Twosome effect

The Tata Trusts-DMart Foundation partnership has led to impactful initiatives in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Assam

Farming has always been a difficult proposition in the arid districts of Nandurbar, Dhule and Chandrapur in Maharashtra’s tribal belt. The land is undulating and unyielding and water shortage is a constant. The only water available for agriculture here is from the monsoons and most of it runs off downhill, taking the alluvial topsoil with it.

This was the yearly headache confronting Chagan Chaudhari, a 42-year-old farmer from Sakri village in Dhule. Mr Chaudhari owns eight acres of land but still spends most of the year working as a farm hand on other people’s plots. “Only four acres of my land holding are cultivable; the remainder is on a slope and cannot retain water,” he says. “I can grow maize and soybean for three or four months, during the rainy season, but the rest of the time the land lies fallow.”

Things are about to change for Mr Chaudhari, though. A few months ago he and three other farmers with adjoining plots invested in a solar unit to draw water from a well to irrigate their fields. “We had approached the local electricity board to get power to run a pump that would draw water, but we were told our plots were too far away from the village,” he says. “They said it would cost us 300,000 to set up new electric poles and get a connection.”

At 125,000, the solar unit costs less than half that amount. It comes with a lift-irrigation system to draw water from the well and drip-irrigation lines covering one acre. That’s great news for Mr Chaudhari and his wife, Sunita, who can now farm all year round, growing vegetables and pulses. “Our annual income is about 70,000; we expect that to increase by 30,000-40,000.”

This turnaround has been enabled by Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts that educates villagers about various kinds of agricultural advances and makes these available to them through self-help groups (SHGs).

The power of water

Rajendra Vasave, a farmer from Jamli village in hilly Nandurbar, is among those who stand to benefit from the effort. He is using gabion structures — boulders tightly packed in wire meshing — to slow down and collect rainwater runoffs to water his plot, and also help to recharge wells dug nearby. Like other farmers, Mr Vasave will be able to cultivate his fields for an additional season, and that means an income enhancement of 15,000-20,000 per annum.

The farmers CInI works with in the three tribal belts are being supported by funding from DMart Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of the retail chain, which is providing financial backing for the water resources management programme. Starting from August 2023, the Foundation has pledged to support this initiative for three years.

The money will go towards creating water-harvesting infrastructure that will slow down (and retain) runoff rainwater in the ridge areas of the three targeted districts; facilitate percolation of rainwater into the water table; prevent erosion of the topsoil; and create rainwater storage options by constructing check dams. All of these together will make water available to farmers so they can follow two or three cropping seasons in a year, instead of just one.

Solar-powered units to lift water to the surface from wells and underground reserves have changed the lives of farmers in Waki village

The goal is to reach 1,881 households across 205 villages and develop some 400 water-harvesting and recharge structures. Farmers will be offered access to technology such as solar-powered lift-irrigation systems, drip irrigation and mulching.

“The tribal belt of Maharashtra has always struggled with access to adequate water,” says Deepak Sharma, a senior technical officer with CInI. “Now, with farmers able to undertake farming all through the year, many are considering growing high-value vegetables. The aim is to increase the annual income of farmers to 100,000 and more a year through the use of technology and other sustainable methods of cultivation.”

Maharashtra is not the only state where DMart Foundation and the Tata Trusts have joined hands to develop and protect water resources. In Bhavnagar in Gujarat, the two organisations are collaborating to combat salinity ingress, the phenomenon whereby invasive seawater and its salty contents pollute groundwater. The implementing agency here is the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), a nonprofit established jointly in 2008 by the Trusts, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and Ambuja Cement Foundation.

DMart Foundation has been backing this programme since July 2022, and the setting is a cluster of 20 villages in Bhavnagar’s Talaja region. “When groundwater levels drop due to excessive use in and around the coastal villages, it creates a vacuum that the seawater rushes in to fill,” says Sujit Kumar, regional manager (Gujarat) with the Trusts. “Sometimes the ingress is as far inland as 10-15km and this affects everything, from drinking water to groundwater-based irrigation systems.”

The DMart-funded programme looks at salinity ingress management through community-based sustainable water resources development. The idea is to achieve water security for about 3,000 households across 20 villages by managing their groundwater, conserving and enhancing existing water sources, and ensuring availability for domestic and agricultural use.

Saurashtra receives a fair amount of rainfall but most of it runs off into the sea. Creating appropriate storage structures is difficult in the circumstances. “The redress has to be two-pronged,” adds Mr Kumar. “There’s supply-side water management, which involves conserving and bolstering existing water sources by recharging underground aquifers through rainwater percolation, enhancing water-storage capacities by deepening ponds, widening and desilting of streams, carrying out well-recharge activities, constructing new check dams, repairing and renovating existing structures and trying to maximise rainwater harvesting.”

Help with cancer care

Cancer care is the third area where the Trusts and DMart Foundation have come together. In early 2022 the Foundation bankrolled the purchase of a CT simulator for the Jorhat Cancer Centre (JCC), a 45-bed facility of the Assam Cancer Care Foundation (ACCF), a collaboration between the Assam government and the Trusts. The intent is to increase accessibility to radiation therapy at a subsidised cost.

Later the same year, DMart Foundation stepped up its support by partnering ACCF on a community outreach, awareness, screening and patient-aid programme for cancer sufferers in the districts of Barpeta and Dibrugarh. “We have a screening programme for five noncommunicable diseases: hypertension, diabetes and three kinds of cancer (oral, breast and cervical),” says Ramen Barman, programme coordinator, ACCF. “While hypertension and diabetes screenings can be conducted by healthcare staff with basic training, they need to be better prepared to deal with cancer.”

That’s where DMart Foundation is helping out, with funding for capacity-building workshops for staff — primarily community health officers, nurses and other frontline workers — at health and wellness centres across Dibrugarh and Barpeta. The objective is to bring more people to the wellness centres for screening.

Another aspect of DMart Foundation’s support is financial aid for poor patients. Ramesh Das believes this saved his life. A few years ago, this resident of Naharkatia town in Dibrugarh experienced excruciating pain in his mouth. It turned out to be a tumour and doctors at the Dibrugarh Cancer Centre recommended emergency surgery. Mr Das, whose monthly income is just 1,200, couldn’t afford it. That's when DMart stepped in with financial assistance.

A community initiative for cancer awareness at Hatibandha village in the Dibrugarh district of Assam

The demand side, says Mr Kumar, has to do with educating local residents on how to judiciously use the conserved water: teaching them about water budgeting, aquifer mapping, monitoring the quality of the groundwater and such. Till now, 74 water harvesting and recharge structures have been built under the programme and 1,500 farmers from the 20 villages have benefitted as a result.

More than money and what it can do, the initiatives involving the Tata Trusts and DMart Foundation have shown how partnerships fuelled by clear intentions and cemented with discernible outcomes can bolster the social development cause.