Water conservation under MGNREGA heralds economic revival of India’s Hindi heartland, finds survey and analysis by Down To Earthmagazine

Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh 

Down To Earth visitsKaimur in Bihar, named one of the country’s most backward districts in 2006. Today, even landless farmers are able to take land on lease, do farming and earn profits, thanks to revival of the traditional irrigation system 

Same story of change in villages in Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – part of a country-wide survey by the magazine to mark the World Water Day 

On MGNREGA’s 15th anniversary, 14 reporters brave the resurgent coronavirus to traverse 16,000 km in 15 states to assess the impact of the programme 

In the age of climate change, water conservation will be even more critical. MGNREGA is the world’s biggest adaptation programme as it harnesses the labour of people to invest in building the wherewithal
to fight drought and build resilience

New Delhi, March 22, 2021: “By putting water conservation at its core, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is transforming India’s rural landscape and changing the lives of the country’s poor – our new nation-wide survey has found. What better way to mark the World Water Day than by celebrating this unheralded success story of rural India’s water warriors, our JalYodhas?” said SunitaNarain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and editor of the fortnightly, Down To Earth, here today, inaugurating a webinar.  

The webinar featured the highlights of the report on villages that have made the transformation from drought to prosperity. It brought together the JalYodhas – the representatives of the villages who have made this possible.“Fourteen reporters of Down To Earth have travelled across the length and breadth of the country at a time when a pandemic was raging, reporting on what this Act has meant for India’s rural hinterland. They have covered 16 villages in 15 districts of as many states, and brought back incredible stories from the ground,” says Down To Earth managing editor Richard Mahapatra. 

Villages in seven districts from India’s Hindi-speaking belt were visited by the reporters. They include Jamunwan in Kaimur district (Bihar); Barokhan in Sirsa district (Haryana); Jhenagaria in Pakur (Jharkhand); Barmani in Sidhi district and Nadia in Tikamgarh district (both in Madhya Pradesh); BatkaPhala in Dungarpur district (Rajasthan); and Himmatpura in Jalaun district (Uttar Pradesh). 

What did Down To Earth find? 

Jamunwan:In villages like Jamunwan, Narwahand Semariain Kaimur district of Bihar, people are using MGNREGA to revive the traditional irrigation systems. Dating back to the Magadha kingdom, the local system has two components: channels or pynes and small retention ponds or ahars. Ahar-pyne fell into disuse in the 20th century due to the advent of water extraction techniques such as tubewells. This led to depletion of groundwater and decreased farm productivity. “Now, thanks to MGNREGA, poor people like me, who could never dream of doing agriculture before, earn a profit from it,” says Dashmi Ram, a landless Dalit farmer.The water table in the region has improved as well, and 40 per cent of the village’s farms are currently irrigated. 

Barokhan: Villages in Sirsa, Haryana’s westernmost district, are characterised by their three-pond-systems. The ponds, built under MGNREGA, are adjacent to each other, along the gradient of the land, and connected via pipes. Grey water of villages like Barokhan, Bhavdeen and Jasania gets cleaned due to settlement of impurities as it moves down successive ponds. The villagers manage to save up to 66 per cent on water charge and have reduced their dependence on groundwater. “I used to spend Rs 3,000 per acre on buying tubewell water for irrigation. Now, I spend only Rs 1,000; the rest comes from the pond,” says a happy resident of Jasania. 

Jhenagaria:This village in Pakurdistrict of Jharkhand has witnessed a four-fold rise in farm yields after the residents started building five ponds an 12 check dams in 2006. By 2021, finds Down To Earth, the groundwater level has improved in the region and the village does not take government help any more. The local community – mainly those who use the water from these sources -- maintains the water structures. 

Barmani: In Barmani village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district – Down To Earthhad visited this village in 2006 and had found it abandoned and distressed – migrant labourers have come back to resume farming. This turnaround has been possible because Sidhi gram sabha has stuck to the MGNREGA rule book, claim residents. Check dams and contour trenches have improved the water profile in the village so much that farming keeps the villagers busy for up to 10 months a year. “We have become food surplus over the past decade,” beams Rakesh Singh, an elected member of the village panchayat. The village now has seven big ponds and 39 dug wells, and all its residents are established farmers. Women no longer have to trudge long distances to get water. 

Nadia: In 2006, Nadia(in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district)was wracked by persistent droughts (40 in 45 years), and a mere 30 per cent of its farmland was under cultivation. Residents have now created a security ring of water around their village. Located in a drought- and distress migration-prone zone, the village has built 55 ponds, tallaiyas in the local language, under MGNREGA. These ponds require minimal maintenance as they harness the natural flow of rainwater, filling up one after another, and do not get silted. “We have escaped the water curse of Bundelkhand because of these structures,” says KeshavdasKushwaha, a resident. Farmland under irrigation has now gone up to 90 per cent; income has gone up to 400 per cent. 

BatkaPhala: Dungarpur district in Rajasthan receives a reasonable 710 mm of average annual rainfall. But the hilly topography would aid runoff and the rocky terrain does not allow water to percolate. Under MGNREGA, BatkaPhala and Paldewal villages have dug trenches and constructed anicuts to prevent the loss of rainwater.“Farmers in BatkaPhala now use pond water to grow almost three crops a year,” says Suresh Ola, district collector. The pond has started attracting migratory birds too. 

Himmatpura: The village of Himmatpura in district Jalaun of Uttar Pradesh was a proponent of water conservation even before MGNREGA. A check dam was built in the village, located in a drought-prone region with spells of flash floods, in 2005. Many initial works under MGNREGA in the village were individual and small-scale. But when the check dam became defunct due to siltation in 2014, the village commenced its first community intervention under MGNREGA. The condition of the check dam reflects the economic prosperity of the residents. “During the years when the check dam lay neglected, I was harvesting 40 kg of mustard. Now, I get 400 kg from the same patch,” says Pushpendra Singh, a resident. 

Mahapatra says finding the villages which had successfully executed MGNREGA was difficult as no records are kept of the sustainability of the works that have been undertaken under this programme. “The government only keeps a record of the ‘number’ of works done, and of whether they have been completed. But what is not known is if the structure built under MGNREGA has improved the water security of the village, or has contributed, as it should, to livelihood improvements. This is what our Down To Earth reporters wanted to find out,” says Mahapatra. 

As per government records, since 2006 more than 30 million water conservation-related ecological assets have been created; this totals to some 50 water structures in every village of India. Calculations show that these structures have potentially conserved roughly 29,000 million cubic meters of water in this period and have the potential to irrigate some 19 million hectares. 

Narain says: “Water is a determinant of our present and future. With climate change we will see more rain and more heat and in this the management of water will be our make or break. Water security is also crucial for livelihood security. It builds resilience and the ability to cope with weather adversities. The MGNREGA is the world’s largest social security and climate risk management programme.” 

See the lead CSE press release on World Water Day: Click here

To access the webinar-related information: Click here

To access the complete DTE cover story and info-package on how MGNREGA is transforming the rural landscapes and economy of India: Click here


For more on the subject and for interviews, please contact Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media Resource Centre: sukanya.nair@cseindia.org / 8816818864



Press Release
March 22, 2021
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