This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.
I am on my way to the village of Hallikere in Navalgund Taluk of Hubli on a bright, balmy October morning. I am happy to be out of the hustle and noise of Bangalore, but that feeling is slowly dissipating. What should have been fields upon fields of verdant crops, ready to be harvested in time for the Rabi sowing are instead lying empty and fallow. For long stretches, I see sad stalks of maize, chilli, and cotton – all drought-resistant crops – brown and drooping with no promise of a harvest.
The monsoons have failed the farmers of Hubli this year and how. The worst drought in over 50 years has brought the agricultural community of the region to its knees, intensified by the fact that about 90% of the farmers practise exclusively rainfed farming.
But, as we weave through villages of empty fields, it suddenly feels like my eyes are defying me. In the midst of the parched landscape, I spot a lush field of sugarcane swaying in the warm mid-morning breeze. Sugarcane, a highly water-intensive crop is an anomaly in this drought-ridden region. I am instantly curious.
Shankar Gowda walks up to greet us, smiling like one who has known triumph. Talking about his unusual crop choice, he directs me towards his farm pond, a 100 foot by 100 foot structure filled to the brim with water, surrounded by healthy saplings of neem, papaya, and teak. “This is the secret to my sugarcane crop”, he informs me. Gowda’s farm pond is what sets him apart from others in the area, allowing him to store rainwater and irrigate up to 3-5 acres of cotton and sugarcane even during dry spells. “The farm pond has brought me unimaginable profits at a time when farmers around me are in distress, struggling to keep hardy crops like cotton and maize alive. Next year, I will build another farm pond”, he smiles.
Prashant tells a similar tale. In a playing out of the saying ‘fortune braves the brave’, his field is lined with papaya trees bursting with fruit. His first harvest, slated for early November, promises to bring him between 4 to 6 tonnes of fruit every fortnight, earning him close to Rs. 60,000 each harvest.
“The decision to construct this precious water storage structure was not an easy one since none of my neighbours were doing it. The pond gave me the confidence to sow papaya, an unusual crop here, for I know I can enjoy water all year round. The quality of water in the pond is so good that farmers from the neighbouring fields use it to drink. I know I have made the right decision when other farmers show interest in building their own ponds.”
An innovative and affordable model for sustainable water access
The farm pond concept is not new to India. It has been used as an affordable means of tiding over droughts in rainfed areas, serving as a storehouse of water from the surface run-off after a rainfall and allowing monsoon-dependent farmers to irrigate their fields year round. The Deshpande Foundation, with inputs from local farmers, identified the need for a sustainable model of water access during its early agricultural intervention in Hubli in 2013. “The aim was to introduce water harvesting in a way that provided adequate, reliable, and long-term water supply over which farmers had a sense of ownership”, says Project Manager Sandeep Naik. The CEO of Deshpande Foundation, Naveen Jha also informs me that, “While the concept of dedicating land for water harvesting has always existed, the job of creating irrigation infrastructure is seen as that of the state and farmers often spend years, waiting in vain for water resources in their regions. There were almost no instances of such large farm ponds built on private farms for our team to emulate.”
The team’s dual challenge was to convince farmers of the value of dedicating up to a quarter of an acre of their productive farmland to the construction of a farm pond while also financially contributing to it. A cost-sharing model was arrived at where farmers bore 80% of the cost of building a pond with 20% assistance from Deshpande Foundation, an innovative, never-before-seen model.
In 2013, 16 small ponds were constructed free of charge. By the end of 2014, with support from the Tata Trust, 100 ponds were constructed in 12 villages of Navalgund cluster with majority contribution from the farmers. The number rose to over 200 by mid-2015 and today the team is processing close to 300 applications from farmers across the taluk! “Farm pond construction is now demand based because as farmers see the life changing benefits they bring, they not only request their construction but are willing to participate in it”, says Mohammed Innus Khan, Program Manager (Agriculture) at the Foundation.
How the seeds of success were sown
The secret to the resounding success of Deshpande Foundation’s farm pond model lies in one of its core beliefs – to merely facilitate development, allowing the reins of ownership and control to lie firmly in the hands of the communities being empowered. Here are the key factors enabling the successful scale up of the farm pond model in the Hubli sandbox:
Cost sharing model: “We entered Hubli at a time of low agricultural returns and reliance on outdated cultivation strategies”, informs Naik and our key focus was on changing farmers’ mindsets to better prepare them for the effects of climate change.” He adds:
“We could not implement the farm pond model in a programme mode where we just entered a village, dug tanks and left. While our model had to fit in closely with farmers’ needs and their ways of thinking, the cost-sharing aspect was integral to it being owned and valued by farmers in the long term.”
Farmers bear, in cash, the entire operational cost of constructing the farm pond (including the labour cost, cost of the fuel of the excavator, and the fees of the operator) while the Foundation provides technical assistance.
Local ownership and decision-making: The Learning Groups function as the ultimate decision-making authority at the village level. They are vested with the power to identify farmers eligible for farm ponds, define the criteria for selection, collect payments and manage the entire process from signing up farmers till the final disbursal of payments to the machine operator. Being local to the region, they are also best aware of farmers’ needs and challenges.
Scalable model: Once a farmer is convinced that a farm pond can enhance the value of his remaining land, he quickly becomes a champion of the cause, spreading the word to others around him, sparking off a network of farm ponds in a relatively compact area, and reducing the Foundation’s customer acquisition cost in the process.
Cost advantage: The market rate for a 100x100x12 cubic foot pond is between Rs. 80,000 to Rs. 90,000 but with Tata Trust support in the form of earth movers, farmers are able to get it built with Rs. 30,000 – Rs. 40,000, giving the farmers a cost advantage and making the model a scalable one. Once full, this on-farm structure can store up to 300m3 of water, allowing the farmer to irrigate 3-4 acres of land up to four times. Unlike other water harvesting structures, once built, farm ponds require no effort or money to be spent on their maintenance or repair.
Improves farmer’s income and standard of living: The single most crucial piece of evidence of the efficacy of the farm pond is the transformation it has brought to farmers’ lives. By permitting the cultivation of water-intensive horticultural crops, it spurs crop diversity. With the run-off from the pond, farmers grow vegetables, millets and coarse grains, and even paddy for self-consumption, leading to a rise in the nutrition levels of farmers and their families. They are also seen experimenting with novel water-saving irrigation techniques. A farmer’s income can be directly linked to whether he owns a farm pond or not. Farm ponds have been proven to raise farmer incomes by at least 2-3 times. Last year, farmers growing cotton and chilli faced low returns. Farm ponds allow farmers to diversify their risk with crops like green gram, papaya, cotton, and soyabean.
Increases land value: “The fact that more and more small farmers with between 2 and 5 acres are dedicating a quarter of an acre to water harvesting is itself a sign that they see the value it adds to the remaining land, permitting multi-cropping, and acting as an insurance against monsoon failure”, informs Jha.
All images taken by the author on site.
The Social Innovation Sandbox is a series chronicling novel solutions across the country that are seeking to transform life quality for the millions at the base of the pyramid in India.
The series is supported by the Deshpande Foundation India that is based out of Hubli and is building a nurturing ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and local, grassroots efforts so that young people can transform this growing country.