The Deepening Crisis: Women farmers reflect on the unsustainable agricultural and water trajectories. Initial insights from the village Rawangaon, India

By Seema Kulkarni [1], Sneha Bhat [2], Irene Leonardelli [3] and Sachin Bhopal [4]

Rawangaon village typifies the unbridled expansion of groundwater use in canal commands in India. Rawangaon in Pune district is in the command area of Khadakwasla project which is a major source of water for Pune city and other small towns in the district. Rawangaon village is served by two minor canals of the dam and receives water from a colonial irrigation tank called the shirsuphal tank. Like in most canal commands those at the head end of the canals benefit the most from both gravity flow as well as groundwater recharge.

Much of the area in the command of the canals is served by groundwater rather than the surface water gravity flows. The number of wells and boreholes in the command is estimated to be more than 3000. This is a large number of wells considering that the village has about 900 households and an area of about 1,000 ha. Our initial field data collection, shows that the number of dug wells and boreholes has been on the rise since 2010 which is around the time that the canal system had started becoming deteriorated. Every year new boreholes get added and the older ones go deeper, in search of deeper aquifers.

Farmers are seen to invest in various measures to ensure water security for their cash crops among which is mainly sugarcane but also horticulture. This includes constructing farm ponds or buffer storages to store groundwater or canal water, installing kilometres of pipelines from their wells, or nearby tanks or streams to deliver water to their farms, siphoning water from the canals into their wells, paying hefty bribes to government officials to grant them permissions for illegal lifting of the water. During scarcity a household could be spending four times of what they earned in that year  to ensure that water reaches their farms. Farmers whose lands are at the head end of the canal usually do not invest so much money as they often benefit from groundwater recharge.

Figure 1: The cost for securing water

As water insecurity sets in farmers invest more and more to secure water access and gain control over the situation. Each of these stories is interesting and could be followed to get a better view into how farmers are constantly evolving and adapting to the various dimensions of water insecurity. Meanings attached to water insecurity would also differ from village to village and within villages across social groups and genders. Group discussions with farmers tell us how their thirst for water increased after 2010 when canals stopped functioning properly, but also by which time crop choices had changed drastically as a result of the macro policies stimulating agrarian change. The current study converses with women across diverse social and age groups on their work in agriculture and how they look at changes in their work and labour relations, and relations at home with reference to shifts in water and agricultural uses.

Interviews that we did with several women farmers showed how over the last decade water reallocations have been taking place. While sugarcane was cultivated earlier, it was mainly for production of jaggery (unrefined coarse brown sugar made from sugarcane juice). However, this changed over the last decade when sugarcane, a water guzzler became the priority crop that would ensure the farmers guaranteed prices and assured markets. With these changes in uses around water, relationships with labour changed and so did relationships within the households.

Figure 2: Securing water in a farm pond

The 90-year-old Rakhmabai Pomane reminisces how water was a scarce resource then but was used wisely. Absence of extractive technology also meant that there was a limit to how much water could be drawn. The traditional systems drew water through a pulley or moat method or through animal labour called as the rahat. These are manual irrigation methods by which water is drawn out of wells with the help of a pulley and is used to irrigate fields. A Rahat is a method by which, water is drawn out of wells by bullocks. The bullocks move and rotate the wheel which pulls out the water from the wells. Rakhmabai says that it would take a full day to irrigate a few cents of land[5]. The electric pumps of modern day do that in a matter of few hours. She was only 8 years old when she got married and came into this village. Ever since she has diligently worked on the farm and grown with the changes in agriculture and irrigation practices. Farming was enjoyable then, she says as much of it was not mechanised so there were a number of labourers on the field to interact with. She explains that in those times she “… could decide on which crops to take. Crops were diverse and we did not use any pesticides’’. Rakhmabai said they did cultivate sugarcane 50 years back too, but that did not dominate her entire farm. She grew cereals and pulses that were also necessary for consumption. Rakhmabai blames the water crisis mainly on increasing pest infestations, changes in agricultural practices and decline in rainfall.

Suvarna Pomane her daughter-in-law in her 50’s shares her stories since she came into this village after marriage. She says that “thirty years back when I came into this village the crops were diverse but that has changed over the last decade or so and now only sugarcane and pomegranate is grown”. Moreover, she shares how the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has grown manifold and how women too, do the spraying of the pesticides now, something that was never done a few years ago. These pesticides affect her health, but if she does not apply that she knows that her produce would be affected. Unlike Rakhmabai, Suvarna says that “despite my hard labour I have little say in decision making in the farm’’. Her work burden has increased after irrigation and pesticide use and her health has deteriorated.

Chhayatai (42 years old) speaks with great pride about her farm. She explains: “My husband has been ill for the last 15 years and I have to entirely manage my farm by myself. I was born in Rawangaon and was also married into this village so I know how farming has changed with availability of water”. Chhayatai is able to narrate the water and agricultural trajectories in this village very well. There was no canal in the village till 30 years ago and irrigation was done through dug wells alone. Her family cultivated only half an acre of sugarcane which was sold to the cane crushing units in the village itself. There were six such units in the village in the 80’s. Seeds were mostly traditional varieties of jowar and other pulses. Agricultural scenario changed rapidly when a sugar factory was started in the 1990’s close to our village. Sugarcane became the dominant crop as it got a priority market and guaranteed price.

Irrigating the field is not easy she says, because it is no longer just by gravity that water flows into your farm and you prepare the furrows for irrigating. Irrigation now includes activities around the water infrastructure such as the electric pump, pipelines, maintenance of drip system etc. She narrates how much she has to depend on male mediation for ensuring that all these systems operate well: “Once in the middle of night the electric pump stopped working and that was the time when my sugarcane needed water. I had to run from pillar to post to get it repaired just so that the crop would be saved”. Often these are relations that she has to maintain outside of the services that are provided by the men.

 

Over the years Rawangaon has seen a number of shifts in the agrarian landscape and water reallocations are a significant part of it. Macro policies that promote certain crops over others, chemicals and pesticide use over organic manure, mechanisation over human labour have contributed significantly to the changes that we witness today. Economic liberalisation and changing climate add a few additional layers to this process of change. Presently sugarcane is the dominant crop along with a few other horticultural crops such as pomegranate, custard apple etc. Watering practices largely include micro irrigation even for sugarcane which is a water intensive crop. Farm ponds or the buffer storages are also thus seen as important to the water storage infrastructure. Boreholes, drip and sprinkler systems and farm ponds are the new symbols of success in the increasingly water insecure village. The prosperous successful man is thus the one who has access to all of this.

All of the women we spoke to cannot imagine agriculture without the water that is available today, but their stories are important to follow to understand the unsustainable path that water and agriculture has traversed through in the last 30 years in this village and how that has changed the lives of diverse groups of people and especially women. It also tells us a story of how people are rapidly adapting themselves to be able to respond to the macro policy shifts often not leading to very sustainable use of groundwater.

Figure 3: Unpaid labour

Through these stories we hope to bring the focus on to the users their knowledges and practices around water and how that is deeply intertwined with social structures, macro policies around agriculture and the environment in general. We hope that stories from Rawangaon, Randullabad and other villages in India would help us expand the groundwater governance discourse beyond its current resource and intervention orientation.

 

[1] Co-founder of Society for Promoting Participative Eco-system Management, Pune (SOPPECOM) and Senior Fellow in SOPPECOM

[2] Research Associate, SOPPECOM

[3] PhD fellow/Junior Researcher at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education

[4] Researcher, SOPPECOM

[5] With hundred cents equals one hectare

©T2SGroundwater

Funding by: