Tank­ing from the start 16

As In­dia crawls out of a severe drought, it plans to con­struct 2 mil­lion farm ponds be­fore the end of the year. Why are farm­ers and wa­ter ex­perts not thrilled at the idea?


THECENTRE and state gov­ern­ments have set an un­prece­dented tar­get to fight drought this year. It has been de­cided that 2 mil­lion farm ponds will be dug across the coun­try be­fore the end of the year.

Farm ponds are small tanks, usu­ally oc­cu­py­ing a part of the farm­land, to store rain­wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion. In April, the Cen­tre de­cided to con­struct farm ponds on pri­or­ity un­der the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act ( mgnrega), fol­low­ing which the states sub­mit­ted their own tar­gets and pro­grammes. In most states, the con­struc­tion started in the mid­dle of the mon­soon and the rain caused heavy dam­age to ponds, mak­ing farm­ers and ex­perts ques­tion the idea and the break-

neck speed at which the work was be­ing car­ried out.

Khukhra pan­chayat in Ranchi district of Jhark­hand is one such ex­am­ple. In May, Ja­tru Oraon, head of the pan­chayat, was help­ing village res­i­dents fight drought. When the govern­ment de­cided to build farm ponds, he cham­pi­oned the cause. But af­ter three months of mon­soon, Oraon has an­other chal­lenge. “The flood has sub­merged all the farms; many ponds are dam­aged. I am not sure how many struc­tures will emerge un­scathed once the wa­ter re­cedes,” he says.

Fac­ing a severe drought in April, the Jhark­hand govern­ment set a tar­get of dig­ging 100,000 farm ponds by June 10—the of­fi­cial date of the ar­rival of mon­soon in the state—and an­other 50,000 by the end of the year. De­spite the mad rush to build ponds, the govern­ment could not meet even 35 per cent of the tar­get by mid-June. Even dur­ing the rains, in­stead of stop­ping work, as is the usual prac­tice, the govern­ment put pres­sure on of­fi­cials to meet the tar­get. Me­dia re­ports say sev­eral farm ponds have col­lapsed due to poor de­sign and over 30 peo­ple have drowned in these struc­tures be­tween June and Septem­ber. Ra­jesh Lohra of Ni­halu Bhar­tali village in Ranchi, lost his six-year-old son when a pond col­lapsed. “This is worse than drought. Of­fi­cials are mind­lessly dig­ging ponds and the ex­ca­vated soil is heaped next to the struc­ture. Chil­dren ac­count for the max­i­mum ca­su­al­ties,” says Vi­nay Ma­hato, mem­ber of Ranchi-based non-profit Jagriti Vikas Foun­da­tion that works on is­sues con­cern­ing child rights. The of­fi­cials even al­lowed the use of heavy earth movers to dig the ponds, which is against the rules of mgnrega. They forced farm­ers to build ponds on to­po­graph­i­cally un­suit­able ar­eas. Most of the ponds dug on hilly slopes have been washed away. “We lost a part of our farm and with it the hope to har­vest wa­ter,” says Oraon. Though he did pur­sue peo­ple to al­low the con­struc­tion of these struc­tures, he ac­cepts that farm ponds do not work in the area be­cause the ter­rain is rugged. He says of­fi­cials did not pay heed to his de­mand to dig more wells in the village.

Kar­nataka and Andhra Pradesh, the two states that ac­count for half of the to­tal tar­get, also re­ceived heavy rains and there were me­dia re­ports of wide­spread dam­age to ponds. Of­fi­cials from these states, how­ever, have re­fused to com­ment on the ex­tent of dam­age. “Once the mon­soon is over, we will com­pare the rate of con­struc­tion of ponds be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the mon­soon to know the ex­act im­pact,” says an Andhra Pradesh govern­ment of­fi­cial on con­di­tion of anonymity. A Kar­nataka gov- ern­ment of­fi­cial says there was some “mi­nor” dam­age reported from the north­ern dis­tricts of the state.

Chan­dra Sekhar Masaguppi, joint di­rec­tor, Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment and Pan­chay­ati Raj Depart­ment, Kar­nataka, blames the Cen­tre for mak­ing the states un­der­take this Her­culean task. “Other struc­tures, like check dams, are not be­ing built at the usual pace,’’ he says. A K Sumbly, deputy sec­re­tary, mgnrega cell un­der the Union Min­istry of Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment, how­ever, says that the Cen­tre has not given any instruction and the states them­selves have been mak­ing tall claims about their ca­pac­ity to build ponds.

How­ever, the wide­spread dam­age has even made govern­ment of­fi­cials raise an alarm. “The govern­ment al­lowed dig­ging dur­ing the mon­soon, ne­glect­ing the fact that many of the ponds were de­stroyed dur­ing con­struc­tion,” says Chan­dra Bhushan Ti­wari, district plan­ning of­fi­cer, Ranchi. More­over, the labour­ers whose names were not in the of­fi­cial muster roll of mgnrega, but who were de­ployed by the state govern­ment in its rush to meet the tar­get with the as­sur­ance that they would be re­mu­ner­ated, are now de­mand­ing pay­ment of their wages.

Flood of state pro­grammes

The rush to build farm ponds was trig­gered by the drought in 16 states of the coun­try this year. As re­ports of drought in Ma­ha­rash­tra started play­ing out on tele­vi­sion chan­nels, one state af­ter an­other an­nounced pro­grammes to dig farm ponds. Fi­nally, the Cen­tral govern­ment de­clared that farm ponds would be the pri­or­ity un­der mgnrega. Sumbly says that the tar­get un­der mgnrega is 1.2 mil­lion farm ponds. In ad­di­tion to this, the states have de­clared their own tar­gets, tak­ing the to­tal fig­ure to 2 mil­lion. Andhra Pradesh tops the list with a tar­get of 0.65 mil­lion ponds this fi­nan­cial year. This is 40 times the tar­get the state had last year.

MGNREGA faces se­ri­ous crit­i­cism over the qual­ity of more than 8 mil­lion wa­ter struc­tures that have been con­structed un­der the Act in the past decade. Close to 40 per cent of these struc­tures are not even com­plete

In Mad­hya Pradesh, this is the first time a tar­get has been set un­der mgnrega, says Mahin­dra Ku­mar Jain, su­per­in­ten­dant en­gi­neer of mgnrega in the state. The Cen­tre has given the state a tar­get of 50,000 ponds but, ac­cord­ing to Jain, the state has de­cided to build 76,000 ponds.

Ques­tions over MGNREGA

mgnrega faces se­ri­ous crit­i­cism over the qual­ity of more than 8 mil­lion wa­ter struc­tures that have been con­structed un­der the Act in the past decade. Close to 40 per cent of these struc­tures are not even com­plete. The lat­est spree may just ag­gra­vate the prob­lem. Ex­perts say this not only im­pacts the drought-proof­ing pro­gramme of the coun­try, but also dis­cour­ages com­mu­ni­ties from get­ting in­volved, which is cru­cial for the suc­cess of such ini­tia­tives. More­over, the govern­ment’s move to set tar­gets un­der mgnrega un­der­mines the Act which al­lows pan­chay­ats to set their own goals. For Prem S Vashistha, econ­o­mist and se­nior fel­low at the Na­tional Coun­cil of Ap­plied Eco­nomic Re­search, New Delhi, it is a con­cern for the very sus­tain­abil­ity of mgnrega. When a govern­ment sets a tar­get, com­mu­ni­ties do not get to de­cide on what is most suit­able for them. “If the com­mu­ni­ties are not in­volved, then the projects un­der mgnrega will not be sus­tain­able,” he says. Jhark­hand’s ex­pe­ri­ence of chas­ing tar­gets also in­di­cates this. In 2011, the state un­der­took an ini­tia­tive to dig wells, just the way it em­barked on dig­ging farm ponds this year. Most of the wells col­lapsed due to bad de­sign and lo­ca­tion, and com­mu­ni­ties in sev­eral ar­eas boy­cotted the pro­gramme.

In many states, farm­ers are not will­ing to give space to farm ponds on their land. Of­fi­cials in Te­lan­gana and Mad­hya Pradesh say this is the main hur­dle in the suc­cess of the pro­gramme. B Saidulu, joint com­mis­sioner, Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment, Mad­hya Pradesh, who looks af­ter farm pond work in the state, says, “This year, the tar­get is very high and farm­ers do not want to al­lo­cate land for con­struct­ing ponds.”

A Vaidyanathan, hy­drol­o­gist and mem­ber of the erst­while Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, says that the ponds are rain-fed and it is un­clear how they will be of help in drought-af­fected ar­eas. He adds that there is no data­base to track the ef­fec­tive­ness of these ponds in com­par­i­son to other wa­ter con­ser­va­tion struc­tures. For in­stance, the best op­tion for ir­ri­ga­tion in Mad­hya Pradesh, which is a plateau area, is open dug wells, says Jain. Farm­ers in the state say that ponds can­not store enough wa­ter.

In many states, farm­ers are un­clear about the wages they are en­ti­tled to un­der these ini­tia­tives. While they re­ceive a des­ig­nated daily wage for their work on farm ponds un­der mgnrega, for state pro­gramm-es they are be­ing asked to share the cost. In Jhark­hand, for in­stance, the state pays 90 per cent of the cost and the ben­e­fi­cia­ries pay the rest. Ac­cord­ing to mgnrega, the cost of con­struc­tion of a farm pond is be­tween R35,000 and R5 lakh.

Sim­i­lar is the case with Ma­ha­rash­tra where the sub­sidy for farm­ers to dig farm ponds un­der the state govern­ment’s Magel Tyala Shet­tal scheme was re­duced from R80,000 in 2010 to R50,000 in 2016. Ramesh De­v­i­das Kale, Deputy Col­lec­tor, Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Scheme, Am­ra­vati district, says farm­ers are not happy with the re­duc­tion in sub­sidy.

In Ut­tar Pradesh too the ben­e­fi­cia­ries have to con­trib­ute around 50 per cent un­der the Khet Talab Yo­jana in drought-hit Bun­delk­hand. Apart from this, the farm­ers have to pay 3 per cent of trea­sury charges. The to­tal cost of each pond comes to around R1 lakh. This is too much for farm­ers to bear. “Fam­i­lies are strug­gling to get food. How can we pay such a huge amount for ponds?’’ says Kis­han Dut, a farmer in Ganj village of Ma­hoba district, Ut­tar Pradesh.

Sachin Chowdhry, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, In­dian In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion, New Delhi, says that when gov­ern­ments start chas­ing tar­gets mind­lessly, it be­comes an ex­er­cise in vain. Dur­ing his vis­its to ru­ral ar­eas of Ra­jasthan in 2011-12, he found that most of the ponds and trenches con­structed un­der mgnrega were of no use and had been aban­doned. “Farm ponds can meet the same fate,’’ he warns. @lake­war­riors

With in­puts from Kundan Pandey

In many states farm­ers are not will­ing to give land for farm ponds. Of­fi­cials in Te­lan­gana and Mad­hya Pradesh say this is the main hur­dle in the suc­cess of the pro­gramme

KUNDAN PANDEY Ru­dra Pratap Mishra of Ganj village in Ma­hoba district, Ut­tar Pradesh, got a pond dug on his farm­land, but is un­sure about the dura­bil­ity of the struc­ture

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