March 2010 | Sharmila Joshi

Learning to earn

Land and water management initiatives undertaken by Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS) in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh have helped farmers effectively overcome the twin problems of low yield and scarcity of water

Barely surviving on rain-fed agriculture, in several villages in Jharkhand, farmers had to routinely uproot their families and move to nearby cities and towns to support themselves. Here, they worked as contract labourers for a few months every year. Not any more. A little help from Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS) in land and water management has changed their lives.

Check dams, wells and ponds have recharged groundwater in many of the villages and made irrigation available for a dependable crop. Tractors and new methods of planting have reduced the labour associated with agriculture and increased yields.

Biogas and solar power have reduced the villagers' dependence on costly organic fuels. The villagers are now able to grow more, even get a second crop, and more importantly, never have to leave their village in search of a livelihood.

From subsistence to abundance
TSRDS works in six districts in Jharkhand (covering 190 villages), three in Orissa and one in Chhatisgarh. In Jharkhand, it is actively engaged in Seraikela-Kharsawan and East Singhbhum districts.

Flood irrigation being followed to irrigate lands under well command area in Kadambera village
The uneven terrain of Seraikela-Kharsawan lies in the south-eastern corner of Jharkhand. Here, large swathes of dry mud fields are interspersed with a few green plots of vegetable crops growing close to an occasional stream or pond. Clusters of sal, bamboo, tamarind and other trees disperse shade sporadically, leaving the rest of the variegated land steaming under the summer sun.

The roads, running past homes, are even and navigable in parts and near-rubble in other places. The outside walls of some of the mud houses are decorated with stripes of lush ochre and maroon, some with striking geometrical designs.

Until a few years ago, the farmers in this region struggled to subsist. They depended on rain-fed agriculture to produce a single crop of paddy, which was barely enough for the family’s consumption. After the harvest, many would invariably migrate with their children for four or five months to the towns and cities, where labour contractors would give them work for measly wages. Agricultural productivity in this district has been a low 0.6 tonnes, as compared to the India average of 1.3 tonnes.

The task of changing such a scenario was a major challenge. TSRDS devised a two-pronged approach to address the inter-related problems of low yield and scarcity of water, by improving and stabilising cultivation and working on creating water resources. Traditionally, farmers were used to broadcasting seeds, that is, planting seeds by randomly throwing them into the field at intervals.

TSRDS introduced alternative methods such as transplantation in which seeds are raised in a field nursery, picked and taken to the farmer’s field, and then planted at regular intervals.

The farmers were taught to use a drum-seeder machine which gives more uniform seeding than broadcasting, and the row-and-furrow method which needs less water. TSRDS also replaced the existing low-yield local seed varieties with high-yielding or hybrid varieties. The results were substantial. It increased crop density and lowered the initial investment in farming (while broadcasting required about 40kg of seeds per acre, transplantation uses only about 15-18kg per acre).

Better crop yields improved agricultural incomes, and farmers could now hire tractors for ploughing instead of using shovels or bullock carts. A plough only digs to about six inches; at such shallow levels, the soil is not aerated and minerals are not upturned to the surface. Tractors can go down to about 10-12 inches.

In the past, the farmers did not adequately prepare the soil before each crop and the top soil had degraded. TSRDS demonstrated to the farmers how to prepare the ground before sowing, how to put nutrients into the soil when necessary and how to plough to a particular depth using tractors.

Now, within the houses and in the fields beyond, unprecedented changes are underway. On less than one acre of land, families in some villages are now growing an ample kharif (October harvest) crop of paddy as well as a second rabi (June harvest) crop, which may be vegetables like tomato, potato, onion, mustard, okra, as well as pulses, gram and wheat. Farmers are now able to not just meet their needs but also sell the surplus in the local market. A far cry from surviving at subsistence levels.

Creating water resources, the other step in TSRDS’s two-pronged approach, has been undertaken in collaboration with the Sir Ratan Tata Trust (SRTT). SRTT works on this project as part of its Central India Initiative. Improving water resources has changed the landscape in these villages. Ghasiram Mahato's family of eight in Kendua village needs about 1,100kg of rice a year for their own consumption. Mr Mahato now gets a yield of about 1,600kg. He says, “Now we can grow more. I can even send rice to be sold in the market. My family gets a second crop of vegetables. Our costs have come down. This would not have been possible without water.”

Village pond in Bitapur village, proposed to be desilted in year II to enhance storage capacity
The TSRDS-SRTT team has focused on water as a concurrent step to stabilising the paddy crop. In Seraikela-Kharsawan, the team has created a range of water resources. Depending upon the topography of the specific village, big and small ponds, wells for irrigation and a series of check dams and their intake wells have been constructed. The team has also collaborated with the Integrated Crop Research Institute for Semi- Arid Tropics in a pilot venture in Saherbera village, which focuses on water-scarce areas and dry-land farming of such crops as pulses, maize and groundnut.

In and around Rakhakocha village, TSRDS-SRTT has constructed a series of nine check dams that are 6-feet high and 30-feet long at intervals of 1,000 metres, to catch water draining off from the nearby Dalma range of hills.

The dams retain water for months after the monsoon, often until the end of February. The nearby intake wells still have some water in the month of April. This particular stream of dams passes through three villages. The villagers contribute with the labour required to construct the dam.

TSRDS-SRTT has also started lift irrigation schemes; people contribute to procure the pump sets.

Cooking no more a chore
In Priyanshi Oraon’s home in Masodih, the kitchen has a burner for cooking that runs on biogas. Cooking meals for the seven-member family with biogas has lightened Ms Oraon’s load of daily work. In the past, she cooked on firewood. This required trips to the forest, which often took three hours a day and meant carrying loads of more than 20kg of wood. Now, with some time to spare, she works in the fields and earns some money, and helps her children with their school lessons.

Renewable energy is another component in TSRDS’s income generation basket. TSRDS has been working on constructing biogas plants in eight villages of the cluster of 16 villages on which it is currently focusing. Maintenance persons are people from the villages, who have been trained by TSRDS-SRTT. This enables the people to independently run the plants, and it also gives jobs to a few local youth.

Renewable energy has also been tapped by TSRDS-SRTT in the form of solar power. Three years ago, Ms Oraon had two compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) — powered by solar energy panels — installed in her house. In the past, the family had to use kerosene lanterns. Not only was the smoke harmful, the family also had to spend money from their limited budget on kerosene. Sitting in the outer room of her house, with green walls and a mud floor, Ms Oraon says with satisfaction reflecting from her eyes and smile, ”It’s good to have the lights, especially for my children’s studies.”

Also read:

Tata Motors: Cool reservoirs

Tata Chemicals: Sweetening the water

Sir Dorabji Tata Trust: Water of life

Sir Ratan Tata Trust: Making every drop count

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