After Milk, Comes Water: How Groundwater Cooperatives are Revolutionizing Farming in Rajasthan

In Southern Rajasthan, farmers are pioneering a remarkable initiative known as the Village Groundwater Cooperative (VGC), aimed at ensuring both the sustainability of their livelihoods and the preservation of natural resources. Through this cooperative effort, farmers are pooling their groundwater resources, marking a significant shift towards equitable water distribution and conservation practices.
Farmers working in Dharta village in Bhinder block of Udaipur district.
Farmers working in Dharta village in Bhinder block of Udaipur district.Pic- The Mooknayak

Udaipur- In the arid landscapes of Rajasthan's Udaipur district, where water scarcity poses a persistent challenge to agricultural livelihoods, a transformative initiative is underway.

Farmers in Heenta and Dharta villages, nestled within the Bhinder block, have embarked on an innovative journey towards sustainable groundwater management through the establishment of groundbreaking cooperatives. Unlike traditional cooperatives focused on milk or farm produce, this venture revolves around the equitable sharing and management of groundwater resources.

In a region where agriculture has long been hindered by water shortages, the emergence of the Village Groundwater Cooperatives (VGC) marks a turning point.

Here, farmers unite to pool their water reserves, extending support to those grappling with irrigation woes. The tangible outcomes of this collective effort have been nothing short of remarkable, with the recent kharif season witnessing an unprecedented surge in wheat and mustard production.

For many farmers who had languished without access to adequate water for years, the VGC has opened doors to renewed agricultural prospects and economic sustainability.

This introduction sets the stage for a compelling narrative of community-driven resilience and innovation, showcasing how a simple yet profound idea is reshaping the farming landscape in Rajasthan.

Developed through the collaborative efforts of the MARVI ( Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention) project, spearheaded by Western Sydney University, Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology-Udaipur, Vidya Bhawan Krishi Vigyan Kendra-Udaipur, and other partners, the VGC model empowers communities by equipping farmers with the tools to monitor groundwater levels, construct recharge infrastructure, and allocate water resources equitably and sustainably. This collective approach directly confronts the pressing challenge of water scarcity in the region.

The study areas of MARVI are Aravali district in Gujarat and Udaipur district in Rajasthan. Both districts are in hard rock aquifer areas and provide a diversity of transdisciplinary issues in groundwater recharge and management.

Groundwater depth sensor is used for continuous monitoring of water level and  supplements data collected by BJs (Bhujal Jankars).
Groundwater depth sensor is used for continuous monitoring of water level and supplements data collected by BJs (Bhujal Jankars). Pic- Anil Mehta/MARVI project

Bhujal Jankaars (BJs): Empowering Villages through Groundwater Awareness and Management

Bhujal Jankaars, or BJs, serve as local groundwater informants, playing a crucial role in developing village-level scientific knowledge for community engagement and participatory groundwater management.

This unique approach, pioneered by the MARVI project, involves training and capacity building for BJs to monitor groundwater levels, rainfall, checkdam water levels, and water quality. By interpreting this data from a village perspective, BJs help communities understand the dynamics of groundwater recharge and availability.

Equipped with this knowledge, BJs effectively communicate with farmers and other stakeholders in their local language, facilitating informed decision-making and planning for groundwater usage at the grassroots level. They serve as trusted intermediaries between village communities and government agencies, NGOs, and researchers, bridging the gap and fostering collaboration for sustainable groundwater management.

So, what exactly is the Village Groundwater Cooperative?

The Village Groundwater Cooperative (VGC) is like a team made up of nearby farmers who work together to manage the water beneath their village. They all agree to share this water fairly. By talking and deciding together, they make plans for each season on how to use the water for their crops. This cooperative idea is all about the community working together to make sure everyone gets enough water for their fields. It's about fairness and everyone pitching in to help each other out.

Guided by collective decision-making and seasonal planning, cooperative members implement effective water budgeting strategies to optimize irrigation practices.

Strategies include advising farmers with larger farms to plant crops that require less water compared to wheat, which demands more irrigation. Families with more working members are encouraged to cultivate vegetables due to the labour-intensive nature of vegetable farming compared to traditional crops.

By emphasizing community-driven solutions, the VGC model fosters a sense of cooperation and fairness among farmers, promoting the sustainable management of groundwater resources.

 Guided by collective decision-making and seasonal planning, cooperative members implement effective water budgeting strategies to optimize irrigation practices.
Guided by collective decision-making and seasonal planning, cooperative members implement effective water budgeting strategies to optimize irrigation practices.

How was the VGC developed in the Dharta Watershed?

Establishing the Village Groundwater Cooperative in the Dharta Watershed involved a meticulous process undertaken in close partnership with various stakeholders. To know the details, The Mooknayak spoke to Anil Mehta, expert from Vidya Bhawan Society, one of the partners in the MARVI project. He said the project was launched in 2012.

Beginning with the formal registration of the Parshuram Bhujal Samiti under the Rajasthan Society Registration Act, 1958, the cooperative, comprising 30 farmers with a total land area of 22 hectares, appointed key office bearers to spearhead its activities.

Mehta stated, " a comprehensive survey identified existing wells, bore wells, and potential sites for constructing recharge structures and farm bunding. Three open wells and three bore wells were strategically chosen to facilitate irrigation water sharing among all VGC members. Furthermore, meticulous planning was undertaken to lay out irrigation pipelines, complete with connectors and shut-off valves, to ensure seamless water distribution across fields.

The ICICI Foundation provided crucial financial support for physical infrastructure, including the installation of a 2.3 km pipeline, 13 recharge pits, 1.6 km of farm bunding, and 2.4 km of fencing to safeguard crops against wildlife intrusion.

Through these concerted efforts, the VGC in the Dharta Watershed was successfully established, heralding a new era of sustainable groundwater management and bolstering agricultural livelihoods in the region. Inspired by the first cooperative, more are coming up. Mehta informs further that now there are three VGCs in the area encompassing more farmers and benefitting them of the collaborative efforts.

Professor Basant Maheshwari from Western Sydney University also shared his insights. “Groundwater, by its very nature, is an invisible resource hidden beneath the earth's surface. To ensure its sustainability, we need a practical approach, and that's where farmers working together come in.

The formation of the Village Groundwater Cooperatives is a unique and pioneering concept. I envision a future where the Village Groundwater Cooperatives serve as a model for sustainable water management not only in India but also across the globe," Maheshwari stated.

Peasants gathered at a meeting on Parshuram Ground Water Cooperative Samiti in Heenta village.
Peasants gathered at a meeting on Parshuram Ground Water Cooperative Samiti in Heenta village.Pic- Anil Mehta/MARVI project

VGC Transforming Water Scarcity into Agricultural Abundance," Affirms Farmers

To know how the peasant community feel about it, we spoke to some of the member farmers of the VGCs.

Speaking to The Mooknayak, Jagdish Bhatt, President of Parshuram Bhujal Sahkari Samiti, shared, "We now have 32 member farmers in our group, and around 10 of them didn't have their own water source. They're benefiting from our cooperative effort. With 5 hours of electricity and 5 hours of water supply through the pipeline, we have enough water for irrigation."

"This collaboration has fostered friendly relations among farmers. Those who couldn't cultivate for the past 6 years due to water scarcity are now happy. This kharif season has brought joy to them," Bhatt added.

Jagdish elaborated, "Farmers have diversified their crops, planting mustard, isabgol, fenugreek, and various vegetables across our fields. In my personal capacity, I anticipate a yield of 200 quintals from approximately 12-13 beegas of land." He also highlighted the invaluable support provided by ICCI Foundation in erecting fencing, effectively mitigating the threat of wild animals encroaching and damaging their crops.

Bhujal Jankar Hari Ram Gadri using MyWell to upload watertable depth data from one of the wells monitored in the Dharta watershed.
Bhujal Jankar Hari Ram Gadri using MyWell to upload watertable depth data from one of the wells monitored in the Dharta watershed.Pic- Anil Mehta/MARVI project

The Mooknayak spoke to HariRam Gadri, vice president of Sanvariya Gurjar Sahkari Samiti in Dharta village, who expressed, "Distressed farmers are increasingly digging borewells which has caused fast depletion of groundwater. There are two three tubewells in every farm and water level is deep down causing more scarcity. So we are more concerned on groundwater recharge for sustainability of livelihood as well as natural resources."

Hariram, who has rainfall data at his fingertips, shared, "In 2021 and 2022, the rainfall measured 784 and 900 mm respectively, while last year, we received only 383 mm in our area. The water level in one of my wells had plummeted to a depth I had never witnessed in the past 50 years."

Highlighting the urgency of the situation, he emphasized, "The Groundwater Cooperative is a necessity that farmers are gradually recognizing. If we do not work on pooling and recharging groundwater, we will soon run out of this precious gift from nature."

Gadri further emphasized the cooperative's approach, stating, "Those who have large farm area, are asked to sow crops like Chana, Mustard and Isabgol that requires less water and those who have marginal land, are advised to sow wheat which requires more water - in this way, through cooperative efforts, we endeavour to find a solution, in the past years, our income has also increased and the optimal utilisation of water resources also ensured."

Farmers Shyamlal and Heeralal from Heenta village expressed their delight in the cooperative efforts, highlighting the transformative impact on their lives. "It was disheartening to witness the disparity where some farmers had access to resources while others did not, forcing people to seek labor jobs in distant cities for sustenance. However, this scenario has now changed. We are reclaiming our fields with the assurance that water scarcity will no longer plague us, ensuring the survival of our crops."

Amar Dixit from ICICI Foundation shared his thoughts on the collaboration. He said "We are happy to support the Village Groundwater Cooperative in the Dharta Watershed. It's rewarding to see the positive results so quickly. Some farmers had given up farming for six years because of groundwater depletion. However, after the cooperative was formed, they successfully grew maize last season. Now, farmers are sharing groundwater, and we're hopeful for a great wheat crop this time."

Addressing the Crisis: Tackling India's Groundwater Depletion Challenge

About 60% of irrigation water for crop production and 80% drinking water in India is sourced from groundwater supplies. Basically, groundwater is a hidden resource and therefore it is not understood well in terms of the available volume and movement in a given area.

Also, it being underground and its movement difficult to control, the groundwater use has been quite unregulated in India. This, alongwith easy availability of pumps, has led to the groundwater use in far excess of the annual recharge that happens during monsoon season.

As result, the average depth to watertable in many parts of India has changed from 10 -15 m during 1960s to 30 – 40 m now and sometimes farmers are drilling tubewells to a depth of 100 m or more in search of water.

The future of agriculture and food security is very much linked to groundwater sustainability, and the challenges here are not only technical but they have important social, economic, institutional and policy elements.

The critical research question we have is how to bring together the cross disciplinary aspects of the problem to achieve sustainable groundwater use while realising improved livelihood outcomes for village communities

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