India

Cultivating a New Idea

Ranjan K Panda

Climate change has started taking a toll on agriculture. It’s high time that the government initiated climate change adaptation efforts to help farmers…

Orissa’s vulnerability to climate change is a major concern, so much so that the Government of the state is all preparing to be the first state of India to formulate a Climate Change Action Plan that will spend at least seventeen thousand crores in five years. Agriculture is failing for more new reasons than ever and people are clueless as to what to do. Regular coping mechanisms do not work in effective ways anymore. Padampur sub division in Orissa’s Bargarh district is one of the worst affected by climate change. Drought here has become a regular phenomenon forcing people to migrate out for most of the year. The region’s vulnerability has become so grave that the Government has included it under one of the only three regions under its just promulgated “Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme”.

In this gloomy scenario however, there are a few bright spots. Kharamal village in the Paikmal block is one such spot where the people have succeeded in fighting against the vagaries of climate changed induced drought and water scarcity through successful integration of ecological interventions such as water harvesting, forest conservation and eco-agriculture.

Kharamal is a forested village at the foothills of Gandhamardan hills in Paikmal block of Bargarh district in Orissa. The village houses 410 people of whom majority are tribals. Drought is nothing new for the villagers since the area is now facing it in regular succession. The impacts are however coming in new and newer forms with increased heat and distorted monsoon caused by climate change. So, the traditional coping mechanisms of the villagers are failing in fighting drought now a days. Migrating out in search of job at Brick kilns of Andhra Pradesh and other such hazardous and low paying occupations had been the most popular coping mechanism for the villagers till recent years.

Things have however started to change ever since a local NGO intervened and organized the villagers to understand drought better and recall their traditional coping mechanisms which were earlier successfully helping them in fighting drought and in which the people have lost faith in the recent years. In just five to six years, with large scale awareness and concerted community action, the village is emerging as a green spot in a brown belt. Things have started to look positive and people have resumed hope in their traditional wisdoms in water conservation and management. Meeting Kurmila Bhoi would show how.

From Migrating Out to Settling In

In September 2009, when senior correspondent of NDTV 24×7, one of India’s leading TV news channels, visited Kurmila in her village, she got overwhelmed. She realized the real potential of her transformation from a migrant labour to a land owner. By village standards she possessed a good amount of land and qualified to be called a rich woman. In fact her 8 acre land yielded her family well a decade and half ago. “Things changed in the last about 15 years when weather became more erratic and forests denuded fast. We started to migrate to brick kilns and suffer”, rues Kurmila. Out of her eight acres, only two acres were low land which yielded more compared to the six acres of upland. Still her family managed with what they got from the rain fed crops and forest produces. Drought became a regular feature in the last 15 to 20 years and forest degradation added to their woes. Erratic rainfall made agriculture almost difficult as she suffered heavy crop loss almost each year. The land also got severely eroded, sand cast and infertile. “Even with that much of land; we were living in penury and subsisted with high interest loans by pledging domestic utensils and valuables. Agriculture failed as cultivability of the land eroded with high intensity runoff causing sand cast, creating gullies. Further, no sooner rain stopped, our lands were facing soil water (moisture) scarcity”, informed Kurmila. This resulted in creating difficult conditions to cultivate the land. “We found a succor in migrating out. We went to Ayodhya and many places in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to work as brick kiln labourers where we were exploited”, recalls a pained Kurmila.

Things changed in 2004-05 when MASS, a local NGO, helped her think about her survival strategy afresh. “We found sense in the points raised by people from this organization and organized village meetings to understand drought situation; its history and impacts; and finally too plan out strategies to fight this”, says Dhanu Bhoi, Kurmila’s husband. That year, with help of MASS, she constructed a ‘chahala’ ( a small water harvesting structure) to save her crop in one acre. “After many years, that was the first year when we were not required to borrow loans or advances from elsewhere; we got direct employment in land treatment and chahala works in our village. We stayed back and a new era began”, informs she. “MASS gave me a direct cash assistance of two thousand and seven hundred rupees. In fact that year MASS started several other activities in the village that will restore our traditional water bodies and local ecology. I received training on eco-agriculture, preparation of organic manure and pesticides on my own in a cost effective manner”, says she. To stop migrating and starting agriculture afresh in the village several other measures like formation of a ‘seed bank’ was taken up with support of MASS and Kurmila received one bag of paddy seed as loan from this bank to be able to start her agriculture. The chahala that stored rain water for her started showing good results very soon and Kurmila used it for vegetable cultivation. She earned a good profit and bought two goats. “Our strategy here has been to promote eco-agriculture in an aggressive way with help of the water harvested so that an overall ecological renaissance will take place” informs Adikanda Biswal, Programme Officer with MASS.

She has stopped migrating. She has got money and she has brought back all her land into agriculture again. Not only that, she has constructed a new house and lives a dignified life. From a migrant labour to a dignified settler, Kurmila is now reaping the benefit of water harvesting. Many other families of Kharamal, this tribal dominated nondescript village, have also fought drought successfully and have proved that reviving traditional system of water harvesting with new inputs in technical skill building and organic agriculture could be real beneficial. Kharamal has not looked back ever since then and the movement is spreading to other villages. Civil society groups of Orissa have alleged that the Govt. of Orissa’s Draft Climate Change Action Plan has not taken into account people’s concerns, knowledge and experiences. Rather it has only listened to the World Bank and Corporate Houses who are looking forward to climate change mitigation as a business/profit avenue. Time the government learns from climate change adaptation efforts of people like Kurmila and incorporate those in the Plan.

(This article was first published in Sopan Step.)

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