In-depth coverage: Drought, but why Drought now affects people across classes. India needs a new strategy for disaster management[ Essay , DTE ]


On a scorching hot April afternoon, standing under a mango tree on his 5.7-hectare (ha) farm, Ramvithal Valse declares, “This year’s drought is unprecedented. It has surpassed the drought of 1972.” The 81-year-old farmer from Sonwati village in Latur district says that in 1972, when the state witnessed one of its worst droughts ever, the shortage was of food grains and not water. “Groundwater was available within six metres, but now even 244-metre-deep borewells have gone dry. This is not akal; it is trikal—no water, no fodder and decline in farm produce,” says the farmer.

Valse’s village falls in the Latur tehsil of Marathwada, the worst drought-affected region in Maharashtra. According to an April 2016 report of the Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation, 11 major irrigation projects, 75 medium irrigation projects and 729 minor irrigation projects in the eight Marathwada districts have only four per cent, five per cent and three per cent of live water storage respectively. The picture is not much different in other parts of Maharashtra that has more than 60 per cent villages under drought this year. The situation is expected to worsen till June when the monsoon showers begin.

Given the magnitude of the crisis, the state government has resorted to several desperate measures, including transportation of water on trains—with over 50 wagons—to Latur and prohibiting people from gathering around water supply points. However, as the crisis deepens, people are increasingly asking one fundamental question: why did the government not act earlier? “Unlike other disasters, drought gives sufficient warning. It was building for the past five years. Why did the state government not reserve water for drinking and regulate water supply to industries?” asks Pradeep Purandare, ex-associate professor at the Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad.

Valse echoes Purandare’s sentiment when he says that the current situation is a result of drought-like conditions that have been prevailing in the region for the past four years. “My annual income has reduced by 80 per cent in four years. I had 12 cattle then. Now I am left with a cow and its calf.” Three borewells in his farmland have gone dry. The last one has little water left that is used only for drinking purposes.

Mamta Devi of Sonwati village spends hours just filling water from a dugwell near the village temple. She has developed severe neck and back pain because of carrying water up the hillock to her house

H M Desarda, former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission, goes a step further when he says the state is facing a “policy-induced water scarcity”. “Faulty policies, regional imbalance, wrong cropping pattern, unregulated mining of the groundwater and political apathy have ruined the rural economy,” says Desarda.

The deteriorating water situation in the region can be gauged by the steady decline in farming in the area. “The problem started in 2011 when we had below average rainfall. The next year, Marathwada received excess rainfall of 136 per cent. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, we again had about 50 per cent deficit monsoon. Freak hailstorms during February-March in 2014 and 2015 destroyed the standing rabi crops (October-March),” says Vijay Diwan, president of Aurangabad-based Nisarga Mitra Mandal and former member of The Marathwada Development Board. Mohan Bhise, agriculture officer, Latur, says farmers in 15 per cent of the villages in the Latur district did not sow the kharif crop (July-October) last year after the area had a 50 per cent monsoon deficit.

The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16 says that during the 2015 kharif season, sowing was completed on 14 million hectares (ha) of area in the state, which is six per cent less than the previous year. This is expected to result in an 18 per cent decline in the production of foodgrains and two per cent in oilseeds production for kharif crops. The area under rabi crops is also expected to decrease by 16 per cent as compared to the previous year resulting in an expected decline of 27 per cent and 50 per cent in foodgrains and oilseeds production respectively. In 2014-15, deficit monsoon and unseasonal rains lead to a decline in the production of foodgrains, cereals and pulses—24.9 per cent, 18.7 per cent and 47.0 per cent respectively over the previous year. Production of fruits and vegetables also decreased by nearly 15 per cent. There was, however, a 19 per cent increase in sugarcane production.

Defunct jackwell on dried-up Manjara river at Nagzari barrage in Latur district. Manjara is the only river in the district.

Sugarcane Curse

At the heart of the current drought is the changing farming pattern in the semi-arid Marathwada region in the past few decades. Several farmers have ditched drought-resistant crops such as jowar (sorghum) and chana (chickpea) for water-intensive cash crops such as sugarcane. Marathwada receives an annual average rainfall of 844 mm, while sugarcane ideally needs 2,100-2,500 mm of rainfall.

Uday Deolankar, agriculture officer, Aurangabad, says while crops such as moong and maize, which were traditionally grown in the region, consume 3.5 -7 million litres of water per ha to grow, sugarcane needs 25 million litres of water per ha. But sugarcane farming continues despite the drought. In Marathwada, the sugarcane area has gone up from 184,900 ha in 2009-10 to 219,400 ha in 2014-15. In the same period, sugarcane production in Latur increased from 39,900 ha to 46,400 ha. The production of kharif jowar for the same period, however, reduced from 117,200 ha to 88,300 ha.

Uday Despande, a farmer from Latur’s Nagzari village, says it is not the farmers, but the government that should be blamed for the growing popularity of sugarcane in the region. “Farmers will grow crops which get assured returns. Sugarcane fetches us good money. If the government assures us it would pick up our other crops like vegetables and pulses, and gives us a good FRP (fair and remunerative price), we will switch over to those crops,” says Deshpande.

Of the total 205 sugar factories in Maharashtra, 34 per cent are in Marathwada. Latur alone has 13 sugar factories and 45,000-50,000 ha area under annual sugarcane cultivation. Pandurang Pole, collector, Latur, says that of the district’s irrigation capacity of 118,000 ha, barely 50-60 per cent is active. “And almost 90 per cent of the total water available for irrigation in the district is used for sugarcane cultivation.” In fact, seven to eight of the 13 functional sugar factories in the district crushed sugarcane even till February this year. When asked why this was not arrested, Pole says, “There is no law that gives me the power to stop sugar factories. We are trying to educate farmers not to grow sugarcane.” This, despite the fact that as early as in 1999, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission’s report had recommended no sugarcane cultivation in drought-prone areas, and relocation of sugar factories. Instead, in 2012, the state government sanctioned 20 more private sugar factories in Marathwada. “The Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976, gives enough powers to the state government to reduce water supply to water-intensive crops. Even crops in the command area of an irrigation project can be controlled during the drought years. What was the state government doing all these years?” questions Purandare.

The Maharashtra government has finally woken up and decided to not give new permits to sugar factories in Marathwada for the next five years.

Allowing sugarcane production to flourish at a time of droughts is not the only way in which the state government has faltered. The water structures in the state—which has one of the highest numbers of large dams in the country—have failed to help because of government policies to divert water from farm to industries and urban centres. A March 2013 report titled Water Grabbing in Maharashtra shows that between 2003 and 2011, the state government’s Ministerial-level High Power Committee on Water Allocation and Reallocation diverted 1983.43 million cubic metres of water from 51 irrigation dam projects to non-irrigation purposes. The report by Pune-based Prayas Resources and Livelihoods Group says that the diversion for non-irrigation purposes, mainly for big cities and industries, has been to the tune of 30-90 per cent of the dams’ live storage capacities, leading to acute water shortage for agriculture.

A cattle camp near Beed town. The camp buys 36,000 litres of water daily for the 799 cattle it houses. The per day cost of water and fodder at the camp is Rs 33,600. Beed district has 262 cattle camps with 260,925 head of cattle

As a result, despite having the maximum numbers of large dams in the country—1,845—the state has failed in providing water to its people. Similarly, The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16 says the state has 3,909 irrigation projects that on paper provided the potential to irrigate 4.9 million ha on June 2014. But, the total irrigation potential utilised is only 31.37 per cent. Because of lack of irrigation facilities and inappropriate cropping pattern, desperate farmers of Marathwada have turned to groundwater. As a result, in some tehsils of Latur, there is no water even 304 metres below the ground. According to Bhise, eight watersheds in Latur district are over-exploited (groundwater extraction is more than 100 per cent of the recharge), whereas six are under semi-critical category (groundwater extraction is between 70 and 90 per cent of the recharge). Three years ago not even a single watershed in Latur was overexploited. In the past one year, the water table in Latur has gone down by 3.5-4 metre, says Pole.

Kachru Hadwale, a resident of Madapuri village of Beed district, has been staying in a cattle camp since January 2016 with 24 head of cattle of his landlord. He will return to his village only after the monsoon rain.

Government figures highlight the regional imbalance in distribution of water in the state. According to an October 2013 report by the state’s Planning Department, Marathwada’s per capita water availability is 438 cubic metres (cum), as against 985 cum in Vidarbha and 1,346 cum in the rest of Maharashtra. This has happened because the state government has regularly neglected the water requirement of the Marathwada region. For example, in 1965, the Maharashtra government proposed the Jayakwadi dam on the Godavari river in Paithan tehsil of Aurangabad to make Marathwada districts water-sufficient. In the first report on the dam, there was a provision of 240-km-long left bank canal and 180-km-long right bank canal for irrigation purposes. The declared command area for irrigation facilities was 272,000 ha. But, by the time the project was completed in 1976, the right bank canal was reduced to 80 km and command area decreased to 140,000 ha. According to the plan, the dam should receive 81 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) every year from irrigation projects upstream of Jayakwadi to irrigate Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Parbhani and Nanded districts. “But, for more than 15 years now, Jayakwadi has received only 40 TMC water,” complains Diwan. At present, the dam has no live water storage. Of the 11 major irrigation projects in Marathwada, seven have zero live water storage.

Dried Promise

The lone state government scheme that promises to save the people from droughts is ill-conceived to say the least. The Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan was started in 2014 with the promise to drought-proof the state by 2019. It aims to make 5,000 villages free of water scarcity every year through deepening and widening of streams, construction of cement and earthen stop dams, work on nullahs and digging of farm ponds. A total of 158,089 works are to be carried out under this project, of which 51,660 were completed till April 22 this year.

However, the project has already run into rough weather as Desarda has filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court alleging Jalyukta Shivar is against the principles of watershed management. The basic principle of watershed management, explains Desarda, is ridge-to-valley, which means any work of water and soil conservation must begin from the ridge in order to arrest faster run-off, and eventually come to the valley down below. “Jalyukt Shivar is doing exactly the opposite. Scattered and single line activities are being carried out in farms and villages without any works on the ridge. River beds and rivulets are being dredged with heavy machinery in the most unscientific manner,” complains Desarda, who has recently toured 17 Maharashtra districts to assess Jalyukt Shivar and river rejuvenation projects.

Harangul villagers stand in the dried-up stream they have deepened. They have over-excavated the stream bed that may cause more problems. A petition has been filed in Bombay High Court against such unscientific river rejuvenation works being carried out in Maharashtra.

A visit to sites in Latur and Aurangabad districts where widening and deepening of streams is being carried out bears out the complaints. In Aurangabad, river rejuvenation works have been carried out in Yelganga and Fullmasta rivers using funds raised under corporate social responsibility. In Latur, 18 km of Manjara river is being widened and deepened between Sai and Nagzari barrages. The project was launched on April 8, 2016, and heavy excavator machines are working day and night to deepen the river. At Harangul village on the outskirts of Latur city, local irrigation officials and farmers are widening and deepening 27 km of main stream and its mini-streams that flow through the 160-ha cultivable land of the village. At some places the river has been dredged to more than five metres depth.

“Rivers and streams should not be deepened below three metres else they might expose the groundwater and cause permanent damage to the aquifers,” says Diwan.

Mahananda bai from Devangra village in Latur district says government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has failed to generate any work in the past seven years in her village.

Experts say the other problem with the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan is that it is primarily doing the works that are also mentioned under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), but without involving the people in the process. If the Central scheme was funded and implemented properly, it would have generated employment for the people in the drought-hit region during the time of crisis. Instead, Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan is benefiting only the contractors who are mindlessly dredging. Another problem is that people, desperate for water, are also arbitrarily dredging rivers and streams on their own. Purandare warns that haphazard water conservation are “heading us towards an ecological disaster”.

Amid all the bad news, administration in Bhadegaon village in Khuldabad tehsil of Aurangabad district has been successful in keeping drought at bay by adopting the ridge-to-valley approach of watershed management. In 2015, village residents, along with the forest department and agriculture officers, carried out deep continuous contour trench on the entire ridge around Bhadegaon on an area of 75 ha. Cemented nullah bandhs were constructed and compartment bunding was carried out in each farmland covering 60 ha. A number of farmers also adopted drip-irrigation.

The benefits have now started to show. Till last summer, Bhadegaon was dependent on water tankers to meet its drinking water needs. Starting June 2015, not even a single water tanker has come to the village. Water storage of 122 TCM has been created and there has been an increase in crop output. In the past one year, farmers have sown both kharif and rabi crop. Some have sown a third crop as well. The average annual income of families has gone up from Rs 31,000 to Rs 63,000.

Uday Deolankar, agriculture officer, Aurangabad, says his team now plans to survey all the villages in three blocks of Aurangabad in the first week of May to prepare a plan to drought-proof villages using ridge-to-valley concept.

Dried sugarcane is being used as fodder in cattle camps

Penny unwise, pond foolish


The government should have revived traditional water bodies and ponds to prepare Bundelkhand for drought. Rather, it spent Rs 15,000 crore to build new harvesting structures

A woman draws water from a ditch in Bajakund village of Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district (Photo: Sachin Kumar Jain)

Manwati, 38, has been trying her luck with the hand-pump for close to two hours now. The effort has yielded half-a-bucket of water. Exhausted, she gives up and decides to walk to another hand-pump about two kilometres from her village Saliaya Karrah with her neighbour Kapoori. “This is the only hand-pump in the village but it also has started to run dry. I have to finish cooking for my three children before dark because we usually have a night-long power-cut starting 6:30 pm,” Manwati says. It’s already 5:30 pm and she has another hour to get water.

Manwati is just one of the many women in Bundelkhand, a region in central India comprising 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, who have to struggle for water everyday. Her village lies in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, an area that has always faced water shortage. But the situation has turned particularly grim in the past couple of decades. Manwati’s husband works as a daily wage labourer in Mahoba. Her father-in-law, Lall Chaturvedi, owns three hectares (ha) but has not farmed in the past two years because there is not enough water. He took a loan to buy a tractor three years ago but has not been able to deposit his annual instalment of Rs 1 lakh since last year. The bank has been sending recovery agents to their house who abuse them. The family is worried that Chaturvedi might commit suicide. As per official figures, 27 farmers have committed suicide between June 2015 and March 2016 in the district. The water crisis has also caused crop failure, riots, caste violence, and large-scale migration. In Kabrai block of the district, for instance, Manoj Basor, a sweeper, was beaten up by higher caste men for touching a hand-pump. “I belong to an untouchable caste. I was thirsty and dared to use the hand-pump to take a glass of water. Apart from attacking me, they have also filed a police complaint,” claims Manoj, showing his wounds. Officials at the Kabrai police station say that water-related crimes would increase as the summer reaches its peak. “Last year more than 50 such incidents were reported in our police station. This year, till the first week of April, we have already had five cases,” says Raj Bahadur Singh, a constable at the police station.

“Here, might is right,” says U N Tiwary, a retired bank official who lives in Kabrai. Water tankers are looted as soon as they arrive. Last time, Tiwary could only manage three buckets and that too because the distribution was done under police protection. He has to survive on these three buckets for around four days. His wife has gone to live with her children in Bhopal till the monsoon arrives.

Gufran Khan of Hamirpur district, Uttar Pradesh, had a stress fracture from drawing water from a well throughout the day (Photos: Vikas Choudhary)

Perpetual Crisis

This is the 13th drought Bundelkhand has witnessed in the past 15 years. But this was not always the case. As per government data, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region faced droughts once in 16 years. The frequency increased and between 1968 and 1992, there was a drought every five years. Between 2004 and 2008, four consecutive droughts ravaged the region. Except 2013, all the years between 2009 and 2015 saw deficit monsoon. “Even in 2013, excessive rain in February and heavy monsoon damaged 60 per cent of rabi and kharif crops,” says Rajendra Nigam, project coordinator of Mahoba-based non-profit Grammonatti Sansthan.

The drought has also resulted in the 15th consecutive crop failure. According to the Uttar Pradesh government, its Bundelkhand districts lost 70 per cent of rabi crop due to the drought this year. The state government has demanded a compensation of Rs 205 crore for farmers from the Centre. Rakesh Agnihotri, a marketing inspector from the department of food and civil supply, says he and his team waited at the godown in Charkhari block of Mahoba for the entire first week of April to purchase wheat at the minimum support price (MSP) from farmers but not a single one turned up. This despite the state government fixing the MSP of wheat at Rs 15,250 per tonne—a 5.2 per cent increase from the previous year’s rate. “Generally, this doesn’t happen,” says Agnihotri. “We organise collection centres after much publicity. Farmers usually start coming from day one. This signifies that the drought has been quite severe. Either the farmers did not cultivate crops at all due to water shortage or the productivity was very low,” he adds. Continuous crop loss for more than a decade has also pushed up the production cost. Experts say farmers are spending beyond their capacity on irrigation.

Water shortage has given birth to a new business in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, where water drawn from wells is delivered at homes

The long spell of drought has also caused large-scale migration. Unable to sustain livelihood by agriculture, farmers are forced to work as labourers in cities. As per a government estimate made during the polio immunisation drive in 2015, about 6.2 million people have migrated from Bundelkhand in the past 15 years, says Ashish Sagar of Banda-based non-profit Prawas. He was involved in the preparation of the report.

Another fallout of the perpetual drought is stray cattle. Unable to provide fodder, farmers just let them go. There are no figures for the entire Bundelkhand region, but government estimates say just the Chitrakoot division has 0.36 million stray cattle. This is 20 per cent of all the cattle in the division. Bhori Devi, 38, of Ajimika village in Mahoba had to work as a labourer after her standing crop was destroyed by stray cattle this year. She owns 4 ha but grew wheat on only half a hectare because there was not enough water. Even this crop was destroyed. “We took a loan and invested Rs 50,000 in agriculture, which has to be repaid,” she says. The problem is so severe that Saroj Dwivedi, the woman village head of Ajnar, won the recent panchayat election on the promise of safeguarding fields from stray cattle. In areas where the victory margin is usually less than 50 votes, she won by 1,600 votes. “Even I couldn’t believe it,” says Saroj, a big farmer. “My husband had started taking care of around 500 anna pashu (disowned cattle) during the election campaign and people voted for us,” she adds.

Shukru Gond was displaced because of the construction of the Sakaria tank

Monumental Waste

So why has Bundelkhand not been able to prepare for drought despite suffering it for such a long time? It should have, because the Central government has spent Rs 15,000 crore in the past decade to create water-harvesting structures. The figure includes Rs 7,000 crore spent under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) on drought-proofing the region and the Rs 7,266 crore package that the Centre announced after the four consecutive droughts between 2004 and 2008. It also includes Rs 577 crore that the Union ministry of agriculture allocated to support farming and allied sectors. With all this money, over 116,000 harvesting structures have been constructed in Bundelkhand in just ten years (2006 to 2015). These include 700 check dams and 236 minor irrigation projects. This should have been enough to harvest rainwater to fight the drought.

The answer to why Bundelkhand failed to prepare for drought lies in the kind of water-harvesting structures that have been built. Most are either technically flawed or unsuited to the terrain. For instance, the Sakaria reservoir. This 40 ha reservoir constructed at a cost of Rs 5.7 crore in Heerapur village of Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district was a non-starter because the gradient of the land did not slope towards the reservoir. “Six years ago, I had pleaded with the district collector a number of times that the proposed site for the reservoir would not work because the slope was in the wrong direction,” says 65-year-old Shukru Gond of Heerapur. But the argument was dismissed because the project had been cleared by engineers. However, the knowledge of the village residents about the terrain proved correct. The reservoir that was announced as part of the Bundelkhand package to provide irrigation to 380 ha has now been declared defunct.

Sakaria tank in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh could not store water because its design was flawed. It was built at a cost of Rs 5.7 crore

The selected location of the reservoir was the result of caste politics, says Shukru. The site surveyed for the proposed tank was at Jamanhari village, a kilometre east of the current site. The area is low-lying and has two streams—Neman and Kaseha—that could have provided water to the reservoir. But the site was ignored because the Ahirs and Thakurs, the dominant castes of the village, did not allow it. The decision to change the location was taken overnight. The part where Gonds, one of the most backward tribes of the country, lived was selected and the residents were asked to relocate. Each family was paid Rs 40,000 as compensation. “Even rainwater does not stay in the tank for long. It seeps through the ground and spreads in the nearby fields,” says Pan Bai Gond, who lost her 1.2 ha to this failed tank. “At least the fields at our previous location were fertile. The ones that have been given to us are not,” says 60-year-old Sankar Gond.

A few kilometres from the Sakaria site is Gunor block of Panna district. Here a check dam has been made on the Pereri stream. The problem is that the dam is on a plain land—the water never gains enough speed to be checked. The dam just ends up being an obstruction and causes the water to spread in nearby areas. The problem with Jaswantpura dam in Amanganj block of Panna is exactly the opposite. This dam was constructed with substandard material and developed cracks in its first year of operation. As a result, there is no water conservation. “All the water just flows through the dam,” says D P Singh, a teacher at a government school in Amanganj block.

Yet another case is of Bhitri Mutmuru dam in Panna district. In 2013, one of the walls of the dam was washed away during the rain while construction was still going on. Bhitri Mutmuru, the village where the dam was being constructed, was also washed away. “A few people reportedly died. The matter was raised in the state Assembly. Renovation of the dam started last year,” says Sudeep Srivastava, a Panna-based activist.

There are innumerable similar stories in every district of the region. Wrong constructions have also destroyed centuries-old ponds that were functional. One such pond is Chaand Sagar in Nagar Dang village of Mahoba. Constructed by the Bundela rulers, the pond is on the verge of extinction after the government declared it a model pond and decided to give it a “facelift” in 2012-13. As part of the initiative, walls were constructed around the pond, which blocked the flow of water from the catchment areas.

“The pond now lives up to its name—it can dry even under moonlight,’’ mocks Leeladhar Rajput, a farmer in the village. The initiative was part of the state government’s drive to build a model pond in every block. Bhanu Sahai, chairperson of the Bundelkhand Relief Package Monitoring Committee of the Congress party, claims that the money granted under the package has been totally wasted. “Nearly 90 per cent of the ponds dug under the relief scheme have turned out to be useless,” he says.

Banda-based activist Pushpendra Singh has been campaigning for the construction of farm ponds to fight drought in Bundelkhand

Suitable Option

Since medieval times, local rulers and kings of Bundelkhand have built ponds. Some of these have lasted centuries and are still functional. Traditional wisdom suggests that ponds are best suited to the topography of the region. Agrees Pushpendra Singh, a Banda-based activist working on water conservation. Singh started a campaign to build 1,000 farm ponds along the banks of the seasonal Chandrawal river in 2013. These ponds would get filled up during the rainy season when the river is in full flow and provide water to farms for the rest of the year. Singh received support by the then Mahoba district magistrate Anuj Jha. The initiative was started in 2015 under MGNREGA.

By then Jha had been transferred and the scheme underwent a complete overhaul. Now, it was proposed that 15 new check dams should be constructed on the river to harvest water. The 70 km river that flows through Hamirpur and Banda already has five check dams. One of the new check dams, constructed at Nathupur village, has an almost 2 m wall, which is too high for a check dam. It completely obstructs the flow instead of slowing it. Moreover, the dam has names of two different villages—Kasrai and Karhara Kala—painted on either side to falsely claim that two separate dams have been constructed for the villages. “No one knows how much money has been spent on the dam. That’s the state of corruption in the region,” say Singh.

“Site selection for check dams cannot be done arbitrarily,” says Anuj Jha, now the district magistrate of Kannauj. “Our unit has never been consulted to conduct study for site selection,” says Anil Mishra, executive engineer at the Banda unit of the Central Ground Water Board. “One needs to know the total quantum of flow of water at the site. As per rules, 35 per cent of the total water must pass through the check dam to keep the river perennial. The rest of the 65 per cent can be used,” he adds. Mishra blames engineers of the irrigation department. “They make their own plans and implement them. As per the geography of the region, ponds are more suitable,” he says.

Raj Mohammad of Goshiari village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district carries a gun to guard the only water pit of the village where women take bath.

One such pond is Heera talab in Hamirpur district’s Athgar village. The catchment area of this huge 120 ha pond has not been encroached upon. As a result, the pond has thrived for centuries. “We don’t know how old this tank is. It never dries, even in harsh conditions, like this year,” says Pancham Aarakh, 58, a village resident.

Clear Correlation

The downfall of the pond system of irrigation started in the 1960s when land consolidation laws (chakbandi) were changed in several states, says Singh. Traditionally, landholdings were cut as per the availability of water bodies and it was kept in mind that every farmer had a water source for irrigation. As per the new laws, landholdings were cut in rectangular shape, ignoring water availability. Farmers, as a result, had to resort to other methods of irrigation. The impact of chakbandi was felt in the 1990s when droughts became severe. “The situation became acute in the 21st century. We had increased use of water but couldn’t recharge groundwater and failed to conserve surface water,” says Singh.

As farmers looked for other methods of irrigation, traditional water bodies were neglected and became defunct. A 1983 report of the Bundelkhand Development Authority, Madhya Pradesh, states that the region had 9,407 ponds. Another report published by Banda-based non-profit Vigyan Sanchaar Sansthan says that the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh had more than 11,000 ponds till 1990. Of these over 20,000 ponds, now around 5,500 remain. “There is a clear correlation between the rising water scarcity in Bundelkhand and the falling number of water bodies,” adds Singh.

Madan Sagar pond in Mahoba is dying because its catchment area has been encroached and untreated sewage is discharged in it.

The geography of this region allows quick recharge and discharge. “So ponds are most suitable for conservation of water. Exploiting groundwater will not help,” says Narendra Goswami, a Jhansi-based geologist. Moreover, groundwater resources in Bundelkhand are meagre because hard rocks like granite and gneiss do not allow water to percolate through the ground. On the other hand, the quartz reef that traverses through the undulating terrain of Bundelkhand provides sites where ponds can be formed, says Krishna Gandhi, a Jhansi-based activist who started Lokodyam Sansthan, a campaign for water conservation in Bundelkhand. “Many tanks built during the Chandela rule 1,000 years ago along these reefs can still be found,” Gandhi says. We need to identify traditional water bodies and revive them, says Pankaj Chaturvedi, a Delhi-based writer who has written two books on conservation and rejuvenation of traditional water bodies in Bundelkhand. Till that happens, the region will not be ready to face droughts.

It is not a drought

Richard Mahapatra

But a cumulative outcome of decades of policy sins

Photo: Reuters

The images are familiar, though stark. In Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, police have been deployed to guard precious pools of water in dry beds of big tanks and rivers. Children in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, instead of heading to school, join mothers in hopeless journeys to search for water. It is now a common sight: villages in Madhya Pradesh transport water from far away tubewells to store it in dry dug wells for their use. In Dhar district’s Chandawat village, the only source of water for 800 households has vanished this year. The village used to get water from a pond 5 km away and would store it in a dug well. But that pond has completely dried. “We now fan out to far away villages with bottles to beg for water,” says Hare Singh, a resident of Chandawat.

Women in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra trudge up to 9 km, spending almost half a day to collect two buckets of water. In Latur, the town that is in news for water scarcity, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code has been declared around water bodies, prohibiting assembly of more than five people at one place. In north Karnataka, residents leave villages early morning to scavenge water from any possible source, sometimes digging a metre into dry river beds and wait for hours to collect water as it seeps through.

And it is just April; the rain is two months away. Recent official estimates say water level in 91 major reservoirs of the country is just at 23 per cent of their capacity. As power stations bring down electricity generation due to water scarcity, city after city faces long power cuts. Amid this gloom, the government thought the word drought was too political. So now the India Meteorological Department will use terms like “deficit monsoon”, leaving the word drought to be used by “others”.

Half of India is under the grip of the second consecutive double-digit deficit monsoon, to use the official terminology. The last time the country witnessed such a situation was in 1965-66, when famine-like scenarios were triggered and widespread starvation deaths took place. At present, some 200,000 villages across the country are without water within their respective geographical boundary. Some 60,000 tankers in 10 states, and a train, have been deployed to provide water. Crops spread over 15 million hectares are under threat, while governments promise a drought-relief operation, allocating a miniscule Rs 20,000 crore. Preliminary estimate shows over 330 million people are affected by the current drought spell.

Graphics: Raku

But why does the country face a crisis every time it goes through a drought? Officially, drought is a permanent disaster that strikes, on an average, 50 million Indians every year; 33 per cent of the country is chronically drought-affected while close to 68 per cent areas are drought-prone. India has more than 150 years of experience in drought management. Despite this, every time the country faces a deficit monsoon, we plunge into a crisis.

Is the drought of 2015-16 different from other droughts? No. Like previous years, this time too India has just reacted to a situation. Though in all these years our policy has been to drought-proof the country instead of just embarking on drought relief operations. Since the 1965-66 drought, it has been an official policy to prepare villages to fight drought by investing in works related to soil and moisture management.

As they say, drought is a disaster one can see coming. Deficit monsoon creates situations for a drought. But it is not deficit monsoon, rather the lack of policies and mechanisms to drought-proof susceptible areas that turn the situation into a crisis.

Arguably, the current drought shouldn’t have been so unbearable. In the last six decades we have spent more than Rs 3.5 lakh crore on water conservation and drought-proofing. Particularly, in the last one decade, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has helped create, on an average, 21 water bodies in every village. Some 12.3 million water harvesting structures have been built. Sixty-four per cent of the total expenditure under MGNREGA was on agriculture and agriculture-related works. From its inception in 2006 to March 2016 , the government has spent over Rs 3 lakh crore on MGNREGA. Of this, according to an estimate of the DTE-CSE Data Centre, Rs 2,30,000 crore has been spent as wage or money that has gone to people directly. We have a better monsoon forecasting system than we had before and our crisis response management has improved. The drought, therefore, should have been easy to tackle. But still the capacity of rural areas to tackle drought is quite poor. Probably, the ravages of nature the country witnessed in the past five years have something to do with it. In 2009, a severe drought year that crippled more than half of India and impacted 200 million people, the situation was not that bad because the winter monsoon was more than normal and people harvested a bumper rabi crop. This compensated for the loss of kharif crops. But in the past two years, the country has gone through two consecutive double-digit deficit monsoons as well as a below normal winter monsoon. In January-February this year, the rainfall was 57 per cent less than normal—the lowest in five years. Moreover, when it rained, it poured so heavily that the winter crop in the areas already reeling from the second consecutive drought was damaged. In the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, this was the 15th consecutive crop loss. Such situations are going to be the new normal in the face of climate change.

Sources: India Meteorological Department and Ministry of Rural Development

A 2006 study by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Science, in association with research organisations in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand, shows that drought is a key reason for the poor staying perennially below the poverty line. The study found that in every severe drought year, farmers in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha lose close to US $400 million. It found that in the three states, 13 million people who were above the poverty line slipped below it due to drought-induced income loss. According to “Some aspects of Farming in India”, a 2015 report by the National Sample Survey Office, farmers cited inadequate rainfall and drought as the biggest reasons for crop loss, particularly for the two most harvested crops—wheat and paddy. Farmers, on an average, suffer a loss of Rs 7,363 (one-fifth of their annual income) in paddy due to these reasons.

Drought and food security are critically linked. Drought-prone districts account for 42 per cent of the country’s cultivable land. With 68 per cent of India’s net sown areas dependent on rain, rain-fed agriculture plays a key role in the country’s economy.

For maintaining food security, even at the current nutritional levels, an additional 100 million tonnes (MT) of food grain needs to be produced by 2020. Realistically, the total contribution of irrigated agriculture to food grain production from both area expansion and yield improvement will contribute a maximum of 64 MT by 2020. The balance 36 MT will have to come from the rain-fed areas or the drought-prone districts. According to estimates, 40 per cent of the additional supply of food grain required to meet the rise in demand has to come from these districts.

So, it is not about whether our drought relief operations are effective. Rather, India can’t afford to have droughts any more. A long-term strategy to make India drought-free is the biggest message of the 2016 crisis.

Mr Prime Minister good news

A few villages from the drought-ravaged states can show you how to make India drought-free, and more than double the income of farmers

In Kadwanchi, Marathwada, groundwater recharge has enabled farmers to build ponds and do horticulture. Farmers now earn four times the national average (Photo: Jitendra)

On February 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an audacious pledge. “I am confident that my dream will come true. My dream is your dream. My dream is with your dream. What is my dream? My dream is that by 2022, when the country celebrates its 75th Independence Day, the income of farmers should double,” he said, adding “Can we do it? Can we take a pledge in this regard, the states, the farmers, we all?” Many years after former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao slogan, Modi’s definitive target to fix the problem of farmers has evoked the same hopes. In the context of the current drought, many find this unachievable. There is fierce academic debate over the ways and means to achieve this. But Down To Earth (DTE) reporters found that many villages have insulated themselves from drought, including the current spell. These villages, located in India’s most drought-prone areas, are beautiful examples in difficult places. They are no more bothered by the performance of the monsoon. In a span of just two decades, these villages, once hopeless, have scripted economic miracles. In a way, they dreamt before the prime minister, and DTE shows the way they made the dream come true.

A Village of Lakhpatis

In the drought-ravaged Marathwada, residents of Kadwanchi village in Jalana district are least worried about the drought or the next monsoon. In fact, they were not bothered by any drought in the past 20 years, including the drought of 2012, the worst in 40 years. Rather, as one enters into a conversation with residents, the discussion is about agricultural expansion. And not without reason: in the past 20 years, the income of its residents has gone up by 700 per cent.

Kadwanchi is a glowing example of how a well-planned government programme can help in fighting drought and raising the income of farmers. The village has seen a sharp decline in drought vulnerability since 1996, when the Kadwanchi watershed project was launched. At that time, 100 per cent farmers in the village would report crop failure during a drought. The figure in 2013 stood at 23 per cent. All that the farmers did was conserve water and soil and dig farm ponds. Add to it the carefully thought out cropping pattern that suits the district with annual average rainfall of 730 mm.

The project, launched under the national watershed programme, was implemented in the village between 1996-97 and 2001-02 with a financial outlay of Rs 1.2 crore. “We did not think much of the work the officials were doing. They constructed bunds and trenches, and planted trees in a piece of forestland in the village to showcase how effective these methods are in fighting drought. These steps slowed the flow of running water, increased seepage and recharged groundwater. They had an impact on the nearby areas as well. Within two years, the wells in surrounding areas started recharging and the soil gained moisture. This compelled us to understand the techniques,” says Vishnu Bapurao, 58, a farmer whose annual income is more than Rs 10 lakh. The project helped increase the total cultivated area in the village from 1,365.95 hectares (ha) in 1996 to 1,517 ha in 2002.

Once the water scarcity was over, the farmers started growing grapes, apart from rice and wheat. This required drip irrigation for which farmers constructed farm ponds. These are small ponds dug by the farmers themselves by taking loans from banks. The ponds store rainwater and provide water throughout the year. The village had 357 ponds in 2015. For grape cultivation and pond construction, the farmers received training by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) of Jalana, which also oversaw the implementation of the project.

Grape farming phenomenally raised the income of the farmers. According to a 2012 survey by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA), the average annual income of farmers in the village increased from Rs 40,000 in 1996 to Rs 3.21 lakh in 2012—a 700 per cent rise. As per the latest data by the National Sample Survey Office in December 2014, the nationwide average annual income of farmers is around Rs 72,000. Farmers in Kadwanchi earn four times the national average.

The rise in income also increased the credit worthiness of farmers. “Our study showed that non-institutional money lending decreased to 7.5 per cent and institutional lending shot up to 87 per cent. Almost all families in the village now have a lakhpati,” says Pandit Wasre, an agriculture scientist at KVK, who headed the project. “The Kadwanchi project succeeded because the community owned the programmes,” says Wasre. “That’s why even 15 years after the programme, the structures are intact.”

Not very far, at the epicentre of the current drought, Latur, Sandipan Badgire is busy measuring his harvest. In a striking contrast to many farmers in the district who are desperately digging borewells to save crops and invariably landing up in the debt trap, he boasts: “There is no borewell in my farmland and I do not grow sugarcane at all.”

Sandipan Badgire is a proud organic farmer from Latur. Not only does he not need borewells, his per hectare output is higher compared to the farmers who use chemicals and fertilisers (Photo: Nidhi Jamwal)

He is an organic farmer and believes in multi-cropping­—the traditional way to ensure crop security. In 1988, at an age of 35, he decided to help his father in farming their 5 ha. At that time, there was no information available on organic farming in Latur and almost all the farmers were dependent on chemicals and fertilisers. From 1988 to 1993, Badgire also practised chemical farming and realised his crop output was going down while the input cost of pesticides was going up.

In 1993, he came across an article on organic farming published in a local Marathi magazine, which set him thinking. After sourcing more information on organic farming and attending a few farmers’ meetings in Pune, Badgire decided to adopt organic farming on his land. Since information was limited, the period between 1993 and 2000 was spent experimenting with rain-fed agriculture and organic farming. He suffered losses, but did not give up. Things started to look up after 2000, as soil fertility increased, and since then Badgire is only making progress.

“I do inter-cropping and crop rotation to keep my farmland healthy. In three acres (1 acre equals 0.4 ha), I grow tur (pigeon pea). Another three acres of jowar (sorghum), three acres of moong (green gram), and two to three acres of soybean. While farmers doing chemical farming have seen a sharp decline in their crop output, my output is still high,” claims Badgire. He uses cow dung to make manure for his farm and makes medicine for his crops using cow urine.

Because of the drought this year, several farmers in Latur have lost their crops or not grown any kharif or rabi crop. “A neighbouring farmer did not get any jowar from his one acre land; but in spite of the drought, I have got five quintals (1 quintal equals 100 kg) of jowar from an acre. As against an output of one quintal chana (chickpea) from an acre in chemical farming, my output is at least double.” He also has a number of tamarind and babul trees on his farmland which are suitable for semi-arid Marathwada.

The Domino Effect

In the Bundelkhand region, a few villages are overcoming consistent drought by innovating. Six years ago, Haldin Patel, a 36-year-old marginal farmer from Majhout village in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh was struggling to feed his family of five with an income of around Rs 10,000 a year. He had to do odd jobs in Delhi and Jammu and lease out his part of the field to tenants and share croppers. On his 1 ha, he used to spend more than half the cost of input on chemical fertilisers. Things changed when farmers were trained to make organic fertilisers using cow dung, cow urine, neem leaves, water, and gram flour. In March 2011, an advocacy group Harit Prayas funded by Caritas, a Rome-based non-profit, started training small and marginal farmers in making fertiliser.

Haldin Patel in his ginger field in Chhhatarpur. Many others like Patel stopped migrating to nearby towns once they started organic farming (Photo: Jitendra)

“I was the only person who dared to prepare my own fertiliser in a village of 250 households after the training,” said Haldeen. Though social pressure made him throw the fertiliser in a corner of his field, a little after a month, everybody saw the results. Not only did the ginger sapling mature before its time, it was much better in quality.

Today, the cost of production for Haldin has reduced to less than Rs 5,000 and his income has increased to more than Rs 30,000, after integrating cattle with agriculture. Following Haldin’s example, many small farmers opted for organic farming in Majhout and saw an increase in their income.

The effect was also seen in adjoining villages. In a tribal village 13 km from Majhout, agriculture had become a loss-making venture. Farmers had to work as labourers in Jhansi and nearby towns. Till three years ago, the village wore a deserted look. Haldin decided to travel with the Caritas team and convince the farmers about the benefits of organic farming.

Many people, like Mohan Manjhi, stopped migrating since they started organic farming in Karoundia village in Chhatarpur district. “Everybody now rear their cattle and prepare their own fertiliser,” says 42-year-old Manjhi, who owns 2 ha of land.

Though organic farming has its benefits, many factors determine the ease with which farmers can reap them. Lack of fodder and shrinking wasteland and grazing land make it tough for small farmers to make their fertiliser.

Many choose not to fully embrace organic farming as it requires time and labour. Those with bigger landholdings or other sources of income also find it inconvenient. But for small and marginal farmers like Babloo Prajapati who own less than half a hectare, it makes a huge difference. Organic farming has enabled Prajapati to save Rs 5,000 to 7,000 every year, which he says he uses for the education of his children.

Vinod Pandey, a former national coordinator with Caritas India who started the intervention, says, “There are a hundred adjoining villages where we did not intervene but were still influenced by our efforts.” The initiative has been catching up in panchayats like Bhasaur, Cylon, Kavar, Saliya, Dongariya, Amronia, Lahar, Majgowan, Kota, Tapara and Dharmapara of Chhatarpur district.

Replenishing Aquifers

H K Anandappa, 58, sunk more than 11 borewells in the past two decades in his 2 hectare farmland in Karnataka’s Naikanhalli village. Every time they would run dry in a couple of years or fail to yield water right from the start. Tired and desperate, he nursed thoughts of committing suicide. “In 2008, I was heavily in debt,” he says.

64-year-old Maleshappa (left), a farmer from Hulase Katte village, stands near his farm pond, which he built using a recharge borewell.

A meeting with Maleshappa, a farmer, in 2012 helped him turn things around. Anandappa learnt that apart from drawing water, borewells can help in recharging underground aquifers. Maleshappa had himself practised this technique in his field in Hulase Katte village after learning about it from Devaraja Reddy, a Chitradurga-based consultant in hydrogeology, during a farming workshop.

Anandappa dug his 12th borewell in 2012 and used it to pump water into the ground from a nearby seasonal canal. This solved his problem. With a recharged water table, he could now extract water throughout the year.

“The idea is to direct surface water to an aquifer through a bore in the ground. Though a simple mechanism, it is difficult to find the right spot for successfully recharging the bore. For instance, the catchment area must be more than a hectare for agricultural purposes,” explains Reddy. Reddy has held several training programmes and workshops in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the past two decades to educate farmers about the method. His clients include state governments, non-profits and individual farmers.

The technique has helped Anandappa increase his income eight times. From Rs 1 lakh per year he earned by cultivating coconut and groundnut before the recharge bore, his income has now jumped to Rs 8 lakh. The borewell has helped him irrigate a larger area, diversify crops, and pay off debts. “I now harvest 2,000 coconuts at a time against the 200 earlier,” he says.

The method is typically useful for Karnataka, a state that has in recent times been severely affected by drought. As per “State Focus Paper 2014-15”, a report by the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development, Karnataka is India’s second most drought-affected state after Rajasthan. Between 63 and 72 per cent of the total area of the state is drought-prone, says the report. More than 1,000 farmers committed suicide in the state in 2015.

Although groundwater recharge can improve water security and agricultural productivity in dry and water-scarce regions, its affordability hampers its progress as a tool for drought mitigation. “The question is who will bear the costs of the recharge structures. Basic structures can be built for Rs 30,000, but even this is hardly affordable for those who need such structures the most,” says Reddy.

Though there are schemes to build public recharge systems, there are no subsidies for individual farmers. The government-run Krishi Pragati Grameen Bank is the only bank in the country which offers loans for building recharge structures. “KPGB offers up to Rs 20,000 to farmers depending on the size of the farms to dig recharge bores and recharge structures. Of around 2,000 farmers who availed this loan 75-80 per cent returned the loan. The recovery rate in other kinds of loan is 40 per cent,” says M Shivashankara Setty, manager, KPGB, Chitradurga.

Chhapariya’s Fodder Bank

Now, it is the turn of India’s most drought-prone state, Rajasthan, where livestock is the second survival crop. In a land where water is perpetually in short supply for human consumption, water to grow fodder for cattle is a luxury. But every family in Chhapariya village is assured two tonnes fodder every year. This is because of a common pasture land which a non-profit developed to help the villagers cope with five consecutive droughts it faced from 1999 to 2004.

During that period, almost all of the 100-odd families of the tribal village in Udaipur district were forced to sell their cattle or see them die due to fodder shortage. More than 60 families were indebted to private lenders because they were not considered credit worthy by government institutions and were paying as much as 40 per cent interest.

In 2003, Udaipur-based non-profit Sahyog Sansthan, decided to develop the common grazing land. The land was severely degraded by soil erosion, drought and overuse. The non-profit asked the residents to allow them to develop about 52 ha of the 80 ha village common land. No one was supposed to let their cattle graze in these 50 ha for six months. The non-profit constructed furrows to arrest the flow of water and retain moisture, built a boundary wall and posted a guard for security. About 4,000 saplings of bamboo and 30 kg seeds of Cenchrus setigerus (dhaman) were also planted. The greening was done in two phases. In the first phase, 39 ha in 2003 and remaining 13 ha in 2004. About 28 ha was left open for grazing and movement of animals throughout the year.

In developing the grazing ground, a total of Rs 47.5 lakh was spent. The district rural development agency of Udaipur, England-based non-profit Wells for India and village residents contributed 45, 39 and 16 per cent respectively. Villagers contributed mostly in the form of labour, says Hiralal Sharma, head of Sahyog Sansthan.

Once the land was ready for use, it was divided into 10 parts which were then used by the 10 hamlets the village consists of. The hamlets further distributes the land. The 10 pieces of land are used in rotation to ensure that no hamlet is stuck with the same piece of land for consecutive years.

The initiative has seen remarkable results. According to Sahyog Sansthan, the income of the village from grass grown in the common land has risen from Rs 37,500 in 2003 to Rs 84,000 in 2008. The wood grown in the land is also used as fuel. The total wood collected is divided equally among the families. In 2012 and 2013, each family got 650 kg of wood. Apart from developing the grazing ground, Sahyog Sansthan renovated old wells, constructed irrigation channels, introduced soil and water conservation measures and rain water harvesting to help the village residents. In 2005, the non-profit completely withdrew from the maintenance of the ground. Now the village residents are solely responsible for the upkeep.

Informed Success

In the past 13 years, the lives of farmers in seven districts of undivided Andhra Pradesh have changed in a big way. They are not only able to cope with drought-like conditions but also grow crops which assure yield and generate higher income.

In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched a groundwater management programme called Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems in seven most drought-prone districts, two of which now fall in Telangana.

The training given to farmers in groundwater management by FAO and local non-government bodies has enabled them to make feasible and informed decisions about which crops to grow depending on water availability. “Previously, I used to flood the field whenever water was available but the training made me understand when and how much to irrigate,” says G Venkata Konda Reddy, a 52-year-old farmer.

Farmers learnt to measure rainfall and groundwater level, based on which they now advance sowing to October, usually done in December, to save costs on irrigation. Before the training, Reddy was cultivating water-intensive crops, paddy and cotton. Now he has shifted to crops which consume less water, enabling better yield and higher income. “Earlier I was growing seven to eight crops but now I can cultivate up to 14 crops depending on rainfall and water availability.”

A farmer dries millet in R Krishnapuram village in Andhra Pradesh. Groundwater management has allowed many like him to grow waterefficient crops, thereby increasing incomes (Photo: Karnika Bahuguna)

When Reddy was growing cotton, he earned a maximum of Rs 10,000 per acre. Today he earns between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000 per acre from groundnut cultivation. Depending on water availability, he also grows green gram, black gram, millet, pulses and vegetables to sustain his income. V Paul Raja Rao, secretary, Bharathi Integrated Rural Development Society, a non-profit, says, “The project has made farmers shift from water-intensive to water-efficient crops besides encouraging diversified cropping.”

Under the project, farmers are trained in data collection, soil types, lithology, irrigation systems and water-saving techniques like drip irrigation, mulching, and furrow-irrigation. Besides training, various structures are set up like check dams, percolation tanks and injection wells.

A committee of villagers, panchayat members and hydrologists collects the information about intended cropping patterns and calculates water consumption based on acreage. The resultant groundwater deficit or surplus is then estimated. Farmers use this information, illustrated on walls of the village, to plan their crops in an exercise called cropwater budgeting. In case of severe water deficit, they advance sowing and opt for diversified cropping.

The programme has had other effects. By the late 1990s, an increasingly large number of dug wells fell dry or became seasonal. But today, there is substantial reduction in groundwater usage. According to a 2010 World Bank survey of eight hydrological units in the project area, six reported a reduction under high water use crops. The area under high water use crops in Yerravanka decreased by almost 11 per cent from 2004-05 to 2007-08, whereas the area under the low-water-use-crops increased by roughly the same amount.

The Lessons

Modi made his strategy clear to achieve the fixed target through a seven-point charter: focus on irrigation; provide quality seeds and increase soil health; avoid post-harvest losses by building warehouses and cold chains, add value through food processing; have a single national market; provide crop insurance coverage; and add ancillary activities like poultry to farming. But these initiatives are not new. The villages have already adopted what Modi proposed. The only differences are in the way these villages implemented the change and the principles behind them. While Modi identified activities to increase the income, the villages have focused on local planning and the involvement of local communities in development.

These villages, which have successfully generated employment and livelihoods from local resources, have followed a common road to prosperity. All the villages have defined their poverty as lack of access to natural resources. One can call it ecological poverty. Thus, their primary aim has been to gain access to local resources like traditional tanks and ponds or the common grazing land. Secondly, community organisations have efficiently partnered with government and non-government organisations. This common road has two major roadblocks as well. Government agencies, the biggest funders of rural development, working with a conventional notion of poverty don’t see community initiatives as a viable model of employment generation and poverty eradication. Consequently, government policies are not tuned to the local scenario, making all the efforts futile.

While many factors helped bring changes in these villages—involving voluntary organisations, committed individuals, and government grants and loans—the most important common factor was the key role played by local institutions like community groups and village panchayats.

The pertinent question is: how to learn a lesson from these villages and scale up initiatives at a national level to increase the income of farmers. Modi has the instrument in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The employment programme has all the required elements to replicate the above examples: it mandates the village council to plan; it has a provision of five-year plan for villages; it mandates the creation of structures relevant to local farming and water security; and more so, MGNREGA has the required funds to carry out the tasks.

In the last decade, MGNREGA has created unprecedented 12.3 million water conservation structures. So, why water scarcity in drought-hit states? Close to 60 per cent of water structures are in the 10 states reeling from drought. It is a problem not with MGNREGA but with the way it has been implemented.

As in Bundelkhand, hundreds of structures were created but with scant regard for local ecology. So, most of the structures failed to do their primary work: capture rain water. The programme, if not designed for long-term development, will lead to sheer wastage of public money.

MGNREGA can meet one of the toughest challenges of India’s drought management. A study of India’s drought management approaches over the last several decades shows that India largely depended on crisis management. This is despite the fact that over a period of time there have been gradual changes in our approach, at least officially. After the 1966 drought—a situation similar to the current one—government drought management approach changed from ad-hoc crisis management to an anticipatory drought management. In the early 1970s, the Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP) and the Desert Development Programme (DDP) were implemented to revive the ecology in hot and cold deserts. The drought in 1987 forced a shift in the focus of the government to long-term measures such as watershed development approach for drought-proofing the country. Many of the above successful examples have adopted this approach. DPAP and DDP were redrafted to make watershed development a unit of the drought-proofing initiative. The drought in 2002 finally prompted policymakers and development practitioners to account for the fact that drought was perpetuated by human-induced factors such as neglect of water harvesting capacity. Since then, rainwater harvesting—specifically, the revival of traditional systems—has been given priority in drought management. All of these changes have been factored into MGNREGA and given a legal stamp for effective implementation.

It is not deficit monsoon that triggers drought but the lack of mechanism to capture rainwater. Most of the above villages have done precisely that. With just 100mm of rainfall in a year, that is, around one-tenth of the country’s average rainfall, India can harvest a million litres of water from one hectare of land. Applying the same calculation, rain captured from 1-2 per cent of India’s land can provide its people as much as 100 litres of water per person per day.

The water structures created under MGNREGA—21 structures in every village till now— are the best instruments to ensure that Indian villages become drought-proof. These structures harvest water and recharge the groundwater. Going by the types of water structures created, each of these structures can irrigate one hectare of land. The average cost of irrigation per hectare using these structures come to around Rs 20,000. This is a sharp contrast to government of India’s estimate of Rs 1.5-2 lakh/ha based on canal irrigation.

MGNREGA has been effective in mitigating drought. This was evident in 2009, when poor and marginal farmers in chronic drought-prone areas were more prepared than the state government. It is time, we rejuvenated the programme to drought-proof the country.

With inputs from Nidhi Jamwal