India: Farmers push back desertification in Odisha

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By Basudev Mahapatra 

Community interventions to dig wells and ponds has enabled farmers to fight drought and halt the trend of desertification in Odisha’s Balangir district

Byasadev Bhoi of Pandel village in Odisha’s Balangir district was excited while showing the pond the villagers have dug. The pond has changed their lives by ensuring water to irrigate about 150 acres of farmland even during the dry season between January and May. Byasadev, 58, is happy that the young members of his family don’t need to migrate to other states in search of jobs any more, as they are now able to grow more than two crops in their fields.

Balangir district is chronically drought-prone, and this was not the life villagers of Pandel lived before.

Rule of drought

Located in Deogaon block of the district, Pandel was suffering from drought almost every year. Agriculture was the most affected occupation because of acute water scarcity, which often resulted in crop losses.

“Less and erratic rainfall never helped agriculture. Every year we expected the rain to be proper, which never happened since decades,” said Nrupati Bhoi, 50, another farmer. “Without any irrigation facility in place, the situation worsened year by year.”

Over the past many years, Balangir has been receiving deficit rainfall. According to India Meteorological Department (IMD) statistics, against the expected rainfall of 1,174 mm between June and September, southwest monsoon rainfall in the district was 932 mm in 2018, 779.6 mm in 2017, 866.1 mm in 2016, and 857.9 mm in 2015.

So, every year, the farmers had to encounter drought. Crop loss became a regular phenomenon. On the other hand, “the surrounding forest, which supported our survival during the distressful times following crop loss, was also lost,” said Dhruba Charan Tripathy, 55, a farmer who is also Pandel’s village priest.

March of desertification

Research finds it significant that the zones registering the maximum decline in rainfall are those that are undergoing appreciable loss of forest cover. Again, if drought years prevail in succession, the streams and rivulets depending on the gradual release of water from the forest soil dry up, resulting in desertification of at least the marginally sub-humid zones.

Part of the Eastern Ghats, Balangir has a tropical climate. It is a hot and sub-humid agro-ecological sub-region. In the past 30 years, this district has reported an average temperature rise of eight degrees Celsius.

Deforestation followed by further degradation of the forest due to frequent drought-like situations, increasing albedo (radiated heat), growing water stress and soil quality deterioration converted the surroundings of several villages into a dry, shrubby brown landscape. The district was approaching desertification because of these factors, Aswini Rath, professor and head of botany department at the Balangir campus of Centurion University, said on the basis of a study he conducted.

Trail of migration

“There was no rainfall, no agriculture and no forest, as if nature was taking revenge on us. Finding no other way, youth and middle aged people from all families had to migrate to distant places and other states to find a job and earn for their family,” Misin Jal, 55, said. “Many landless farmers used to migrate along with their families to work in brick kilns and construction sites under unhygienic and hazardous conditions.”

Migration was a compulsion for the villagers to feed their families, as there was no grain at home, and there was no other opportunity for a livelihood, Madhab Margachi, 38, said.

Balangir has a history of distress migration, primarily induced by incessant droughts. According to Ajit Panda, a researcher who has done an in-depth study on poverty and migration in western Odisha, “Post monsoon every year, more than 70,000 people migrate from Balangir district because of drought and crop loss.” Some even apprehend the number of such climate change-induced migrants from the district alone to be more than 100,000.

While most of them work at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, many work in construction sites in far off places in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Some even opt to become seasonal rickshaw pullers in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.

But now, “everybody is engaged in agriculture. Forest is rejuvenating to provide livelihood support. We don’t need to migrate outside anymore in search of jobs,” said Sudam Pradhan, 39, who migrated to Kerala and Tamil Nadu earlier.

“Migration has come down drastically to almost zero in almost all villages where irrigation facility is developed,” said Fakir Kumar Bhoi, 30, a resident of Pandel.

Combating drought

In a state of acute water scarcity, people of Pandel village kept fighting to escape the decades long suffering.

“To address the issue of water scarcity, we planned to dig ponds around the village to store rainwater and use it during dry seasons. In 2016-17, the villagers worked together and developed eight ponds in the upland and middle slopes with the help of Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic face of RIL (Reliance Industries Limited) Group, which provided complete equipment support for quick digging. These ponds irrigate over 1,500 acres surrounding our village,” Byasadev Bhoi said.

With some water saved for irrigation, Balangir-based Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK, government organisation that provides agricultural extension services) and district agriculture department officials suggested suitable crop varieties that match soil quality.

“In 2017, we had a good harvest. Paddy production was 30-40% more than earlier. Instead of single paddy crop, we now grow three crops — Kharif (summer monsoon dependent) paddy, green or black gram and winter and summer vegetables — in a year,” said Nrupati Bhoi.

Dependable farming

Like Chhala Bhoi, farmers of Pandel are now visiting nearby weekly markets, called haat, to sell vegetables grown in their fields. “Farming has become dependable. Now, we can feed our family and raise our children properly,” Chhala said while selling his field-grown vegetables at Tusura haat.

Access to drinking water remained a major issue for the villagers throughout the year. In times of scarcity, they had to get drinking water from the riverbed almost a kilometre away by digging small holes.

Now, they have made an intake well on the riverbed and bring the water to their village through pipes that reach every household. “The villagers always wanted to work for such things. But they were poor people and didn’t have money to spend on logistics and materials. We just filled that gap and supported with pipes, a motor to lift water and materials required to construct the intake well and a water tank in the village,” said Abagyanta Das Nayak, Reliance Foundation’s Team Leader in Balangir.

Community management of water also counts. No water goes waste. It is channeled to kitchen gardens where residents grow a variety of vegetables, or to the arable lands, said Santosh Khandai, water management specialist at Reliance Foundation.

Reversing the trends

Small innovations for increasing access to water have not only helped farming and human consumption, but also have, gradually, reversed the trends of groundwater depletion, landscape transformation, soil-quality degradation, and most importantly drought induced distress migration.

Water stored in small pits and wells, dug to break the flow of rainwater and save the top soil from erosion, percolates underground and keeps the soil moist for a longer period, even during dry seasons.

This doesn’t only help farming in dry seasons but has also helped the surrounding forest to re-grow and the withered trees to bear leaves. “There is a significant change in the landscape. Forest makes a comeback in Pandel and other villages where irrigation ponds or watersheds are developed. The grazing fields look green,” said Ashis Kumar Das, Senior Scientist and Head of KVK, Balangir.

“You can see the flowering Chironji trees (Buchanania lanzan). For a long time, we had not noticed such flowering. The Mahua (Madhuca Longifolia) plants also bear juicy, healthy flowers. We get Kendu fruits (Diospyros melanoxylon), Amla (Indian gooseberry) and other forest produces these days. Most important, as trees are flowering well, we see honeycombs forming in the forest. Our old forest is returning,” said Jeet Bhoi, 58, who keeps watch on the forest, and is paid INR 1,200 (USD 17.25) a month to do that.

The dug wells in farms were full even in mid January “when the water should be 6-7 feet below surface level,” said Misin Jal while bringing water from a well to his fields where he planted saplings of aubergine. This was an indication that groundwater depletion was being reversed.

Raising hopes

At a time when desertification and land degradation have become issues of global concern and the state of Odisha is a hotspot, community interventions to combat drought and address the issue of water scarcity are setting examples.

Comparative analysis of the process-wise desertification and land degradation in 2012 vis-à-vis with that of 2004 reveals that 42.49% of the total geographical area of Odisha is affected due to desertification during 2012 as against 35% in 2004, according to the 2014-15 annual report of Odisha Space Applications Centre (ORSAC).

Environmentalist Ranjan Panda said Odisha is going to become a desert in less than 150 years and western Odisha is just three decades away from such radical change. “Many parts of Odisha, specifically the western and southern uplands, have already developed symptoms of desertification,” he said. “Unless strong action is taken at the earliest, the drought prone areas may march fast to become deserts.”

Climate change, desertification and climate change-induced migration can be addressed through actions at the local level. Some communities in Balangir are showing a path.

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Hazards Drought
Country and region India
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