Check dam after construction

In the heat and dust of the Chambal ravines, once the hideouts of marauding bandits, farmers in the Dholpur district of Rajasthan, India, are now minting cash with overwhelming produce. Such is a contrast considering a nation ravaged with farmer suicides.

Their success story has reached the markets of the Indian capital, with an estimated 1,000 metric tons of potatoes, egg plants and pepper corn cultivated this year across 55,000 hectares of land that was once near-barren, not even fit for grazing.

The main sources of water in Dholpur for drinking or irrigation are deep or shallow bore wells. On average, this source is functional only until the end of February or March, after which the farmers have to rely on their luck for drinking water, let alone agriculture use. In terms of ground water, the Bari block where Dholpur is situated comes under the "Critical" category.

Barren landscape before construction of the dam

The irrigation and drinking water needs of about 13 villages were under severe stress due to non-availability. There was an immediate need to create additional storage of rainwater and facilitation to recharge the local ground water regime.

Thanks to “Anandana,” The Coca-Cola India Foundation and Lupin Foundation worked together to not just construct a check dam near Tontari village but also install a lift irrigation facility and put water pipelines that route this harvested water right up to the fields of farmers. Anandana has supported the creation of a water reservoir of 6.5 km in length with a capacity to store approx. 1.7 billion liters of water.

Check dam area during construction

In less than a year’s time, 11,000 people across five villages have benefited from this initiative. The open dug wells and bore holes located in the nearby stream in the periphery of three kilometers have been revitalised with improved water levels by eight to 10 feet at most. Farmers who earlier struggled with drinking water in the summers and were dependent on rainfall for farming but cultivated only one seasonal crop are now growing three to crops a year including cash crops.

Multi-crop farming became possible because of the water made available to them. This year, the farmers were able to harvest a crop of potatoes and are now planning to sow cucumber seeds before they plant the wheat crop later this year. If they are lucky, they may even get a crop of tomatoes before the year ends. This is a huge difference from harvesting just one rain-fed crop in 2014. Four crop cycles this year will mean increased resources to feed their families, buy clothes to cover themselves from the Rajasthan heat and to pay for education for their children.

Tontari Village

The success of farmers in Dholpur is an important learning in a country where as many as one in three of all the world's suicides occurs.

Government records show that about 12 farmers a day kill themselves in India, and the number is growing. Worse, an estimated 4,000 citizens who are mostly farmers have died of heat stroke this year.The farmers, who once survived on a single, frugal meal of vegetables and flatbread and sent their wives for household chores in Dholpur town, are now saving more than enough to beat rural poverty. Ram Kishore, Mahender Singh Parmar, Ram Din and many other farmers of this village may not have to leave their ancestral homes and work as daily wage workers in Delhi because of the check dam project.

"We have learned the tricks to push the water levels, grow crop and market them at the best prices," says Samar Singh, a 55 year-old potato farmer.

Dr. Swati Sanvatsar and Milind Pandit, the duo from Lupin Foundation that works closely with the farmers, says work has progressed in 14 districts with another 10 to be included by the end of 2016.

"Indian farmers routinely face financial hardship. If water levels are increased, farmers shift from the one-crop system to multiple crops. This change is significant," says Dr. Sanvatsar.

Tontari Village

The farmers have responded positively to this change. "Once, we did not have enough to buy us our daily meals. Now, we can feed the poor," says Chandan Singh, a 54 year-old farmer. Singh says that on average, a farmer in Dholpur produces 800 kilograms of potatoes or tomatoes, earning good rates for their produce. "I want to educate my son and make him go to the big city. If I had not earned anything from my field, I would not have been able to educate him," adds Singh.

"Farmers in India traditionally plant crops which draw good prices. If they have an option to multiply their crops, they do it happily. This is what we have encouraged in Dholpur," adds Pandit.

The success story of Dholpur's farmers has also reached the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May 2014 with a promise of making sure that all crop prices remained 50 percent above the cost of production. The Prime Minister routinely mentions his commitment to farmers in all public forums, including his signature radio show, and on social media. In fact, his Twitter terminology aspires to be farmer-friendly.

The Coca-Cola India Foundation continues its pursuit to incubate more initiatives like this to push the biggest drivers of Indian economy – the country’s farmers.

Shantanu Guha Ray is the India editor of CEN Ltd.