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In arid fields, bumper crop

As monsoons get more erratic and rainfall dips in northwestern Orissa, a group of farmers is collecting rainwater to rejuvenate their fields, reports Priya Ranjan Sahu.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2009 12:33 IST
Priya Ranjan Sahu

It’s been seven years since 35-year-old Sitaram Majhi had such a bumper harvest — or any harvest at all.

“Over the last decade, as the rains became more and more unpredictable, we stopped sowing our fields,” he says. “Instead, we would migrate to Hyderabad to work in brick kilns.”

As he talks, Majhi looks wonderingly around his 3-acre farm in Kharamal village in arid, drought-prone northwestern Orissa.

Half of it is now a picture of plenty, with rows of lush green brinjal and radish plants.

The rest is as it has been for nearly a decade, dry and arid.

The change came courtesy a training programme Majhi attended on sustainable agriculture, one of many organised regularly in the region by non-governmental organisation Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (Human Rights Assistance Committee).

The workshop teaches farmers to conserve water and minimise impact on groundwater by harvesting rainwater in small manmade ponds on their farms.

“That not only helps them in lean seasons, it also increases moisture content and soil quality,” says Adikanda Biswal (40), the organisation’s eco-agriculture trainer. “Over the last three years, the farmers have built 22 such ponds in the region.”

The timing is perfect.

Across Orissa, rainfall patterns are growing increasingly erratic.

A study by meteorologist U.C. Mohanty has revealed that rainfall days are reducing by a day every five years in southwestern Orissa.

Records of actual rainfall, meanwhile, show a decline of up to 30 per cent over the last decade, with average rainfall hovering at a worrisome 1,000 mm, down from 1,500 mm in 1999.

The impact on the region’s crops is indisputable: According to the Agriculture Department, with the exception of cotton, the yields of all major crops (including paddy, pulses, oilseed, sugarcane and vegetables) have dropped by up to 57 per cent over 15 years.

In the Paikmal administration block, though, it’s a calm despite the storm.

“We have gone from working as migrant labourers in brick kilns to being self-reliant once more,” says Madan Bariha (42) of Adibasicolony Pada village, who has adopted on his 2-acre farm an eco-friendly system of rice-growing that uses much less water.

The farmers — a group of 50 across Paikmal are now following these organic, eco-friendly methods in the block — use no chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

“Learning to conserve water at the micro level is the key to drought-proofing,” says water activist Ranjan Panda, convenor of Water Orissa Initiative. “The farm ponds... in Paikmal have proved to be the most cost-effective tool for village communities to cope with increasing water stress due to changing climate.”

For Tula Amari (37), the results have exceeded his wildest dreams.

A migrant labourer not long ago, Amari was one of the first farmers to begin using organic farming techniques.

For the last three years, he has been growing 20 types of vegetables on two of his 4 acres in Bandhapada village.

“We decided to try out organic farming because we could no longer afford fertilisers...” he says. “Now, I can’t wait to experiment on the rest of my field.”