Farm ponds dotting the agricultural fields immediately grab your attention as you enter Hiwargaon Pawasa – a small village of about 1500 population in Sangamner Taluka of Ahmadnagar District. The village is located just off NH-50, the national highway connecting Pune and Nashik. Farm ponds start to appear as soon as you turn east from NH-50 (which broadly runs North South) to head towards Hiwargaon. Nearly every farm, small or big, has a plastic lined farm pond. Hiwargaon Pawasa village alone has some 300 odd farm ponds.
I am here to see how these small scale irrigation facilities now set to be implemented on massive scale through the country are performing on ground.
Farm ponds recognized as a drought proofing measure have received a great push from the central government recently. Target of 5 lakh farm ponds from MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) funds was announced in the Budget for 2016-17. And it is anticipated that against this target, about 10 lakh farm ponds would be completed by March 2017. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech announced that during 2017-18, another 5 lakh farm ponds will be taken up. “This single measure will contribute greatly to drought proofing of gram panchayats.” he said in his speech.
As Ravish Kumar rightly pointed out in his show on NDTV[i], if these numbers are to be believed, this is a revolution in making. On the flip side however serious concerns are being raised over implementation of the farm ponds and more importantly –their use. Civil society organizations like Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR) and also SANDRP have been pointing out that the use of farm ponds has long drifted from its objective of storing rainwater for protective irrigation. Most of the farm ponds are instead being used as storage tanks for pumped out groundwater exposing this underground resource to losses through evaporation, etc. In the process they are accelerating the rate of groundwater exploitation multifold.
Farm ponds of Hiwargaon Pawasa aiding indiscriminate groundwater extraction
The main reason for introduction of farm pond scheme was to collect rainwater, which would otherwise have flowed out of the field. According to the guidelines issued under NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) as well as RKVY (Rastriya Krushi Vikas Yojana) a typical farm pond should have an inlet for water to collect from surface run off from higher reaches or to receive pumped water and an outlet for overflow of water.
None of the farm ponds in Hiwargaon however have inlet and outlets or any other arrangement for excess rainwater inflow as was envisioned in the scheme. In Hiwargaon instead of digging the ponds in a low lying area many of them are dug on the highest points of the farms in order to supply water by gravity.
The ponds in Hiwargaon receive water from two sources. One is of course borewells and dug wells and the other is Pravara River (tributary of Godavari) which flows at a distance of 4 km north from the village. About 75 to 80% of the ponds are dependent on groundwater. Varying sizes of the ponds can be seen through villages from small ones of size 14mx17mx3m to big ones of size 30.5mx30.5mx4.5m which are lined with 500 micron plastic sheets. Till January ponds are refilled as and when they empty. After January typically the river and the wells go dry. Before that the pond is filled and that water is used till monsoon. Usually crops are given water once in 1.5 months in this period.
Utility of such ponds for the farmers is quite apparent. “Farm ponds are of great help. Now we can save at least half the crop with protective irrigation in summer and drought situation. And since protective irrigation is assured, quality of the fruits (pomegranates, grapes, bananas etc.), their size has improved a great deal.” says Sangeeta Sarode who owns 4.5 acre of agricultural land and farm pond of size 30.5mx30.5mx4.5m. “Crops can be watered with better pressure from the pond. Giving water directly from the bore well would often be with low pressure as the borewells yield water very slowly.” says Sachin Pawshe who has a smaller pond built without any subsidy since he did not fit in the qualifying criteria. Farm pond which stores water saves tanker expenses worth Rs 3-4 lakh. Few have also installed solar PV for supplying electricity for pumps.
Equally important as these tangible benefits of the farm ponds is the psychological relief of farmers seeing the stored water. The visual element is very powerful. “When we see stored water, we have some surety, we are at peace.” says Bharat Pawshe.
Most of the farm ponds of Hiwargaon were dug between 2012 and 2015. National Horticulture Mission (NHM) which offered subsidy for the digging and lining of the farm ponds has played a huge role in making them popular. Many farmers whom I talked with had constructed farm ponds around 2012. Expenses ranged between Rs 95,000 for size 14mx17mx3m to about Rs 3.55 Lakh for size 30mx30mx4.5m. Many of the small ones did not fit in the subsidy criteria. Those who did fit received Rs 75,000 for digging. Though subsidy for lining was promised by the government it was later told that there isn’t enough money to subsidize the lining.
Many villagers got to know about the NHM scheme from Krushi Sahayak (Agricultural assistant). However, the scheme seems to be largely driven by the contractors (who own excavator equipment like JCB or Poclain). When asked how they got to know about the scheme, a few farmers answered that they were approached by the contractors. “Such schemes are generally driven by contractors. Many times the contractors do all the paper work for the subsidy since the money for digging ponds will finally go to them” says Sanjay Sarode. “In fact if contractor does the paperwork the subsidy money is disbursed more quickly.”
Today Hiwargaon Pawsa village alone has over 300 farm ponds! The pomegranate dependent agro economy of the village thrives on these ponds. Many of the farmers have shifted to horticulture after constructing the ponds. Pomegranate has replaced traditional crops like horse gram, wheat, pulses and onion.
Unregulated groundwater extraction
While the usefulness of the ponds is apparent, not so apparent is the accelerated rate of groundwater extraction. Borewells marked a technological leap in extracting groundwater and now the farm ponds mark the next milestone by providing for personalized surface storage of groundwater. In addition to increasing drawal it is also exposing the groundwater to losses through evaporation, etc. Decrease in the groundwater may not show immediately but in coming years the severity of the problem is bound to increase.
Farmers however deny this possibility even though they agree that extraction has increased. When asked if they will eventually run out of groundwater due to increased extraction several farmers replied “In monsoon wells get recharged and have ample of water. If we keep extracting during this time, how will they run dry?”
Wider perception also is if groundwater during monsoon and post monsoon period is not used it will be ‘wasted’. “Once the water seeps in ground its gone. We have no control over it. If we don’t use it, somebody else will. So we draw our share and store as much as we can in the ponds.” says Sangeeta.
Such is the nature of deep insecurity that farmers have developed about water availability.
Farm ponds in Maharashtra State
Similar is the case of several villages across Maharashtra where unregulated use of farm ponds is slowly taking a toll on groundwater. The problem is particularly visible in the horticulture belt of Western Maharashtra. WOTR has recently written at length about unsustainable use of farm ponds. (Read here)
The farmers alone cannot be blamed for it. They have been constantly bearing the brunt of failed monsoon, failed irrigation projects, unfair pricing mechanisms, growing claims of urban centres and industries on irrigation water among several other factors. Right now farm ponds are one of the last resorts that is assuring them with the protective irrigation and helping them save their crop in the times of distress. And hence every farmer –small or big– is trying to invest in farm ponds. If not qualified for subsidy then farmers are taking loans to build farmponds.
Not surprisingly therefore the farm ponds schemes launched by government are receiving significant response. Initially between 2009 and 2012 the farm ponds were constructed under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and NREGS. Total 90,010 ponds were completed within Maharashtra state during this period.[ii]
Since 2010 NHM has been providing subsidies for community and individual farm ponds. Beneficiaries for whom the ponds have been built under NREGS can apply for subsidy for plastic lining.[iii] Non NREGS beneficiaries would get 100% assistance for community farm ponds including lining and 50% assistance for individual farm ponds with lining. RKVY is also offering subsidy for plastic lining at 50% of the estimated cost or maximum assistance of Rs 75,000.
13,948 ponds were constructed between 2014-16 under NHM, RKVY and Jalyukt Shivar (JYS).[iv] Another 24,652 were under construction under NREGS in 2016-17 of which 3412 were completed.[v] This number is excluding ponds constructed under few other schemes like National Food Security Mission, Integrated Development of Pulses etc. and also the ponds constructed by farmers without subsidy.
Estimating the total number of existing ponds in Maharashtra is rather difficult, there is no reliable information of this collectively with the government, nor even scheme wise separate figures for all the schemes.
Magel Tyala Shet Tale –‘Farm Pond on Demand’ This scheme was launched in February 2016 by Chief Minister Devendra Phadnavis. Initially owning to the lack of funds the scheme was applicable only for villages with 50% crop failure at least once in last five years (2010-15).[vi] Subsequently the money was made available from NREGS and the scheme was extended to the entire state. The scheme is being implemented by State Agriculture Department.
A whopping 1,63,302 number of applications have been received under Magel Tyala Shet Tale scheme.[vii] Maximum applications are from horticulture belt of western Maharashtra viz. Ahmadnagar, Nashik and Solapur. This is followed by Aurangabad, Jalna, and Sangli. State Government has kept a target of 1,11,111 farm ponds in 2016-17. Rs 2,000 crore has been allocated for this purpose. Currently subsidy ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2.21 lakh can be obtained Magel Tyala Shet Tale scheme.[viii]
Government not taking the responsibility of unsustainable use of farm ponds
While the Government of Maharashtra is busy taking credit for providing small scale irrigation facility at the farmers’ doorstep it does not seem to acknowledge the potential risk. Organizations like SANDRP, WOTR (Watershed Organisation Trust) have been highlighting this issue for last three years. SANDRP has in fact written to the Director of NHM in April 2014 regarding indiscriminate groundwater pumping to fill farm ponds.
Central and state push for the farm ponds has however continued without taking any cognizance of the issue. Government agencies responsible for groundwater monitoring like CGWB or GSDA have also failed to take a note of this. Present or future impact on groundwater due to farm ponds finds no mention in state, district or taluka specific reports of CGWB & GSDA.
While farmers cannot be entirely blamed for using farm ponds to their advantage, GoM cannot shrug its responsibility of ardently promoting farm ponds under various schemes without ensuring their sustainable use.
“We are aware of the concerns raised regarding farm ponds, but once the farmer constructs the pond, how can we tell him not to use it for groundwater storage? Such regulation is not possible” Sub-Divisional Officer of Sangamner told SANDRP. “From our side we are trying to initiate dialogue with farmers about the judicious use of farm ponds. We are also working on cutting down the evaporation losses.” Project Manager of NHM for Maharashtra told SANDRP.
Where is the groundwater recharge?
Matter of larger concern is the absence of adequate groundwater recharge initiatives when use of farm ponds is becoming a norm. Currently Jalyukt Shivar is being promoted as a flagship programme of GoM (Govt of Maharashtra) which was launched in December 2014 converging various central and state government schemes with an objective of ‘harvesting rainwater’ and ‘increasing level of groundwater’ among others.
The programme however has been heavily criticized for the unscientific manner in which the projects were taken up, undue reliance on machinery, lack of transparency and public participation.[ix] Several petitions have already dragged Jalyukt Shivar to the High Court which in last December has directed the state government to constitute a committee of experts to look into suggestions of conserving water and distributing it systematically and scientifically.[x]
“Jalyukt Shivar works are so unscientific that they cannot recharge groundwater. For recharging groundwater you need to pay attention to soil. If soil is conserved groundwater is automatically recharged. In Jalyuky Shivar works they have scrapped the soil, fine sand and all the media which holds the water and percolates it. The rocks are exposed, how is the recharge supposed to take place? Jalyukta Shivar works may appear to hold water but they certainly will not recharge.” Vijay Anna Borade a visionary water conservationist from the state and former member of the state Water Conservation Advisory Council told SANDRP. “Groundwater recharge can happen only through watershed development. Jalyut Shivar is not watershed development. Watershed development works are currently stalled in Maharashtra.” says Borade.
Farm ponds promoted by government as a quick fix
Farm ponds if constructed without plastic lining – the way in which they were envisioned in the first place – can in fact be effectively used for recharging groundwater. As Ashwini Kulkarni of Pragati Abhiyan – a Nashik based NGO working for effective implementation of NREGS– says “Farm pond constructed as a part of larger watershed development works serves a big purpose. In an assured rainfall region such farm ponds fill up and empty into ground multiple times during monsoon. If plastic lining is provided towards the end of monsoon it can retain the last of showers for protective irrigation.” Watershed Works Manual published for NREGS elaborates several guidelines in this regard.
Currently however such farm ponds without plastic lining are nearly nonexistent.
In order to become sustainable, the promotion of farm ponds needs to be coupled with scientific and participatory watershed development which will ensure groundwater recharge. Unfortunately, today the government is focusing only on irrigation through farm ponds and not groundwater recharge. The present version of farm ponds seems more like a quick fix being promoted by the government bypassing the immense effort that goes into involving people in carrying out watershed works.
Water conservation and groundwater recharge through watershed development is a slow process. Its crucial component is people’s participation and their education in the due course about using common property resource such as water more responsibly. All the success stories of watershed development are essentially people driven and resemble a movement. These stories are much more than just building physical structures like nalla bunding, gully plugging, continuous contour trenches etc. They involve people taking ownership of the resource and adhering to the good practices of sharing water, cropping pattern, keeping the water use within recharge capacity etc.
Government which ideally should be a catalyst in this process today has no avenue for people’s participation in its programs like Jalyukt Shivar nor in the schemes promoting farm ponds. As a result, even though completed watershed structures can be seen at many places, they simply do not aid in recharge.
Central government is all set to push farm ponds in big way in coming year. However, the focus urgently needs to shift from plastic lined ponds using water pumped from groundwater or river to farm ponds that harvest rainwater and ensure groundwater recharge. The plastic lined farm ponds will be just another layer of exploitative unsustainable infrastructure and may help accelerate the arrival of day when groundwater will be exhausted.
Amruta Pradhan, SANDRP, firstname.lastname@example.org
[ii] शासन निर्णय क्र.शेततळे-2016/प्र.क्र.1(74)/रोहयो-5
[iv] Sum total of data obtained from Commissionrate of Agriculture Pune and website of Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan website.
[v] Ministry of Rural Development GR no J-11014/1/11/2016-MGNREGA-IV dated October 31, 2016
[vi] शासन निर्णय क्र.शेततळे-2016/प्र.क्र.1(74)/रोहयो-5