In remote Kandhamal, water brings in change

Access to water at home through natural resource management technologies is changing lives in forest villages of the Odisha district

sarthak

Sarthak Ray | January 2, 2013


A Shrambhukia villager laying the pipes for drip irrigation in his field
A Shrambhukia villager laying the pipes for drip irrigation in his field

Water has brought Padu Mallik home. Padu saw very little of his village, Shrambhukia, for over a decade till last year. When he first left home in search of work, he was barely out of his teens. Today, the rakish, thirty-something from Kandhamal, one of the most remote districts in tribal Odisha, regrets forgetting the smattering of pidgin Malayalam he had picked up working in a pineapple plantation in Ernakulam in Kerala.

Poverty drove Padu out from Kandhamal. For a third of his life so far, he was a daily-wage labourer in Gujarat, Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh and finally, in Kerala. The last was a steady job. Almost. “I lived there every cropping season for six years, coming home for a month or so. My family needed the money I earned,” he says.

He was hired to spray pesticides and fertiliser on the crop and weed the fields. In return, the highest he earned while he was there was Rs 350 a day (Kerala has the highest minimum wage in the country). “I was given a place to stay and food, too. Even after spending as much as I did, I sent home at least Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 every three months,” he reminisces, almost wistfully.

The money was the better than he had ever hoped to make — much, much more than he could make anywhere in Odisha. “I often thought of returning (home) but I knew jobs here would pay me less than half of what I was making (in Ernakulam). My farm yielded just one crop of paddy a year, and the rice lasted us a little under four months,” he says.

Kandhamal receives abundant rain annually but in Shrambhukia and other villages in the hills (a large part of the district is on the undulating landscape of the Eastern Ghats), most of the water flows down the slope or recharges underground streams below the surface. The rainwater washes away the fertile top soil with it reducing agricultural productivity. So, while the kharif yield of paddy was fair, the rest of the year was one long dry season for most villagers. With little to live off the land and the wages from local employment meagre, Padu was like many others from the region – trapped in distant cities, migrants breaking their backs to survive and send home a little money.

The village, and a quiet revolution
Shrambhukia is a village of 36 households spread on the slope of a hill some 18 kilometres along the cobbled forest road that runs from Baliguda block to Rutungia panchayat. A small concrete bridge, no wider than eight feet and no longer than fifteen, over a clear-water stream that runs by the road keeps the village tethered to the rest of the world. The biggest hamlet of its four has 12 households. Clusters of homesteads, amid the few mahua, mango and salapha trees, stand as if on a giant stairway. Each hut overlooks a small clearing of land tilled once a year for paddy or turmeric.

The villagers have depended on forest resources for generations to survive. The women collect siali (a local creeper) leaves which are used to make plates. The men chop and sell firewood and tend to the livestock if they own any. Like in other parts of the region, agriculture never could become a mainstay of the people here because, as mentioned earlier, rainfall’s abundant but water is scarce.

But for Shrambhukia, a lot has changed over the last one year. In 2011, Professional Assistance in Development Action (or Pradan), an NGO with funding from the Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP), set up a water-harvesting and supply system using gravity-flow. As part of the system, water from perennial sources in upper reaches of the hill is drained through plastic pipes to a tank, a reservoir prototype, at a level higher than the village. The water collected in the tank is then supplied to homesteads through a network of pipes laid along the gradient.

Padu saw the promise of homecoming in this water.

Leaving Shrambhukia for greener pastures...
“We had little to do with our fields for most of the year,” Padu says about life in Shrambhukia before he left for greener pastures. “By mid-October, the rains would end, and we would wait a month or so after (that) to harvest the standing paddy crop. That was it.”

Leaving Odisha, his first job as a migrant was in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. The pay wasn’t much, and the work was harsh. It wasn’t long before he left. Odd jobs in construction sectors in Gujarat and Mumbai followed — from mixing concrete to carrying bricks, he did it all. “I hated the work,” he says. “There were few breaks and the work was tiring. Besides, whatever the pay, I would end up with almost no savings sometimes.

“Everything is costly in these places. Sometimes, I would be in debt.”

He was then told about Kerala, where the wages were high and the expenses low. “At the plantation, I realised that I liked farming. The job was something I didn’t mind doing. Second to the pay, the work kept me there for six years. But I had never thought this possible at home,” he says, explaining his long haul there.

...And the homecoming
In March 2009, the NGO Pradan got into discussions with villagers on managing available water. Two perennial streams were identified as potential sources of water. After a series of calculations, the organisation found that water in one of the streams, at Adakriu (further up the hill) could meet daily needs of the biggest hamlet and still have a lot of water left even at its leanest (in mid-March).

That the calculation was made considering projections of population growth in the next 10 years served to only bolster the optimism of the villagers and the NGO. The villagers resolved at a meeting to use the excess water for agriculture — Pradan was to train them in agricultural and land development methods.

By 2011, water was pouring out of taps in the backyards of each homestead in the village.

Padu had followed all of it keenly. He attended the meetings every time he was home from Kerala. The NGO had had his vote since long — he had seen women benefit from forming self-help groups with the NGO’s help to sell ‘siali’ leaves. “For a long time, I had wanted to come home and do something here that could support my family. Here, finally, was the chance,” he says.

It’s been over a year that Padu has returned. It is hard to believe that his land was ever fallow. He squats on a bund (mud boundary) with his back to rows of cauliflower, tomato and eggplant saplings.

Life is changing, and how!
Pradan has partnered another NGO, Harsha, for agricultural interventions in the region. Nearly everyone in the village is busy levelling their land for the next development — laying a drip-irrigation system. The pipes from the main line have already been laid for some fields, including Padu’s. Soon, at the twist of faucet, the fields will be irrigated from water atop the hill with minimum effort.

The water supply has also helped Padu turn an entrepreneur. With agriculture booming in his village, everyone needs saplings. He has set-up a small nursery with a Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) grant —at the nursery, he grows saplings for sale. The money is just beginning to trickle in but Padu is hopeful: “I once called my former employer in Kerala. He was ready to pay me Rs 450 per day. But I think if I manage make Rs 200 a day off my land, I am not going anywhere.”

Pradan is already working on developing market linkages for the likes of Padu.

Life, meanwhile, is changing in Shrambhukia. Padu’s wife Menaka turns the tap and water gushes out. She can’t hide the sheer glee of being able to demonstrate and laughs. “What do you think of my flowers?” she asks, pointing at some marigold plants near the hedge of their homestead. She is thinking of planting some more, may be even enough to be able to sell flowers.

Menaka says she is glad that her husband is home. And then she jokes that she is just as glad that she doesn’t have to walk all the way up to the ‘chuaa’ (stream) to get water for cooking.

Meanwhile, their neighbour stands by a row of papaya plants and points at the plump fruits ripening a few feet from hand’s rich. The aspirations of the people are clearly changing. Padu calls over two field agents of Harsha who have just arrived to his neighbour’s cabbage patch. “The cabbages have not formed as they should have,” he says. “What medicine should we use?”

The homestead water supply has given a fillip to agriculture and incomes in the region. It is on in 20 villages in Kandhamal and is slotted for a scale-up. Governance Now got to attend a meeting of community mobilisers from some Rutungia villages where the water supply is in place. Everyone reported a spurt in the number of people who have gone in for a rabi crop this year over last year.

Vegetable cultivation is catching on in the villages. However, the defining measure of the success came from a chance eavesdropping by this reporter. The teacher of a local school approached the community mobilise of Katrikiya, a village a few kilometres down the road from Shrambhukia, for connecting the school’s hostel to the water supply system in the village. Soon, change could have school certificate!

Soon, sanitary toilets with water connection
The gravity-flow based water supply at homesteads is all set to bring about a lifestyle change in the lives of people in Rutungia panchayat. Pradan, the NGO, has collaborated with Gram Vikas, a Ganjam-based NGO, to construct sanitary toilets in Sirispanga village. As part of the project, Gram Vikas will provide the knowhow and oversee construction, while Pradan will link the toilets to water supply. The project aims to integrate two central schemes with one state government scheme for funds.

From the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme coffers Rs 4,500 will given per toilet, while Rs 4,100 will be given under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Each beneficiary will receive another Rs 4,500 from OTELP for constructing a toilet. The additional costs will be borne by the beneficiary.

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