India: Restoring the Fertility of Parched Lands in Karnataka

October 1, 2009

Caroline Suzman/World Bank

Farmer Gundappa's wizened old face beams with pride as he stands amidst the young mulberry trees that shoot up from the once-parched earth. “Although the past few monsoons have brought very little rain, I haven’t been worried at all,” he says, pointing to an open well at the corner of his field. “I now have enough water in my well to keep my fields green,” he says confidently.

Three consecutive years of drought had dried up the water in local wells, making it difficult for Karnataka's farmers to grow anything. The interminable wait for an unpredictable monsoon has long been the lot of farmers with unirrigated lands on this dry dusty plateau stretching across much of southern India.

Now, a small check dam across a nearby stream has given Gundappa's farmlands a new lease of life, and the old farmer a new-found sense of security. The cement and stone check dam –looking somewhat like a speed breaker - has slowed the seasonal torrent of water that rages downstream during the monsoon rains. This has allowed the water to seep slowly into the ground, recharging the farmer's long-dry well.

The driving force behind this rural rejuvenation is the Karnataka Government’s innovative watershed development project – known locally as ‘Sujala’ – and supported by a World Bank credit of $100.4 million.

With water readily available, Gundappa has planted big-leafed mulberry trees on land that could barely yield coarse grains till not so long ago. Gundappa plans to use the mulberry leaves to raise silkworms for the region’s thriving silk industry - the area is known for ‘milk and silk’- and feed the remainder to his cows.

Conserving soil and recharging groundwater

The check dam is one of the many measures that are being taken to revitalize farmlands in seven of the driest and most drought-prone districts of Karnataka, India’s driest state after Rajasthan.

Till now, without a reliable source of water, most of the region’s farmers could grow crops only during the monsoon rains, and that too, mostly the few coarse grains such as ‘ragi’ and ‘jawar’ that are suited to these withered soils. Left with no productive work for the rest of the year, many small farmers regularly migrated to nearby towns in search of poorly paid jobs as manual labor.

But now, the project is helping communities to change all that. Farmers are raising a variety of strategically placed bunds to retain rain water, arrest soil erosion, and prevent the silting up of water courses downstream.

Farm productivity is rising

As a result, groundwater tables have risen in areas where the project has been completed. With more water available, the growing season is longer, crop yields have risen, and farmers are able to cultivate two or more crops a year. Better productivity of lands is raising farmer incomes substantially.

A new method of growing paddy – the Madagascar method known locally as Jalashri - which uses far less water and fewer seeds, yet gives higher yields, is being introduced.

The cropping pattern has also changed. Farmers are moving away from subsistence farming by growing a wider range of higher value cash crops suited to local conditions.

The area under horticulture has also increased. In Haveri district - the driest district in Karnataka – and elsewhere, mango saplings, sapota, custard apple and pomegranate are taking root on once-barren lands. Mulberry plantations are increasing to feed the region’s growing silk industry. As a result, migration into towns for work has dropped noticeably.

" Although the past few monsoons have brought very little rain, I haven’t been worried at all. I now have enough water in my well to keep my fields green "


A mulberry farmer in Karnataka

Forests are greening once dry watersheds

The project is also working to check environmental degradation by planting trees along the catchment areas. Rising populations and growing demand for agricultural land has led to the widespread deforestation of crucial watersheds, leading to rapid soil erosion and rendering large tracts of land unproductive.

To reverse this trend and improve tree cover, a wide variety of forest species are being planted on common lands in upper watershed areas, along field bunds and nalas, as well as around farm ponds, fields and schools. Trees whose wood can be used by communities for building or firewood, or those whose fruit can be sold such as neem, amla, and tamarind are being propagated.

Livestock helps raise incomes

Livestock rearing is being encouraged as an additional source of income, particularly for landless women. Rural youth are being trained as para vets – called Gopal Mitras – to bring technical expertise to farmers’ doorsteps. As a result, milk yields in the region have increased by 15%. Surface water harvesting structures like farm ponds have created space for the breeding of fish.

Remote Sensing used to plan and track progress

A unique feature of the project is the use of state of the art technology. A blend of satellite and ground based monitoring systems play a key role in planning, implementation, and tracking of progress made. Thematic resource maps have been integrated with demography, rainfall, transportation and literacy data to help prioritize works. An independent team from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is monitoring and evaluating progress made on an ongoing basis. Field NGOs are using special software packages to track progress.

Raising incomes for the landless too

As improvements to land primarily benefit landed farmers, measures are being taken to help the landless as well. Members of vulnerable communities are being brought together into Self Help Groups (SHGs), trained in marketable skills, and helped to access credit to start up micro enterprises of their own.

Women, especially widows, are being trained in tailoring, pickle making etc. and access to credit is helping landless men and women to increase their livestock herds of goats, sheep and cows.

Some 6,600 new self-help groups have been established. These groups have mobilized more than $4 million in savings to help their members establish small businesses. More than 60% of the SHGs are now linked to commercial financial institutions, leveraging additional credit for larger enterprise start-ups. Money-lenders are no longer a major force in these communities.

People’s participation

An essential feature of the project is the emphasis on people’s participation and building strong local institutions. This is vital for the project’s long term sustainability. Under Sujala, communities work with technical teams to decide on the nature of the watershed development they would like to see in their village. They are actively involved in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of improvements to their land and water resources. Farmers share the costs for all soil and water conservation measures on their land creating a stronger sense of ownership. Transparency is key, and all details of land holding, funds disbursed, as well as farmers’ contributions are prominently displayed on village walls.

While the project is still ongoing, it is yielding valuable lessons for the way forward in watershed development. Many lessons from the project have already been incorporated into government watershed development programs in Karnataka as well as in new national watershed policy guidelines.