The man and the river: Mahadev Gomare at the 143-km long, rejuvenated Manjara River – ALL IMAGES: MURALI KRISHNAN
After facing severe droughts for several years, farmers in western Maharashtra have turned the corner through imaginative cultivation methods
* Tens of thousands of marginal farmers in villages in Maharashtra’s Latur have transformed their holdings into a green zone
* It began with the rejuvenation in 2013 of the 143-km long Manjara River, Latur’s lifeline
* The people’s movement led by Mahadev Gomare gradually culminated into a much larger movement called ‘Jal Jagruti Abhiyan’
* Gomare maintains all he did was dip into the wisdom of traditional knowledge and harness it into a weapon that can outmanoeuvre drought
* Instead of relying on the government for help, farmers in Marathwada have brought in changes in crop management thus improving food security
Kanta Narode is an early riser. At the crack of dawn, the 46-year-old farmer from Gangapur village in Latur surveys her two-acre farm and looks proudly at the array of crops and fruits: Papaya, sugar cane, wheat and ginger.
In full bloom: Kanta Narode of Gangapur village shifted to natural farming practices over four years ago, and is now hoping for a bumper harvest
In a few months it will be harvest time and Narode knows that her efforts will pay dividends. She stresses that she has been relying on natural farming practices over the last four years. This included nurturing the soil and procuring seeds of new crop varieties.
“My family and I hope to earn at least ₹6 lakh this year from my harvest. In 2016, we earned such a small sum that we wanted to give up farming. But the new methods we have learnt are helping our community,” Narode says.
Just a few kilometres away in Nagdari village, Ratnam Kashinath, 59, is hoping to reap a windfall from the drumsticks, custard apple and mango crops growing in just half an acre of land. His input cost of ₹5,000 was largely because of the cost of labour.
“I hope this time around too I am able to earn well from the produce. Multi-cropping as a technique is benefiting a lot of farmers who are willing to change,” Kashinath says.
Like Narode and Kashinath, tens of thousands of marginal farmers in villages in Maharashtra’s Latur have transformed their holdings into a green zone, with many of them harvesting two or three crops in a year because of higher water availability. In the last couple of years they have witnessed an increase in yields and, consequently, a boost in incomes.
Change in the air
A quiet revolution has of late been brewing in Latur, one of the largest districts in the Marathwada region. For many years now, it has been known as a drought-prone area, notorious for its water scarcity and, at one point, farmer suicides. In 2018, over 600 distressed farmers committed suicide in the Marathwada region on account of crop failure and debts. In the first six months of 2020, the region saw over 300 suicide mostly in Beed, Jalna, Osmanabad and Nanded districts.
Five years ago, water trains were ferried here by the Indian Railways to help local farmers cope with extremely critical water crises. Water was so scarce that police security was provided to tankers and reservoirs and the authorities imposed prohibitory orders at water distribution points.
But the region’s farmers in vast swathes of Latur have seen their lives turn around, largely because of the efforts of a committed band of villagers led by agriculturist Mahadev Gomare. They have worked tirelessly to address the water scarcity in the region to improve the lives of the farmers.
It began with the rejuvenation of the 143-km long Manjara River in 2013, Latur’s lifeline, which provides water to thousands of farmers in 900 villages. This was then followed by concerted efforts aimed at reviving its tributaries including Gharni, Tamarja and Terna.
The people’s movement led by Gomare gradually culminated into a much larger movement called Jal Jagruti Abhiyan, which now has multiple stakeholders including farmers’ associations and district authorities.
Among the measures taken by the group was the removal of silt obstructing the flow of the river. “Over 9 lakh cubic metres of silt were removed from the river, giving it a new life and work began in 2013. The silt in turn was used in the fields to help level adjoining farms where share cropping was then taken up,” says Gomare, popularly described as The Water Man of Latur.
Farmers were taught that soil eroded from the forests and fields flows to dams and nullahs via the streams and rivers, ultimately clogging them. The moment silt accumulates at the bottom of a river its ability to recharge groundwater gets massively diminished.
“With the river revived, increasing the availability of water and other initiatives to improve the biodiversity and ecology of the area were started,” Gomare adds.
Gomare maintains all he did was dip into the wisdom of traditional knowledge and harness it into a weapon that can outmanoeuvre drought.
As a pilot project, a few villages were earmarked by Gomare and his team for desilting drains and erecting gabion structures. Gradually, more villages joined in and many pooled to form a community fund to make the best of the venture.
As a result of these interventions, large sections of the 1.5 lakh-odd farmers living in Latur have begun to see the benefits of changes in crop management.
The successful handling of the water crisis led to a spate of measures.
The farming community gradually began moving to natural farming, afforestation, agroforestry, social forestry and climate resilient farming and seeding practices to green the area and help increase their farm produce. Gomare’s dedicated group of volunteers is aiding the farmers make the transition to natural farming methods.
The Manjara River, its tributaries and surrounding waterbodies also saw a dramatic rise in water levels during this time.
In charge of their destiny
Entire village ecosystems got positively impacted because of greater water availability and the consequent socio-economic benefits were evident.
“It has taken time. But our labour has paid off and now we see a smile on many farmers faces,” says Kaka Sehab Sindi, a marginal farmer from Jarli village.
“We know farmers outside Delhi are agitating for a law guaranteeing a minimum support price for their produce but we decided to take charge of our own destinies,” says Ambalesh Kashinath, a cereal crop farmer from Gangapur village.
For instance, earlier many farmers grew water-intensive crops such as sugar cane, wheat and millet. But instead of just depending on one harvest, farmers today also grow pomegranate, chilli, papaya, custard apple, moringa (drumstick) and other crops that require little water.
Changing tack: Farmers of Latur are growing papaya, pomegranate, chilli, custard apple and other such crops that require little water
The campaign to look beyond sugar cane is catching up among the small and marginal farmers. Drumstick, for instance, is being cultivated on an estimated 1,100 hectares and it’s spreading as it consumes little water.
Much of the farming practices in the Marathwada region now rely on good seed selection and less dependence on fertilisers, thus saving on input costs. This has not compromised on yield and has become valuable for minimal and marginal farmers who are financially burdened already.
According to government figures, out of over 146 million agricultural holdings in India, small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86 per cent but own just over 47 per cent of the crop area.
Bringing new technologies and practices to such a large number of small holders scattered over a vast countryside and integrating them with the modern input and output markets still remains a huge challenge for Indian agriculture.
“Farmers across the country are not happy with what has happened to their incomes and this is increasingly getting reflected in protests that erupt every now and then,” says Pandu Gangadhar, a farmer from Nagthana village.
“We understand why Punjab farmers are angry over doing away with state-run wholesale buyers and markets that guaranteed a minimum support price,” Gangadhar adds.
Age-old solutions to new problems
But instead of relying on the government for help, farmers in Marathwada have brought in changes in crop management thus improving food security. It is being scaled up.
This has helped them increase food crop yields with lower cost and input requirements as well as more resilience to adverse effects of climate change.
“If different stakeholders come together to work innovatively, it has been our experience that, in fact, age-old solutions can be scaled up to address the most sticky problems that constitute this crisis,” says Gomare.
Gomare’s models are now being disseminated with farmers being trained in other states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The rapid depletion of waterbodies across the country has been a trending worry. Many farmers in various parts of the country, including the adjoining Vidarbha region, face a grim situation over the depletion of groundwater levels, poor rainfall over time and their inability to manage their water resources. Latur, for now, has bucked the trend.
Murali Krishnan is an international radio broadcaster based in New Delhi