The laboratory of development | Centre for Science and Environment


Sunita Narain

Director General of CSE and publisher of Down To Earth, an environmentalist pushing for changes in policies and  practices and mindsets. More>>

The laboratory of development

How will vast regions of India, where highly unreliable rainfall makes the difference between famine and sustenance, cope with climate change? Over 85 per cent of the cultivated area in this country is either directly dependent on rain or depends on rain to recharge its groundwater. Seasonal rain provides water for irrigation, drinking and household needs. It provides water to livestock and is necessary to grow fodder for animals. The question is how will these regions cope as rainfall becomes even more variable with climate change? The question also is how people in these regions will ensure they do not over-extract and deplete available water? The question is important when groundwater is being pumped with deeper and deeper tube wells to grow water-guzzling crops like sugarcane, paddy, wheat or even flowers.

I ask these questions once again, because for once I have some answers. Last week, I travelled to Hiware Bazaar village in Ahmednagar district to find an amazing example of ecological regeneration. This village of a thousand-odd families in the rain-shadow, drought-prone region of Maharashtra was reportedly destitute and lawless some 15 years ago. Today, it is an incredible example of how rainwater harvesting can create prosperity.

In 1972, when water scarcity had hit the state, a percolation dam was built under a new employment guarantee scheme. But like most dams this structure leaked. Water scarcity increased. The next water harvesting structure led to a murder in the village, as people fought over the water it provided. Villagers took to making, drinking and selling country liquor. The surrounding forests were hacked down. Villagers recall how a forest guard was beaten and tied up as he tried to stop people from felling trees. By the early 1990s, migration was the only alternative to poverty in this village.

As I heard this, I realized I was standing on the same hill where forests had been once cut. All I could see now was thick forest, vast expanses of grass and lush green fields in the village below. Last year, the village’s own rain-gauge showed rainfall had been good—some 541 mm. But this year it was below average—some 300 mm. This rain had come after three years of crippling scarcity and drought. So, small rainfall gains had given huge returns. How?

The turnaround began in the early 1990s when Popat Rao Pawar took over as village sarpanch. This post graduate was persuaded to return to the village but his initial efforts bore little fruit. The first tree plantation was eaten up by village cattle; the fencing was taken away for firewood. People saw no value in conserving forests or water. Realizing this, the village leaders changed tracks. They turned their attention to converting the primary school to a high school and persuading all to educate their children. Enrolment increased to over 90 per cent, village participation grew.

Pawar recalls that this was the time when the state government started the Adarsh Gram Yojana (model village plan). This programme, modelled on the work of Ralegan Siddhi village and on its creator, Anna Hazare, was based on five principles: bans on cutting trees, free grazing, and liquor; family planning and contributing village labour for development works. Hiware Bazaar opted to be part of this scheme. The first work it took up was to plant trees on forestland and people were persuaded to stop grazing in these lands.

Between 1995 and 1998, the state’s employment guarantee scheme was used to provide money to village workers to dig trenches and bunds along the contours in the forestland to hold water. Then it built check dams in the drains and dug village tanks. People invested in levelling their fields to hold water. It is estimated that this contribution alone cost them over Rs 70 lakh in labour and equipment. The gains were big. For a start, grass productivity increased and this in turn pushed milk yields. By 2007, the village sold 3,000 litres of milk daily.

As water became available, new wells were dug: there was one well for each household. Pawar says he soon realized that when water is not at a premium, people lose sight of community concerns. The attitude is—“This is my water and I will use it for growing high-value crops, even if it depletes the water table.” In 1997, the village decided not to grow sugarcane. This wasn’t enough. Nearby villages were prospering growing high-value crops for export. What could persuade Hiware Bazaar residents to do things differently?

The village started keeping records of its wells: each month’s data from six observation wells was matched with data from four rain-gauges and related to its watersheds. This started the system for water audits: the village worked with the local state groundwater agencies to assess water availability and to match it with cropping patterns. Each year the area under each crop was calculated in terms of its water need. This year, for instance, the gram sabha decided that there was not enough rainfall to support wheat. When I asked villagers tending their fields why they agreed to not grow wheat, their reply was simple: they could see their well had less water. Science and practice had built bridges.

The village has a simple rule: if there is 100 mm of rainfall then there is drinking water for all and enough for one crop; 200 mm of rainfall gets the village drinking water, one full crop and two half crops (crops planted on half the field); and if the rainfall is 300 mm or more then the village is assured drinking water and irrigation for three full crops.

In other words, little rain but assured gains. The question is can this model be replicated. Can this laboratory of development be a teacher to others? Let’s continue to discuss this.

Sunita Narain

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