Where water is wealth

A canal-based irrigation system has led to a new flow of income opportunities for the farmers of Baksa district

In the village of Nagrijuli in Assam’s Baksa district, a group of farmers sits down to discuss what’s top of their mind — water. They refer to the chart that hangs on the wall behind them, showing a web of blue lines crisscrossing an area of about 2,000 acres.

The blue lines represent canals built of cement and earth that carry water from the hills in Bhutan to the plains. The canals have brought new hope to the lives of an agrarian community literally living on the edge of India in what is a bleak environment.

Wild and parched

Water and wild elephants are what the locals would lose sleep over. The wild elephants still trample through fields occasionally in search of food. Water has become less of a concern thanks to Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), the NGO behind the diversion-based irrigation (DBI) project that has benefitted Nagrijuli and two other districts, Kamrup and Nalbari.

The DBI project in Assam, which got started in 2015, has been implemented by GVM with support from the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihoods, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts that operates in, besides Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura.

“Canals or dongs are a traditional irrigation system but most of them have been eroded or washed away,” explains Dibakar Deka, the secretary of GVM. “We have built 37 canals in Baksa, Kamrup and Nalbari districts and these have helped 14,490 households. Our team has been able to use the canals to mobilise the local farmers on a common platform and bring about a revival in farm incomes.”

At a deeper level, GVM’s intervention is bringing about a fundamental change in the way of life of farming communities in the three villages. One of the changes is the setting up of dongban samitis (canal management committees) that manage the flow of water in the canal network in such a way that all farms get their fair share.

Haridas Bhowmik of Nagrijuli village is reaping the benefits of the farming project

Munindra Choudhuri, the president of the Nagrijuli Dongban Samiti, says the canals have reduced the ‘water stress’ that used to be a part of the villagers’ lives. “Earlier, all of us farmers would work for two months every year to build earthen canals, but these would get washed away when the rains got heavy. Now we have proper canals and we spend just about 10 days of work in fixing the problems that crop up with them. It gives us more time in our fields.”

In one place the GVM team and local farmers have got two canals crossing, one on top of the other, an architectural feat they are quite proud of. Ratiranjan Mandal, 54, recalls that earlier the water from Bhutan’s streams would cover barely 3 sq km. Today, thanks to the intricate canal network, an area of about 10 sq km gets regular water.

Moving away from paddy

GVM has also helped local households reduce their dependence on paddy cultivation by introducing good horticulture practices. The NGO works with farmers to demonstrate how growing tomatoes, brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, turmeric, areca and black pepper will bring in year-round income and keep households going, even during periods when the paddy crop fails.

Yet another intervention involves the use of vermicompost. GVM picks two-three ‘progressive farmers’ in each village to demonstrate the benefits of vermicomposting. This natural manure brings down the amount of urea needed on farms by half, which is a substantial saving for the small farmer. Over three years, GVM has helped build about 200 vermicompost pits.

The difference these efforts of the last three years have made is clear. “Earlier I could grow 400kg of rice on 1 bigha of land (roughly one-third of an acre),” says Madhav Chetri, a beneficiary. “Today I can grow double that. We can grow vegetables and our income has doubled, even tripled.”

The Trusts’ philosophy is to bring about sustainable change in the lives of beneficiaries and the GVM project is in line with this. The project began with a three-year tenure and this has been extended to June 2019. Meanwhile, GVM is doing the groundwork for its gradual disengagement from canals and horticulture, and planning its next phase of engagement.

“We have trained a few people in every village to be the community resource to help farmers,” says Mr Deka. “We are helping local farmers organise themselves into producer groups. The next step is to set up a producer company. We will help the farmers develop strong links to the market that will get them a higher return on their yields.”

From water to vegetables to natural fertilisers to markets — the intensive endeavour by GVM and the Trusts has opened up new prospects of a better life for villagers in this region of Assam.

Livelihood interventions have helped reduce the dependence on paddy