Business Today

Irrigation: Giving a little dam

     Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

Taki is an unassuming village about an hour's drive from the industrial town of Vapi in Gujarat. A semblance of a road - with no street lamps - leads to the village. Humble as it is, Taki is a microcosm of the revolution that has enriched agriculture in the state over the past decade.

In 2010, Vinod Bhoya, a diminutive 45-year-old farmer, took the initiative to apply to the government for a check dam to be built across the stream that ran by his 15 acres of land. A check dam is a small structure that prevents the flow of water during the monsoon. The water thus stopped can be pumped to irrigate fields, and also percolates into the ground.

The check dam was built by a non-government organisation in association with the government. Since then, Bhoya's earnings from his crops, which include paddy, papaya and banana, have risen from Rs 60,000 a year to Rs 1 lakh. "Earlier, there was enough water for me to farm for only six months," says Bhoya. "Now, with the check dam, I can farm through the year."

Since 2000, Gujarat has built 125,000 small dams at an average cost of Rs 5 Lakh to Rs 6 lakh each, spurring agricultural productivity.

Check dams have been around in Gujarat since before Independence, but they gained momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s through community-led initiatives in the Saurashtra region. The government helped things along in 2000, with its Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation Project. Through this scheme, the state would bear 60 per cent of the cost of building a check dam, and farmers or NGOs would pitch in the rest. The ratio was later revised to 80:20.

Not far from Taki is Ozer village, where a group of people headed by sugarcane farmer Ramanbhai Thorat pitched in manual labour instead of money to build a check dam in 2002. The dam, with a capacity of 0.05 million cubic feet, cost all of Rs 6 lakh. "For 10 years up to 2002, I could farm only on 25 per cent of my one acre of land," says Thorat. "Now I cultivate the entire stretch." A check dam can hold up to as much as 100 million cubic feet of water and cost up to a few crore rupees. It is sometimes built for industrial use, too.

There are some voices of caution, however. Shilp Verma, a Ph.D candidate at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, who is studying the impact of check dams in Saurashtra, says hydrologists and geologists have expressed concern over the number of check dams in Gujarat. "They say that many check dams means that the flow of water to big dams will be stopped," he says. "Also, in years of drought, villages downstream may be affected."

Nowhere else in the world have check dams been built on this scale, he adds. However, opposition to big dams such as the Sardar Sarovar remains strong in Gujarat, and check dams have been central to efforts to promote agriculture. Since 2000, the state has built 125,000 check dams at an average cost of Rs 5 lakh to Rs 6 lakh each. "About 55,000 of those dams are in Saurashtra," says S.J. Desai, Secretary of the state's Water Resources Department. Citing a recent report by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he says check dams have increased the period for which water is available for cultivation by three-and-a-half months. The total land under cultivation in Gujarat is 8.1 million hectares (a hectare is 2.47 acres) and the total arable land 12.5 million hectares.

"Several other states such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have started following in Gujarat's footsteps," says Aditi Mukherji, senior researcher at the International Water Management Institute in New Delhi. Desai of the state's water department says officials from Orissa and Rajasthan have visited Gujarat to study its check dams. Meanwhile, his state continues to build on its success. "We are looking at 5,000 new check dams a year for the next five years," he says.
G. Seetharaman

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