This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.
“This is the 29th borewell that I have built and the only one that works,” says Devendrappa, a farmer in Dharwad who has dug borewells in vain for over 30 years. For farmers like him who rely on the monsoons to irrigate their lands, borewells offer some measure of security against the irregular and often scarce rainfall of the region.
Its low rainfall of 997 cms annually had rendered many of Hubli-Dharwad’s existing borewells dry and the water table lower by a hundred feet. A new borewell cost between Rs. 1,00,000 and Rs. 1,50,000 and was often not an option for many farmers.
Enter Sikandar Meeranayak’s Sankalpa Rural Development Society (SRDS), an NGO that builds and promotes rainwater collection systems to recharge defunct borewells in the region since 2008. “I have always been passionate about solving water troubles”, says he. Growing up in drought-prone Gadag, acute water shortage and regular irrigation woes were common in his early years. During the region’s 3 year long drought, he was part of efforts to build farm ponds and construct borewells. “During my work with Jala Nirmala and several organisations in that period, I noticed how unaffordable it was for farmers to build borewells. That got me thinking of cheaper alternatives to help farmers practising rainfed agriculture.” He enrolled in the Deshpande Fellowship Programme in 2003 where he could see to fruition his ingenious and cost effective rural innovation. In 2009, SRDS was born, incubated at and supported by Deshpande Foundation.
Affordable Borewell Recharge
The aim of SRDS is to lower the cost of existing irrigation technology using innovations tailored to the needs and conditions of local farmers. The SRDS method of borewell recharge uses a catchment pond that can collect and store up to 3 lakhs litres of rainwater, a 10x10x10 foot pit that acts as a primary filter around the borewell, and a casing pipe with tiny holes to allow water to percolate without any loss to recharge the borewell. The technique requires an investment of Rs. 30,000 – Rs. 35,000. “When we began operations”, says Meeranayak, “nearly 70 percent of Hubli’s borewells had run dry and many farmers were selling their lands to pay off debts.” Today, SRDS has recharged about 425 borewells across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh and helped harvest over 7,75,00,000 litres of water. Besides technology implementation, the SRDS team also educates farmers on post-recharge maintenance and care.
Says Devendrappa who spent Rs. 32,000 on recharging his old borewell,
“Earlier, my borewell only had 1.5 inches of water and I was unable to irrigate even 2 acres of land. But now, with a single rain, I have close to 3 inches of water, and can irrigate 9 acres.”
Recharging his borewell has allowed Devendrappa to turn formerly fallow land productive, earning an annual income of 9 lakhs from a banana crop he planted on 3 acres of land. In each crop cycle, he harvests from 100 percent of his land, with annual profits going up to Rs. 8 lakhs. “After deducting agricultural and domestic expenses, I am able to save Rs. 1.5 lakhs”, he says. A state very different from his debt-ridden years.
Rajashekhar Hudikeri tells a similar story. “I used to worry about my borewell running dry in summer, but after I recharged it two years ago, I have continuous water supply even during dry spells. Not only am I growing vegetables, but also sugarcane which is highly water intensive”, he says. With a dependable source of water, Hudikeri has also begun cultivating mulberry on 6 acres of formerly fallow land, bringing him an earning of Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 70,000 a month. Says he, “The benefits of borewell recharge are being seen even by the labourers I have employed in my farm. Earlier, with irregular water supply, I was unable to bear the cost of cultivation, provide them steady income or job security because of which many of them were forced to migrate in search of work. Today, I employ 4 regular workers in my farm.” Hudikeri noticed an increase in output from 40 kgs to 1 quintal and a 35 – 40% increase in income over the last two years. With better water supply, he is also assured of a regular monthly income. This year’s drought has him all set to recharge another of his borewells.
As soon as Shivanand Doddawad saw the first signs of water shortage three years ago, he recharged his borewells following which he sowed sugarcane on 3.5 acres. Today, his land yields 50 tonnes of cane per acre, bringing him an annual income of Rs. 3 – 4 lakh.
Borewell recharge is a permanent solution that allows farmers to grow vegetables and horticultural crops, irrigate between 6 and 9 acres of land, and 3-4 different crops throughout the year (following good rainfall that fills the catchment pond). Its supplementary benefits are also many. When a borewell is recharged, the moisture in the surrounding land also rises, allowing farmers to grow vegetables and fodder there, increasing the nutrition of the farmer’s family and his cattle. Says Anil Kumar Patil, head of the Gram Panchayat and a vocal champion of borewell recharge,
“Since I recharged my borewell two years ago, it has retained some water and allows me to irrigate my sugarcane crop or else, given this year’s drought, I would have been unable to cultivate anything. Bores of the farmers around me have been automatically recharged as a result of my efforts and they are also reaping the benefits.”
Unfortunately however, these don’t seem to be compelling reasons for farmers to make the shift. While some farmers wait for borewell recharge to be done free of cost or at a subsidized rate, those with funds prefer to dig new borewells. Moreover, since the results of recharging borewells are visible following a rainfall, those looking for immediate benefits are often disappointed. “This is ironic because many farmers only realise the value of recharge once their borewells have run dry”, says Meeranayak.
A low cost innovation to increase coverage
In order to make the idea of borewell recharge attractive and affordable to a larger number of farmers, in 2013, SRDS designed a low cost version of its existing model with technical, material, and financial assistance from Deshpande Foundation. Costing just Rs. 15,000, the innovation requires a smaller quantity of sand, less of the filtration media, and fewer cement rings, all of which are sourced locally. The new model is less labour intensive and has brought down construction time from 10 days to 2 days. In order to increase acceptance of the new technology among Sandbox farmers, SRDS and the Foundation make it available on a cost sharing basis where a quarter of the cost of installation is borne by the Foundation.
Says Meeranayak, “SRDS now independently handles the entire process with the help of hired labour, without having to depend on farmers to begin construction.” This independence has allowed SRDS to install more borewells in a given period and Meeranayak hopes this variation will see more farmers choosing to recharge existing borewells over building new ones. But, resistance to invest in new technology is high among farmers especially one that yields slow results.
The subsidies offered for digging borewells make it challenging for the SRDS team – most farmers expect the technology for free despite being able to afford the investment.
Funds from Deshpande Foundation were used in the initial years to create a critical number of borewells to demonstrate the impact. Initially SRDS subsidised the technology to farmers by 50%. But once there was enough evidence of its impact, it requires farmers to self-finance implementation of the technology. An effort is underway with the Karnataka Vikas Grameen Bank to make direct borewell recharge an official item on the loan list.
Scale and future plans
Once proof of concept and reasonable scale had been achieved, the focus was on popularising the borewell recharge concept and expanding markets.
In 2014, SRDS recharged 60 borewells in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with support from the Foundation’s Kakatiya Sandbox. It has also adapted its farm recharge technique to revive village handpumps in Uttar Pradesh and to harvest rooftop rainwater in apartment complexes and industries in urban centres, enabling the enterprise to maximise revenue from its technology.
To scale its operations countrywide, SRDS uses a combination of strategies for organic and inorganic reach by forging alliances with organisation within and outside the sandbox where the responsibility of mobilisation and demand creation lies with the grassroots organisations and SRDS is a technology partner. Most partnerships are formed between SRDS and other Deshpande Foundation partners like Vanasiri Rural Development Society but off late, with its partnership with Lucknow based Hans Foundation and Maharashtra based Sathya Saibaba Trust, SRDS has expanded its outreach outside the Sandbox.
A NABARD award last year for “Top 5 Rural Innovations of 2012” and the subsequent media attention also helped SRDS earn significant trust among farmers with over 10 farmers expressing interest in implementing the technology every month. SRDS also conducts regular awareness programmes and creates educational content to spread word of the benefits of its technology to farmers.
“We want to reach 1000 borewells recharged in the next two years. We want to get there without any financial support and hope to become profitable”, says Meeranayak.
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.