Jaldhaara: Promoting sustainable agriculture for improved livelihoods and enriched lives
by Shachi Chaturvedi
Alwar is a land of contradictions. Based on human development indices of the Rajasthan government, Alwar stands sixth in terms of development.[i] Yet it is ranked fifteenth when it comes to poverty indicators.[ii] Agriculture and livestock are the primary sources of livelihood, even though the region has been deficient in rainfall for the last few years. In 2015, there was a deficit of 20–59 percent in the district.[iii] These paradoxes are seen in well-developed cities such as Alwar and Bhiwadi as well as in subsistence economies like Thanagazi.[iv]
Thanagazi block is located some 50 kilometers from Alwar city. The region is drought prone and dry most of year with heavy rains during monsoon months.[v] The land formation is such that water flows downhill fast, and recharge is meager. As a result, the government has declared the block a dark zone, where groundwater levels have receded to the extent that they cannot be recovered.
In this backdrop, the work initiated by S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) has been crucial to help residents of Thanagazi through the drought-like conditions. Sehgal Foundation has implemented the Jaldhaara project in the area to recover water levels and to enhance agriculture and livelihood for the villagers. The project aims to promote water-efficient agriculture and improve soil health for better productivity in five villages of the block: Samra, Hamirpur, Natata, Jaitpur Goojran, and Kaled. Interventions, such as promoting kitchen gardening, aim at better and healthier lives for women and children. The objective is to provide the means as well as to build the capacity of residents to improve their standard of living.
The foundation carries out soil testing, soil health management demonstrations, farmers’ trainings, community meetings and farmers meetings, composting techniques and fodder demonstrations, and field day celebrations to promote agriculture and livelihood development.
Since the Jaldhaara project began in 2014 through May 2016, there have been 153 community meetings, 86 farmers meetings, 251 soil tests, 88 soil health management demonstrations, 312 kitchen gardens, and 19 composting and 204 fodder demonstration activities.
Building consensus and promoting inclusivity
To begin a project like this, villagers are educated about the issues, and then consensus is built on the need for development works to be carried out in partnership with the foundation. Village-level surveys are conducted to assess the requirements. Once these technicalities are covered, the organization supports the formation of Village Development Committees (VDCs) that include members from all sections of the society. This inclusiveness ensures transparency and fairness in decision-making. A typical VDC has about ten to fifteen members. VDC meetings are held once a month to discuss the development work to be initiated and the progress of work already begun. Using consensus, and keeping in mind that the benefits of the work are equally distributed, the VDC decides on who the beneficiaries of a particular initiative should be.
At a VDC meeting in Hamirpur village in Thanagazi block, the efforts to ensure inclusivity and clarity were evident. Hari Ram, coordinator for agriculture projects at Sehgal Foundation’s Pratapgarh center, located in Thanagazi block of Alwar, announced, “We are here to discuss how we will conduct the fodder demonstration in Hamirpur. At the end of the demonstration, we will compare and evaluate to see if the process has improved your produce.”
Detailing the process of a demonstration, Hari Ram said, “On one bigha of a beneficiary’s land, roughly 1,618 square meters, the farmer sows the seeds as per his usual methodology on half of that area. On the other half, the farmer cultivates as per newly suggested methodology. At the end of the season, the produce is compared. Before harvesting, we celebrate by organizing a farm day (khet diwas). We will invite people from other villages as well so they can see the impact.”
Promoting better agricultural techniques for better harvest
These demonstrations have been successful. Ground reports of the 2015 bajra/pearl millet demonstration revealed that the demonstration plots harvested 80–130 kilograms more bajra than in the controlled plots. The impact on the mustard crop was less dramatic, but the production from demonstration plot was still 40–50 kilograms greater.
Har Sahay, a farmer from Samra village in Thanagazi block, had cultivated mustard under the soil health management demonstration in the 2015 season. “The methodology suggested by the foundation has worked. The produce in the demonstration area of my farm was 35–40 kilograms more than what I could cultivate. I will continue the methodology provided by the foundation. It didn’t rain as much, else the impact would have been more,” he said.
Soil testing is another initiative that has helped the farmers in improving their produce. Two samples are taken from each farm in each village and sent to private laboratories to determine the nutrients in the soil. For instance, the soil testing report of Gopi Sogan’s farm in Samra village showed that the soil was deficient in sulphur, zinc, iron, and phosphorus, suggesting the use of fertilizers that have these elements.
Bhagwan Sahay, also from Samra village, was also happy with the results. He said, “The foundation representatives took soil samples from my farm and provided me with the results. I now know what is deficient and what inputs will be needed for a better produce.”
These interventions have brought crucial information to the doorsteps of the farmers in a region that is low on literacy. Based on the soil testing reports, and with knowledge gained from agricultural demonstrations, farmers can augment their agricultural output.
Empowering women to fight nutritional deficiency
Women make up the primary agricultural workforce in the region. During the harvesting season in particular, women often work extended hours in the fields while also managing their households. Sehgal Foundation has made efforts to reduce some of their drudgery and enable women to make decisions. One vital tool is kitchen gardening. With more than 300 implementations, kitchen gardens have been beneficial not only in financial terms but have also become a source of better food for the villagers. Women were at the forefront of this intervention.
Hari Ram explained, “When we came here, we surveyed the villagers on their eating habits. We found that they were mostly eating rotis (flat and round bread made of wheat flour), onions, green chilies, and chutneys. The diet lacked nutritional value. The village market being far, it is difficult for them to buy vegetables regularly. We found the land around their houses was dry and being wasted. So we suggested that women to take up kitchen gardening to develop the land around their houses not only to improve the intake of vegetables in food but also to build a barrier against hot winds and dust.”
To further support this initiative, the foundation distributed seeds of vegetables and fruits to women, including radish, spinach, carrots, gourd, bitter gourd, peas, and brinjal seeds or saplings. By 2016, almost 1,400 people had benefited from in-house gardening.
“The women have been very positive, and the initiative been very successful so far,” said Hari Ram.
Prem Kolli of Samra village said about her small garden, “It provides me the vegetables for domestic consumption. I rarely go to the village market these days. I also save Rs 1,000–1,500 by growing my own vegetables and fruits.”
Teeja Devi of Natata village has a larger piece of land around her house. “It used to be barren with no vegetation. Under guidance from the foundation, we dug up the land and planted many vegetables. All my vegetable requirements are met by my garden. I am also saving about Rs 1,000 per month,” she said proudly.
A survey done by Sehgal Foundation in January 2015 pointed out that a family of twenty members was able to save Rs 100–120 daily by utilizing vegetables from their home gardens.
The families, especially children, now have quality organic food to eat. This has improved their health as these veggies provide them with minerals and nutrients that were previously absent from their diet.
These endeavors coupled with a little motivation have made a big difference in the daily lives of people in the project villages of Thanagazi. Sehgal foundation has envisaged a blueprint for a better life. Thanagazi residents have welcomed and been part of implementing that blueprint, and good rainfall will surge the impact of these initiatives.
(This article was written by Shachi Chaturvedi, a freelance consultant, who travelled to the intervention areas to report on the impact of the project.)