While check-dams have been the heroes of watershed development programmes everywhere, allocating a small area in each farm for a storage pond is truer to the spirit of rain water harvesting, namely 'catch the rain where it falls'. Check-dams are invariably down-river, down-in-the-valley structures where land is already quite productive and comparatively well served with water. Check-dams located there, trap the water which in fact fell on the higher catchment areas where the poor are. It is always the upper reaches in undulating terrains that are harder to farm and therefore left to the marginal people. In an effort to reverse and correct this inequity, BAIF Institute for Rural Development, Karnataka [BIRD-K] persuaded over 300 slope farmers to build small ponds. And that changed the water economy of a 700 hectare area in Hassan district in Karnataka. Don't be surprised, though. Wherever the long arm of Mr. Manibhai Desai reaches, efficiency, thoroughness and success invariably follow.
BAIF comes to Tiptur:
By 1980, the redoubtable Desai had arrived in Karnataka and formed BIRD-K. Its mission? Same as ever: 'show rural Indians, ways to sustainable incomes'. BAIF believes that for every local geography there is an integrated solution that is possible, sustainable and profitable. The mandate to its various centres is to find the one best suited to its location.
Tiptur in Hassan district was the entry point selected by Desai for Karnataka-- and with good reason. It is a drought prone area given to erratic rainfall that averages 500 to 700 mm annually. The topography is undulating, varying between 50 and 100 feet. At the lower levels, coconut is about the only crop. In the early days of tube well madness that swept the country, Tiptur too joined in. Rich farmers felt that all they needed was the money to drill a well and let in a pump. Ecological ignorance is a great leveller. The rich soon joined their humbler brethren up hill. Tube wells everywhere ran dry, the water table having gone down to 500 feet. People had lost their way, forgotten ancient, gentle practices and compounded their own problems. [Read about Idkidu, another village that went through --and recovered from-- the bore well disease in the boxed story at this link]
In 1984 Dr G N S Reddy arrived in Tiptur. He had graduated as a veterinarian and drawn by the Desai magic, had joined tens of his classmates to work for the BAIF mission. Quite early Reddy was struck by the tokenism of Government watershed programmes. It was a one-size-fits-all approach with check-dams, bunds and gully plugs etc reduced to a list of numbers. The programmes had no impact on water scarcity, soil run off, deepening of bore wells or migration of even the landed for jobs in the cities.
Amidst all this grimness, were the centuries old 'kalyanis', the dug out, stone lined ponds. There were quite a few of them in the area. They drained the last in the summer; often they survived the summer with some water left in them. They provided a clue. In Gujarat, BAIF had successfully pioneered the 'wadi' development model where small holders were led to sustained incomes by combining fruit trees with grain and vegetable farming on marginal lands, using little water. Why not combine the two at Tiptur?