Can a small investment of, say, ₹97,000, for digging farm ponds make for increase in farm incomes and improvement in farmers’ livelihoods? Can such farm ponds lead to an increase in cropping intensity and higher productivity? Can these minor investments then be replicated across the country as only 50 per cent of India’s net sown area of 140 million hectares is currently irrigated?

Evidence from the ground in North Karnataka and Telangana under the initiative of an NGO, the Deshpande Foundation, indicates that with awareness creation among farmers, CSR spends by corporates, focused lending by banks like SBI and support of institutions like NABARD, big changes at the grassroots level are possible.

In districts like Dharwad, Bellary, Kalaburagi and Karim Nagar, farm ponds of the size of 100 feet by 100 feet with a depth of 12 feet, constructed under the aegis of the Foundation are now helping farmers draw water for their crops without even the availability of large irrigation systems. Instead of single cropping, the beneficiaries now do multiple cropping and naturally, output has increased.

Thus, even as the sector is roiled by controversy at the national level over the three farm laws and their proposed repeal, there are low-key transformational activities in various States which is perhaps why agriculture turned out to be the only positive contributor to our GDP last year, despite Covid. The trend continues this year too.

Deshpande Foundation

The Deshpande Foundation started work in 2014 in Navalgund Taluk, Dharwad, to help farmers in the drought-prone area cope with erratic availability of water. Initially it was funded with CSR allocations but soon enough, it turned into a demand-driven programme when farmers experienced benefits.

So far, more than 6,200 farm ponds have been dug, the latest ones with bank loans which are till now being promptly repaid. The Foundation is also involved in promoting micro entrepreneurs, skilling of rural youth and encouraging start-ups from its India headquarters in Hubli.

The latest in the initiatives of the Foundation is a Rural Transformation Technology Centre in Hubli which gathers real-time data with IOT devices, satellite imagery to understand ground conditions, provide accurate and actionable technical advice to farmers in addition to helping in other objectives like micro-entrepreneurship, start-ups and skilling of rural youth. The Centre, which employs the latest technology, is ready for operations and is open for preview now.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation, Vivek Pawar, narrates the evolution of the farm pond concept: “Frequent episodes of drought can have a devastating impact on agriculture in affected regions. We need a sustainable agricultural system that uses water optimally and reduces expensive and environmentally challenging inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides. The farm pond initiative is one such programme initiated in 2014 by the Deshpande Foundation in association with the Ratan Tata Trust.”

Impact assessment

These observations have also been validated by an impact assessment study by KREA University recently. Apart from improving water availability and efficiency of usage, the most impressive outcome has been the increase in the income of small and marginal farmers, following the Deshpande Foundation’s intervention.

The KREA study reports that, based on its sample, 77 per cent of the farmers observed an average of 64 per cent increase in their incomes. Across all farmer categories, income more than doubled for 15 per cent of the farmers. Further, for the rabi season, small farmers reported 78 per cent increase in profits while semi-medium farmers experienced 73 per cent improvement in profits.

All this was possible because of a fundamental shift in tapping a key resource: 74 per cent of farmers observed an improvement in water availability while 88 per cent of farmers observed an increase in irrigated land, thanks to the farm ponds. There was a marked enhancement in land-use efficiency too, which rose to 89 per cent after the farm pond was constructed. After the construction of farm ponds, farmers cultivate more land, and their fields are occupied for a longer duration

The only other programme of a similar nature in recent years was the earlier Maharashtra Government’s Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan which aimed to make 5,000 villages free of water scarcity every year and make farmers believe that “every drop of rainwater is owned by me and it should percolate in my land”. Though it gained traction initially, the programme has been now given up almost.

In Karnataka, NABARD’s experience with the farm pond initiative by Deshpande Foundation has also been good. According to Neeraj Varma, CGM of NABARD, it has signed a tripartite MOU with SBI and Deshpande Foundation, under which it will provide incentives for formation of 1,000 Joint Liability Groups (JLGs), credit linkage after formation and monitor repayment.

A JLG is an informal cohesive group of 4-10 members who agree to be responsible for the credit taken, ensuring that the group has a close peer-to-peer engagement. In the present project, the JLGs would take up construction of another 10,000 farm ponds in water stressed areas to be facilitated by the Foundation and financed by SBI. From a banking perspective, these are replicable national models for credit-support if mediation of such NGOs, functioning on scientific and disciplined lines, is ensured.

The writer is a top public sector bank executive. Views expressed are personal