Can a small investment of, say, ₹97,000, to dig farm ponds increase farm incomes and improve farmers’ livelihoods? Can these agricultural ponds lead to increased cropping intensity and higher productivity? Can these minor investments then be replicated across the country since only 50% of India’s net sown area, or 140 million hectares, is currently irrigated?
Evidence collected on the ground in North Karnataka and Telangana at the initiative of an NGO, the Deshpande Foundation, indicates that with awareness raising among farmers, CSR spending by companies, targeted lending by banks like SBI and the support of institutions like NABARD, big changes at the local level are possible.
In districts like Dharwad, Bellary, Kalaburagi and Karim Nagar, agricultural ponds the size of 100 feet by 100 feet with a depth of 12 feet, built under the aegis of the Foundation are now helping farmers to draw water for their crops without even the availability of large irrigation systems. Instead of single cropping, the beneficiaries are now practicing multiple cropping and, of course, production has increased.
So even as the sector is troubled by nationwide controversy over the Three Farm Bills and their proposed repeal, there are low-key processing operations in various states, which perhaps explains why farming has proven be the only positive contributor to our GDP. last year, despite the Covid. The trend continues this year too.
The Deshpande Foundation started working in 2014 in Navalgund Taluk, Dharwad, to help farmers in the drought-prone area cope with erratic water availability. Initially, it was funded by CSR grants, but fairly quickly turned into a demand-driven program when farmers benefited.
So far, more than 6,200 farm ponds have been dug, the last with bank loans which are so far repaid quickly. The Foundation is also involved in the promotion of micro-entrepreneurs, the training of rural youth and the encouragement of start-ups from its Indian headquarters in Hubli.
The latest of the Foundation’s initiatives is a Rural Transformation Technology Center in Hubli that collects real-time data with IOT devices, satellite imagery to understand soil conditions, provide accurate and actionable technical advice to farmers in addition to help with other objectives such as micro-entrepreneurship, start-ups and qualification of young rural people. The Centre, which uses the latest technology, is ready to operate and is open for preview now.
The Foundation’s Managing Director, Vivek Pawar, recounts the evolution of the agricultural pond concept: “Frequent episodes of drought can have a devastating impact on agriculture in affected regions. We need a sustainable agricultural system that makes optimal use of water and reduces costly and environmentally hazardous inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. The Farm Pond Initiative is one such program launched in 2014 by the Deshpande Foundation in association with the Ratan Tata Trust.
These observations have also been validated by a recent impact assessment study carried out by KREA University. Apart from improved water availability and water use efficiency, the most impressive result has been the increased incomes of small and marginal farmers, as a result of the Deshpande Foundation’s intervention.
The KREA study reports that, based on its sample, 77% of farmers observed an average increase of 64% in their income. In all categories of farmers, income more than doubled for 15% of farmers. Additionally, for the rabi season, small farmers reported a 78% increase in profits, while semi-medium farmers reported a 73% improvement in profits.
All of this was possible thanks to a fundamental change in the exploitation of a key resource: 74% of farmers observed an improvement in water availability while 88% of farmers observed an increase in irrigated land, thanks to to agricultural ponds. There was also a marked improvement in land use efficiency, which increased to 89% after the construction of the farm pond. After the construction of the agricultural ponds, the farmers cultivate more land and their fields are occupied longer
The only other program of a similar nature in recent years was the Maharashtra government’s Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan, which aimed to free 5,000 villages from water scarcity each year and trick farmers into believing that “every drop of rainwater belongs to me and that it should infiltrate my country”. Although it initially gained traction, the program has now been nearly abandoned.
In Karnataka, NABARD’s experience with the Deshpande Foundation Farm Pond Initiative has also been good. According to Neeraj Varma, CGM of NABARD, he has signed a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding with SBI and the Deshpande Foundation, under which he will provide incentives for the formation of 1,000 Joint Responsibility Groups (JLGs), credit linking after training and following up on reimbursement.
A JLG is an informal cohesive group of 4-10 members who agree to be responsible for the credit taken, ensuring that the group has close peer-to-peer engagement. In the present project, the JLG would undertake the construction of another 10,000 agricultural ponds in water-stressed areas, facilitated by the Foundation and financed by SBI. From a banking point of view, these are replicable national models of credit support if the mediation of these NGOs, operating on scientific and disciplined lines, is ensured.
The author is a senior executive of a public sector bank. Opinions expressed are personal
June 28, 2022