The spirit of water

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WHAT group irrigation management has done to Mahadapur is what water does to crops -- made it grow and flower. For the first time ever, the Kolam tribals of Mahadapur, an obscure village in the tribal-dominated Yavatmal district in southeast Maharashtra, harvested wheat and vegetables last year. This was a collective dream rendered impossible by a lack of irrigation water. The Pune-based Gram Gourav Pratisthan (GGP) and its founder, Vilasrao B Salunke of pani (water) panchayat fame, directed the Kolams the path to prosperity by training them to manage their own water.

Mahadapur is a drought-prone village (rainfall 1,200 mm). Although there are some teak forests in the village, most of the land is uneven and, till now, cultivation was limited to rain-fed cotton, tur, and jowar. The farmers migrate in the dry season in search of work. Basic facilities like ration shops and medical facilities are non-existent. Poverty is so rampant that the people sell the extremely valuable teak in the forests at throwaway prices (see box).

Although average land holding among the 43 tribal families in the village is about 8 ha, they hardly manage to earn a measly Rs 3,000 annually from crop yields. Says Ganpath Dalvi of GGP, "When we surveyed the village for developmental activities, the people were desperately looking for a way out of the poverty."

It is not as though there is inadequate water harvesting potential in the area: the state government had, in fact, constructed a 4,000-square-metre earthen dam as long back as 1989. What the Kolams lacked was planning and management. Surprisingly, no efforts were made to utilise the considerable amount of water stored in the dam to irrigate the land. Mahadapur farmer Pulaji Chinnu Kumre explains, "We thought the dam is owned by the government and we should not use the water for irrigation." All that water was just lying there with the farmers depending on the fickle monsoon for their subsistence farming.
Enter GGP Things changed after the intervention of GGP volunteers, who approached Bothubai Beema Athram, a widow who lives in the adjoining Bheadiphad hamlet, to rent out 13.6 ha of her land located downstream from the dam. Bothubai readily agreed as she was offered double the rent the land was fetching.

Mobilising the people was more difficult. Recalls Salunke, "The tribals have their own internal disputes and quarrels which really upsets developmental activities." However, once convinced, they reached the developmental goals very fast. The work was initiated in March 1993 after preliminary meetings and surveys. The entire labour for the project was contributed by the 15 participant Kolam families. Says Parasuram Dadaji Dhotri, a mason who helped GGP in mobilising the Kolams, "When it was suggested that our people can use the water profitably, we readily agreed to offer labour to dig pits and install pipes."

A well was dug near the lower reaches of the dam within a fortnight and pipes were laid throughout the 13.6 ha of the rented plot. The participants then cultivated wheat for the first time on the 0.8 ha of land that each family was allotted. Some of the farmers raised vegetables like radish and spinach on the smaller leftover spaces. Some have even started cultivating groundnut as a summer crop. Says Lakshman B Khedkar, a GGP worker, "Although the tribals did not possess engineering skills, within a fortnight they dug a well and laid the pipes and channels -- all through community participation." The Kolams just needed technical guidance and motivation, he adds. The land and water allocation is carried out systematically. Each farmer gets to cultivate wheat and vegetables on a 0.8 ha plot. 0.2 ha is set aside for cultivating groundnut. "Water availability is low in summer and hence we made this arrangement," explains Pothu Rama Madavi. The seepage water from the dam that flows downstream is routed through a channel, let into a dug well and pumped by a 7.5 HP electric motor. The pipes carry water to the upper reaches of the plots.

With increased water availability, there is no water rationing. However, according to Dhotri, as more land is brought under the scheme and water becomes scarce, suitable arrangements will be made. "We have never seen such greenery here in our lifetime," exults Dhotri. "Though I am a mason, I need not go out anymore in search of work as farming takes up all my time."

The payoff is already beginning to show. Ayyachinnu Kumre, who owns 1.6 ha of encroached forest land -- the earnings from which barely suffice to pay back the moneylender -- is now confident that he is in for better days, courtesy the group irrigation management. Another participant, Pulaji Chinnu Kumre, says, "I have planted groundnut for the first time and if the harvest is good, I will be allotted more area."

GGP is now involved in organising people in the neighbouring hamlet of Bheadiphad on the other shore of the dam to undertake a group lift irrigation scheme. Bothubai and her adopted son, Surya Bheema Athram, have 12 ha each there. Both of them have agreed to rent out the land for the scheme. A well will be dug on the Bheadi nallah and a pump set will be installed to lift water.

Socialising water
The GGP plans to carry out a comprehensive agricultural development programme in both the villages. According to Salunke, water is an important input of land-use planning and it has to be shared equitably by the community. "Water," he says, "has to be socialised." Salunke feels that with proper management, 1 ha of land is sufficient for a 5-member family. Eighty per cent of the land is set aside for rain-fed agriculture and for forests, and the remaining is irrigated. This is necessary for effective soil and water conservation and to generate sustainable biomass. Salunke calls it the vana pani panchayat (forest and water council).

Although Salunke advocates a sharing of irrigation costs among the farmers, it is still not being implemented in Mahadapur. Says Salunke, "Irrigation charges will be collected from the farmers after evaluating the performance of the experiment." He maintains, "GGP not only aims to provide an infrastructure for irrigation but also encompasses a comprehensive watershed approach for total land use strategy with community involvement."