Groundwater revival comes a cropper

An NGO’s effort to recharge the groundwater in an area finds little success with water-guzzling crops that rule the market.
A villager shows the rainwater harvesting structure in Aravalli hills.
A villager shows the rainwater harvesting structure in Aravalli hills.

Water crisis is a reality in most of India. After the summer of droughts come the monsoon floods. Take Maharashtra, for instance. If at one time it is desperately searching for drinking water, at another time, its capital, Mumbai is wading through knee-high water. How do we overcome these annual crises? Unfortunately, the answers are not so easy to find. 

The most common solutions suggested include rain water harvesting, groundwater recharge, efficient use of water at domestic, industrial and farm level and recycling and reusing water. Then, there are the solutions suggested to curb wastage of water in agriculture--crop rotation or replacement, usage of  sprinklers and drip irrigation, laser-levelling the land and no free electricity to farmers to control its consumption. Though these suggestions do the rounds every year, not much has materialised on the ground to mitigate the crisis. When the drinking water crisis escalates in hot summer months, particularly in urban areas, the cries get louder. The problem is forgotten when the monsoon arrives. 

In a news report appeared on The Tribune on May 1, 2016 titled Water Wars, a very gloomy, yet factual picture was painted about the ongoing crisis. A pertinent question was raised at the end of it--What have we done to conserve and preserve water? That prompted me to share some of the attempts by the NGO, Society for Promotion and Conservation of Environment (SPACE), in this area in the last 10 years. These projects, however, oscillates between success and failure.

An initiative in Aravali hills

Our operational area was 35 water-stressed villages in the foot of Aravali Hills of Tijara block of Alwar district, Rajasthan. The challenges included the barren Aravali hills denuded of its character from the grazing and fuel-wood extraction; Meo-Muslim community with large family sizes; wastelands used only for livestock grazing; literacy which is only five percent in women and 20 percent in men and poverty and drudgery of women beyond description.  

As the pastoral economy shifted to settled agrarian economy, the flat lands in the valleys were levelled where irrigation expanded at an alarming rate, disregarding the inhospitable environment like low rainfall and sandy soil. We selected 35 contiguous villages along the hills, starting from Bhiwadi to Tijara. The area around Bhiwadi came under intense industrial growth since 1995. As a result, the factories and builders started exploiting the already sparse groundwater. As the surface and sub-surface flow of water is from Tijara towards Bhiwadi, more extraction by industries lowered the water table in upper areas. A corporate company, SRS pvt ltd, which had established a plant near Bhiwadi, came forward to spend a part of the earnings on social welfare activities. They funded our project.

It is good that barren Aravalis, with 500mm of average rainfall, produce heavy runoff in five to six flood-producing storms a year which could be harvested to recharge ground water. We constructed 205 earthen dams to harvest rainwater from the Aravali hills. Financial support was provided to farmers to level 1500 hectares of privately-owned wastelands in the foot of the Aravali hills. The best agricultural practices to increase the income of 6500 poor farmers were promoted. We also planted three lakh trees on field bunds and raised 50000 fruit trees.

We constructed 205 earthen dams to harvest rainwater from the Aravali hills. Financial support was provided to farmers to level 1500 hectares of privately-owned wastelands in the foot of the Aravali hills. 

All reclaimed lands were sprinkler irrigated and rubberised pipes were used to transport water to avoid high seepage loss in the sandy soil. We formed 170 self help groups of women who were federated at the block level. These federations were linked to banks for flow of credit for livelihood activities. Even the landless were provided support for goat rearing. The farmers started planting fruit trees like kinnow and guava which had good market value and vegetable crops on the field bunds. The water resources were created for the livestock near the grazing area. 

A farmer earned Rs1.23 lakh for the first time from an acre of kinnow orchard. The profit included Rs 25000 by selling kinnow juice in the village. One woman farmer sold 200 mature aruneem plants after six years of care for Rs 1 lakh. When asked what she did with that money, she said she purchased one Murrah buffalo for half the money and spent the rest on fixing marriages of two of her seven sons. The major part of the income was invested on farm development, house construction, children’s education, purchase of Murrah buffaloes and bikes. 

These are our success stories; but failures are as many. 

Our dilemma

Thanks to the proximity of these villages to Gurgaon and Manesar, the vegetables-- especially chilli and onion--fetched good income. The traditional bajra (pearl millet) needed no irrigation and mustard needed not more than two irrigations, and that too, with only sprinklers. Chilli and onion needed nine and 11 irrigations respectively. The result? In one of the villages which was part of our projects, there are 128 borewells now, when in 1970, they had just two. Fifty new borewells were installed on the reclaimed land. Sixty percent borewells have been converted to submersible motors. 

The traditional bajra needed no irrigation and mustard needed not more than two irrigations, and that too, with only sprinklers. Chilli and onion needed nine and 11 irrigations respectively. 

In spite of 40 water-harvesting dams in a big village Gualda, 60 new borewells have come on the reclaimed land. Water table goes up in monsoon because of the harvested runoff and then start going down as wheat and vegetable crops are irrigated. The downward spiral continued for five years with net drop of 5.5 metres in ground water. We have no paddy, vegetables fetch good income but consume lot more water. 

The lands were levelled and bunded for more production but this resulted in in-situ rainwater conservation and soil profile recharge. But runoff from such levelled lands did not reach the storage reservoirs resulting in lesser groundwater recharge when dams were constructed around privately-owned lands which were levelled subsequently. The Punjab story was repeated in Rajasthan. We harvest rainwater but water table continues to go down.

The farmers should have continued with bajra and sarson (mustard) for the sake of groundwater. Unfortunately, there is no profit in bajra or sarson. Promoting the agro-industry based on indigenous products seems to be the only way forward.    

The author is former director of regional station of Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana and president, SPACE

 

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