Best of 2019: Farmers push back desertification in Odisha

Community interventions to dig wells and ponds has enabled farmers to fight drought and halt the trend of desertification in Odisha’s Balangir district

by Basudev Mahapatra | Dec 28, 2019
Misin Jal of Pandel village carries water from a dug well to his farm where he is cultivating aubergines (Photo by Basudev Mahapatra)

Byasadev Bhoi of Pandel village in Odisha’s Balangir district was excited while showing the pond the villagers have dug. The pond has changed their lives by ensuring water to irrigate about 150 acres of farmland even during the dry season between January and May. Byasadev, 58, is happy that the young members of his family don’t need to migrate to other states in search of jobs any more, as they are now able to grow more than two crops in their fields.

Balangir district is chronically drought-prone, and this was not the life villagers of Pandel lived before.

Rule of drought

Located in Deogaon block of the district, Pandel was suffering from drought almost every year. Agriculture was the most affected occupation because of acute water scarcity, which often resulted in crop losses.

“Less and erratic rainfall never helped agriculture. Every year we expected the rain to be proper, which never happened since decades,” said Nrupati Bhoi, 50, another farmer. “Without any irrigation facility in place, the situation worsened year by year.”

Over the past many years, Balangir has been receiving deficit rainfall. According to India Meteorological Department (IMD) statistics, against the expected rainfall of 1,174 mm between June and September, southwest monsoon rainfall in the district was 932 mm in 2018, 779.6 mm in 2017, 866.1 mm in 2016, and 857.9 mm in 2015.

Parched paddy field during the drought of 2015 (Photo by Basudev Mahapatra)

So, every year, the farmers had to encounter drought. Crop loss became a regular phenomenon. On the other hand, “the surrounding forest, which supported our survival during the distressful times following crop loss, was also lost,” said Dhruba Charan Tripathy, 55, a farmer who is also Pandel’s village priest.

March of desertification

Research finds it significant that the zones registering the maximum decline in rainfall are those that are undergoing appreciable loss of forest cover. Again, if drought years prevail in succession, the streams and rivulets depending on the gradual release of water from the forest soil dry up, resulting in desertification of at least the marginally sub-humid zones.

Part of the Eastern Ghats, Balangir has a tropical climate. It is a hot and sub-humid agro-ecological sub-region. In the past 30 years, this district has reported an average temperature rise of eight degrees Celsius.

Deforestation followed by further degradation of the forest due to frequent drought-like situations, increasing albedo (radiated heat), growing water stress and soil quality deterioration converted the surroundings of several villages into a dry, shrubby brown landscape. The district was approaching desertification because of these factors, Aswini Rath, professor and head of botany department at the Balangir campus of Centurion University, said on the basis of a study he conducted.

Trail of migration

“There was no rainfall, no agriculture and no forest, as if nature was taking revenge on us. Finding no other way, youth and middle aged people from all families had to migrate to distant places and other states to find a job and earn for their family,” Misin Jal, 55, said. “Many landless farmers used to migrate along with their families to work in brick kilns and construction sites under unhygienic and hazardous conditions.”

Migration was a compulsion for the villagers to feed their families, as there was no grain at home, and there was no other opportunity for a livelihood, Madhab Margachi, 38, said.

Balangir has a history of distress migration, primarily induced by incessant droughts. According to Ajit Panda, a researcher who has done an in-depth study on poverty and migration in western Odisha, “Post monsoon every year, more than 70,000 people migrate from Balangir district because of drought and crop loss.” Some even apprehend the number of such climate change-induced migrants from the district alone to be more than 100,000.

While most of them work at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, many work in construction sites in far off places in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Some even opt to become seasonal rickshaw pullers in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.

But now, “everybody is engaged in agriculture. Forest is rejuvenating to provide livelihood support. We don’t need to migrate outside anymore in search of jobs,” said Sudam Pradhan, 39, who migrated to Kerala and Tamil Nadu earlier.

“Migration has come down drastically to almost zero in almost all villages where irrigation facility is developed,” said Fakir Kumar Bhoi, 30, a resident of Pandel.

Combating drought

In a state of acute water scarcity, people of Pandel village kept fighting to escape the decades long suffering.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.