Rice from dry river

Farm­ers in an arid Andhra Pradesh district re­vive tra­di­tional ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem to tide over drought

Down to Earth - - GOOD NEWS - M SU­CHI­TRA | ANAN­TA­PUR

THEY HAD reached the chan­nel even be­fore day­break, car­ry­ing shov­els, sick­les, small con­tain­ers and what­ever they could grab.The pre­vi­ous even­ing, their leader, the pin­napedda, had an­nounced by beat­ing drums the ur­gent need to clear the chan­nel. On reach­ing the spot, the men started en­thu­si­as­ti­cally scoop­ing out piles of silt from the chan­nel and up­root­ing reeds from its side­walls. Drenched in sweat, they re­turned home within a cou­ple of hours, only to get ready for the farms.

“The chan­nel is the life­line of Madi­repalli,” says the pin­napedda, N Ad­i­narayana. Madi­repalli, a small vil­lage in Anan­ta­pur district of Andhra Pradesh, falls in the Ray­alaseema re­gion which is a vic­tim of geog­ra­phy and re­ceives scanty rain­fall.Its desert-like con­di­tion has prompted the Cen­tre to cover the district un­der Desert Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme. De­spite the wa­ter cri­sis, Madi­repalli farm­ers grow wa­ter-in­ten­sive paddy both dur­ing kharif and rabi. “The chan­nel pro­vides wa­ter through­out the year, even when the drought is se­vere,” says Chinna Erappa, a farmer.

The chan­nel is part of the tra­di­tional wa­ter-sharing sys­tem of Anan­ta­pur, called gonchi. Ac­cord­ing to the 2006 Mi­nor Ir­ri­ga­tion Cen­sus of the state gov­ern­ment, the district has sev­eral gonchi chan­nels that date back to 15th and 16th cen­turies. They were ly­ing de­funct be­cause of silt de­po­si­tion, dam­aged struc­ture or re­duced wa­ter flow in the Pen­nar river and its streams. In re­cent years, as mon­soon be­came er­ratic and rain­fall scant­ier, some vil­lages re­vived gon­chis and tweaked them to make wa­ter avail­able through­out the year.

A 2009 study by Anan­ta­pur-based non-profit Ru­ral In­te­grated Devel­op­ment So­ci­ety (rids) has iden­ti­fied 37 gonchi sys­tems in 27 vil­lages along the Pen­nar. “Many more com­mu­ni­ties could be pre­serv­ing this ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem,” says K Kr­ish­tappa, pres­i­dent of rids.

In tra­di­tional gonchi sys­tem, wa­ter is di­verted from the river and streams to fields through a net­work of chan­nels. Now that the water­ways carry wa­ter only oc­ca­sion­ally, peo­ple have con­verted the di­ver­sion chan­nels into seep­age net­works. They have dug large basin shaped pits, up to 4 me­tres deep, on the dry riverbed. Wa­ter oozes into the pit, called tal­ipiri, and flows into the main chan­nel that car­ries wa­ter till the vil­lage. Wa­ter is then di­verted to fields through a net­work of dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels. The

chan­nels are dug keep­ing the sur­face slope in mind so that wa­ter flows from the tal­ipiri to the field un­der grav­ity.

Each gonchi can ir­ri­gate from 80 hectares to 120 hectares. A vil­lage has one or more gon­chis de­pend­ing on the size of the farm­land. A wa­ter man­ager, or neeru­ganti, en­sures that ev­ery field gets wa­ter ac­cord­ing to its size. Flow of wa­ter is reg­u­lated by re­strict­ing the width of dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels or by in­stalling sluice gates.In some vil­lages, wa­ter is dis­trib­uted on per hour ba­sis.The neeru­ganti is an­swer­able to the gonchi com­mit­tee, which com­prises all the farm­ers in the com­mand area. The farm­ers also elect a leader, the pin­napedda, for man­ag­ing day-to-day af­fairs. “Farm­ers elect a new leader when they feel the pin­napedda is not fit for the po­si­tion due to ill­ness or some other rea­sons,” says K Rami Reddy of Ke­sava­pu­ram vil­lage who has been pin­napedda for 25 years. Be­ing a leader is no easy task.

The pin­napedda has to en­sure that all farm­ers par­tic­i­pate in the main­te­nance work of the chan­nel. If a farmer does not par­tic­i­pate in the main­te­nance work or does not pro­vide ad­e­quate labour as per the size of his land­hold­ing, he slaps a fine on the de­faulter.The money col­lected from fines goes to the gonchi fund. Even those who use abu­sive words dur­ing ar­gu­ments over wa­ter dis­putes pay fines. “The harsher the word, the higher the fine. Re­cently, a farmer had to pay ` 1,000 for us­ing abu­sive lan­guage,” says Ad­i­narayana.

What hap­pens when a farmer fails to pay fine? “He does not get wa­ter,” says Ad­i­narayana. “But no­body dares to do so be­cause there is no other means of get­ting wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion,” says Reddy.

Last year, Madi­repalli col­lected ` 20,000 in fines and an­other ` 20,000 by rent­ing out fields to shep­erds. “We plan to use the fund for hir­ing earth movers for de­silt­ing the chan­nel,” says Prakash Naidu of Madi­repalli. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act (mgnrega), farm­ers have linked the pro­gramme with de­silt­ing the chan­nels. “But mgnrega al­lows re­mov­ing silt from the same wa­ter body only once in three years, whereas chan­nels re­quire pe­ri­odic main­te­nance,” points out Ad­i­narayana.

While vil­lages along the Pen­nar basin are try­ing to re­vive gon­chis, the age-old sys­tem faces in­creas­ing threats from indis­crim­i­nate sand min­ing and dig­ging of bore wells on the riverbed by out­siders. Even gov­ern­ment pro­jects have led to dry­ing up of gon­chis. “A cou­ple of years ago, the gov­ern­ment set up a bore well-based drink­ing wa­ter project in Il­luru vil­lage to sup­ply wa­ter to four blocks.Its gonchi dried up,” says K M Rayudu of rids. The gonchi com­mit­tee does not al­low the vil­lage res­i­dents to dig bore wells close to gonchi chan­nels, which pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter to cat­tle and have helped re­vive dried up open wells. R V Rama Mohan, direc­tor Cen­tre for World Sol­i­dar­ity, which con­ducted the study with rids, says, “We have found that the com­mand area of the gonchi sys­tem has in­creased due to seep­age of drainage wa­ter from the Mid Pen­nar reser­voir. Most of the func­tion­ing gon­chis are lo­cated 60 km down­stream of the reser­voir.” In a wa­ter-starved district like Anan­ta­pur, the gov­ern­ment should en­cour­age ev­ery sin­gle ef­fort to con­serve wa­ter, he says.

When asked if they would aban­don gonchi if the gov­ern­ment pro­vides wa­ter from ir­ri­ga­tion pro­jects, the res­i­dents of Kop­palakonda vil­lage said “no” in cho­rus. While farm­ers in other parts of the coun­try are wor­ried about the ef­fect of El Nino on kharif crop, farm­ers in vil­lages with gonchi are sow­ing paddy.

Madi­repalli farm­ers de­silt an ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nel near their vil­lage

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