In water-stressed Andhra, farmers sign pact to share ground water

 KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times, Anantapur
Ram Chandru Reddy, a 67-year-old agriculturist, has been farming his three-acre plot at Kummaravandla Pally, a hamlet in Anantapur district, for as long as he can remember.
“Farming is in my blood. But I nearly gave it up couple of years ago because of water crisis,” says Reddy, who grows rice, groundnut and red gram. “But the crisis was averted because we decided to share groundwater”.
Anantapur is the second-most backward and drought-prone district in India. Over the past six months, 22 farmers have committed suicide in Anantapur.
Till 2010, the water shortage was manageable. “We did not have to dig deep; we used bullocks to draw water from wells to irrigate our lands,” recalled Venkat Ramana Reddy, a 50-year-old farmer.
Post 2000, the region’s semi-arid weather, deep hard rock aquifers, perversely incentivised power and monetary subsidies, and absence of any formal legislation or social regulation to govern extraction led to competitive borewell digging, all of which led to a rapid fall in groundwater levels. The water shortage led to tension between borewell and non-borewell owning farmers, even as cultivation of water-intensive crops continued.
Read: India’s groundwater crisis
India draws more groundwater each year than the US and China combined; with 89% of groundwater extracted used in the irrigation sector. With rain the most significant source of groundwater recharge, any change in the rainfall pattern influences the groundwater level.
India has a rough estimate of how much groundwater it has but there is no micro-level data and this hampers groundwater management at a localised level.
“The national aquifer mapping programme can help generate granular data for groundwater and make it available for public policy. The idea is to show groundwater is not an infinite resource that can be pumped out endlessly,” said Mala Subramaniam, CEO, Arghyam, a Bangalore-based non-profit. “Second, gram panchayats should be equipped with the basic understanding of hydrogeology and traditional knowledge to help them manage the groundwater efficiently”.
Instead of blaming the monsoon and fate, farmers at Kummaravandla Pally joined hands with the government and WASSAN, an NGO, to tackle the crisis in 2010. After a situational analysis, 25 farmers formed a collective – Kolagunti Ummadi Neeti Yajamanya Sangham — to “share groundwater with each other” to sustain their crops.
Watch | How farmers from Anantapur found a solution to the groundwater crisis

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This led to the concept of networking of borewells to secure rain-fed crops of all farmers, irrespective of borewell ownership. By linking all borewells with a network of pipelines and outlets, all farmers can now access groundwater. To ensure compliance, the farmers signed a MoU in the presence of district officials.
The agreement’s institutional norms include the following clauses: The committee would have farmers with and without borewells; a joint account would be opened in the names of these members; equal contribution towards share capital, irrespective of borewell ownership; annual contribution towards the maintenance fund, on per acre basis at Rs 100 per acre; one farmer would be elected for monitoring the schedule for water distribution/allocation and also collect contribution from each member.
Read: Six charts that explain India’s water crisis
There are non-institutional norms for sharing too. No new borewells should be dug for 10 years without the permission of committee; the irrigated area under borewells will not be increased but the critically-irrigated area can be ; in the critically irrigated areas, water should be given for sowing, flowering, pod development, and crop harvesting; crop budgeting exercise must before sowing ; the System of Rice Intensification, which uses less water, should be practiced for paddy cultivation; micro Irrigation system (drips and sprinklers) should be used to conserve water; and any repairs to the borewells during critical phase (June to November) will be borne form the maintenance fund. During the rest of the year, borewell maintenance will be done by the owners.
FINE PRINT: The Borewell Sharing Agreement
Farmers with or without borewells can join, if they contribute equally towards share capital
Members have joint accounts; annual contribution towards maintenance fund is Rs 100 per acre
One farmer elected to monitor water allocation and collect contribution
No new borewells for next 10 years, irrigated area to remain the same as 2009
Critically irrigated area can increase, but water provided for four key crop phases
Crop water budgeting exercise a must before sowing
If paddy is cultivated, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) should be practiced
Micro irrigation system such as drips and sprinklers to be used to conserve water
The farmers got financial support from the government for pipeline network and regulators for connecting existing borewells, sprinklers and drips systems. For promoting diversity in agriculture, the National Food Security Mission and the agriculture department provided red gram and groundnut seeds were provided free.
Government schemes such as horticulture plantation in five acres of land; water and soil conservation works under the MGNREGS and NADEP compost pits for non-pesticide management are used by the farmers.
The agreement led to a new way of agriculture in the 72 acres of land of 25 farmers. Since 2010, the cropping pattern has changed, leading to diversity of crops, reduction in costs of cultivation; improvement in value of produce and profit.
According to a study by the Department of Rural Development and Social Work, Sri Krishna Devaraya University, Anantapur, the use of pipeline system instead of field channels has increased water use efficiency. Critical irrigation helped in preventing crop loss, and raised productivity of groundnut. Groundwater levels have been sustained since 2009 , while the area under agriculture and critical irrigation improved, shows data.
Thanks to the success of this borewell pooling, the Andhra Pradesh government is scaling it up across the state via the Indira Jalaprabha Scheme.
In Telangana, several villages in six districts — Mahbubnagar, Ranga Reddy , Warangal, Medak, Karimnagar and Adilabad — are piloting this participatory groundwater management programme.
The author tweets at @kumkumdasgupta