Meet the IAS Officer Who Helped MP Farmers Battle Drought by Digging and Rejuvenating 16,000 Ponds

Author : Odisha Today Bureau | Posted on: 2019-11-02

As the puffy bouquet of clouds begin to move away, revealing a glistening shaft of sunlight, Pop Singh stands at the edge of his farm with a look of satisfaction. At a distance lies his secret to happiness, a huge man-made pond in the midst of his 56-acre farm land.


Today, all of it belongs to him -- the land, the crops, the thousands of gallons of rainwater and a content life, and all this has been made possible by an IAS officer and his water-harvesting model to quench the thirst of many drought-prone villages.


Pop Singh recalls how, just a few years back, this turn of events would have been impossible, especially after he was literally thrown out of a bank for having asked for a loan to dig up a pond!


At the time, his village, located near Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, had been reeling under decades of parched reality, just like its neighbours. With more than half of his fields lying to waste due to lack of water, he was desperate for a miracle. A miracle came in the form of a smart solution -- to build ponds to trap the monsoon waters for irrigation, implemented by a new District Collector (DC).


But, one might ask, what’s so special about this method that has been employed by agriculturalists for the past many decades? The answer lay in execution and approach, replies the then DC of Dewas, Umakant Umrao.


The IAS officer says, “I had a number of focus areas planned when I came to Dewas as a District Collector. I wanted to start with reforms in education and health, but on arrival, I realized that there was a larger problem looming over the region. The area had been experiencing rain deficit for the last 3 years. From every formal to informal meeting I had in the 1st week, everyone pointed out the issue of the lack of water. Dewas was perhaps the 1st district in India, where water was brought in a train. This was much before Latur.”


His challenge was to find an economically viable and sustainable solution to Dewas’ water woes.


Umrao found such a solution that, today, has resulted in more than 16,000 ponds spread across 60-80 acres of land in Dewas, and over 1,000 farmers earning more than Rs 25 lakhs a year.


Additionally, Dewas has not only seen a speedy rise in its ground water level but has witnessed a 20-fold increase in irrigated land -- from a mere 18,000 hectares to more than 4 lakh hectares. An IIT-Roorkee Civil Engineering graduate, who had also studied Economics, Umrao had the perfect plan for Dewas’ transformation. And, that started in 2006 with 40 large-scale farmers.


The IAS officer explains, “Being an engineer as well as a farmer’s son, I could understand the problems of the farmers on an organic level. So while devising a scheme for them, I decided to look at the pond building solution from a business perspective. The end goal was to conserve water and make farming sustainable for them, but pitching it that way might not have worked.”


“For a long time, water conservation has been approached from a perspective of civic duty, I wanted to give it a little twist by bringing forth the angle of a business model for farmers. That’s why we rejected the slogan on the lines of ‘Jal Bachao Jivan Bachao’, and instead introduced, ‘Jal Bachao Labh Kamao’,” Umrao furthers informs.


The idea was to develop an economically viable model for large-scale farmers who could invest in building a pond in only 10th or 20th part of their farmland. The water collected in these ponds for irrigation purposes would then not only benefit them, but also the small farmers around. So, by calculating the need of water required depending on the farm size, the officer made personalized proposals for digging ponds.


Umrao adds, “Big farmers usually use 90% of the water available in a region, and by motivating them to recharge the ground level through these ponds is one of the swiftest methods of conserving water. It also works like a natural cycle of social justice, where they give back to the region what they had used for years. Also, these farmers with bigger land holdings were in a better position to invest in building ponds and become role models to smaller and marginal farmers.”


So, the next step of the Dewas model was the creation of Bhagirath Krishi Abhiyaan (named after the mythological water hero Bhagirath who brought down the Ganges to the earth), by transforming the farmers into role models or agents of change.

Pop Singh was one of the 1st in this movement of transformation.


Umrao recalls that he faced a number of hurdles on the way. The 1st one was getting a loan. At the time, getting a bank loan to dig a pond was something no one would have imagined.


Umrao says, “I was the one to send Pop Singh to the bank for a loan. But, after he was literally thrown out and insulted, I intervened and was told that no bank in the country had, until then, offered loans for digging ponds. Finally, another bank agreed but at a prime lending rate of 17-18%. Pop Singh agreed, and in a few years, not only did he pay it all off, but his income grew from a few thousand to almost Rs 40 lakh a year.”


He adds, that digging for the smallest pond (minimum half a bigha) would be an investment of about Rs 1.5 lakh or Rs 2 lakh. Another aspect that IAS Umaro concentrated was to ensure a shorter break-even time period.


According to him, for projects like these it usually takes 20 years to breakeven.


He says, “But, I wanted to ensure that they get the returns in less than 3 years. For that, the scheme helped the farmers take 3 crops instead of one. Also, the continuous recharging of the groundwater helped them to fight drought effectively.”


Pop Singh’s success story, one of the firsts then, resonated with thousands of other farmers in the region. Not only did his pond end water scarcity in his area, raise the ground water level, but also motivated other large farmers to join in.


Soon word spread to nearby districts like Vidisha, Ratlam, Mandsaur, Ujjaina and Raisen, where farmers adopted the same model. Seeing the success rate, more banks began to provide loans to smaller farmers and at lower rates as well.


Umrao adds, “Now, when you enter the villages in the area, it’s a surprising sight to behold. From thousands of functional tube wells, pucca houses to expensive cars, these villages are filled with signs of prosperity.”


Further, owing to its transformed ecosystem, these villages have emerged to become hotbeds for migratory birds like Siberian cranes, butterflies, etc. Since then, IAS Umrao has been sharing this model with other states as well, including the drought-prone Bundelkhand area in Uttar Pradesh, and Marathwada in Maharashtra. Meanwhile, other regions like Latur and Chandrapur have already adopted it.


Its success motivated the Madhya Pradesh government to create mass impact in 2008 by adopting the Dewas model under the name, Balram Talab Yojana. In 2011-12, it was selected by the United Nations as one of the three top water management practices globally!


Concludes the water warrior of Dewas, IAS Umakant Umrao, “People don’t realize this, but land is not the most important element for farming, its water. And, adequate supply of water can truly transform lives. Dewas is a living example of how years of environmental degradation can be healed with the right approach, innovation and perseverance.”

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