Swadhina's rural food security and sustainable agro-development programme in Jharkhand- case study from Rural India-2005

This case study has been written from an activists' perspective on a grassroot initiative in preserving water for promotion of agriculture in 10 villages of Jharkhand


In 2002, Swadhina started work on the rural food security and sustainable agro-development programme in Jharkhand with the support of German Agro Action. The organisation helped the adivasis of Jharkhand start afresh on hostile terrain by introducing a novel method to conserve water and enhance agricultural production for self -sufficiency. The emphasis of the programme is on achieving food security and sustainable development through improvement of agriculture and animal husbandry practices.

The adivasis of Jharkhand were driven to abject poverty by the juggernaut of industrialisation. They were forcibly evicted from their lands and reduced to penury. They had to be relocated and trained to start afresh on hostile terrain. Swadhina, a development organisation stepped into the fray and introduced a novel method to conserve water and enhance agricultural production for self -sufficiency.

The state of Jharkhand in central India is one of the richest areas in the whole country with vast reserves of mineral and natural resources. However, the natural wealth is in stark contrast to the acute poverty of the people who live in the area.The Adivasis tribals constitute about 85 to 90 percent of the total population.

The relatively young state of Jharkhand had been formed in 2002 by dividing the state of Bihar with the sole objective of tribal development. The formation of a new state had thrown up several new challenges for the development of the tribals in addition to the fact that the area was drought prone and a large number of people were extremely poor.

Living in absolute poverty, they are worst hit by the massive exploitation of the natural resources undertaken in the state since Independence. Displacement, dispossession and deprivation characterize the life of the adivasis. Illiteracy and ignorance are their lifelong companions. The rapid industrial growth has benefited a very small section of the urban based educated immigrant population from other states. The adivasis are reduced to the status of easily replaceable unskilled labourers. Loss of land to the mines and industries has gone hand in hand with impoverishment, loss of identity and erosion of self-esteem.

The adivasis survival depends mostly on migrant labour. Starvation and malnutrition are widespread. Their land is rocky and uncultivable. The villagers depend on rain-fed mono crop. The agricultural output is also very low and their stock of grain lasts only a few months. The rest of the year the adivasis buy or borrow paddy at a high price. Paddy cultivation is a non-economic venture. The need of the hour is to promote supplementary cultivation of vegetables, pulses and fruits for the market.

Having begun work in Bihar long before the new Jharkhand state was born, Swadhina, a voluntary organization in the area decided to initiate work for the development of the local people. The first step was to provide support to the agro-based economy with the aim of ensuring food security throughout the year. Swadhina had acquired some experience in agro-development, promoting small scale initiatives in kitchen garden, vegetable farming, agro-demonstration plots, construction of wells and short channels for water. This was in the states of Orissa and West Bengal.

Swadhina, primarily a women's development organization, was established in 1986 to work for the development of women and children among the tribal and other backward communities. Swadhina works in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and Jharkhand. The activities are co-ordinated by the Area and Field Offices with support from the Calcutta based Main Office. Since its inception, Swadhina focused on creating awareness on women.s issues and taking up small village level action programmes to promote, empowerment and self-reliance among women. The areas of focus are:
  • Non-violence and Social Empowerment
  • Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security
  • Energy and Environment Protection
  • Health Promotion and Reproductive Child Health Care
  • Literacy and Education Promotion
  • Economic Sustainability.

Enhancement of the organized strength of people is the first step towards empowerment. Hence, all activities are carried out through village based Women.s Groups. The Swadhina approach includes the following steps:

  • Identification of issues relating to women at the micro as well as macro level
  • Awareness training and strengthening women.s groups around those issues, self-reliance efforts, and,
  • Handing over the organization and functional work to the groups.

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Training programmes

The project was undertaken in 10 villages covering 300 families located in the Patamda block in East Singhbhum district. Swadhina has been working in the area now for nearly three years. Through this project, people are motivated to increase agricultural income and improve animal resources. Like the rest of Jharkhand, here too agriculture depends solely on rainwater. Supplementary cultivation of vegetables, pulses and fruits was an urgent need for self-sustenance and for the market.

Swadhina began with imparting training in the area ofagriculture and animal care where theoretical sessions were complemented with practical exposures. In the agricultural component of the training, the topics included identification of types of soil, soil erosion, soil test, use of unused land, analysis of present irrigation scenario, identification of local constraints, common practices, small scale self-sustaining alternatives, grain care, fertilizers, types of seeds . indigenous / hybrid / high yielding etc.           plants                 

This year's training organised at zonal agricultural research station under the Ranchi Agricultural University was unique as the villagers had the opportunity for training by experts. They were trained on irrigation by a post-graduate expert from the Indian Institute of Technology with specialization on water management. Systematic training and sustained motivation was carried out on various alternatives in agriculture and animal care. Several follow-up work was taken up. The various components also included:

  • Providing supplementary irrigation through desilting of tanks and digging small water reservoirs (Irrigation Box) for storing rain water: Construction of 100 Irrigation Boxes, and 20 tank desiltation work was taken up to provide additional irrigation.
  • Providing new and better high yielding seeds: Good quality seeds were given to ensure increased productivity. The commonly grown vegetables of the area are brinjal, chilly and tomato. Through Swadhina.s initiative, new types of vegetables are grown like cabbage, cauliflower, pea and elephants. foot. Sugarcane cultivation was also taken up. The farmers benefited immensely from the Irrigation Boxes with which they cultivated vegetables. 
  • Providing support to bring fallow land to agricultural use: The aim of this programme was to make the fallow unused land cultivable. The land has been leveled. Stress was given on cultivation of sabai grass, fodder grass along with cultivation of vegetables and pulses. 
  • Formation of village level women,s committees: women's committees have been formed in all the 10 working villages. They are now a strong decision making bodies. The committee members meet once a month or whenever required. The supervision of various activities is carried out with their help. Other activities such as scrutiny of the applications submitted for irrigation boxes, tank desiltation and land reclamation are also done along with them. 

Chittaranjan and Shefali Mahato live in Aria Chirudih village. They have two sons and their dream is to see that they become highly qualified professionals. Paddy cultivation in their drought prone dry land alone was not adequate to meet the family needs. Although they struggle hard to earn money, yet there was never enough to make both ends meet.

Shefali attended Swadhina agricultural training. Through the additional irrigation and hard work,they have now been able to double their income from Rs.10,385/- to Rs.20,540/ -. They have also purchased three bighas of additional land.

Debaki Besra of Kanku village is a Santhal and having studied up to Standard IX, is the only educated person in the family. She attended a training programme organized by Swadhina where she met other trainees. She learnt about agricultural development, irrigation and new types of seeds. Debaki made an arrangement with her neighbour and doubled the yield using water fromher neighbour.sIrrigation Box. Consequently, her family has cultivated 14 bighas of land as compared to 11 bighas of last year. Their income too has increased to Rs 17,400/- from Rs 12, 930/-.

Enhancing water supply through irrigation boxes

irrigation.jpg (300×367)Agriculture in Jharkhand is very backward-rainfed and mono-cropped. Compared to the rapid industrial development of the state, agriculture has remained neglected.

Only 18.25 lakh hectares of land have been cultivated in the state. This is about 26.02 percent of the total land. Of this only 1.5% of the land is irrigated. As high as 97 percent of the land is mono-cropped. Multi-cropping is practised only on 3.14 percent land. Inspite of the fact that the state has 16 large scale and 102 already completed, or under medium and small scale irrigation project construction, agriculture still largely depends on rain.

The large scale irrigation projects taken up since Independence have failed to fulfill their purpose. Huge sums of money have been spent for irrigation projects but the irrigation water is yet to reach most of the cultivable land of the state. Only visible result is the growing suffering and misery of the poor tribals.

Therefore, in the context of a drought prone area like Jharkhand, the major concern is how to enable villagers to enhance water supply needed for sustaining agriculture. In the project area, except a few ponds, there was no other source of reserved water for agricultural purpose. Moreover, Jharkhand being a plateau, the rainwater easily flows away. Through Swadhina initiatives, about 100 such irrigation boxes have been constructed with objectives to:

  • store rain water for irrigation
  • bring additional land under cultivation with the help of stored wate
  • help villagers continue farming even after the monsoon thereby increasing agricultural yield for food securit
  • encourage villagers to grow more vegetables and new types of vegetabl
  • store rainwater for emergency use to save crops from drought conditions
  • motivate the villagers to get additional income through pisiculture.

What is an irrigation box?

An irrigation box is a water reservoir of 60. x 60. x 5., constructed by digging into the earth. The water from a box can be utilized to irrigate about one acre of land.

The water from the tank is used in two ways, either it percolates to the adjacent field or used in terrace farming. Digging up such a box on a very rough terrain was difficult. There were many large stones and gravel which had to be removed.

Each irrigation box costs Rs 7000/- of which Swadhina contributed 50 per cent of the amount. All family members participated in the construction work to save on the cost of construction. Though Swadhina has provided one time support, annual maintenance of the box is the owners' responsibility.

Usage of irrigation box

During the rainy season, an irrigation box stores the valuable water which earlier used to flow away. The water stored during the rainy season lasts till winter. The irrigation box provides water during the lean season and this has enabled the villagers to cultivate additional lands. The quantity of water stored in the box depends on the rain.

Inspite of erratic monsoon, about 60 acres of additional land has been cultivated. As a result of this, there is more food available and an increased income for the families. On an average, each family now earns about Rs 3000/- annually.

In addition to improved agriculture yield, 57 families are now earning an additional income by fish rearing. This is a new economic activity for these families. Earlier only families with ponds were engaged in pisciculture. Though the first year did not show a very good result, yet it promises to be a profitable venture in the coming years.

Moving to other areas and newer initiatives

There is no doubt that construction of the irrigation boxes has definitely benefited the villagers. The results are visible. There has been considerable agricultural development in the area and the irrigation box has played a vital role in it.

This being a low cost activity, many villagers are now showing interest in owning their own irrigation boxes. After all something is always better than nothing. The water which was earlier wasted, is now stored for a valuable purpose and that too at a minimum cost.

Encouraged by this success, Swadhina plans to replicate the irrigation box in new areas. In the coming months, more irrigation boxes will be constructed in new villages of Jharkhand. One such box has been already dug at Swadhina agricultural demonstration plot in Midnapore, West Bengal.

Apart from a practical demonstration, Swadhina organized a public meeting and a photo exhibition in Calcutta in 2003 where Swadhina workers from different states and friends from other NGOs had an opportunity to learn about Swadhina's efforts. This meeting was a part of a four-day get-together of Swadhina workers from various states to share their experiences.

Swadhina also regularly documents the project and highlights the activity through an annual report and an in-house bengali journal. Two special reports published by Swadhina 'an Introduction to rural food security and sustainable agro-development programme' and 'the magic makers' are specifically about the irrigation boxes.

Swadhina also brought out a hand-book in bengali on sustainable agro practices for the villagers easy reference. This hand-book has a chapter on issues relating to water.

Things are happening. This is possible because of the determined will of the actors of development 'the people' themselves. But the real achievers are the village level workers whose effort and enthusiasm have turned dreams into realities.

Through this initiative, Swadhina has begun a process of motivating the villagers to work for their own food security. With additional water available, new areas have been cultivated, new types of crops have been grown. What is more important is that people are interested in solving their own irrigation and water problems. This will go a long way in ensuring food security for themselves.


Taken from Best Practices in Water Management-case studies from Rural India-2005 German Agro Action, 2005

We would like to thank German Agro Action for very kindly sharing the case studies for the portal.


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