As against government’s promise to make water available through the seasons, inadequate check dams have not brought any relief to farmers in this semi-arid region who continue to struggle for sustenance
A major part of Birbhum district of West Bengal that borders Jharkhand has always had water woes — not enough to douse a fire at times. In 2011, when people heard about the proposal to build check dams, they were exhilarated.
Earlier, they had been excited about a proposal to introduce a canal system. When nothing came of that proposal, they resigned themselves to a perennial drought-like situation. They felt that their fate was sealed by the laterite soil of their land. When people learnt that the proposed project would be implemented through a World Bank-funded Accelerated Development of Minor Irrigation Project(ADMI), their hopes were rekindled.
The Rajnagar administrative block is one of the backward areas of an underdeveloped Birbhum. The eastern part of the district fares better, as it adjoins the rice belt of the neighboring Burdwan district. The fertile soil of the east rolls into the red soil of western Birbhum.
The red soil is a remnant of the rocks of Chota Nagpur Plateau and is unyielding. A substantive part of western Birbhum is thus unproductive. But the land that can come under the plough has a different problem.
The rivers that run through the region are shallow and seasonal. At other times, they can be best described as brooks that disappear with the onset of summer. Here the temperature soars as high as 480 C. The laterite soil cannot retain any moisture.
The ponds dry up and turn to puddles, not enough even for the buffaloes to wallow in to maintain their body temperature.
The government had considered introducing a canal system. The plan was to use the canals for irrigation. However, the scheme did not materialize and western Birbhum remains a water-starved locality.
Yet, the principal occupation of the people of Birbhum and Rajnagar is farming. As farming depends on the vagaries of the rain god, the farmers can grow only one kharif (summer) crop of rice. Though practically and economically unviable, rice has been the only option of farmers for ages.
Some farmers whose fields are adjacent to a pond or a kando cultivate vegetables. A kando is a natural depression of land where rainwater collects and remains till winter.
Check dams, the solution?
The surmise for construction of check dams was that they would transform the agricultural landscape of Rajnagar for better. By retaining the rainwater long after the rains ceased, new irrigation techniques could be implemented, which in turn would prolong the crop-growing season. Western Birbhum farmers felt that they could finally grow a rabi (winter) crop.
It was thought that the water from check dams would remain till the next monsoon. Apart from recharging the nearby wells it would prevent bore wells from drying up in the scorching summer. It was also envisaged that the spillover from the check dams would help lands other than those under its direct reach.
In Rajnagar block, under the ADMI project, the public works department (PWD) constructed a total of seven check dams, at a cost of Rs 6 million each, equipping them with solar-powered water pumps. A water users’ association (WUA) with 202 farmers was registered to manage the distribution of water.
When winter had just set in, there was water in the reservoir of Abadnagar check dam. When the sun was about to set, a villager from a neighboring village came to bathe and wash clothes, despite the nip in the air.
“This check dam is a good thing, but it does not serve its principal purpose,” Gour Mondol, a graduate, a rarity in Abadnagar, told VillageSquare.in. The villagers believed that the pump would help distribute water efficiently, but it did not. The system could not pump water to the farther fields. Only those near the check dam, of about 100 bighas (40 acres) of land, got some water. The rest remained deprived.
The standing rabi crops of wheat, potato and mustard needed about six irrigations, according to the villagers. “This water is not more than waist deep and it won’t last more than four irrigations,” Sanatan Sil, a resident, told VillageSquare.in, after observing the crops and water from the Abadnagar weir. “Not enough for a good rabi harvest.”
The area and the depth (1.5 m) of the reservoir were found wanting. It appeared that the planning agency did not take the undulating topography into consideration, while designing the check dams. Another factor that seems to have been overlooked is the high temperature, aridity and heat waves that western Birbhum experiences.
The rabi crop might not get sufficient water this year too. The villagers said that the reservoir would be as dry as the nearby ponds in summer. “It will not help farmers during the kharif season, if the rain is late,” said Sanatan, debunking the government’s claim of the check dams supplying water though the year.
The monsoon runoffs from the neighboring fields carry sand and mud into the reservoir, diminishing its depth. In the three years since its completion, the bed of the reservoir has risen substantially. The government has not de-silted the reservoir bed.
Money has been spent but not well spent. The weirs of the check dams are already showing cracks that are likely to widen in future. The sluice gates have rusted and do not work properly. Maintenance does not come under the purview of WUA; and the government has moved on. With water levels so low, the WUA has become redundant.
Lack of sustenance
The demography of western Birbhum comprises an equal percentage of general and scheduled castes (SC). Lesser percentage of SC own lands. Most farmers are either sharecroppers or with smallholdings, less than four bighas (1.6 acres) generally.
For the farmers of Birbhum, who cultivate rice, last year was not good. With erratic rainfall, the yield was less than the average six quintals per bigha, which is half the yield registered in Burdwan, a leading rice producing district.
Revenue from the farms fetches them just their meal and snacks, rice and puffed rice, respectively. There is no scope for regular income in western Birbhum that boasts of a single industry, the state-run Bakreswar Thermal Power Plant.
Sisir Sheet took his cows into the barren fields for grazing. As far as one could see, there was nothing but dried rice stalks jutting out of the brown earth. He said that he does not make any money from the four bighas that he owns.
According to the dairy statistics of West Bengal, released by National Dairy Development Board(NDDB), the yield of cows in Birbhum is less than in most areas of Bengal. The cows here lose a lot of calories in finding grass; and the dried grass does not provide good nutrition.
Waiting for water
The situation is the same in the check dams in Dubrajpur and Khoyrasole blocks. The check dams have become just an extension of the traditional kando. It has not brought about any change in the rural economy. People’s enthusiasm is dead. Moreover it threatens to create a divide between the privileged and the deprived farmers.
Water controls the lives and economy of places like Rajnagar. For the predominantly agrarian population of marginal and small farmers, the situation has not improved. Water from the check dams, ponds and kandos barely irrigate 10% of the land during rabi season. A second crop in western Birbhum is of utmost necessity for the sustenance of farmers.
Despite the failure of check dams, the government has floated tender for the same at Sainthia block, with topography similar to that of Rajnagar.
“The government must find a source of water to channelize to western Birbhum so that we can have a life,” Gour told VillageSquare.in, sounding hopeful. Many districts of West Bengal suffered disastrous floods in 2017. All that wasted water could solve Birbhum’s water woes.
Gautam Sarkar is a documentary scriptwriter and filmmaker. He makes films on social and rural themes. Views are personal.
Even at 76, Pradip Burman, the zestful chairman of Mobius Foundation radiates a contagious enthusiasm when he is talking about sustainability. The environmental crusader, better known to many as the great-grandson of Dabur founder Dr S.K.Burman, has devoted substantial attention towards promoting the concept of sustainability in all aspects of life. He refuses to conform to the convenience and comfort in today’s world which ultimately adds on to the adverse effects of climate change.
Talking to The Logical Indian, Burman emphasised why sustainability as a concept is indispensable for us. “We ought to be aware of what lies ahead of us. Soon we will finish the oil, iron, tin, and coal, and our next generations will be left with nothing. Recycling, banning plastics, stop felling trees for paper… This should become a part of everyone’s lifestyle,” he urges.
Traditional wisdom and modern research
A mechanical engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, Burman had always nurtured a keen interest in helping the society, as evident from his graduation project of designing a sonic aid for the visually challenged, which detected obstacles in the way using ultrasonic wave signals.
As an executive for the nature-centric company Dabur, Burman has always opted for natural alternatives to solve his everyday problems like taking Ayurvedic medicine to cure his Arthritis. He later launched the veterinary wing for Dabur – Ayurvet – which provides nature-friendly solutions for animal health care.
A patron of the ancient scientific wisdom of India, Burman always hailed the confluence of “traditional knowledge and modern research”, which he advocated as the Ayurvet motto.
As part of the CSR initiative of Dabur, Pradip Burman founded SUNDESH (Sustainable Development Society) which has been tirelessly working for last 25 years in remote villages for uplifting the rural communities in an environmentally sustainable way.
An advocate of sustainability
Burman believes that sustainability is the indispensable mantra for the world at present. Due to uncontrolled utilisation of the planet’s resources by human beings, the world today stands at a juncture of destabilisation. Today the human race has reached the pinnacle of progress but the advancement is happening in a very unsustainable manner.
Through energy-efficient use of everyday essentials like transport, communication, altered habits of diet, clothing and daily living, some crusaders of sustainability try to reduce their carbon footprint. Pradip Burman’s Mobius Foundation is one of the forerunners toward sustainability goals.
Mobius Foundation aims to change the sustainability dynamics
In 2015, Burman paved the way for the start of Mobius Foundation, focused on sustainability. Named after 18th-century German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius, the famous Mobius strip has an important philosophical significance. The extraordinary shape symbolises balance and union.
Similar is the essence of Mobius Foundation which wishes to enhance the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” principle to a widespread basis in India, helping generations to come.
Founder Pradip Burman wishes to achieve notable development in education, population stabilisation and renewable energy projects.
A dream school in the making
At Coorg, Pradip Burman’s Mobius Foundation is constructing the World Environment School, Coorg (WESc) where the curriculum will surpass the boundaries of books and classrooms, with a special focus on hands-on learning in close collaboration with the environment. Amidst the pristine natural beauty of Coorg, the school will nurture young minds to grow up into future green leaders. As of now, the school will be open to teenagers, welcoming students from standards 6 to 12.
Needless to say, World Environment School will be the first-of-its-kind not only in India but also in entire South Asia. The school is expected to start from March 2020.
The school promises to nurture the responsible behaviour of citizens of our future.
The Sustainability Conference of 2019
In 2019, the Mobius Foundation has planned an international conference, on the lines of the celebrated earth summits over the past decade. The 2019 International Conference on Sustainability Education (ICSE 2019) aims to bring together environmental activists, practitioners of sustainable development as well as climate change experts to help develop a sustainability-focused curriculum.
It is surmised that the conference will give a platform to innovative concepts of Sustainability Education including an essential change in the existing education system ensuring a wholesome personal development for a student.
The Sustainability crusader
The Mobius founder strongly believes that it is high time to sprout sustainability awareness among a society drowning in consumerism and unknowingly doing irreparable harm to the planet, every second. The best way to achieve this goal is through education which is available to all. At present, the education system is predominantly career-oriented, making the learners a victim of materialism, and thus, their dreams are also outlined in those colours.
Living beyond the limits
When asked about his wish to attain the age of hundred, he strongly asserts that more than becoming a centurion, he wishes his life and work continue to better the society even in his absence. “I have lived my life. I wish that whatever I start before I go, will continue – for the betterment of my country,” says Mr Pradip Burman.
He is also a trustee of the Climate Reality Project – India (affiliated to Mr. Al Gore of the Climate Reality Project Foundation, USA). Climate Reality Project, India, has been actively engaged igniting the spark and spreading the message of climate change amongst educators, policy makers and civil society. The India branch looks after more than 500 trained Climate Leaders, and more than 900 volunteers spread all over the country.
In his journey, Pradip Burman has been a beacon of hope for millions, motivating many to join the movement for sustainability. We wish he continues his tireless efforts for promoting sustainability awareness and inspire generations to come.