Punnalal and their son were able to earn a total of Rs 50,493, contributing Rs 6,802 as shramdaan (voluntary contribution). Through the income, they were able to build slabs and tiles on their house, and send their children to school. “Bachon ko padhana hai.. Uske baad jo kaam karenge toh acha kamaenge, acha jiyenge (I want to ensure my children study. The work they will get afterwards will enable them to earn better, live better)”, Motkibai says.

Reaping plenty
In the village of Morwal, 40-year old Kusava Goswami and her mother-in-law, Dhapubai, 80, are paving the way to organic farming practices being adopted in the village. This dynamic duo has taken the lead in producing and selling organic formulations from their home, catering not only to farmers in their own village but also to neighbouring ones. But this was not an easy feat to achieve.

For years, farmers in the region had been relying on chemical fertilisers like Di-ammonium Phosphate, commonly known as DAP, which gradually degraded the land and depleted its nutrients. Embracing organic practices meant taking the risk of potentially lower yields. Despite the challenges, Kusava and Dhapubai committed to a crop demonstration, experimenting on their two-bigha land. Sowing maize, they applied organic formulations such as Amritpani and Dashparni on one part and chemical fertilisers on the other. The results were remarkable — the maize crop in the organic plot was not only of a larger size but also had a sweeter taste. The yield was significantly higher, and their input costs had drastically reduced.

Leela Kuwar has been able to earn an income from her small kitchen garden.

20 saal mein aisi makai nahi ugi hai (We have not seen this kind of crop yield in the last 20 years)”, exclaims Dhapubai, proudly holding the maize crops from both sides of her field.  With an increase in the yield, from 1 quintal in the previous year to 1.5 quintal, this duo is excited for the next season. They were not the only ones reaping the benefit. Ambalal Gameti, a Wasundhara sewak and farmer, had purchased the formulations from them and saw astounding results in his Turai crop, harvesting 100 kilograms and earning Rs 70,000. 

“Dusre gaon se log aa rahe the Ambalal ki kheti ko dekhne. (Hearing the news of Ambalal’s success, many were coming from outside to see his fields)”, says Kusava. The news of Ambalal’s success quickly spread, attracting attention from neighbouring areas. In no time, others started adopting organic farming practices, with Kusava and Dhapubai experiencing a rapid surge in the sale of their organic formulations. The shift to organic farming practices also enabled villagers to take measures toward enhancing the food and nutrition security of their families.

For instance, Leela Kuwar Devda, a 50-year old farmer and housewife from Modwa Village, set up her own kitchen garden in the backyard of her house. With treated seeds provided as part of the project, she began cultivating varieties of fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, brinjal, cauliflower, green chillies, and papaya. Applying only organic formulations, her garden began to flourish. “Iss baar five kilo nikla hai.. (This time the harvest is five kilograms),” she exclaimed with delight. For Leela Kuwar, access to fresh and nutritious vegetables means an improvement in the health of her family, as well as a chance to gain an additional income.

For those with very little cultivable land, enhancing livestock and its management opened the doors to non-farm based livelihood opportunities. For instance, 40-year old Pyaari bai Gameti struggled to sustain her poultry, often eaten or attacked by wild animals. With a provision of a cage, Pyaari bai’s poultry is now protected. With eight cocks and seven hens, Pyaari bai is able to generate income through sale of the cocks and the eggs, charging Rs 1,200 for a cock and Rs 20 for an egg. With dwindling agricultural yields, and little and unstable income from farm labour, this has secured a livelihood for Pyaari bai and her family. Now, the family is able to use the poultry for its own consumption and to earn an additional income. “Isse nuksaan nahi ho raha… (There is no disadvantage of this intervention../), she says.

From the rocky terrains of Karauli to the rolling hills of Udaipur, communities are forging pathways to build resilience. With access to water as the first step, communities are finding ways to become self-reliant. “Sab paani ki maya hai.. (It’s all because of [access to] water), adds Ambalal Gameti. With each intervention, the communities are now taking charge of their lives, finding hope amidst despair, brimming with the endless possibilities of creating a better tomorrow for themselves and for the generations to come.

(Courtesy: WOTR. Established in 1993, WOTR or Watershed Organization Trust is an internationally recognised non-profit organisation and think tank that engages at the intersection of practice, knowledge and policy across scales and in collaboration with various stakeholders across sectors. WOTR’s goal is to ensure water and food availability, along with livelihoods and income security – to support the sustainable growth and well-being of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in rural India.)