Gamalibai is a farmer in Malkaipeta Thanda, a small tribal hamlet of the Lambadi community in Ibrahimpur village, Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh. She does not have much in common with the image of the hearty, prosperous farmer that beams at us from posters selling agricultural machinery. That is because in common with most tribals, she is a subsistence farmer- one who grows barely enough food to keep body and soul together.
Investing in her farm was an impossible dream. Naturally, Gamalibai did not own a borewell. She was dependent on rainfall for agriculture during the kharif, while the rabi crop was dependent on soil moisture or left to fate. When the monsoon failed, many of her family members were forced to migrate to Hyderabad or other distant towns to look for work as labourers on construction sites.
Those of her neighbours who could afford to drill borewells were not better off either. Groundwater exploitation in the area meant that drilling of borewells was risky and often led to heavy investment losses. The rural poor and marginalized farmers were the main sufferers due to the rampant overexploitation of groundwater by the richer farmers.
Is groundwater a common resource?
Yes, groundwater is a common pool resource and not something that belongs to each individual separately. It makes sense then that the most ethical and sustainable way of using it is to do it together as a community. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. The ease with which a farmer can sink a borewell and pump up water makes it next to impossible to monitor and control a person's use of this resource. The only way this is possible is if it is driven by the farmers themselves. This means that a prosperous farmer has to make a conscious decision to dial back on using all the resources s/he can and instead distribute it among the other villagers.
As impossible as this might sound, it has happened in Malkaipeta Thanda.
WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network), a network that works on resource management in Andhra Pradesh began to explore alternatives for conservation, efficient use, and equitable distribution of groundwater. They encouraged the village to pool the groundwater from farmers who had borewells and share it with all other farmers who don’t have access to water, thus providing critical irrigation to the rainfed crops.
Why did the borewell owners agree?
- They understood that pooling the borewells and sharing water would avoid competitive borewell drilling and further eliminate unnecessary investment and loss of capital.
- The borewell owners were assured irrigation for the area under crops at the time of the agreement, provided water intensive crops were not planted.
- Water saved by not planting water intensive crops would provide critical irrigation to the rainfed area, which included lands of both borewell owners and others.
- In case of a borewell failure, back-up arrangements were assured as the borewells were pooled.
- The community was also motivated to use micro irrigation systems (sprinklers and drips) thus further increasing the land that could be irrigated with a given amount of water.
WASSAN also facilitated the following:
Trained the village level institutions on community management of groundwater, which included monitoring water levels, borewell yields and regulations.
Improved the groundwater recharge through convergence with various other programmes and ensured protection of key recharge areas.
Reduced water losses by adopting effective irrigation systems and methods.
The following water sharing norms were part of the agreement:
Pooling of borewells through a common pipeline network for sharing.
Sharing of water among all irrespective of whether they owned the borewell.
Planning crops based on availability of water in agreement with the members.
Reducing the area under paddy cultivation.
Sharing the water to protect the kharif crop of non-borewell farmers.
Ensuring cultivation of acreage of borewell owner.
Creating a general fund for maintenance of pipeline, repairs etc.
Borewell owners contributed Rs. 200 per acre of irrigated land and others who used the water would pay Rs. 1000 per acre per year.
The farmers of Malkaipeta Thanda have realised that pooling resources leads to increased opportunities not just for poor farmers like Gamalibai, but also for their richer counterparts.
Will the rest of the country learn from their example?