March 15, 2019

Community interventions reverse desertification trend in Odisha’s Balangir

Byasadev Bhoi, 58, of Pandel village of Odisha’s in Balangir district was very excited while showing the pond the villagers have dug. The pond has changed their lives by ensuring water to irrigate about 150 acres of agricultural land even during dry seasons between the months of January and May. Byasadev is happy that the young members of his family don’t need to migrate to other states in search of jobs anymore as they are now able to grow more than two crops in their fields.

Balangir district being chronically drought-prone, this was not the life villagers of Pandel lived before. 

Rule of drought

Located in Deogaon block of the district, Pandel was experiencing drought almost every year. Agriculture was the most affected and undesired occupation because of acute water scarcity often resulting in dry spell and crop loss.

“Less and erratic rainfall never helped agriculture. Every year we expected the rain to be proper, which never happened since decades. Without any irrigation facility in place, the situation rather worsened year by year,” said Nrupati Bhoi, 50, a farmer.

Over last many years, Balangir has been receiving deficit rainfall. According to India Meteorological Department (IMD) statistics, against the expected normal rainfall of 1174 mm between the months of June and September, monsoon (south-west) precipitation in the district remained 932 mm in 2018, 779.6 mm in 2017, 866.1 mm in 2016, and 857.9 mm in 2015.

So, every year, the farmers had to encounter drought or a similar situation. Crop loss became a regular phenomenon. On the other hand, “surrounding forest, which supported our survival during the distressful times following crop loss, was also lost,” said Dhruba Charan Tripathy, 55, a farmer who is also Pandel’s village priest.

March of desertification

Research finds it significant that the zones registering the maximum decline in rainfall are those having undergone appreciable loss of forest cover. Again, if drought years prevail in succession, not only do the streams and rivulets depending on the gradual release of water from the forest soil dry up, resulting in desertification of at least the marginally sub-humid zones.

Part of the Eastern Ghats, Balangir has a tropical climate and it is classified under hot and sub-humid agro-ecological sub-region. In the last 30 years, this district has reported an average rise of 8 degree Celsius.

Deforestation followed by further degradation of the forest due to frequent drought like situations, increasing albedo (radiated heat), growing water stress and soil quality deterioration converted the surroundings of several villages into a dry, thinly shrubby brown landscape. The district was approaching fast towards desertification because of these factors, Dr. Aswini Rath, professor and head of Botany department at the Balangir campus of Centurion University told on the basis of a study he conducted.

Trail of migration

“There was no rainfall, no agriculture, and no forest, as if the nature was taking a revenge on us. Finding no other way, youth and middle aged people from all families had to migrate to distant places and other states to find a job and earn a survival for their family,” Misin Jal, 55, said. “Many landless farmers used to migrate along with their families to work in brick kilns and construction sites under unhygienic and hazardous conditions.”

Migration was a compulsion for the villagers to feed their families as there was no grain at home, no other opportunity for a livelihood, Madhab Margachi, 38, said.

Balangir has a history of distress migration primarily induced by incessant droughts. According to Ajit Panda, a researcher who has done in-depth study on poverty and migration in western Odisha, “Post monsoon every year, more than 70,000 people migrate from Balangir district because of drought and crop loss.” Some even apprehend the number of such climate change induced migrants from the district alone to be more than one lakh.

While most of them join the brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, many of them work in construction sites in far off places in Karnataka and Maharashtra, and some even opt to become seasonal rickshaw pullers in the neighbouring state of Chattisgarh.

Combating drought - community initiatives

In a state of acute water scarcity, people of Pandel village kept fighting to escape the decade long sufferings caused by incessant drought.

“To address the issue of water scarcity, we planned to dig ponds around the village to store rainwater and use it during dry seasons. In 2016-17, the villagers worked together and could develop eight ponds in the upland and middle slopes with the help of Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic face of RIL (Reliance Industries Limited) Group, which provided complete equipment support for quick digging. All these ponds irrigate over 1500 acres of land surrounding our village,” Byasadev Bhoi said.

With some water saved for irrigation, Balangir based Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) and district agriculture department officials suggested suitable crop verities, matching soil quality, to be grown by village farmers.

“And, in 2017, we had a good crop! Paddy production was 30-40 percent more than earlier. Instead of single paddy crop, we now grow three crops - Kharif (summer monsoon dependent) paddy, green or black gram, and winter and summer vegetables – in a year,” said Nrupati Bhoi.

Like Chhala Bhoi, farmers of Pandel are now visiting nearby weekly markets, called haat, to sell vegetables grown in their fields. “Farming has become dependable. Now, we can feed our family and raise our children properly,” Chhala said while selling his field grown vegetables at Tusura haat.

Access to drinking water remained a major issue for the villagers throughout the year. In scarce times, they were getting drinking water from the river bed almost a kilometre away by hand-digging small holes on it.

To tap the source, they have made an intake well there and bring the water to their village through pipelines and extended the supply to access tab at every household. “The villagers always wanted to work for such things. But they were poor people and didn’t have money to spend on logistics and materials. We just filled that gap and supported with pipes, a motor to lift water and materials required to construct the intake well and a water tank in the village,” said Abagyanta Das Nayak, Reliance Foundation’s Team Leader for Balangir cluster.

“The Foundation has supported such initiatives by people in 34 villages in this cluster. Six of these villages have become water secured with access to water for irrigation as well as human consumption. Rest have ensured water for irrigation of their agricultural land,” Naik added.

Community management of water also counts. No water go waste but is channelled to their kitchen gardens where they grow a variety of vegetables and leaves, or to the arable lands, Santosh Khandai, water management specialist at Reliance Foundation observed.

Reversing the trends

Small innovations for increasing access to water has not only helped farming and human consumption, but also have, gradually, reversed the trends of groundwater depletion, landscape transformation, soil quality degradation, and most importantly drought induced distress migration.

Water stored in small pits and wells, dug around to break the drainage flow of rainwater and save the top soil from erosion, penetrates, vertically as well as horizontally, into the sub-surface soil and keeps it moist for longer period, even during dry seasons.

This doesn’t only help farming in dry seasons but also has helped the lost surrounding forest to re-grow and the withered trees to bear leaves. “There is a significant change in the landscape. Forest makes a comeback to long stretches of barren lands in Pandel and other villages where irrigation ponds or watersheds are developed. The grazing fields look green,” said Ashis Kumar Das, Senior Scientist and Head of KVK, Balangir.

The change in the landscape water situation is so that in the place where trees were dying because of water scarcity, increasing dryness in the subsurface soil and depletion of groundwater, farmers like Akshaya Kumar Rout, 72, of Ratanpur village have raised mango orchards. Rout’s orchard has mango trees of different varieties like kishore, jambu, amrapalli, Banganapalle etc. With a lot of excitement, he claimed that he harvested over three tonnes of mango fruits from his orchard in the year 2018.

“You can see the flowering Char or Chironji trees (Buchanania lanzan). Since long we didn’t notice such flowering. The Mahua (Madhuca Longifolia) plants also bear juicy, healthy flowers. We get Kendu fruits (Diospyros melanoxylon), Amla (Indian gooseberry) and other forest produces these days. Most importantly, as trees are flowering well, we see honeycombs forming in the forest as well. Our old forest is returning,” said Jeet Bhoi, 58, who is asked by the villagers of Pandel against a remuneration of 1200 rupees per month to keep a watch so that nobody cuts any tree and cause any damage to the surrounding forest that is re-growing.

The dug wells in agricultural fields meant for irrigation were full even during mid January “when the water should be 6-7 feet below surface level,” said Misin Jal while bringing water from a well to his fields where he planted saplings of brinjal, also named aubergine. This was an indication that ground water depletion was seizing.

“As the landscape turns green and trees have grown, the soil quality is also improving naturally. It now requires less nitrogen based fertilisers to support crops for better yield,” Ashis Kumar Das of KVK, Balangir, said.

These apart, the biggest social impact of the water security achieved by the villagers is that no migration is now taking place in the village. “Everybody is engaged in agriculture. Forest is rejuvenating to provide livelihood support. We don’t need to migrate outside anymore in search of jobs,” said Sudam Pradhan, 39, who was migrating to states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu earlier.

“Migration has comedown drastically to almost zero in almost all villages where irrigation facility is developed,” Fakir Kumar Bhoi, 30, of Pandel said.

“Survivors of seven families from the Arda village in Deogaon block, who were rescued from a brick kiln in Chennai in August last year while working as bonded labourers, have got engaged in farming and are expecting a bumper crop this season,” said Dipti Manhira, a field worker of International Justice Mission that extensively works on bonded labour and human trafficking. “These innovations in water harvesting will definitely go a long way in checking migration,” she added.

Raising hopes

At a time, when desertification and land degradation have become issues of global concern and the state of Odisha is alerted about it, community interventions to combat drought and address the issue of water scarcity are setting examples.

Comparative analysis of the process wise desertification/land degradation in 2012 vis-à-vis with that of 2004 period reveals that 42.49 percent of the total geographical area of Odisha is affected due to desertification during 2012 as against 35 percent in 2004, according to 2014-15 annual report of Odisha Space Applications Centre (ORSAC).

Environmentalist and Mahanadi River Waterkeeper Ranjan Panda raises alarm while apprehending that Odisha is going to become a desert in less than 150 years and the western Orissa is just three decades away from such radical climate change. “Many parts of Orissa, specifically the western and southern uplands, have already developed symptoms of desertification. Unless strong action is taken at the earliest, the drought prone areas may march fast to become deserts.” 

It is a fact that global issues of climate change, desertification and climate change induced migration can be addressed through actions at local level. As it seems, with scope for wider replication, the interventions by communities of Balangir show a path in direction of addressing such grave issues facing the earth and the whole human civilization. And, according to social researcher Ajit Panda, when the government departments and corporate houses join hands with people to combat such issues, as is the case in Balangir, the actions become effective in order to attain desired goals.

An edited version of this piece was published on India Climate Dialogue.

1 comment:

  1. I read the whole story, it's a wonderful feeling to know. It felt like someone applied a magic balm on my mother's wounds and she can again nurse and cradle my younger brothers and sisters.. This is truly God's work sir. I keep wondering as to how to become a part of such a movement.


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