Water Conservation and Irrigation in Kotra

On our last trip to Kotra, the sun shone. On this occasion (end January), the sky was uncharacteristically overcast. Little did we know that it would rain heavily during the night. Such downpours occur once or twice during the winter but bring little relief to the local farmers whose struggle with the semi-arid conditions of southern Rajasthan is constant and the object of this field trip undertaken by Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development team. The goal is to explore, with the local community, opportunities for conserving monsoon rainwater, irrigating larger areas of local farmland and the best use of land so as to enhance the availability of water.

On the journey down, we pass local dwellings,

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the occasional village and fields, some of which are dry

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and others, which have benefited from irrigation, lush and green

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with a variety of crops, including wheat and BT cotton, castor and lentils.  The local communities are poor but, from time to time, there are signs of investment in much needed agricultural machinery, including the occasional tractor.

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On arriving in Kotra, we make our way to the local community which we visited on our previous trip to be shown the recently completed lift-well which enables more local farmers to irrigate a much greater area of their land and to increase their crop. The principle is that water is pumped from a local well to higher ground from which it can be used to irrigate land which would otherwise be impossible to cultivate.

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The well is in good condition and the farmers proud of the new pump.

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The first part of the day’s activities is to sit with leading members of the local community (men and women) to discuss water conservation and further irrigation.  There is a plenary meeting to outline the objectives and hear local input.

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While they have representatives of Seva Mandir with them, the villagers are keen to learn of progress in providing them with Ecosan toilets (which use no water and turn solid waste into compost).  Seva Mandir has had great success rolling these out throughout southern Rajasthan, where 60-70% of families have no access to any kind of toilet. The farmers are also concerned that, whereas the lift-well used to provide water for six hours a day, now that the weather is drier the water is running out after only three hours, though the well does fill up again overnight. Work needs to be done on the system by which it fills up. A last point mentioned is the frustration at the lack of electricity in the village. It had taken two years for the electricity company to connect the lift-well (and even now the supply is irregular), but they did not connect the village at the same time. Whereas over the state border in Gujarat every remote rural shack has power, as can be seen by the pylons rising above the fields, the same is certainly not true in Rajasthan. This is all the more frustrating when the stark contrast is so visible.

After the plenary session, the NRD team splits into two groups. One team explores options for further expanding the area served by the lift-well and discusses with farmers plans to diversify agricultural activities so as to enhance the availability of water.

We join the other team exploring opportunities to conserve monsoon rainwater, which will involve repairing existing check dams, restoring drainage lines to channel water running off the hillsides and building a small dam in a riverbed so that water can be directed into nearby fields. Seva Mandir plans to work with farmers to strengthen the gravity flow of irrigation so as to save fuel and promote eco-friendly farming.

The initial exercise is to draw a map of the area. This is done as a group activity on bright yellow paper. Key points in the local landscape are plotted.

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Once the basic details of the map have been completed, our team heads off to walk to the points of interest, starting with a drainage line which needs to be restored. Measuring and further mapping are undertaken.

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It is clear that local families desperately need more water.

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We slowly climb up to the main road where additions are made to the map.

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The possibility is explored of planting more trees to give some protection against soil erosion when the monsoon rains pour off the hillsides.

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This part of Rajasthan borders Gujarat and there are any number of local Gujarati taxis carrying passengers wherever they can find a seat (or standing room).  One senior local prefers to walk.

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We proceed down the road past some wonderful banyan trees and local farm dwellings before making our way down to a riverbed, now largely dry but which is obviously an important source of water during and following the monsoon, thus supplementing irrigation from the lift-well.

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This is where a small dam will be built and the senior engineer explains to us that dams up to a certain size can be built without permission from the relevant government department.

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We also learn that, for the moment, no more water harvesting projects can be undertaken under the auspices of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), India’s largest public employment programme, which guarantees employment via development activities prescribed by the Panchayats, the village-level elected government bodies which are very influential throughout rural India. So many water harvesting and irrigation projects have been built through this mechanism that there are now apparently more dams than teachers or hospital beds. But there was no supervision of site selection or construction of these projects, so most have proved useless. Alas, an all too common tale of a good idea implemented inefficiently.

Along the way, we inspect a pumping system which, when the water level is high enough, is used to irrigate adjacent fields.

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Leaving the riverbed, we make our way through fields planted with castor. The plant looks extremely prickly and we ask how it is harvested.  It transpires that the prickles are quite soft and that the crop is picked by hand.  ImageImage

Castor oil is produced from the seeds, which look like this.

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Further along, castor gives way to wheat and we can see evidence of lift-well irrigation as water flows down from higher to lower areas along channels which have been dug to provide direction.

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Our circuit takes us back to the meeting area and the teams convene again to complete the maps and summarise the activities which need to be undertaken.

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After this exercise, by which time it is approaching mid-afternoon, our local hosts serve a well-earned meal in a delightfully decorated semi-enclosed terrace.  This is a good opportunity to practise our eating skills without utensils.

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We then head back to the Seva Mandir ‘block’ office where we spend the night.

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It has been a fascinating day and we look forward to a future visit to see the progress made.  Once again, this is a wonderful example of Seva Mandir working with local communities to assist them improve the conditions in which they seek to cultivate their land.

Overnight it rains and we spend an equally fascinating but very different morning the next day visiting Kotra town.  Our next blog will report on our experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Udaipur

As we left Robin and Mary’s on that first evening to head to dinner, Robin had explained that the throng outside were mourners.  A neighbour in the small alley leading to their door had died and the nine days of mourning were almost over.  As we picked our way past the separate groups of women and men, the women seated mainly on thin green matting on the ground while some of the men were on chairs, we pressed the palms of our hands together, fingers pointing skyward in front of our chests, and exchanged ‘Namaste’, good day, with individuals.  There was a small temple a little way down the alley on the left which appeared to be a focal point for the mourners. Its doors were open to reveal a shrine reverberating in yellows and gold contrasting with the faded colours of the doors and walls of the alley outside.  Many of the mourners were still there when we returned from dinner.  By the next day, the numbers had dwindled and nine days of mourning were over.

To find the main street between Jagdish Temple, one of the city’s landmarks and an important place of Hindu worship, and the City Palace, which presides over both lake Pichola to the south

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and the old city to the north, and the small band of tuktuk drivers based there, we climbed up steep steps and then made our way along a narrow alley parallel to the one on which Robin and Mary’s house is located, past the local dogs which have their own communities and take little notice of passers-by.

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Here, there were a few small businesses, one exporting Rajasthani craftwork, its industrious owner dressed in western style, with white shirt and dark trousers, filling the doorway on ubiquitous cellphone.  Two doors along was the local dairy complete with milking cows which spend their days wandering along these tiny streets and are brought into a small courtyard at night.

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When, if ever, they last saw anything resembling a green field, one can only speculate.  You see many cows living in the urban areas often ‘grazing’ on the plastic bags which are collected and dumped at specific points along the roads.  Local women buy some greenery in the morning from the roadside vegetable vendors and throw it down for the cows, but this offering is quickly devoured and the search amongst the plastic soon resumed.

On reaching the tuktuk drivers, there is a brief negotiation which results in a 60-Rupee (roughly 60 pence or 1 USD) put-your-hands-in-front-of-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best dash across town.  Udaipur was the location for the James Bond film Octopussy, still screened non-stop in local hotels and guesthouses.  Early on in the action, there is a famous tuktuk chase through the market streets of the old city with stalls overturned, bunting ripped down and trailed in the tuktuk’s wake and pedestrians scattered.  It is, however, a pale reflection of the real thing!  The tuktuk has one wheel at the front steered by handlebars on which the driver also operates the throttle and, very occasionally, the brakes; it is extraordinarily manoeuverable but, if you have not experienced this particular pleasure, you do not have this reassurance. Our previous close encounter with a tuktuk was in Pune earlier in the year and had resulted in what is known in aviation terminology as a ‘near miss’!  This time, we arrive in one piece, if slightly older than by the five minutes which the dash lasted.

The next few days were spent setting up the house.  (We are posting a separate account with more detail of these activities – see the first in our ‘Between the Lines’ posts.)

It is a very long time since we have equipped a dwelling from scratch.  Initially somewhat anxious about the availability of various key items, from fridges to loo brushes, we were soon visiting small retailers in Bapu Bazar as well as newer shopping malls with Indian supermarkets, like ‘Easyday’, which sell almost everything.  However, we had been advised by Mary not to buy fruit and veg in the supermarkets because the produce is not as fresh as that of the vendors. India has recently opened its doors also to international multiple retailers, like Walmart and Tesco, leaving it to the individual states, of which Rajasthan is one, to decide whether to accept them and, if so, how to regulate them.  The long debate leading to this decision highlighted the vulnerability of the smaller businesses, not to mention the street vendors and particularly those selling fruit and vegetables.  However, over 40%, if not more, of all agricultural produce in India is discarded as waste for the lack of refrigerated distribution and storage.  In a country in which malnutrition is still a huge problem, there are obvious potential benefits in the logistics systems of the experienced multiples.  How this revolution will play out and with what consequences for many aspects of traditional life in India, only time will tell – for now, we are grateful the service of the small retailers: ‘When can you deliver?’ ‘This afternoon!’

A number of you have asked about hurricane Phailin which hit the eastern coast of India, mainly the state of Orissa.  We were invited to dinner by our next door neighbour and were able to ask about developments and also catch some reports on one of the news channels.  Following a devastating hurricane in 1999 which killed 14,000 people in the same region, the state and national governments adopted a number of emergency measures in the hope of preventing a similar tragedy.  These included establishing a disaster recovery service and emergency shelters to accommodate those evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure.  It appears that, in the case of Phailin, the forecasters were able to give five days’ warning, which enabled the authorities to evacuate 700,000 people, a truly staggering figure.

As of the last report we heard, there were only four reported deaths attributed to the hurricane.  The prevention efforts were aided by a decrease in the intensity of the hurricane and its relatively short duration.

Further inland, in the state of Bihar, heavy rain and strong winds caused some flooding and led to the cancellation of all flights.  One dinner guest reported that her mother’s plant pots had been blown over, but otherwise limited damage!

There is a political angle to all this.  Next year is election year in India.  Whilst the national parties, Congress and BJP, are well represented in many states, there are local parties which have regional strongholds.  Some of these can and do hold the balance of power in a country in which no single party is likely to secure sufficient votes to form a government on its own.  Coalition government is the norm here.  Accordingly, state governments and the parties which form them are anxious to do well not only to retain or secure power at the state level but also to have the possibility to influence the formation of the national government.  As the plaudits pour in for the preventative actions taken in Orissa and also Andhra Pradesh, these state governments are basking in the glory of a job well done – at least according to the reports we have seen.

Here, in Rajasthan, on the north west side of India (please see the map below), we experienced some torrential downpours last week, but understand that this was the end of the monsoon rains.  The monsoon started earlier and finished (if it is finished) later this year than usual.  It will be interesting to see the effects in the rural areas of semi-arid southern Rajasthan which we will start to visit again shortly with Seva Mandir, the Indian NGO which we will be supporting while we are here.

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We thought it might be helpful to have two categories for our posts.  Those in this series are called ‘India At Large’ and those which provide more detail of specific activities and experiences for those thirsty for more ‘Between The Lines’.