Maalav maati gahan gambhir, dag dag roti, pag pag neer (the soil in Malwa is fertile, food and water are available in abundance). For centuries, these lines had signified the prosperity of Malwa in western Madhya Pradesh. But Dewas, in the heart of the Malwa region, was an exception. The district was facing acute shortages of water, so much so that in the early 2000s, drinking water was transported to the town of Dewas by trains. Farmers were reduced to growing one crop, livestock was dying and the local economy was on the verge of collapse.
So, what was happening in Dewas? Why was Malwa’s good fortune eluding the district?
It isn’t that Dewas has scanty rain, its average rainfall stands at 1,066 mm, but overexploitation of ground water in the 1990s had resulted in the water table sinking to 600 ft. The water at that depth contained minerals that would damage crops. “The soil in Dewas is classified as ‘medium black cotton soil’ with a low percolation of 0.02 per cent unlike, say, sandy loam (3-5 per cent),” says Dr Mohammed Abbas, assistant soil conservation officer in the department of agriculture, explaining why most of the rainwater in Dewas flowed out through its rivers.
Moreover, despite prominent rivers, like the Chambal and Kali Sindh, rising not far from Dewas, and the Narmada and Kshipra flowing through it, the district did not benefit from canals or dams. Dewas needed help. And, interestingly, the solution was in the soil.
In 2006, during a district-level coordination committee meeting, Raghunath Singh Tomar, a farmer in Dewas’s Harnawada village, told Umakant Umarao, the then district magistrate and current principal secretary, Bhopal, that he had dug a pond over a bigha of land which was charged with rainwater and could irrigate 15 acres. “It struck me that the solution to our water shortage problem did not lie in making dams, but in harnessing rain water and providing a source for groundwater recharge, irrigation and drinking water,” says Umarao. “The strata in Dewas, which does not allow higher percolation of water, was a blessing in disguise.”
Umarao worked out a strategy to popularise tanks. The large farmers in the area, who needed to be convinced to part with a section of their land, were brought on board; over 10,000 trucks were organised, some even brought in from Rajasthan, for earth moving work; and a system of bank loans for the farmers to pay for the ponds, which cost around Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh each, was streamlined. The state government launched a Balram Talaab Scheme to help farmers finance the ponds on their land.
The farmers, all of whom were being affected by the shortage of water, welcomed the idea and got digging. The scheme was christened Bhagirath Krishak Abhiyan by Umarao. “The programme became like a festival. In village after village, we would see tractors working through the night,” says Dr Abbas, who worked with the DM on the project.
Around 10,000 farm ponds dot Dewas today, with some villages, such as Dhaturia and Gorwa, accounting for over 200 each.
Earlier, farmers would sow low-yielding varieties of wheat in the rabi season since those needed less water, but now they have been able to switch to high-yielding and durum varieties of wheat, leading to increased incomes. “Earlier, we managed to get around seven or eight quintals of sharbati wheat, which, as per present prices, would get us around Rs 20,000 per acre. Today, we are sowing Malwa Shakti, which gets us around 15-18 quintals and returns of around Rs 35,000 per acre,” says Shivnarayan Patel of Gorwa village, who has six ponds on his land. The availability of water has also led to crop diversification. Farmers are now planting orchards of oranges and have begun exploring horticulture. The net sown area in Dewas has increased from 1 lakh hectares in the mid-2000s to around 4 lakh hectares now.
The project was recognised by the United Nations in 2011-12 as one of the three best water management practices in the world.