For many developing countries, increasing agricultural productivity is a key to poverty reduction. The over-dependence on monsoons is not a sustainable one, and irrigated agriculture remains a resource that many poor agricultural producers want.
Conversely, unmonitored water wastage is causing huge losses to farmers who face increased production costs and a water crisis that lurks around the corner. In such a context, both water availability and sustainability are crucial aspects to be taken into consideration when implementing a water project.
Murshidabad district with a population of 2.74 lakh is one of the most socio-economically backward regions of West Bengal. Nearly 80% of the marginal farmers and sharecroppers in the district are Santhal tribes, and farm on less than 1.5 hectares of land.
Apart from labor, animal husbandry and agriculture are the primary sources of income. Agriculture is predominately rain-fed, providing a single crop of paddy or jute. In normal rainfall conditions, the yield of paddy is 2,500 kg/ha falling to as low as 1,400 kg/ha in sub-normal rainfall conditions. Some farmers are able to harvest a second crop of pulses if the monsoon is normal and there is sufficient residual soil moisture.
The villages in the district that are located along Kalnai River are prone to frequent flooding and occasional droughts. Overdependence on the monsoon and monocropping results in extremely low productivity and compels most farmers to migrate to nearby towns for employment in the offseason.
Farmers near the river have their own irrigation facilities and are able to raise three crops a year, earning an income that is 141% more than those that grow rain-fed crops. However, farmers in Farakka lacked information on improved varieties of seeds and irrigation systems. With the introduction of lift irrigation, farmers’ water problems have been solved and they are able to raise a minimum of two crops a year.
In some of the villages, the nearest local river Kalnai is the water source. But it couldn’t reach the farmers as their fields were elevated. As the river was prone to frequent flooding, water was not scarce and hence a lift irrigation system could be installed.
Lift irrigation (LI) is a method by which water, instead of being transported by natural flow as in gravity-fed canal systems, is lifted from a river or irrigation canal using pumps or other mechanical means.
Lift irrigation is particularly useful in regions of erratic rainfall, and undulating topography where water sources are typically low lying. Installing these systems in such regions reduces monsoon dependency, boosts overall productivity and most importantly enables farmers to grow two and even three crops a year.
Agricultural Livelihoods, a program implemented by Ambuja Cement Foundation, encourages farmers to practice LI. Those who were further from the river saw the benefits of LI system after visiting some demonstration plots to understand the system.
Ease of irrigation
After testing the water and its suitability for agriculture, the first lift irrigation system was installed in 2018-19 covering 81 households in Kalaidanga village. To understand the process and management of these systems, the farmers visited Sadguru Foundation.
“Water would not reach my farm, I would carry water and take it to my farm but now with these systems it is so easy to have water in my farm,” said Biswanath Mondal, a farmer.
A lift irrigation system each was installed in Barodana village and Jalpuria village, covering 223 households. The systems currently irrigate 53 hectares, the average landholding of the farmers in the project area in Farakkah region being 0.25 hectare (2 bigha).
“It’s a big project and more than 80 farmers are involved. We have learnt the efficient use of water and how one can grow more crops with minimum use of water. This is a great learning for us,” said Ranjeet Mondal, a farmer of Bhairab Danga village.
Pay per use
Community participation plays a major role while initiating any project as it remains sustained, owned and cost-effective. Farmers have frequent community discussions, trainings about the system, technicalities of fixing and fitting of pipelines, etc.
Land-owning farmers form user groups, also known as farmer clubs, and they develop a cooperative ownership of the LI facility. As power supply is erratic in rural West Bengal, an electric as well a diesel-operated LI pump have been installed. Ambuja Cement Foundation has borne the cost of Rs 73,000 for both the pumps.
“It was important for us to institutionalize the farmers into farmer clubs, with each farmer depositing a monthly fee to use the system on a token basis. They also pay a monthly fee,” said Debapriya Gosh, area program manager of Ambuja Cement Foundation. The monthly fee is used for any activity of the club.
The farmers pay for usage of the LI system on an hourly basis. This amount helps the club pay the pump operator, electricity bill and maintenance of the pump house. The farmer in whose land the pump is located operates the pump, after getting trained.
The farmers inform the operator of the time, duration and amount of water he would need for his farm. The operator blocks the time for each farmer. For an hour of electric pump usage, the farmers pay Rs 100; for diesel pump usage, they pay Rs 120 per hour.
All the three LI systems are community-owned. Two more farmer clubs have been set up, with their own pump units. One club caters to 100 farmers and the other to 55 farmers.
Currently the farmers are harvesting three crops a year, growing paddy, pulse/mustard and vegetables. Agricultural income has approximately doubled. From an earlier income of Rs 40,680 per acre, it has increased to Rs 76,600 per acre.
“We are getting sufficient water and this is a miracle for us. Getting water at the field is like a dream. It feels like the river is flowing just beside our land. We are happy now and expecting more crops in the future,” said Chandan Kisku, president of Kalaidanga Farmers’ Club.
“In our area, women were not involved in agricultural work and did not make decisions. But as members of user groups, we are also playing an active role. We’ve started vegetable cultivation and are happy that our voices are also heard,” said Marangbeti Hasda of Kalaidanga village, one of the 126 women farmers who have benefitted from LI.
The user groups regularly conduct follow up meetings to check on the progress. They maintain records on the cropping intensity, use of pump, etc. Record keeping has helped them understand that their yield has increased because of irrigation. From 3,705 kg/ha, the paddy yield has increased to 4,446 kg/ha. Grass pea yield has increased from 667 kg/ha to 889 kg/ha.
Livestock population has also increased as fodder has also become available. “With the installation of the irrigation system, we were able to cultivate fodder for the first time,” said Salo Hembroam of Kalaidanga village. “Earlier we faced shortage of green fodder during winter. Now we have ample green fodder throughout the year.”
Pearl Tiwari is the director and CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation. She has done courses in CSR from Harvard Business School and in sustainability from Stockholm. Views are personal.