When a group of passionate people in a community come together, they are bound to transform their lives and their surroundings.
Thus it was with a few residents of Paradsinga village in Madhya Pradesh–an irrigation pond they dug in a marshland has improved groundwater levels in an otherwise parched region, diversified its farming and turned its fields into thriving hubs of biodiversity.
Paradsinga, a tiny village in Chhindwara district close to the state’s border with Maharashtra, lies on the agricultural belt known for its BT Cotton production. The village is largely dependent on rainwater for irrigation and, as it is on a plateau, the groundwater table here is low. Even tubewells don’t help because they dry up much before the summer peaks, making BT Cotton the ideal and overwhelmingly popular crop.
A young farmer in Paradsinga, Shweta Bhattad, and her friends decided that someone had to fight against this bleakness and set about doing just that. They started a movement, which would slowly but steadily, change the fortunes of their village.
They started by consulting Amitabh Pawde, a civil engineer who had left his job with the Airport Authority of India (AAI) 14 years ago to take up farming full time in his native village, Yerla Pawde, in Nagpur district. He is recognised as an expert on rainwater harvesting in Maharashtra.
Worst or the best?
Pawde said, “When I visited Paradsinga around six years ago, I was shown a piece of land at Bhattad’s farm. It was a marshy patch and considered a ‘wasteland’ because silt carried by rainwater from surrounding fields gathered there. I was told that a lot of effort had been taken to raise crops on it, but whatever was sown invariably rotted, because of water logging during rains.” But Pawde didn’t see it that way. In fact, he saw it “as the best patch of land in the entire village”, though for a different purpose.
He said, “That piece of land gathered a thick layer of topsoil carried by the rainwater from other fields.” Pawde told the village that it was an ideal location to dig an irrigation pond. It would collect water and recharge the groundwater table.
The villagers were quick to join in, and the work started without further delay. They hired earthmovers and dug a 100x100-foot pond. Those who could not contribute financially, contributed with their effort–such as in the fortification of the inflow and outflow channels, with stone. Once done, they waited. Since there were no springs to fill the pond, the rains had to come.
Pawde said, “When it rained, the overflow from the nearby fields did the needful.”
Pawde supervised the project. He saw to it that the rich soil that was dug out to make the pond was used to construct the embankments, and now these have lush vegetation. “We also ensured that the embankments had the right slope so that wild animals nearby could come and drink safely, without slipping,” he said.
It was the Bhattad family that spent the most on the pond, and the rest of the money came from a government scheme.
Ganesh Dhoke, a farmer, said, “This is the first, and till date, the only irrigation pond in our village. The results were immediately visible in nearby wells. The move has inspired many farmers even in the nearby villages. This pond has made our entire village proud.”
Barely five kilometres away from Paradsinga, in Killod village, Shyamala Sanyal has followed her neighbours’ example, and has had a pond dug to harvest rainwater. “I am an ardent nature lover and saw what the pond did for Paradsinga… Even though the water levels in my wells were not bad, they improved significantly after we dug the pond in my farm,” she said.
Bhattad said that their pond has led to another remarkable change in Paradsinga–the region has become wildly biodiverse within six years. “A number of trees of indigenous varieties such as Gum Arabic (babool), Indian Jujube (ber), mango, baobab (gorakh chinch), blackberry (jamun), Indian rosewood (sheesham), orchid tree (kanchan), Indian beech (karanja) and Sesbania (agasti) grow around the pond and provide a home to hundreds of birds,” she said.
“A few years ago, we were totally dependent on cash crops such as BT Cotton and pigeon peas (tur dal). However, with the improvement of watertable in the area, we now grow the desi kapas variety of cotton, maize, sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), sesame seeds (til), peanuts, gram, wheat, flax seeds, coriander, Roselle (ambadi bhaji), French beans, bottle gourd, snake gourd and eggplant,” Bhattad said. This crop diversity can also improve nutrition levels among the villagers.
In Bhattad’s village, farmers are now taking their rainwater harvesting a notch higher. They have started constructing bunds (embankments) in their fields to arrest the free flow of rainwater and stop the erosion of the fertile topsoil. They were introduced to the technique by Tanmay Joshi, a young farmer who learnt the technique from other self-taught experts in Wardha.
“Bunds not only stop soil erosion but also help boost the biomass content and porous nature of the soil. This improves the soil’s fertility and reduces farmers’ dependence on chemical fertilisers,” he said.
“We have planted trees such as mulberry, fig, pomegranate, guava, drumsticks and mango on these bunds to strengthen them as well as to reduce the farmers’ dependence on cash crops,” Joshi added.
Bhattad said that BT Cotton is favoured here because the crop requires less water and brings quick returns. Rainwater harvesting is a patient man’s game, so many farmers opt out. “However, our initiative is slowly changing people’s mindset, motivating them to raise indigenous crops that are not harsh on the soil in the long run,” she said.(The author is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)