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From plight to progress: Vidarbha sets example for farm success

Feb 14, 2011

Places like Yavatmal and Buldana in the Vidarbha region of Maharahtra have been infamous for farmer suicides owing to a severe farm crisis a couple of years back. A unique participatory approach to micro-irrigation funded by a German bank has brought water to farms, revived them and has placed the villagers on the path of prosperity.

 

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Bibekhed village in Buldana district sparkles brightly against the bleak backdrop of Vidarbha known for its despairing farming community. Till about ten years ago, men here wouldn’t get brides to marry. For, women from the village had to trudge more than five km to fetch water. Then, every year, after a miserable kharif season, most farmers of the village would move to Mumbai, Pune and Nasik in search of work.

Now, however, 75% houses in the village are pucca structures, five villagers own cars, three have tractors and almost everyone has a motorcycle.

Jamrun-Jahangir and Shelgaon villages in the neighbouring Washim district were wrecked by repeated crop failures till three years ago. Many would work as farm labourers in other villages and fetched as little as Rs 10-Rs 30 per day. Today, they pay Rs 200 every day to farm hands who come from outside. Most of them have pucca houses and can be seen riding their bikes to their fields. Their next plan: to buy a community wheat harvester worth Rs 12 lakh.

Ditto for Kasari, also in Buldana, and Pimpri-Hatgaon and Dhotra in the most suicide-prone district of Yavatmal in the region, where lush green rabi fields bear testimony to a silent socio-agrarian revolution sweeping rural Maharashtra.

Twenty eight villages in Maharashtra, 21 of them in the agrarian crisis belt of Vidarbha, have worked their way to build, own and operate minor irrigation projects — to transformed their lives forever.

And supporting them is the German government, through KFW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, meaning Reconstruction Credit Institute), a German bank. The country has given India a soft loan (on one per cent interest rate), which the GoI passed on to Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

KFW consultant Kevin Smith says the Maharashtra villages have performed best in what is known as Participatory Irrigation Development and Management (PIDM).

The scheme, conceived during an inter-governmental discussion in the mid-90s, could take off only in 2001 after suffering systemic inertia for about five years.

The idea was to not only involve people, but also make them pay. While KFW offered to bear the entire cost of building the dam and 32.5% of the main canal work, farmers were supposed to contribute the remaining 62.5% of cost — either by cash or through labour — of the main canal and sub-canals passing through their fields.

Initial hiccups

Convincing people was a big challenge for which NGOs were involved as agents of “social engineering”.

“We had to conduct many meetings to convince people to partly pay for the work. They initially shrugged it off, saying building dams is government’s job. But our persuasion paid” says Manohar Khadse of Dharamitra, Wardha, the first NGO to get take up the challenge.

Bibkhed, Kasari and Pipri-Hatgaon took the lead. Water user associations (WUAs) were formed. Dams were built and, unthinkable as it may seem, farmers sold off their gold and other valuables and some even took loans to raise funds. Many contributed through labour. NGOs later replicated this at many other villages. The state irrigation department chipped in with technical support.

“We insisted that people must pay for the project. NGOs did the job well,” says Smith.

Smith lists land acquisition as another major challenge. “It took a long time and maintaining the interest of the farmers was difficult. Moreover, the government staff were used to dealing with this kind of project. The work of many contractors building the dam was not up to the mark. Also, quick compensation was a new thing,” he says.

Other hurdles meant KFW spend only 17 million Euros of the 23 million Euros it had envisaged for the project that is set to end in June 2011. “Yet, the Maharashtra experience remains the best,” Smith says.

Problems, however, subsided with time. Says Madhavrao Vaidya, president, Pimpri-Hatgaon WUA: “People initially didn’t believe it to be a genuine project. We had to generate trust. We feel this situation of ‘we, being the owners and maintainers of the dam’, is much better than being dependent on the government.”

There were exceptions like Bibkhed. “We were so desperate to have water that we instantly agreed to pay,” says WUA secretary Narayan Rathod.

Rich harvest

Sheshrao Sudit of Dhotra says: “I have only four acres of land. The irrigation scheme has helped me grow two crops a year. I am now regularly taking rabi crop. This year, for example, I am hoping to grow 50 quintals of wheat, which would fetch me at least Rs 60,000 against my expenditure of Rs 20,000.” Sheshrao, who took kharif cotton worth Rs 1,22,000 against an expenditure of Rs 60,000, has been able to pay off the Rs 40,000 loan he took to dig a well.

Shriram Gajalwar from Pimpri-Hatgaon, also in Yavatmal, reaped a good 13 quintals of Bt cotton from 1.5 acres, averaging almost 9 quintals per acre. And he hasn’t removed the fully harvested crop yet — he has water available to rejuvenate it for a fresh flowering and is hoping to garner another five quintals over the next two months.

Today, the WUAs have their office buildings in each of the villages, office-bearers are elected by consensus and politicians and politics are kept at bay. They collect water cess ranging from Rs 400 to Rs 1,500 per hectare. Many have up to Rs 2 lakh in their bank accounts.

The project affected persons (PAPs), whose land were used for the dam, are given priority in fishing business. “They were given fishing contracts after paying Rs 2.80 lakh (to WUA) for the past five years. They are earning Rs 2 lakh per year,” said WUA secretary Rathod.

PIDM has come as a revelation for the Irrigation Department too. Most of its minor irrigation (MI) projects lie defunct with just 25% of the irrigation capacity being achieved till date. “PIDM villages are now feeling empowered as they own a dam. So, they are sure to run it successfully and responsibly,” says S E Morwal, Deputy Engineer, Buldana MI division.

Today, 3,620 beneficiary farmers are enjoying the fruits of PIDM on 4,320 hectares in 28 villages of the state. Of them, 2,728 acres are in Vidarbha, with hectarage of 3,427. The maximum number of projects — 10 — are in Yavatmal district.

Current Challenges

Not everything is rosy. A few PAPs are a dissatisfied lot. “They got very low compensation as per the government rates. So, many have moved court,” say WUA chiefs Vaidya and Rathod.

“From our side, we have tried our best that the compensation for land is given before dams are constructed. Fishing was offered as an alternative. We also offered land exposed after water recession in summer to them for farming. But we knew there would be winner and losers. The issues must be settled quickly,” says Smith.

At Maregaon, matters had come to a head after reduction in command area threw the earlier president of WUA out of the project. Local politics vitiated the atmosphere with two presidents refusing to step down. The government is now intervening to pave the way for the new incumbent.

“We have tried our best to ensure that politics doesn’t enter here. Our repeated meetings ensured that politicians realise they have nothing to gain here,” says Shankar Amilkanthwar, a ground-level NGO counsellor from Dharamitra.

Then at Pimpri-Hatgaon, six potential beneficiaries have refused to pay money, demanding water first. The WUA, for its part, has refused to budge.

Another problem is of indisciplined crop pattern. “Farmers are not supposed to sow water-guzzling wheat on their land. But they do exactly that. Sometimes they run out of water, which creates a problem. It also requires many pumps to operate in lift schemes, bringing load on a single transformer that gets tripped, forcing unnecessary maintenance expenses,” says Morwal, adding, “but they will learn by mistakes.”

In the offing

The small beginning may become a trend-setter with the Maharashtra government mulling handing over of 230 of its existing minor irrigation (MI) projects (below 250 ha capacity) across the state to respective villages.

“We are mulling handing over our other projects to villages. The government policy allows us to do so,” says V Giriraj, Secretary, Water Conservation Department of Maharashtra.

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