a magazine on ecological agriculture
a one stop treasure of practical field experiences

The journey from grey to green

Development of watershed is an approach to make best use of the rainwater for agricultural production while improving soil conservation and bio-diversity. By harvesting rainwater on the upper and middle slopes, the farmers in Mankadmundi tribal village could bring in an additional area of 63 hectares to grow crops with protective irrigation.

A farmer checks his mixed-cropping of black gram, horse gram and chickpea

A farmer checks his mixed-cropping of black gram, horse gram and chickpea

Mankadmundi is a tribal inhabited village of Dasmantpur block in Koraput district of Odisha. The region receives an average 1,300 mm rainfall annually. Most of it is received in intense storms during three months of the year. Four-fifths of the rain gather into rivulets and streams, rush down the narrow valleys, get lost – carrying tons of precious fertile soil with it. People in the village could grow only one crop of upland paddy, millet/ maize a year.

Generally, water applied to the crops is not measured. Farmers have a tendency to flood their field with excessive water when it is available as it does not incur any additional cost. This has resulted in leaching of salts, increased soil salinity, affecting yields and increasing costs. If only they could tap some of the extra water and use it to irrigate crops, then they could grow another crop after the main one.

The remaining nine months of the year are dry and parched. Unable to grow anything in the dry soil, farmers migrate in search of work. Sometimes, distress migration is the only option to sustain.

The journey

Tribal farming community had an invaluable wealth of indigenous knowledge about managing scarce water to grow crops.

The village leaders approached Agragamee, an NGO that has been working in remote tribal areas of Odisha since 1987, and asked for help. Agragamee staff held many discussions with groups of villagers. Together, the villagers and Agragamee conducted a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) to identify the problems, map its natural resources, and identify opportunities for improving the grim situation.

One of the things that emerged from the PRA was the invaluable wealth of indigenous knowledge about managing scarce water to grow crops. For example, farmers designed their wetland rice fields in the village bottomland so that they could capture runoff from the hillsides. To prevent the wetland fields from washing out during heavy storms, they diverted the water in channels along the edges of the fields – where it could be tapped for use during the dry spell. However, less than 10 percent of the cultivated land was irrigated in this way. Agragamee suggested applying this principle to a much bigger area.

Agragamee perceived that recovery of water cost, promotion of micro-irrigation systems and involvement of water user’s group for water distribution would significantly help in improving the water use efficiency and reducing the cost of agricultural production. As a result, they designed a 5 year Watershed Development Project (WDP). Under the WDP, the catchment area of a basin is considered as a unit and efforts are made to harness rainwater by treating the land from the ridge to the valley.

Communities built a series of stone bunds and dug staggered trenches along the contours to harvest water on the steep slopes. This has significantly facilitated water percolation while reducing soil erosion. Between the bunds they planted trees such as cashew, mango, litchi and jafra to conserve the soil and produce extra output. While trees demand less water and can withstand water stress, they also serve as wind breaks to reducing evaporation losses.

The villagers also built a check dam across the stream to harvest some of it, to grow crops. As the stream is nearly 10 meters lower than the land to be irrigated, a diesel pump was used to lift water to the highest point on the fields. A gently sloping channel then carries it from field to field. Because of this long flow path, much of the water percolates into the ground, increasing the soil moisture while recharging wells and ponds at the lower level. Farmers regulate the distribution of water using planks. If there is too much water, they let it flow down to the stream again.

Efficient cropping patterns

The success of any intercropping system depends on the proper selection of crop species so that they do not compete for light, space, moisture and nutrients. More diversity in the farming means more stability, resulting in reduced pest infestations and disease incidence. The combined yields of two crops grown as intercrops are higher than the yield of same crops as pure stand.

After the project: check dams on the river, with a pump to lift water to the fields
After the project: check dams on the river, with a pump to lift water to the fields

Agragamee promoted some of the most successful intercropping system amongst the farmers- inclusion of legumes as intercrops in paddy and mustard; Intercropping of legumes with cereals (like upland rice) helps in conserving moisture by reducing runoff, improving physical properties of soil and building-up soil fertility. Intercropping with different canopy architectures (like legume and mustard) have an edge over growing solo crops of mustard. On the other hand, pulses that acts as a rich source of nitrogen, providing food and fodder, also is a hardy crop like the millets. They grow well in dryland conditions and require less water to grow.

Dealing with nature’s adversaries

Despite practising the indigenous system of cropping, farmers continue to face many challenges like delay in monsoon, moisture stress, erosion of top fertile soil etc. Farmers have also learnt how to deal with such challenges. For example Mandia Disari of Tentuliguda village says that “when the monsoon fails, and there is more than 50% of mortality rate of paddy owing to 15-20 days dry spell after sowing, we usually re-sow the crops. This is done up to July after receipt of sufficient rain water along with intercropping with green gram, horse gram or cow pea in a ratio of 2:1 or 2:2. In this case, the fields should be free of weeds for utilization of water and nutrients by the late sown crops. During the rainy season, when there is heavy rainfall coupled with wind blow, the crop fields face severe soil erosion. To mitigate this, we cultivate crops like pearl millet and pigeon pea which provide cover to the soil, thus resulting in considerable reduction in runoff and soil loss.

Water Governance System

One of the striking features that Agragamee did was to encourage the villagers to form a Watershed User’s Society to govern the watershed development activities. The Society is self-governing and is registered with the government. The Society collects dues from people who benefit from using the pump and the water. This money goes into a maintenance fund. The amount collected depends upon the crop: Rs.400-500/- for a hectare of rice, and Rs. 100/- for a hectare of millet.

Local youth have been trained as barefoot engineers to maintain the pump and canals. If a complex repair is needed, the Society pays an outside mechanic using money from the fund.

Perceptible impacts

Cropping of indigenous Maize with Tomatoes
Cropping of indigenous Maize with Tomatoes

Before the project started, food security situation in Mankadmundi was serious. Only 30% of residents got enough to eat round the year. Another 40% managed to get enough for six months a year, while the remaining 30% had enough for only four months. But now, after project interventions, around 70% of the families have food all year round and the remaining 30% have enough to eat for at least 7 months. The villagers have formed grain-banks as a buffer stock against food shortages.

The water table has risen, increasing water availability. Farmers now grow vegetables such as tomato, brinjal, chilli, cauliflower etc in both rainy and winter seasons. They eat part of their produce and sell the rest in the local market. The multi-crop production has improved the people’s nutrition – especially for the children.

Before the project interventions, 30 percent of the families in the village were engaged in shifting cultivation which was no longer sustainable in the area because of the very short fallow periods. With increased cropping intensity, people no longer have to clear forest land to grow crops, resulting in forest conservation.

With improved access to irrigation, farmers feel it is worthwhile taking care of their land. They rent out fields they cannot cultivate themselves to landless farmers, arranged through the Watershed User’s Society. In this way, many landless people now have the chance to earn a living in the village. For instance, labourers find wage work up to 200 days a year, stopping distress migration.

The higher incomes are reflected in people’s belongings. They have started building houses from stone rather than the traditional mud. They have bought bicycles, radios, clothing and cooking utensils. They have money to deal with health problems. They visit the market more often because they have more to sell, and more money to buy things with.


The Watershed project has introduced sustainable land management practices in selected watershed areas through cost effective and replicable conservation technologies; vegetative, soil, water and moisture conservation measures to encourage land use as per people’s needs and to ensure full participation of watershed users in the development and management of common properties.

Many indigenous technologies like the one used in Mankadmundi have potential for scaling up. But they have to be documented, validated and fine-tuned so that they fulfil local people’s needs. Small-scale programmes that are less expensive and more effective have major potential for expansion in the hilly areas.

Abhijit Mohanty
Fund Raising Manager
Bhubaneswar, Odisha