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Natural farming and water conservation offer hope for poor farmers

A comprehensive report by BHARAT DOGRA as he travels, meets and talks to villagers in backward districts who have taken the advice and guidance of activists of voluntary organisations and moved away from chemical fertilisers and pesticides, to follow ecologically sound practices

On the farming map of Uttar Pradesh, Mahoba of Bundelkhand Region is considered a relatively backward district, but under a recent initiative called BIWAL (Bundelkhand Initiative for Water, Agriculture, and Livelihoods), a model combining water conservation and natural farming, many farmers and rural communities have found new strength. Voluntary organisations Arunoday and Srijan have collaborated to take this model to several villages, with emphasis on women farmers and relatively weaker sections.

Pictures (above and below) from Thurhat Village, where a natural farming centre has become a hub for farmers to buy low-cost organic manure and pest repellents, and where there has been a shift to natural farming.

Chhitarwara Village in Jaitpur Block is humming as it experiments with natural farming. Arvind, a small farmer, has leveraged the very low-cost technology based on improved utilisation of cow dung and urine and other local free resources, to tend his hitherto low-yielding land. He and his family are delighted to find that production has increased almost three times, to around 14 quintals, using only organic inputs. Several other farmers, like Surtai and Chhadami, have also achieved encouraging results from natural farming. Their success, combined with the steep decline in costs, has attracted other farmers to natural farming, and most have either already adopted the techniques or are actively considering doing so.

In Thurhat Village, Ramesh Dada is leading the initiative to set up a natural farming centre which has become a hub also for farmers to buy low-cost organic manure and pest repellants.

Ramesh warns that while shifting to natural farming, the first couple of years will be difficult, but after this, the yield stabilizes and could increase too. However, the cost reduction and quality improvement are immediate. In fact, the quality improved so much that Ramesh was able to get double the normal rate for his organically produced wheat. Therefore, despite a small decline in yield, his income went up.

Deendayal has achieved good results in vegetable cultivation while Ghanshyam talks with pride about filling two trucks with watermelons grown on his small farm. Though there are still some who refuse to be convinced, the winds are certainly in favour of natural farming. Desilting of tanks has had the double advantage of improving the rainwater retention capacity of tanks, and increasing the fertility of the soil in fields by depositing the silt in them. In fact, Baura Village suffered from quite acute water scarcity but after the water storage issue was sorted out, the prospects of success for natural farming increased. The village has formed a tank management committee to carry forward water conservation work. The villagers have even carried out desilting without the support of the two voluntary organisations.

In Pipariya cluster in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna District, where Srijan’s partner Hartika is working with small farmers to cultivate fruit orchards, electricity supply was so erratic that irrigation was a critical constraint. The solution was solar pumps. Gaurihar is considered one of the most backward blocks of Mahoba District. However, the BIWAL initiative, facilitated by a grant from Indus Ind Bank, has progressed well even in very difficult conditions. In Kheminkhera village, two ancient tanks – the Behari Sagar and Devi – stand testimony to traditional water conservation wisdom. The Behari Sagar has beautiful lotus flowers which offer a livelihood to those who collect the stems to be used for consumption. However, silt accumulation had become a problem in both tanks. Desilting them under the BIWAL Project and using the silt to fertilise fields while improving water conservation has improved yields of areas under vegetable cultivation and also helped plant new orchards, keeping costs low.

Keshkali of Churiyari Village in this block is a good example of women farmers who have come forward to make full use of new opportunities. She has set up a natural farming centre, and is now an established proponent of this form of cultivation. At the same time some new concerns are also emerging. Introduction of exotic fish and the consequent need for supplying feed in the tanks has caused the water to become badly polluted. Villagers say there was no problem as long as there were only local species of fish in the tanks; the problem arose when fishing contracts were given. In fact, people in another village staged a protest against this practice.

As I travelled towards Banda, I became aware of another serious risk for water sources. There appeared to be an endless line-up of trucks to carry sand mined from the Ken River, legally as well as illegally. Are we opening up these areas for further ecological havoc?

Tribal communities shift from migrant labour to self-reliance

Anandpuri Block in Rajasthan’s Banswara District has a high concentration of tribal communities, particularly Bhil. Their traditional livelihood and farming patterns based on biodiversity and self-reliance were well-suited to local conditions, but these suffered under the exploitative systems of colonial times. Independence brought some relief, but the dominant development thinking still neglected special needs, conditions and concerns of tribal communities and programmes imposed on them were not in keeping with either their strengths or needs. Consequently, some traditional strengths were eroded and they turned migrant labourers to meet basic needs.

The saksham samooh group of women.

Vaagdhara, a voluntary organisation, aims to recognise the needs and strengths of tribal communities and then work for and with them. Over the past two decades, it has developed an atmosphere of trust and collaboration with the tribes. Emphasis is on strengthening sustainable livelihoods with mindfulness about biodiversity, ecological protection and self-reliance.

Amritlal, a farmer of Bhundri Village, who had become heavily dependent on his work as a migrant labourer, came in contact with Vaagdhara activists who prevailed upon him to instead devote his time and energy to his lands. The fact that the technology being recommended was low-cost helped convince Amritlal. He not only planted various kinds of fruit trees but also those which supply fodder, fuel and small timber. He started using improved methods to make organic manure and pest repellents using cow dung and cow urine, saving in costs. The crops he planted almost fully meet the food needs of his family and significantly improved nutrition. Today, Amritlal and his wife Surta are economically strong enough to lease some extra land for cultivation. Amritlal has become a proponent of the ideas of self-reliance and sustainable livelihood. He has motivated the planting of several thousand trees by others, and for this he was bestowed the Ummedpur Lodh Environment Award.

In Nanamukhia Village of this block, Ramu Maharaj and his wife Naani follow much the same pattern. Ramu’s farm is largely self-reliant and entirely organic, he says. Water shortage is a constraint though, and though Ramu is no longer forced to regularly hire himself out as migrant labour, he may have to leave his village now and then to earn a little extra, he says.

In various villages, women have formed groups called saksham samoohs to take forward the objectives of self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods. They hold regular meetings to pursue development tasks and resolve pending problems. In Nagli Sera Village, Kanchan, who is also a facilitator for Vaagdhara, says the need to hire themselves out as migrant labour has significantly reduced, while farm-based livelihoods have improved. Kali Devi states that organic farming on her seven bighas of land has enabled her to purchase two buffaloes. Susheela, who grows a variety of crops on five bighas of land, says apart from salt and edible oil, she is able to meet her family’s food needs herself.

In Sundraav Village, Usha and Ambalal are also firmly on the path of self-reliance. Ambalal says though organic cultivation is the right path, he is proceeding gradually in this direction. The traditional Halma system where farmers help each other at peak season instead of hiring labour is still working well in this village, he says.

Kitchen gardens play an important role in terms of improving nutrition in the families of these regions. Kailash Chandra says at one point, there were no trees near his home, but after he was motivated by Vaagdhara to plant trees, his garden now has jackfruit, custard apple, guava, lemon, papaya and other fruit trees. Women farmers such as Kanku Devi have been very active in protecting and preserving seeds, using and also reviving several traditional methods for this, contributing further to self-reliance.

Swaraj groups have been formed in various villages and they come together in a janjativilas manch or forum for development of tribal communities. Mansingh, who heads this forum, says organically grown vegetables and fruits have improved nutrition remarkably, without incurring additional expense. Several millet varieties once grown here – ragi, kaang, kutti, bati and kodra – are being revived. Efforts to check soil and water erosion have helped. There are ongoing efforts to make better use of government schemes like MGNREGA. In addition, social reform issues like checking wasteful ceremonial expenses have been taken up successfully. Micro plans for several villages have been prepared.

Ensuring school education and other child rights is a priority. Children who were out of school for some reason were educated in special schools and then integrated with the mainstream. Helplines and other means are used to rescue and rehabilitate distressed children. Special schemes like Paalanhaar have also been utilised to help orphans. There’s special focus on ensuring that youth do not get alienated from their communities and instead, contribute to them when they establish successful careers.

Reaching out to marginal farmers

Most farm development efforts focus on bigger players. It is rare to see a programme such as the ongoing efforts of Srijan in Mau Block of UP’s Chitrakut District, focused on the most marginalised farmers with the smallest holdings. As some Kol tribal women pointed out at a group meeting, they had only very little land to start with a few years back, but the chakbandi (a government programme for consolidation of holdings) worsened the situation when, in the name of bringing together tiny plots, corrupt officials took bribes from dominant landowners and pushed tribal and Dalit farmers to remote corners where land is less fertile.

Srijan works to help marginal farmers with water conservation and sustainable farming efforts which reduce costs while maintaining (or even increasing) productivity. There are constraints in the efforts too – if a dominant landowner’s properties adjoin a conserved water source, he benefits more than the marginalised farmers. But despite these difficulties, the Srijan team, working in difficult conditions in remote areas, has been able in less than two years to establish a relationship of trust with poor and marginalised peasants.

Asha Devi in her kitchen garden in Lapaon Village.

Water conservation work involving cleaning tanks, digging doha pits in water channels and repairing check dams was taken up at a cost of less than a million rupees and benefitted nearly 100 households, many of them marginalised. What is more, nearly 70 per cent of the cost incurred reached these families as wages for this work. Such cost-effective work was possible because of the close involvement of the community. Village development committees were constituted and meet at regular intervals to help take forward various initiatives. Farmers, particularly women, were trained in natural farming methods like better use of cow dung and cow urine to replace expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Shyam toiled as a labourer in a nearby town on exploitative wages, but has now decided to concentrate on his farm. His wife Savita has emerged as a lead farmer in adopting natural farming methods. As encouragement, Srijan has donated a solar pump to them. In Lapaanv Village, Kiran proudly showed us around her small but highly productive vegetable garden. Her whole family works hard to cultivate a wide diversity of vegetables, with the help of a green net donated by Srijan to protect the crops from raids by monkeys.

Word has spread about the quality of vegetables grown using natural farming methods and Kiran says shopkeepers come to her doorstep to buy her produce. Her father-in-law, Braj Behari, says his eyesight had become so poor that he was making arrangements to undergo a surgery at a nearby charitable hospital, but after eating organically grown chaulai (Amaranth plant) daily for several days, his eyesight has improved dramatically and he doesn’t feel the need for medical intervention. Villagers in other places too reported that organically grown vegetables had a beneficial effect on eyesight.

Asha is another Lapaanv resident who reports that her kitchen garden, though small, has helped significantly improve her family’s year-round nutrition. She also has enough produce to gift her friends from time to time. Asha’s garden has a water channel cleverly designed to irrigate all the plants. She also preserves the seeds of the various vegetables she grows.

Successful changeover drives spread of natural farming

About 30 farmers of Elha Village in Manikpur Block of UP’s Chitrakut District have gathered for a group discussion along with activists of ABSSS (Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan), a voluntary organisation. On the agenda is the progress of the initiative to promote natural farming, started two years ago.

Ram Bishun Yadav, Shiv Avtar Yadav and Gajendra Singh, an activist farmer from a nearby village, report that a farmer getting an yield of two quintals per bigha of land earlier, now gets four quintals, and income has doubled from the earlier Rs 2000. Simultaneously, a saving of Rs. 2200 per bigha was achieved by not buying chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and adopting less intensive irrigation. Fodder availability has increased by about Rs. 1000. Thus, they calculate an increased net income of about Rs 7200 per bigha of land. (It has to be noted that this calculation is based on those who have done very well by adopting natural farming methods. Not all have fared equally well. Also, some of the progress was the result of water conservation efforts like cleaning the main tank in the village, and spreading the dredged silt on the farmlands, which preceded the adoption of natural farming methods.)

Women in Maharja Village attend a training session.

Those who have taken up multi-layer vegetable production using organic methods find they are able to increase their production and income even from very small plots of land. In Sakrauhan Village, Sarita and her husband Rajbohar have a very well-cultivated multi-layer vegetable farm in which they grow over 15 varieties of vegetables in a mutually-supportive way. Rajbohar, who sells the produce himself, say there is much demand for organically-grown vegetables as they’re tastier and more nutritive. These vegetables thus fetch a better price. Sarita has established a natural farming centre where she stores surplus improved organic manure and pest repellants prepared in a scientific way from locally collected cow dung and cow urine.

Another farmer, Ram Niwas Kushwaha, says natural farming has resulted in better productivity and income as well as improvement of soil. Kushwaha’s family owns about 100 cows. They have been using cow dung manure for a long time, but now more scientific and productive ways are employed, which is yielding good results.  Kitchen gardens are another initiative, and women report that they contribute much to improved nutrition. Some say the vegetables grown in these gardens by natural farming techniques cook more quickly, thus resulting in fuel saving too. Family health has also significantly improved. 

In Sakrauhan as well as several other villages of this block, ABSSS’s earlier work with Kol Tribals and Dalits resulted in them securing land titles and land being distributed to several people too. In Sakrauhan as well as Gidurha Village, these efforts had started with the cleaning of village tanks. In Gidurha, some farmers like P.M. Charan and Allen have taken in the lead in promoting natural farming. Charan says ‘the activists motivated even an elderly person like me to take up a new challenge. I like to spend a lot of time in my fields now, although earlier I was taking very little interest in farming.”

Women lead the way

Women farmers of Neemkhera Village (Niwari District, Madhya Pradesh) meet near the ancient water tank built by the Chandel kings several centuries earlier. Most of them are very small farmers, owning one to three acres of land or less. Yet, they have taken up the cause of strengthening sustainable farming and water conservation. As Girija Devi explains, one of the first initiatives was to arrange for desilting the main village tank. Srijan helped with the heavier work, taken up under BIWAL. Farmers arranged to transport the silt to their fields, increasing the fertility of the land. Women played an important part in ensuring that the entire work proceeded in a just and hassle-free way.

Consequent to the de-silting, more rain water collected and stayed in the tank for a longer time, improving direct irrigation and, more important, recharge. Wells and hand pumps had more water, bringing much relief to women who bear the burden of collecting water for their households, including animals. The water situation further improved with 15 pits (called dohas) being dug in a water channel, as well as tree-planting and bund-strengthening initiatives. This was followed up by sustained efforts to shift from a chemical fertiliser-pesticide system to natural/ organic farming with immense biodiversity, a change led by women farmers with the guidance of Srijan activists. Women farmers were excited about the productivity gains they have achieved.

A group photo of women of Neemkhera Village.

What appears to enthuse women farmers most is the scientific vegetable farming on small plots of land, including kitchen gardens. Some women play a prominent role in the entire chain – from preparing manure, planting and marketing to preserving seeds for the next crop. Gayatri says some farms have even been able to almost double production. An elderly woman says millets like kodon, sawan and cheena which are very useful will be revived now. Srijan activist Mamta says this village has many lead natural farmers who are committed to various aspects of natural farming and they in turn are helping bring other farmers into the system.

The efforts have extended to several other villages of Niwari District, helped by a generous grant from Indus Ind Bank. In Gulenda Village of Prithvipur Block, the water conservation effort has been particularly impressive. The water tank has been both de-silted and repaired, and dohas have contributed a lot to water recharge. All this has helped to reduce the dependence on migration. The changes have attracted farmers in other villages to take up water conservation and natural farming too, with special emphasis on smaller farmers and women farmers.

De-silting of tanks with community participation brings many-sided benefits

In the Bundelkhand Region of Central India, water tanks have contributed a great deal towards meeting the water needs of people over the centuries. The Chandela and Bundela rulers who reigned from the 9th to the 18th Century extended royal patronage for the construction of several thousand such structures. Understanding the importance of these tanks, people contributed to their proper maintenance and protection for a long time. Colonial rule brought neglect as well as encroachments in water retention and catchment areas, leading to the deterioration of tanks. As deforestation and soil erosion in catchment areas worsened at several places, the siltation of tanks also increased and their capacity to meet water needs of villagers and animals were severely eroded. Of late, misconceptions about government responsibilities have prevented communities from taking up periodic de-silting work.

It was at this stage that Srijan started discussing the possibilities of taking up de-siltation work with several rural communities. This effort was helped by studies conducted by the ABV Institute for Good Governance and Policy Analysis (IGG). Manpokhar, a tank in Lakhaipur Village of Tikamgarh District (Madhya Pradesh) was one of several taken up for de-silting. When I met villagers here, they were full of praise for the effort.

A renovated well in Gulenda Village.

Ramdevi, a well-informed and articulate woman farmer, pointed out that the tank had plenty of water in January, which had not been the case earlier. She also noted that the portion which was not de-silted had dried up as before. Harbhajan, another farmer, said, “When we deposited the fertile silt in our fields, the yield increased significantly.” The recharging of wells because of increased water in the tank also increased productivity. If sustained efforts make water available in the tanks all year round, the gains will be permanent. 

Ashish Ambasta, who has been closely involved in several such efforts in the neighbouring district of Nivari, highlighted the efforts of Shashi Prajapati, a woman community leader who played a very important role in mobilising community efforts for de-silting work in Kudar Villge, resulting in almost year-round availability of water in a tank there. Srijan team leader Rakesh Singh emphasised that several precautions are needed, like leaving the lower layers of silt undisturbed. Project member Mangal Singh added that special care has to be taken to protect the bund. If precautions are not taken, it could actually cause harm, and emphasises the need for community involvement.

Project Manager Kamlesh Kurmi stressed two aspects of community mobilisation in the entire effort – firstly, farmers need to bear the cost of carrying the fertile silt from tanks to their fields. Secondly, it should be ensured that all farmers get a fair share of the fertile silt. The success of efforts in some places has led to the spread of the initiative to other areas, but there is much scope for continued extension. A study on rejuvenation of traditional water bodies prepared by the IGG quotes Irrigation Department sources saying there are 995 Chandela tanks in Tikamgarh District alone, out of which nearly 100 are used for irrigation. This points to the huge potential of improving farm productivity in the Bundelkhand Region and other areas by de-silting efforts.