Strong Straws Strategy

Moving up: from labor to cultivator

Sujata Devadas November 28, 2020

Living nightmare

The living nightmare for several farmers 100 kms south of the Indo-Pak border in Gujarat state is that their inherited land is one short step away from joining the saline uncultivable Rann of Kutch desert.

It is the true story of Patan district’s Sami and Harij talukas that border the Rann of Kutch. Saline content makes soil in the villages of Sami and Harij talukas non-porous.

Result?

In July and August, annually received south-west monsoon water (350 mm average/year) logs for 10 days, sometimes for as long as 2 months on top of the soil instead of percolating into the earth.

Fulbright scholar Trupti Jain in the middle of uncultivable arid saline land

Cultivation becomes impossible forcing these villagers with barely any cultivable land to earn wages by working as farm labourers elsewhere to subsist and stay alive. Although Gujarat’s monsoon season was June to September earlier, global warming impact has delayed it. Monsoon now occurs July to October. The problem compounds throughout the year, due to soil’s failure to hold moisture, high temperature peaking at 48° Celsius ( 118.4° F),  leading to high evaporation: the land remains uncultivable in winter and summer.

Full U turn !

Stellar success turned the tide in 2007 when Biplab Ketan Paul's Bhungroo® rainwater harvesting innovation  prevented rain water from logging by injecting cylindrical structures into the ground and channeling that water into the soil. Biplab's innovative idea took practical form once he reasoned that water in the soil at a depth of 60 to 80 feet permitted crop cultivation two generations earlier. That is, the soil could retain water. But once that water was used to cultivate crops, that strata of soil was not recharged with water again. Water level therefore dropped to the depth of 1200 or 1500 feet. Now, by depositing the monsoon water through cylinders into the soil, land reverted to cultivable status during the monsoon. Success doubled in winter and summer: look down the cylinder, there is water in it. Quite often, there is enough water that can be pumped up to irrigate another crop.

Breaking another wall

7 long arduous relentless years of trials was the forerunner to the excellent results of Bhungroo® ( meaning the ‘big straw’) technique. Giving it to cash-strapped farmers necessitated breaking another wall: non-government social enterprise Naireeta Services Private Ltd. was formed to address this very purpose. Over 350 units installed in more than 25 villages of Patan district have helped farmers to cultivate crops on their own land.

Igniting Tension

It soon became clear that operation and management of Bhungroo® installations is most cost effective if 4 or 5 neighbouring subsistence cultivators formed groups or collectives to irrigate their crops with the stored, deposited water.  The benefit would then extend to 1700 households with an average family size of 5. Access to fresh water for farming would reach 8500 people if economic effectiveness was implemented this way for the 350 Bhungroo® units.

“Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? ” says erudite Asia Pacific Cartier Women Initiative Laureate Trupti Jain.“But,” she clarifies, “tension spiked as men, owners of the land, raised objections to making such collectives. They got into frictional spats.”

Serendipity benefit

The tension subsided when women agreed to team up and take joint responsibility. “We learnt what the rural women knew while Bhungroo® was still under trial. Awareness of fresh water’s incredible value, gave them robust managerial wisdom.” says Trupti. Fulbright and Commonwealth scholar Trupti has a Rockefeller Fellowship and many other awards. After working 8 years with an NGO and 12 years on Indian government projects - totalling 20 years in the development sector - she took on the Co-director role at Naireeta Services 7 years ago. Registered in May 2011, this non-profit organisation gets Bhungroo® to large as well as small and marginal farmers owning less than a hectare, so that they too can cultivate their own small rural agricultural acreage.

Trupti Jain chats with village women

Maximum benefit comes from maintaining these water harvesting installations excellently. So Naireeta Services made Bhungroo® installations conditional: although men own the land, management rights for these installations will be accorded fully to the woman’s group using it. “5 or 6 women make a team to handle the task” says Trupti. “Everybody needs water. Since their only other option was to leave their land barren and turn to work as farm labour elsewhere, male beneficiaries complied to this proviso. Women gained indirect control over the agricultural income. The socio-economic equation shifted.” 

Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Stony Brook University’s senior lecturer and Jamie M. Sommer (a doctoral student at the time) paid attention to Bhungroo® innovation’s impact in 2016. Translators Hetshree Kangad and Dhruti Thaker helped them to do a research project in 2019, interviewing 48 Gujarati villagers’ that spoke in their own language and dialect - men and women from Aritha, Dudkha and Nani Chandur - users of this new innovation as well as some who decided not to avail of it because they had no land or too little acreage to make this change. 

The effort to understand. Interviews in progress

Non-Bhungroo farmers with interviewers and translators

By comparing the environmental and social justice situations, the study brought out the polar difference between rain harvest users and non-users. Regenerating land's cultivability and multiplying the cultivation seasons lifted beneficiaries’ annual earning by several thousands of rupees, sometimes into lakhs. It buried earning a pittance through manual labour wage in the dust. These villagers now receive more respect by moving out of contracted manual labor to become owners-cultivators. A durable solution to turn away from the perennial problems stated above, bolsters their confidence.

The surge and the drag 

Bhungroo® innovation stopped further desertification

 in 25 villages of  Patan district. 

Benefits established, funds came from Deshpande Foundation, Rockfeller Foundation, UKAID, GIZ from Netherlands, SWFF-USAID and others, advancing the trademarked innovation to small farmers beyond India in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana and Rwanda. Naireeta Services will give technical advice for this open source technology to a Sindh farmer in Pakistan who has  requested assistance. Discussions are on with groups that offered partnership to install such units in Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Togo, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. 

Innovator Biplab Ketan Paul sits In the middle of a cultivated field, next to a Bhungroo® unit

Recipient of Woman CIimate Leader Award from Naireeta Services Private Ltd. for completing grassroots execution. 

The drag inside India is in states like Maharashtra which has 2 such installations in Aurangabad city. Yet the state government has not scaled it up further although installing such an innovation could end the spiralling amount of farmers suicides caused by severe drought. Accepted for its effectiveness in storing fresh water, Bhungroo® is part of the National Rural Livelihood Mission program. 13 other north and central Indian states who have also installed this rain water harvesting unit, fail to scale it up. Gujarat state government has installed 3000 units. Installations also progress in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu.

Fostering a better equation

 

It takes years to foster a better social equation. Now, next to a desert, over 20 different crops are grown in 25 villages of Patan District by large, small and subsistence farmers on what was once written-off as useless barren arid land, just by using harvested rain water.

The added bonus of reclaiming land for cultivation and the consequent reverse migration is that a second younger generation sees the agri sector as a fair prospect. 

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