Nagavalli tank, in Tumkur, Karnataka, covering 288 hectares, is the region's traditional lifeline for farming. This tank had dried once four decades ago. But it's failure to hold water for the last five years has turned into a curse for the local economy.

Borrowing heavily from banks, farmers have sunk hundreds of bore wells in the adjoining villages. This has only aggravated the problem. The numbers of bore wells are increasing, but water is still scarcer. A water market has cropped up with farmers selling irrigation water to other farmers at Rs 40-50 per hour of supply. The downfall in the income has compelled a bank to downgrade its Nagavalli branch to an extension counter.

Coconut garden in Jaya farm with harvesting measures. Pic: B J K Swamy.

In stark contrast, the Jaya farm belonging to agriculture graduate Jayanna, now 75, shows rays of hope. Totaling 45 acres, the farm has bid good-bye to water shortage to a considerable extent. "Most of our gardens too would have withered by now, leaving us in misery," says B J Kumara Swamy, 41, Jayanna's engineer-turned-farmer son. Apart from the main crop of coconut, they grow arecanut, cocoa, paddy, etc. Jaya farm's turnaround is due to intensive soil and water conservation measures followed in the last decade, and this has cost the family Rs 8 lakh. Their turnover from the farm runs to Rs 4-5 lakhs, annually. (1 lakh = 100,000.)

Fifteen years ago, their open well was the main water source. It would not dry despite continuous pumping of water. Some portions of garden were kept moist by the Nagavalli kere (tank). Rest was rain fed. Once the dug wells started failing, they dug more bore wells. The number reached 11 in a decade since 1990 to 2000. Out of this, three have turned totally dry, and three others are partially yielding.

If water is stored at the highest elevation (perhaps by run-off into a pond), it percolates slowly and brings up the water table in lower areas. This increases the soil moisture in the lower areas.

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It was at during this time that Swamy came to know about rainwater harvesting (RWH) from the local media. To gain knowledge, he bought magazines, books and videos that contained information on RWH. Since 1993, he started practicing this in his fields. Jaya farm's 45 acres are fragmented over ten separate locations. Each plot warranted a separate method of treatment.

Today 40 out of the 45 acres have zero-run-off, i.e., all the rainwater that falls in this area does not run away outside. Starting from contour bunds and trenches, Swamy has taken shelter in many soil and water conservation measures to suit the specific conditions. In doing so, he has used common sense. For example, the mango orchard has the most fertile soil of the whole farm and Swamy was reluctant to 'waste' the same soil for trenching or bunding. So, he brought tank-silt from nearby area and utilised it for bunding. (Soil and water conservation have not been taken up on 5 acres of paddy fields.)

Realising that all the run-off from his neighbouring plots goes unutilised, he dug a 2.5 kilometre long channel to 'import' this 'external' water to his farm. This, after a series of checks at higher elevations lets water empty into a big farm pond. The topography of the land here is slightly undulating, with gentle slopes. In such areas, if water is stored at the highest elevation (maybe run-off into a pond), it percolates slowly and brings up the water table in lower areas. This increases the soil moisture in the lower areas, where the coconut trees are, in this case. "Making a farm-pond at the highest point of one's farm," says Swamy from experience, "helps you to preserve satisfactory levels of moisture down below." This type of construction is technically called percolation pond. If the run-off is stored in a newly constructed pond in the lower elevation areas, it won't give much benefit to this gardener.

The higher elevation percolation pond. Pic: B J K Swamy.

Swamy's dry open well has a capacity to store 6.5 lakh litres of water. He has diverted all the available run-off to this well after passing it through a series of silt-traps. The well fills 3-4 times a year, percolating all the water silently.

It isn't just about water. In these parts, farmers sell coconut husks for fuel. Swamy, on understanding the importance of mulching, stopped husk-selling long back. The nearby farmers either burn or throw away lot of farm residues like arecanut leaves banana trunks etc. Every year Swamy gets 20-30 tractor loads of organic material to mulch his gardens. "While bringing this, I tell those farmers that I am doing this for my benefit. I suggest them not to waste this organic material," points he, "but only a few accept my advice."

Increasing the plant population is another simple but effective method that Swamy has wisely adopted, to fight drought. For example, in place of barbed wire fence, a live fence was developed using plants like plants like Seemethangadi (Cassia siamea). Inside the areca garden, he has grown vines like sweet potato, mimosa invisa, etc. "Though it poses problems for collecting areca nuts after harvest, the benefits overweigh this headache," says Swamy. The mat of green checks evaporation and facilitates more microbial activity, thereby increasing the soil fertility. All of his gardens are now thickly mulched either with farm waste material or with live vines.

"Most of our farmers complain that rainfall is very less even without measuring it," points out Swamy. He cites the example of the drought year 2000. When all the neighbourhood farmers were telling that there were no rains at all, Swamy's farm pond was filled four times that year!

Swamy was earlier getting around 6,000 coconuts from 250 coconut trees. After the soil and water conservation measures, the same garden yields around 14,000 nuts. But he is still not able to solve the water crisis in areca nut gardens. According to him areca nut is not suitable to our area. Also, one of his coconut garden that was almost wilted due to drought 4-5 years ago now oozes out lot of seepage water in monsoon. His contour bunds and trenches aren't successful in checking this out flowing water. Swamy plans to dig a farm pond here to catch the excessive out-flow.

"Soil and water conservation is the prime most and first step towards sustainability," emphasises Swamy. He has conducted a demonstration programme in his farm to popularise rainwater harvesting. His small library containing many books and VCDs on RWH is open for interested farmers. But there are very few takers. "Many of them haven't realised that groundwater decline and loss of topsoil is the root cause of our crisis. For them, this is destiny. Some farmers still think that one or the other bore well will provide them more water. A few others are afraid that if we catch rain at upper areas, the tanks in lower areas won't get filled."

Yet, the message is spreading, albeit in a snail-like pace. Neralapura Gangadharamurthy, Thondagere Viroopakshayya, Sundarakuppe Jayanna, Karadagere Ravi, Mallappanahalli Rajappa, Bidirakatte Ravi and a few others have followed Swamy and have got success. "If we have to attain sustainability," says Swamy with hope, "each and every farmer in the whole area has to follow such measures."

B J Kumara Swamy, 41.

His mulching and RWH has permitted him to start irrigation at least two months later than his neighbours. Some of his coconut trees, as an experiment are totally rain fed today. And the yield, according to him, is encouraging. Swamy has no regret for spending a fortune on soil and water conservation. "I harvest about half a crore litres falling from my neighbours lands. As per my calculation, for each rupee spent, I catch 100 litres of rain. If I haven't resorted to these measures, I would have ended up digging three times more bore wells than what I have today, of course with no better results. Now I am convinced that we can raise gardens here without bore-wells and drip irrigation."

The ING Vysya Bank Ltd. now runs only an extension counter for three days a week where a full-fledged branch was running for two long decades earlier. "Scarcity of water has deprived local farming community of its earning capacity," points out Manager R K Raveendra, "we have no other way but to write off many small loans of Rs 5 to 15,000."

In the service area of this bank that spreads over to 35 villages, eight financing institutions are functioning, all facing a tough time. Drying of the Nagavalli tank and the resultant water shortage is at the root of economic crisis here. Forget about repaying loans, farmers are finding it difficult to clear their interest dues.

Farmers have to be convinced that the solution is not in digging more and more bore wells, but in catching rain and retaining top soil, soil moisture and fertility. For their part, instead of shutting down branches, banks may do well by taking up enlightenment programmes to inspire farmers to take up soil and water conservation. Exposure visits to farms like Swamy's would slowly draw their attention towards earth-repair work. This would, in the long run, mean bringing back the sustainability of farming as well as banking in such drought-prone belts.