While enhanced irrigation coverage has been hailed as an important way to improve agricultural productivity, it continues to lag behind in India and agriculture continues to be rainfed, subject to the vagaries of the monsoon. High groundwater dependence for irrigation has not only led to its depletion and quality deterioration, but has also raised questions about its sustainability in the long run.
In this context, small water harvesting structures such as farm ponds have been looked upon as miracle strategies to help increase water availability at the local level and bring about positive changes in the agrarian landscape of the area.
What are farm ponds?
Farm ponds are square or rectangular holes made on the earth which harvest rainwater and store it for future use. The farm pond has an inlet that regulates the flow of water inside the pond while the outlet discharges excess water. The pond is surrounded by a small bund, which prevents erosion from the banks of the pond. Water from the farm pond can be used for the fields either manually or by pumping or both.
Farm ponds to improve water availability in Jharkhand
Farm ponds have been identified as important strategies to improve water availability in Jharkhand where low irrigation coverage and unequal rainfall have affected agriculture negatively leading to low net sown area, high fallows and low cropping intensity.
The farm ponds used in Jharkhand are much smaller in size, less expensive and have lower gestation period than dam-canal projects. However, little is known about how useful they have actually been in improving water levels in the farms and enhancing agricultural output in the state.
A study - ‘Agrarian potential of in-situ water harvesting: A case study of farm ponds in Jharkhand’ published in the Economic and Political Weekly analyses the impact of use of farm ponds on the lives and livelihoods of the pond-owning rural households in Jharkhand by looking at farm-pond initiatives of a Jamshedpur based non-governmental organisation, the Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS).
TSRDS has promoted about 800 farm ponds in the Kolhan region of the districts of East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Seraikela–Kharsawan in Jharkhand. The bene?ciaries of the farm pond intervention include households from different social groups - 53 percent are from Scheduled Tribes (ST), 37 percent from Other Backward Classes (OBC) and 10 percent from Scheduled Castes (SC).
Although average landholdings among farmers in the area are high, intensive agriculture continues to be low due to open grazing and lack of water availability. Farmer owned landholdings in Jharkhand are of three types – upland, lowland and midland. Productivity in the uplands is low due to thin soil cover and steep slopes. The midlands and lowlands have lower slopes, thicker soil cover, and high water retention capacity. The cropping pattern also varies across the different type of landholdings. Short duration paddy is cultivated in the midlands, while long duration paddy with higher yield is cultivated in the lowland. The uplands are usually fallow or have sparse cultivation.
Around 21 percent of the farm ponds are located on the lowlands, 43 percent in the midlands and the remaining 36 percent in the uplands. The water retention rate is uniform at around 10 months a year, irrespective of the location of the farm pond. However, the level of water in the farm pond during the dry months varies with it being double in lowlands as compared to uplands.
Farm ponds, a boon to water starved farms
Increased cropped area
Farm ponds have served as a boon to farmers in Jharkhand and have led to increase in gross cropped area from 1.9 hectares to 2.2 hectares. The average yield of paddy has increased from 2.0 tonnes/hectare to 2.6 tonnes/hectare, at the household level while marketed surplus has increased from 29 percent to 33 percent.
Farm ponds have also helped in increasing the cropping intensity and this has particularly helped the ST and OBC farmers, but for farmers who are already into vegetable cultivation such as the Mahatos in East Singhbhum district, farm ponds have only marginally helped in increasing cropping intensity.
Diversification of crops
Farm ponds have helped ST and OBC farmers as well as Mahato farmers to diversify crops, with ST and OBC farmers also venturing into vegetable cultivation due to assured water supply.
However, the level of diversi?cation differs between the upland, midland and lowlands. It is found to be more in the midland and upland agricultural plots. Lowlands, which have thick soil cover and high soil moisture, have been traditionally used to cultivate long duration paddy. This continues even after introduction of farm ponds as high soil moisture holding capacity for a prolonged period of time and lack of drainage renders the land un?t for vegetable cultivation.
However, farmers in the midlands have moved into second and third crops and vegetables post the paddy season. In this region the soil cover is thick, and drainage of water is not a constraint. Even on some of the upland agriculture plots, where the soil cover is not too thin and the slope is not steep, farm pond owners have moved into vegetable cultivation.
Crop diversi?cation has increased across all the pond sizes with it being highest for 100*80*10 pond size, followed by 100*100*10 pond size. Around 50 percent of the farm ponds of 100*80*10 are owned by the ST community and about 38 percent are owned by OBC community
Farm ponds have helped fisheries and livestock rearing
The number of households practising ?sheries has increased with farm pond interventions. Among livestock owning households, there has been an increase in the ownership of cows, goats, and poultry as farm ponds serve as major sources of water for livestock.
Yield enhancement of paddy due to assured irrigation, diversification of cropping patterns have led to income enhancement among the farm pond owners with a pond owning household getting an incremental income of Rs. 54,906 per year on an average.
OBC farmers registered the maximum increase in income, the study found.
Farmers exposed to market risks with high production
However, the risk within agriculture is increasing with crop diversification due to high price ?uctuations, which cannot be directly attributed to farm ponds. But the farm ponds have helped farmers to extend the cropping seasons, diversify their produce and thus produce surplus for the market. This has increased the engagement of farmers with markets on the one hand, but has also exposed them to the vagaries of the market.
While studies in Maharashtra have shown that farm ponds have contributed to groundwater depletion, drinking water scarcity and increased evaporation loss, farm ponds in Jharkhand have not yet shown these negative effects. However, while better water availability has reduced the farmer's vulnerability to the vagaries of the monsoon, the high price ?uctuations associated with the new crops has exposed the farmers to the vagaries of the market.
Thus, “beyond the farm” interventions such as improved storage facility, developing better market linkages, packaging and value addition can greatly help to maximise and sustain the positive gains obtained from farm ponds, argues the paper.
A copy of the paper can be downloaded below.