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Harvesting rainwater: Insulating fields against drought in parched Bundelkhand

Farm ponds have proved a lifesaver in parched Bundelkhand this year.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Mahoba (up) | Updated: December 21, 2017 9:01:04 am
bundelkhand, Bundelkhand drought, Bundelkhand news Purushottam Chandra standing on the bund of the farm pond near his chana field in Bahadurpur Kalan village of UP’s Mahoba district. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Mahoba has witnessed hardly 45 per cent rabi crop plantings so far this year relative to targets. That should not surprise, since the district received only 414.1 millimetres (mm) of rainfall during the southwest monsoon season (June-September), as against the normal average of 768.7 mm. The residual soil moisture and water levels in aquifers have, then, clearly not allowed full-fledged sowing.

For Purushottam Chandra, however, the subpar monsoon has not turned out an unmitigated disaster. This farmer from Bahadurpur Kalan village in Mahoba’s Kulpahar tehsil has not only managed to grow urad (black gram) on his entire 13-acre field during kharif — sowing it in early-July just after the monsoon’s onset and harvesting by September 20 — but even planted chana (chickpea) on seven acres and matar (pea) on the balance six acres in the ongoing rabi season.

The 57-year-old’s success has been largely thanks to the 35m length x 30m width x 3m depth farm pond that he built only in June. This pond, occupying one-fourth of an acre and capable of storing around 24 lakh litres of rainwater accumulated during the monsoon, has made it possible to provide two irrigations — just enough for the rabi pulses crop.

I harvested urad on September 20 and gave the first irrigation (locally called paleva) on the vacated land after 8-10 days. Following two rounds of ploughing and field preparation, I sowed both chana and matar by October-end. The second irrigation I did in the first week of December,” explains Chandra.

Also Read | In parched Bundelkhand, a new burden for farmers: Build fences to keep cattle out

The pond in his field has sufficient water still for an additional irrigation, but Chandra believes it is not required. His matar and chana, which yield 8-10 quintals per acre, would be ready for harvest by mid/late-February and end-March, respectively. “Without my farm pond, I couldn’t have taken the kharif as well as rabi crop this year,” he notes.

Chandra’s admission is borne out by the dry landscape on both sides of the road from Jhansi to Mahoba, with only occasional patches of green. The Bundelkhand region – comprising seven districts of Uttar Pradesh (Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jalaon, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Banda and Chitrakoot) and six in Madhya Pradesh (Datia, Tikamgarh, Sagar, Chhatarpur, Damoh and Panna) — is experiencing drought-like conditions with the monsoon failing this year.

Farmer Karan Singh Patel from Jhansi’s Bela village ready to take his freshly harvested and packed green pea crop to the nearby Mauranipur mandi. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Most farmers in Bundelkhand leave their lands fallow during kharif. C P Srivastava, deputy director (extension) with the UP government’s agriculture department, attributes it to two factors. The first has to do with the monsoon. The problem here isn’t scantiness as much as the unpredictability of the rains. Even in years when rainfall may be normal on the whole, the long dry spells in between makes crop planning not easy for farmers.

The second reason is the dominance of montmorillonite clays in Bundelkhand soils. Soils containing this secondary mineral become sticky and difficult to plough when wet and hard on drying. They are also more prone to water-logging. Farmers, then, cannot till them till they have just the right moisture levels.

As a result, only the rabi crop is what is generally cultivated, using the moisture retained in the soil or the groundwater recharged from the monsoon rains. “Some farmers grow urad, moong (green gram), til (sesame), jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl-millet) during kharif. But about 60 per cent of the land is farmed only during rabi. This year, due to the poor monsoon, even that hasn’t taken place,” points out Srivastava.

That’s where farm ponds can make a difference. So long as the monsoon doesn’t completely fail, these can harvest rainwater to ensure basic protective irrigation. Chandra has spent Rs 2,28,400 for his 35x30x3 metre pond, covering the costs of digging, forming bunds on the banks using the excavated earth, and constructing a cemented water inlet structure. Of this total estimated cost, Rs 1,14,200 or 50 per cent is being subsidised by the UP government. “I got Rs 57,000 at the start of excavation and another Rs 28,550 after completion of earthwork. I am waiting for the remaining amount to be deposited in my bank account,” he says.

Chandra isn’t the only one. Bharatlal Patel from Dhawari village in Tahrauli tehsil of Jhansi has constructed a smaller 22x20x3 metre pond with 13 lakh litres storage capacity — which he is using to water five out of his total 16-acre holding. “This can easily take care of two irrigations, including paleva, for my matar and chana crops,” notes Patel, whose pond covers 0.1 acres and has received Rs 52,500 subsidy on a notified cost of Rs 1,05,000.

Jhansi district, like Mahoba, has recorded a mere 453.5 mm of monsoon precipitation this year, as opposed to its normal quota of 797.2 mm. While the water from Chandra’s farm pond is being lifted by an 8HP (horsepower) diesel engine, Patel is using a 2HP electric motor.

Having seen the results from their farm ponds, Patel and Chandra are now seeking more. “The government should also extend subsidy to sprinkler sets. I can, then, grow even wheat that requires four irrigations, inclusive of paleva,” observes Patel.

Chandra wants subsidy for procuring a new diesel pump-set to replace his 20-year-old Fieldmarshal engine. “Irrigating one acre takes eight hours. My existing set burns 1.5 litres of diesel per hour, which can reduce to 1.25 litres with a new 6.5HP engine. Also, a 6.5HP engine requires only 90 mm diameter HDPE pipes, compared to 110 mm for 8HP sets. Even better would be if we are given solar photovoltaic irrigation pumps. Although they cost more (ranging from Rs 1.20 lakh for 2HP and Rs 1.75 lakh for 3HP to Rs 5 lakh for 5HP, compared to Rs 35,000-40,000 for normal 8HP diesel engines), I save on fuel,” he adds.

During 2016-17, the UP government subsidised the construction of 2,000 farm ponds in Bundelkhand. For 2017-18, the target is 2,549, of which 2,367 has already been achieved. Under its programme, the entire work — whether hiring of JCB excavators or bunding — is to be done by the farmer, with the government only releasing the subsidy linked to completion of milestones.

The state government has recently unveiled a scheme that provides 80 per cent subsidy on purchase of sprinkler system, 5-10HP pump-set and 16 HDPE pipes of 110 mm diameter and six metre length each. The subsidy — against an overall cost ceiling of Rs 70,000 — is 90 per cent for small and marginal farmers.

“Under this scheme, we will specifically target farmers who have already built ponds. Farm ponds are a game-changer for Bundelkhand and this has been demonstrated on the ground. We intend scaling up the target in the coming fiscal, while simultaneously integrating it with sprinkler and drip irrigation,” states Amit Mohan Prasad, principal secretary (agriculture) in the UP government.

But all these productivity-raising interventions will have real meaning only when farmers also realise remunerative rates for their produce. Purushottam Chandra sold his urad crop this October at Rath mandi in the neighbouring Hamirpur district for Rs 3,300 per quintal, which was well below the official minimum support price of Rs 5,400. His chana, likewise, fetched Rs 5,000 per quintal this July, a huge drop over the Rs 8,000 level in the previous year.

Farm incomes are ultimately a function of not just output, but also prices. And that can come only through better market integration and assured government procurement.

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