What is ‘Agri-Rain’? Field Notes From Anantapur

Under protective irrigation, tankers are used to transport water from the local village tank to farms during critical dry spells.

By Lakshmi Pranuti, Surabhi Singh, Veena Srinivasan

Protective irrigation supplied via pipelines to farmers at a time of severe water scarcity. Photo credit: Vishnu at Rythu Nestham FPC

Sustaining soil moisture is the biggest bottleneck to improving agricultural productivity in India. In much of India, it rains for only a few months a year, during the monsoons. For the rest of the year, the soil is too dry to grow anything unless farmers have access to a water source that allows them to irrigate. The problem is, in most of India, there is simply not enough water for everyone to grow water-intensive crops year-round. Irrigation would only work as a strategy if everyone uses a bit of extra water to prevent crop failure during the monsoon or irrigate low-water intensity crops in the dry season.

In theory, most large-scale irrigation systems in India are based on exactly this principle of ‘protective irrigation’. The systems are designed and operated on the principle that available water in reservoirs has to be spread thinly over the largest possible area, in an equitable manner. The idea is to reach as many farmers as possible and to protect them against crop failure.

In practice, however, no large-scale irrigation project in India actually works this way. Instead, ‘head-end’ farmers, close to the dam, use much more than their allocated share of water to grow water-intensive crops, leaving ‘tail end’ farmers located far away from the dam with no water.

Thus, the problem of how to actually spread the water evenly across many farmers is one of the holy grails of Indian agriculture.

One of the NGOs we visited in the course of our field visits, Accion Fraterna (AF) also called AF Ecology Centre, has an interesting solution.

They aim to empower rural communities through natural resources management (NRM), community-managed natural farming practices, watershed development, policy advocacy and vocational training. Much of their work is concentrated in Anantapur district, where, since 1986, they have been implementing one of the largest watershed development programmes in India. Anantapur is an arid, drought-prone agrarian district. About 90% of 27.5 lakh acres under cultivation are rainfed and chronically drought-prone.

Rural livelihoods here are highly vulnerable to the fickleness of the monsoons. In dry, semi-arid parts of Anantapur, a prolonged dry spell of even 20 days during the growing season results in crop failure. One way of preventing such crop failure is through protective irrigation, a practice by which water is sparingly supplied to fields during crucial periods of plant growth (Annual Report 2017–18).

Read | Field Notes from Anantapur’s Tomato Markets

AF Ecology’s solution on protective irrigation in Anantapur is pioneering, as it provides a safety net for rainfed farmers in drought-prone regions where there isn’t sufficient water to ensure all farmers have unfettered access to irrigation. It thus addresses the problem of inequity, as irrigated farmers are successful and rainfed farmers are left with nothing. Protective irrigation involves a package of interventions from choosing less water-intensive crops, farming practices like mulching, etc. to organising transport of water from the source to the fields.

Tankers supplying water to fields far from the source of water. (Photo credit: Vishnu at Rythu Nestham FPC)

A key component of the solution is the use of water tankers for irrigation. These are collectively owned by the local Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO) and are used to transport water from the local village tank to the farm during critical dry spells — a practice locally referred to as ‘agri-rain’. The cost of transportation at Rs. 600/tanker is split between AF Ecology and the farmer. Although even Rs. 300 is expensive by standards of rainfed farmers, one tanker-load of water can be the crucial difference between the farmer losing the crop altogether and earning a reasonable income of Rs. 20,000–30,000/acre.

It is also important to note that the tanks from which the tanker water is sourced, are in turn filled by an infrastructure scheme called the Handri-Neeva Sujala Sravanthi canal project. The project, in the region of Rayalaseema, Andhra Pradesh, is designed to utilise surplus water from the Krishna river. Starting from the backwaters of the Srisailam reservoir, water is pumped via many stages and pumping stations to fill tanks in the drought-prone Kurnool, Anantapur, Chittoor and Kadapa districts. The tanks are used for drinking water and irrigation.

(Left) A bajra or pearl millet farmer in Anantapur district who depends on protective irrigation to sustain his crops during dry spells and crucial periods of plant growth. (Right) A tank or surface water body can be seen at a distance. Water is sourced from here via tankers and pipelines to farms in the vicinity. Picture credit: Pranuti Choppakatla

There are many such tank-filling schemes in other states — but most are used to recharge groundwater and thus only benefit the 10–30% of farmers that have access to borewells. What is unique about this particular case is the ‘last mile’ institutional arrangement that specifically benefits the most vulnerable farmers, an experiment that is worth scaling.

Edit (09/06/22): On a recent visit to the field (in May 2022), we learned that this programme has since been discontinued due to a lack of funding. We still think it was a valuable experiment that is worth replicating in some form, but a deeper diagnosis of why it failed. In any case, economic modelling of tanker-based protective irrigation, particularly in comparison to mega-infrastructure projects, is merited.

This fieldwork was part of a project carried out across four states to understand challenges that CSOs face in implementing agricultural interventions. We have collated our key findings in this interactive journey map. You can find more detail in this report.

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To collaborate with us, write to csei.collab@atree.org. We would love to hear from you.

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