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Here's How Some Karnataka Farmers Are Defeating The Drought

29/04/2016 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Satish Chapparike

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Life-saving man-made farm pond in Navalgund Taluk, Karnataka

Parched land, dried up wells, dying crops and a growing thirst...with the worst drought in decades hitting them hard, it is difficult to describe the agony of people living in the traditionally water-starved regions of North Karnataka, Marathwada, Vidarbha and Telangana.

With even drinking water becoming so scarce, agricultural activity has come to a standstill in the region, including 136 taluks of Karnataka that are declared as drought-affected.

But as a ray of hope in times of distress, about 20 villages in the drought-hit Navalgund taluk of Dharward district stand as a stark contrast to the calamity prevailing in the neighbourhood. A majority of farmers in these villages are unaffected by the drought. They are able to cultivate crops and keep them healthy by sufficiently watering them, and are making profits. Their insurance, so to speak, against the natural disaster, are the farm ponds they have dug with the help of the Deshpande Foundation.

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Earthmover at work to dig a farm pond

Triggering a movement

The Foundation with the support of the Tata Trust is supporting the digging of farm ponds in Navalgund taluk on a war footing. The farm ponds dug in low-lying areas allow farmers to harvest occasional rainfall, store water and use it to provide timely irrigation to their crops. The result: farmers are able to irrigate and harvest three-four crops in a year. Their income has more than doubled and they are experimenting with commercially viable crops like papaya, beyond traditional ones such as cotton, maize, onion, chilly and pulses.

Since it launched the farm pond initiative in 2013, the Foundation has supported the digging of 461 farm ponds. This year alone, the target is 500 ponds. With 170 of them already done, 22 earthmovers are working full-throttle to complete the remaining target in the next two months.

Farm ponds are drought deterrents. The concept is not new. What we are doing is making it a movement at the grassroots by encouraging and supporting farmers.

"Farm ponds are drought deterrents. The concept is not new. What we are doing is making it a movement at the grassroots by encouraging and supporting farmers. We have brought in a professional approach to digging ponds, and the scale. It is now so efficient that a pond with 100ft x 100ft x 12ft dimension is completed in three-four days at less cost," says Naveen Jha, CEO of Deshpande Foundation, who is leading the initiative from the front.

How it all began

Deshpande Foundation had in the past tried to work with a few non-profits to promote farm ponds, by providing them grants. It didn't work because they neither had scale nor implementation capability. The Foundation then decided to make it a self-sustainable venture wherein farmers would share reasonable costs.

"We decided to move away from the grant model to sustainable social enterprise to achieve bigger impact. We presented the idea to Tata Trust and sought support. They gave us four earthmovers in the pilot phase. On seeing the success, they increased their support. A majority of the machines that are in the field today are provided by Tata Trust. As it is a financially feasible model, even banks are coming forward to support us in managing our capex (capital expenditure) with their CSR funds," Jha explains.

We decided to move away from the grant model to sustainable social enterprise to achieve bigger impact.

However, it was not easy to convince farmers about ponds when the program started three years ago. They were not ready to part with the area of land that would be occupied by the pond, and were hesitant because of what they saw as a high cost.

"Earlier, we had to go after farmers, trying to convince them. Now, they come to us seeking help," says Sandeep Kumar Naik, program officer of the Foundation, who travels to about a dozen villages every day to interact with farmers.

"We have focused on demonstrating the success of this model in one taluk rather than doing it sporadically in multiple different places. Now that it is on the way to reach completion, it is a proven model for others to execute elsewhere," says Jha.

Tales of triumph

"Farmers always live with the hope of a better tomorrow, for better sustenance... these farm ponds are our only means of sustenance now," says Eshwarappa Shekharappa Kumbar, a 65-year-old farmer in Kadadalli, some 50km from Hubballi, a tier-2 city in North Karnataka.

Until last year, Eshwarappa incurred losses in his 25 acres of land as crops failed due to drought, and slipped into debt. But he is a triumphant man today. Thanks to a pond dug in his 16-acre plot last year, he made a profit of ₹3 lakh. The success is contagious and farmers are now motivated by each other. Today, Kadadalli, which has about 150 families, has 50 farm ponds, the highest among all villages in the taluk.

We have [demonstrated] the success of this model in one taluk... it is a proven model for others to execute elsewhere.

The Foundation provides earthmovers at a nominal cost of ₹ 2000 per day to dig ponds. With this support, a pond costs ₹35,000 to ₹40,000 to make--less than half of what commercial operators charge for digging.

Naveen Jha says, "In times of drought, poor farmers find it difficult to spend even a penny. But, they are willing to invest on farm ponds by taking bank loans etc. We have received requests from more than 500 for farm ponds this year alone. It shows how people are positively influenced by each other and are spreading awareness about sustainable farming."

And there is little doubt that it is possible to end the suffering of farmers in perennially drought-affected regions by expanding the farm pond initiative to more areas.

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