May 2016

Synergy of social enterprises can solve India’s drought problem

Social enterprises have to design innovative and simple solutions that can tackle the crucial problem of drought and have the capacity to restore India’s farmlands to its green glory, says Vijay Yagnamurthy, Project Manager at Tata Trusts

India is grappling with the worst drought situation in decades. More than 56 percent of the country’s active workforce is dependent on agriculture and related activities. All of these are largely dependent on the Southwest monsoon, which lasts four months (June‑September). Good monsoons directly reflect on the state of the produce and in turn the economy and commodities prices. Both the Central and State Governments are mulling solutions to salvage farmers across the country from drought woes. Farmers desperately await for a constructive course of action, and at the same time pray for a healthy monsoon this year. However, at this point, sulking over the drought is not an option. Yes, the situation is grim; but nothing that innovative solutions can’t solve.

For example, let us look at the situation in the Navalgund Taluk of Hubli district in Karnataka. With the state facing one of its worst droughts in 50 years, the lack of water has directly resulted in low yields for many farmers without access to proper water harvesting structures. With even drinking water becoming scarce, agricultural activity has come to a standstill in many regions, including the 136 drought-affected taluks in Karnataka. Hubli lies in the western belt of the country and is facing periodic droughts resulting in lack of produce by the farmers. The most common crops grown here are jowar, maize, chilli, and cotton, which require less water for cultivation. The most important rabi crop here, wheat, couldn’t see proper harvest due to lack of rains. The erratic rainfall patterns in the recent times, with few months having heavy rainfall and the rest of the months having completely dry spell, have made it of pertinent to make use of the rain water available in the most efficient way possible.

To battle the prevalent drought condition, Tata Trusts in association with the Deshpande Foundation has implemented a simple concept called ‘Farm Ponds’. The biggest challenge while executing a sustainable solution model for agriculture is gaining the confidence and trust of the farmers. Most of them for obvious reasons fear losing their land to dubious schemes. It’s for this reason, the farm ponds model makes the farmer a part of the solution, instead of doling it out as a freebie. The farmer is a stakeholder in the conservation process. While they are indeed the worst-affected victims of the sudden bout of dry spell in the country, treating them as passive victims can make matters worse. The farm pond model helps farmers to conserve water during critical periods and have a good yield even during a drought. The project follows a cost-sharing model, wherein the machinery is provided by Tata Trusts and the farmers bear the entire operational cost of creating the farm pond (including the labour, fuel of the excavator, and the fees of the operator). This instills a sense of ownership and also makes the model scalable, as the farmers with enhanced yield spread the word on benefits of setting up a farm pond.

Creating a farm pond is simple and wholly dependent on the quality of land, soil, and rainfall in the region. The Hubli district has typical black cotton soil, which percolates minimal water and hence the farmers can take the benefit of sowing the crop early. An ideal site to construct a farm pond is on the side of the farm at sloped corner. On an average, 1.4 million litres of water can be stored in a 1,250 cubic metres farm pond. A 2.10 hectare of land can be irrigated for once when the pond is filled at full capacity. The pond helps reduce water runoff and water stored in the farm pond acts a source of irrigation during dry long spell. The fertile top soil collected at the base of the farm pond can be dug and spread across the farm to restore the quality of the soil.

Farm ponds are one of the many economical and innovatively sustainable solutions that can fight the drought. Digging a 100‑120 feet wide pond would cost the farmer a little over a lakh for the equipment. However, with machinery provided by social enterprises the cost stands at a decent Rs 40,000 and the return on investment (ROI) is substantially good as well. Once full, this on-farm structure can store up to 300m3 of water, allowing the farmer to irrigate three to four acres of land up to four times. Unlike other water harvesting structures, once built, farm ponds have zero maintenance or repair cost.

In Gaga, which is one of the biggest village of Bhatiy cluster in Kalyanpur block of Devbhoomi Dwarka district of Gujarat, seed germination has been averted by preventing water logging with the help of a farm bund. The farm bund unclogs the water out of the field through channels located around the piece of land. Hence, the sowing time is reduced as the farmers can sow their land early in just two to three days after rainfall and just the right amount of moisture is available for cultivation. There is also a farm pond in Gaga, which helps to maintain a good harvest during a long dry spell in the village.

Farmers in Gaga could cultivate only Sorghum crop and other fodder crops, but now the array of cultivation is versatile, including ground nut, cotton, etc. Therefore, with the change in cropping pattern, the production increases as more land is under cultivated and with a variety of crops giving rise in income. Wherever the farm pond is situated near a well, the water table of the well rises and the quality of water also improves. Animal Infestation, a major problem in the village, has been curtailed as the water channels act as a boundary line in the farmlands.

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra has been consistently in a state of distress due to a continuous bouts of drought. Ninety percent of the area in the region is completely dependent on monsoon rains for crop cultivation. Tata Trusts has collaborated with the Maharashtra Government’s agriculture department to implement farm pond projects in select districts of Vidarbha. Tata Trusts hopes to evolve and disseminate validated packages of practices of major crops, encourage rain water harvesting and enable market linkages for small and marginal farmers.

Connecting and involving the farmers directly helps develop a work synergy between them and the social enterprise investing in the sustainable project. Thus avoiding a demand pull and push situation between the two parties. It also helps to maintain the focus solely on the problem at hand, rather than indulging in marketing tactics to sell the concept to its benefiters. An excellent example of this can be seen in the Gurabanda Block of Jharkhand, where women from the farming community are at the forefront of implementing irrigation structures. Over here, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) has been formed to create water-based structure such as farm ponds, thereby assuring irrigation when required. The complete process was led by women in the village with support from the Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS). The SPV has been used to strengthen the bunds of newly excavated ponds. This has indirectly promoted line sowing of pigeon pea seed and vegetable cultivation on the bunds.

Unfortunately, when it comes to legally recognising social enterprises, India is still at a nascent stage. Since the social enterprise machinery hasn’t been well-oiled, the government should gear-up with a set vision of such enterprises. One way to do this could be by way of tapping into the ‘Entrepreneurship bug’ currently prevalent in the country, and encourage brilliant minds and skills to develop social enterprises that can design innovative solutions to tackle the crucial problem of drought.

Whether there will be an increased recognition of social enterprises only time will tell. However, it shouldn’t stop those interested in making sustainable contributions. They need to ask ‘What can I do?’ Rather than ‘What can the government do?’ Social enterprises can and will thrive in the country only through a bottom-up approach. Their extensive reach and scope of work has the capacity to restore India’s farmlands to its green glory.

Vijay Yagnamurthy, Project Manager at Tata Trusts, is an integral part of the Nutrition and community development through social enterprises at Tata Trusts. He oversees the creation of farm ponds and designs social enterprise models in Karnataka, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. He Joined Tata Trusts in 2015.

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