'The miracle of paenghara has shown us the way to live again'

By Ranjan K Panda

People in the tribal village of Padia Badmal, in Sambalpur district, have revived the traditional practice of building paengharas, or small tanks, to help combat drought. This simple intervention has led to improved yields, less outward migration and a greater sense of confidence and security among the villagers

 The village of Padia Badmal lies deep in the forest, 50 km from the district headquarters of Sambalpur in Orissa. The fruits of modern-day development are yet to reach this village; it has no electricity and the villagers have to walk at least 13 km to visit the primary health centre.

Barely 13 km from National Highway No 42 and the block headquarters of Jujumura, Padia Badmal is inhabited by around 350 people, most of whom (close to 80%) are tribals.

The inhabitants of Padia Badmal have traditionally depended on the forests for their livelihood. But, as the forests grew thinner every year there has been a shift in livelihood patterns, with agriculture, which is monsoon-dependent, becoming the chief occupation. In recent years, however, the failure of the monsoons and subsequent droughts has forced many villagers to abandon agriculture as well.

With the only kata (traditional water harvesting structure) in the village becoming defunct over the years, drinking water became scarce. In 1989, the government constructed a check-dam, at a cost of Rs 6 lakh, which was supposed to replenish the kata. But that too became useless soon after it was 'completed'.

Repeated petitions to the administration gathered dust in offices. By the early 1990s, most of the villagers had started to migrate to find work as farm labour in the irrigated villages of the Hirakud Command Area, enlist in government-sponsored programmes in faraway villages and work on construction sites in Sambalpur.

In 2001, with help from Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (MASS), a voluntary organisation based in Sambalpur, the villagers decided to chalk out plans for their own development. They began with several informal meetings that resulted in a systematic participatory rural appraisal to understand the problems of the village in their totality. The villagers then chalked out a number of interventions, depending on their capabilities and weaknesses, resources and hurdles. The entire village and its resources were mapped and elders consulted about traditional ways of managing the resources.

It was at this stage that the villagers began to realise the effectiveness of fighting drought with traditional methods. A village map was drawn up keeping in mind the movement of water during the monsoons and the topography of the land. People who owned land at the immediate foothills had abandoned their mal jamin (uplands) due to heavy deposits of silt that flowed each year from gullies in the surrounding hills.

Armed with local knowledge about soil type, etc, and with technical assistance from the engineer and staff at MASS, an integrated intervention plan was drawn up. This included gully-plugging to check soil erosion, developing the land and improving its fertility through suitable bunds, increasing vegetative cover in eroded places, etc. The villagers also worked out the exact amount of money that would be needed to put in place the various interventions, and an overall treatment plan.

Meanwhile, a farmers' club called the Brajeswari Krushak Club was formed, headed by its president Nrusingha Charan Naik. Five women's self-help groups had already been set up, and there was a growing sense of self-confidence in the village. Today, the women's self-help groups possess a substantial amount of savings (around Rs 1 lakh), and have even invested in petty businesses, most of them forest and agriculture-based. These two people's organisations gathered further strength from the integrated intervention planning process.

Soon it was time to start the actual interventions. The villagers worked on their own fields and on others' fields -- sometimes with payment and sometimes without -- as part of the pancha system (a system of cooperative farming). A total of 11 paengharas (a series of small tanks to collect rain water flowing down the hills during the monsoons) were built, on average costing between Rs 5,000 and Rs 6,000 each. This, along with the labour costs, put the total cost of the paengharas at around Rs 1 lakh.

The chain of paengharas, system of gully-plugging at various points in the hill, and overall land development have worked wonders within a year. Things would have been even better if last year's monsoons had been good, says Rasanand Kuanr who built himself a 10 metre x 20 metre paenghara at a cost of approximately Rs 6,000.

Around 50 acres of land are covered by the paengharas through seepage irrigation. As part of the integrated plan the kata was also revived. But, although the kata now holds four feet more water than it did last year, more funds will be required to deepen it. "Only then can we can achieve the desired goal of drought-proofing our village," says Kumudini Bhue. "However, the institutional structure is ready and development here has been on the socio-economic and ecological fronts," says Chittaranjan Hota, senior programme officer with MASS. "We had abandoned multiple cropping and had to buy cereals and pulses. This year we started with mung (green gram), kultha ( horse gram) and biri (black gram). Training the villagers to use bio-fertilisers has helped them go 'green' again and they have started thinking about taking it up in the coming years. Some have already experimented with it and got good yields," Naik explains.

Another important intervention taken up by the villagers is the study of traditional drought-resistant paddy seeds that helped their ancestors cope with the drought years. "We are not only studying (them) but have started collecting the seeds," says Naik. "We have created a seed bank which will cater to the needs of the farmers during the sowing season." Naik explains that the farmers will take seeds from the seed bank to sow, and return with interest in the form of seeds so that the bank will develop and, in a few years, will not have to depend on external seeds and moneylenders. This way they plan to fight exploitation at the hands of the moneylenders who are, normally, also the fertiliser suppliers and have slowly dragged the farmers into more-water-consuming, external-aided agricultural practices.

Thanks to these simple interventions, migration from the village in search of a daily wage has stopped. "If the interventions continue and we are successful in all our plans then, in a few years, our village will be an example for the entire district," says a confident Naik. In the words of a song composed by Santi Majhi, an active member of one of the self-help groups: "Paenghara jadu kala, aamku jinbar baat dekhala." ("The miracle of paenghara has shown us the way to live again.")

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005