Farmers who are using traditional irrigation systems and practices are better coping in times of drought, observes Geetanjali Krishna.
Every morning, the newspapers are full of reports of drought in Maharashtra. Facing a rain shortfall of as much as 40 per cent, Marathwada has been the worst-hit. Although the second “water train” has pulled into Latur, farmers in rural areas have had little respite -- especially the ones who have been banking on high yields to offset the cost of planting the more expensive and resource-intensive sugar cane.
Looking at these increasingly grim reports, I called Madhukar Dhas of Dilasa Sanstha, a non-governmental organisation working on the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra for over 20 years, to find out how they, and the farmers they work with, were faring.
“In Yavatmal, where we are based, the farmers associated with us currently don’t have many water scarcity issues,” he said. Parts of the district, I’d read, had been declared drought-hit by the government. Then how were Dilasa’s farmers unaffected, I asked. It was, he said, because they had helped the farmers set up traditional irrigation systems and farming practices, which reduced their reliance on rainwater, and consequently, on crop yields.
Growing up in an agrarian household, Dhas saw his family practise pata, the traditional system of multi-cropping, which enabled them to grow vegetables and legumes along with the main crop. “This ensured us a year-round supply of food, even in times of drought,” he said. “Right now, we’ve observed that pata practitioners have fewer needs, as they have not invested huge amounts of money in their fields. This is helping them cope with the drought better.”
The other two low-cost indigenous technologies that Dilasa is promoting are phad and bodi. Phad, as I understood it, entails diverting river water from check dams to nearby fields using gravity. Bodis is a simple system in which rainwater stored in village ponds is channelled through pipes to different fields. “Currently, despite the drought, this is enabling our farmers to irrigate their crops and meet their needs for water,” Dhas explained.
In comparison, agriculturists who eschewed old ways of farming in favour of more commercial methods, are feeling the heat. “Over the years, farmers had begun to shift to new crops like sugarcane, which requires more water and investment than local crops,” said Dhas, explaining why the fortunes of Maharashtra’s farmers hinged so desperately on crop yields.
Crop failure rendered many of them incapable of paying off the loans they had taken. “Also many farmers have stopped practising multi-cropping the way our forefathers did -- which kept them in plentiful supply of food and required fewer fertilisers and pesticides.” Which is why, crop failure today also means a worrying increase in food scarcity.
“Our traditional farming technologies have the added benefit of replenishing rather than depleting the water table,” said Dhas. I mused that they also ensured the conservation of piped water that the government supplies at a high cost, which during times of drought, seems so wasteful to use for irrigation.
Interestingly, the number of suicides by farmers in Yavatmal, the district worst affected by farmer suicides in Maharashtra, has fallen from 96 in the first three months of 2015 to 48 in the same period this year.
Have Dilasa’s efforts towards helping farmers return to their roots contributed to this statistic? It’s hard to say. But clearly, Dilasa has equipped its farmers to ride out the drought better than others. “We’re currently besieged by requests from farmers to help them adopt bodi and pata,” said Dhas. “In many ways, I feel that the drought in Maharashtra has been man-made -- that is why I feel that the solutions to it must be man-made too.”