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India: In Uttar Pradesh, farmers green their barren lands

October 18, 2006


It is a land that turns dreams to dust. Nothing grows in these sodic lands of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state. Generations of farmers have failed to coax a living from this powder-fine topsoil.

Today, however, splashes of green dot the landscape. Wheat and paddy sway in the fields and village grain bins are full. “Earlier, our lands wouldn’t even give us fodder,” says Pavitra Devi of Dhandwa village in Jaunpur district of eastern UP. “But, today, our crops are flourishing.”

Across the state, swaths of sodic lands are being reclaimed by a farmer-driven program propelled by the state-run UP Bhumi Sudhar Nigam Ltd (UPBSN). The program is supported by a World Bank project - the $ 194 million UP Sodic Lands Reclamation (II) Project - that is building on the successes of an earlier project which ran from 1993 to 2001.

What are sodic lands? 

Sodic lands are those lands with a high content of salts like sodium carbonate and bicarbonate. In areas with a high water table or where drainage is inadequate, the alkali salts in the earth’s crust get dissolved.

High Salt Content

In 1998, when the project began, some 1.2 million hectares - almost 10% of the state’s total cultivable area - was too degraded to farm.

Although the region has plenty of surface and groundwater, the soil in many areas was poor. The pattern of rainfall - heavy monsoon rains followed by long dry spell - and an ailing irrigation and drainage system had led to a high build-up of soil salts mking cultivation difficult.

While the technical know-how to reclaim the land existed, most people in the area were too poor to do so. Some two-thirds of them lived below the poverty line and a third belonged to the marginalized scheduled castes.

Land holdings in the area were too small to be viable. Average holdings were only 0.4 hectare, whereas a minimum of 1 to 1.5 hectares is considered to be economically viable.

Most farmers did not have clear title to their land. They had received their lands during India’s land reforms of the 1970s when land was distributed to landless laborers and poor marginal farmers. In most cases, however, their rights had not been formalized; farmers possessed only a piece of paper.

Reclaiming the Land

The project helped farmers to secure unfettered land titles by working with local land records departments.

Once the farmers had clear possession of their lands, it helped them organize themselves into small water-user groups of 10 to 15 farmers. Each group, centred around a tubewell, acted as a reclamation team.

Local NGOs helped train farmers in testing soil quality and in preparing fields for reclamation. They scraped the top soil, leveled the fields, and built contour bunds. Tubewells were drilled and drainage channels dug.

The reclamation itself was a simple process that the farmers soon mastered – gypsum was mixed with the soil and the fields kept flooded for 15 days. When the water was drained, it washed away the harmful salts.

This left the land ready to be transplanted with its first crop of kharif (summer) paddy, followed a winter crop of wheat, and an intermediate crop of dhaincha, a nitrogen-fixing green manure that replenishes the soil before a second paddy crop can be planted.

Two or three cycles of these crops, along with efficient drainage, leaves the once-barren sodic soils ready to yield any crop, from oilseeds to vegetables to flowers.

" Earlier, our lands wouldn’t even give us fodder, but today our crops are flourishing. "

Pavitra Devi

A farmer from Dhandwa village in Jaunpur district of eastern UP

A Host of Benefits

The project has blunted the edge of poverty in this chronically-impoverished area. It has helped raise incomes for hundreds of thousands of poor families enabling them to improve their standards of living by buying household goods and investing in livestock and better farming equipment.

In Bilar village of Hathras district, where sodic fields are now yielding onions and cabbages, Kunwar Pal Singh, the village head, says: “Now, all of us have enough grain for our needs and we have built pucca (brick and mortar) houses.”

Cropping intensity has increased from 37% to 200%. Yields of wheat and rice have doubled. After five years, yields and incomes have risen by 60%.

In some areas, land values have quadrupled. Says Sundar Singh of Bilar village in Hathras district, "This land used to be worth only Rs 500 per bigha; now I won’t give it up if someone offers me eight times that amount.”

Wage rates have doubled. As a result, the seasonal migration of labor out of the project villages has substantially reduced. Says a farmer in Shobapur village, “When my usar (sodic) fields were barren, I used to go to Bhopal, Bombay and Calcutta looking for work. Now, where is the time?”

Supplementing Incomes Through Microfinance

The Project has helped village women to come together in more than 7,500 self-help groups where they pool their savings - sometimes as little as five rupees - and borrow as the need arises.The women of the area are also sowing the seeds of their own revolution.

The women have been trained in a range of skills that can add to household incomes. Some have learnt tailoring or pickle-making while others have learnt to weave baskets.

The project has also helped connect SHGs to the formal banking network, enabling the women to take loans for setting up micro-enterprises – from sewing machines, to grocery and vegetable shops, and goats and buffaloes.

In Aligarh and Hathras districts, countless women’s SHGs are involved in making little glass beads that fuel north India’s burgeoning costume jewellery export business.

Empowering Women is the Surest Way to Change the Community

The most striking aspect is the change in the women themselves – they are now more assured and more assertive. Empowered by their collective strength, women in countless villages have taken charge of their lives in a hundred different ways.

They have orchestrated regular visits by medical workers, set up Grain Banks, and even initiated their own literacy programs, slapping a Rs 20-fine on any member who still puts a thumbprint on SHG records.

“When women feel liberated, it liberates the whole community; you can literally see the change this has brought about in these villages,” says the Bank’s Paul Singh Sidhu.

In Dhandwa in district Jaunpur, the change is most visible in the cleanliness of the village, in the villagers’ knowledge about health and hygiene, and on the premium they place on education, he says.

Village Families Now Demand Better Education and Healthcare

By spurring entire communities to aspire for more, the project has helped bring about a deep-seated change. Villagers have now begun demanding better education, better healthcare, and better sanitation. “The Project has helped spark a continuum of development,” says Sidhu.

Nurturing Mature Government Institutions

Over the ten years of the program's two phases, the government implementing agency - the Uttar Pradesh Bhumi Sudhar Nigam - has also matured and improved its capacity to handle complex issues of participatory management, women’s empowerment, human resource development and technology dissemination, in addition to its land reclamation activities.

Now, sodic lands elsewhere in UP and other states need to be reclaimed. Farmers also need to be encouraged to diversify into higher value crops depending on the agro-climatic conditions of the area and the market opportunities available, says Sidhu.