On a hot afternoon, Shreenagar Khas village in Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh wore a deserted look owing to a wedding ceremony. But farmer Virendra Giri Goswami was not an absentee. Rather, he showed this reporter the condition of his farm pond where de-siltation work was on. This is to ensure rainwater storage needed for wheat irrigation.

Goswami owns five acres of land and cultivates wheat in the Rabi season, like many other farmers of the district. In the Kharif season, moong and urad are preferred, aided by monsoon rains.

The farmer went for the farm pond motivated by his friends who constructed the structures, locally called khet talabs, earlier. “I submitted a proposal to the gram panchayat secretary or gram sevak, along with the land document and a photo.” Earlier, he used to pump water from a well for irrigating his land constructed by his forefathers.

Goswami’s farm pond constructed during 2020-2021, at Rs 2.5 lakh, will take time to be restored to its original shape. This will cost the farmer between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000.

Farmer Virendra Giri Goswami shows his farm pond which has to be desilted for water conservation.

But it is adequate for his entire farmland. When the pond is full of water, the farmer will introduce Rohu fish seeds which once earned him Rs 25,000 against an investment of Rs 2,500 for fish feed.

In Tikamgarh, groundwater is found at a depth of 300 feet, in some places the depth is at 90 feet. Still, it is receding and due to the nature of the terrain, water does not percolate into the ground. Goswami recalled a severe drought a few years back.

At his home over a cup of tea, Goswami’s father Sardar Giri said more farm ponds should be created to address the issue of water scarcity. His son’s structure took 2.5 months to be completed and almost 300 people worked on it under MGNREGA.

Work on the construction of a canal in Narayanpur village of Tikamgarh.

The family depends on wells for drinking water. Of the five-six hand pumps in the village, only two work.

In Tikamgarh, focus has been laid on water conservation to tackle farm distress. As part of watershed management, the rejuvenation of the Ur river catchment area was started to solve the water crisis in several villages.

Under a convergence model, the Manjari Foundation, a non-profit organisation, started work on the mobilisation of communities. They have worked on the creation of water harvesting structures like farm ponds and check dams since 2019 along with MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).

A view of the check dam in Narayanpur village of the district.

The results are there to see. In Narayanpur village of Baldeogarh tehsil of the district, a check dam was built in 2021-22. Farmers in the village have benefitted from this intervention.

While some lacked irrigation facilities, others had to depend on borewells for farming. Last year when the rainfall was moderate, water was conserved in the check dam.

The conserved water was used for irrigation and also helped quench the thirst of animals. Nearby wells got recharged too. When it was not there, the surface water used to run off.

In the same village, a defunct canal was repaired after women passed a proposal demanding its renovation through self-help groups. In 2021, the work started on the 2.5-metre long canal. Today, it diverts water from the Ratan Sagar talab of the village and 125 families benefit from it.

Farm ponds can help address distress migration in Tikamgarh. Many families flee for work outside.

The population of Narayanpur is about 1800 according to the 2011 Census. “Rain has become erratic. So, water conservation is a must,” local resident Shanti Devi said.

Creation of water harvesting structures like farm ponds, gabions and contour trenches can help farmers and end distress migration by offering work to people under MGNREGA which guarantees 100 days of work.

In Tikamgarh’s Papawani village, the migration rate is high when crops fail and hand pumps run dry. The village has a ‘talab’ or water body which lies two km away and due to its proximity to hills the place becomes unbearably hot in summer.

A few people alleged that often there is a delayed payment under MGNREGA and sometimes there is no work.

The gram sabha has passed a proposal for MGNREGA work this year and as part of it people want to create bunds for retaining water in the fields and plantation for soil moisture conservation. Though rainfall is adequate the village faces water deficit due to poor management.

Many residents of Papawani flee due to water scarcity and work as labourers in Uttarakhand, Delhi and Agra. Sometimes, entire families leave for six months after Diwali and return after Holi.

“Almost 70 percent of the population migrates. We stay in jhuggis, earn Rs 200-Rs 300 per day and are often cheated by middlemen. When I went to Uttarakhand in a bus, it went round and round making my head spin. Many of us vomited,” said Janki Lodhi, who also went to Agra and Delhi to work at house construction sites.

Some farm ponds are lined with stones to prevent them from bursting.

A MGNREGA rozgar sahayak from Dudakhera gram panchayat of Baldeograh tehsil Purushottam Lodhi told this reporter that contour trenches in hilly areas help in rainwater seepage. “If MGNREGA work has to be carried out through the gram panchayat, it is taken care of by me. Under MGNREGA, there are 15-20 types of soil work. However, if non-profits like Manjari Foundation want to work I have no issues,” he said.

The MGNREGA official said as the region has loose and gravelly soil rainwater is often lost. He pointed out that Tikamgarh has the highest number of water bodies but still there is a water crisis.

Women form long queues at hand pumps. Posted in Dudukhera since 2011 he vouched that water level has increased due to water harvesting structures. Earlier wells which used to run dry in March have water in them till June.

As the population increased in the villages, the old water harvesting structures failed to cater to the demand. To counter this, the residents of Papawani are thinking of developing fruit orchards which will help in soil conservation as well as provide nutrition.

Women carrying water from far away is a reality in Tikamgarh.

“Last year the hand pump dried up in Papawani. The village receives less rainfall. If there is no water for farming many of us migrate leaving behind elderly people,” Prabha Lodhi said.

Though creating assets in villages is a good idea, there are issues galore. In Rorai village, resident Pyari Bai constructed a farm pond under the Kapil Dhara Yojana, a sub-component of MGNREGA.

The structure took 1.5 years to be completed but sadly the labourers have not yet received full payment. In Papawani, a few residents alleged that they sometimes do not get to know even if getting work under MGNREGA is their right.

Women in Majna village admitted that they have to fetch water several times a day often in the heat.

Many villages in Tikamgarh have the issue of non-judicious use of water leading to scarcity. In Majna village the well has dried up and women were spotted returning with water from a distance in steel vessels.

The cropping pattern of wheat dominance is also to be blamed as the crop needs a minimum irrigation requirement of five to six times after a gap of every 15 days. In Papawani village, residents pointed out during a meeting that sometimes the irrigation need for wheat is eight to nine times as the land dries up quickly. The Lokwan variety needs plenty of water.

In Tikamgarh, the Manjari Foundation worked with Kabil, an organisation which provided technical support while the former concentrated on field work. The foundation has created nine structures in six villages at a cost of Rs 12.8 lakh of which seven are farm ponds.

Tikamgarh is known for its stunning architecture.

However, sometimes farm ponds burst open either due to too much water pressure or faulty construction. In such cases, boulders help in keeping them intact.

In Tikamgarh and Baldeogarh blocks of the district, 10,221 structures have been completed under MGNREGA from 2019-20 to 2023-24 Financial Year covering 80 gram panchayats of Tikamgarh block involving 47,504 workers. In the same number of gram panchayats in Baldeogarh, the workers stood at 60,033 and works completed stood at 15,492 in the same period.

Goswami alleged that under MGNREGA, payment is delayed at times and some labourers are reluctant to go for work even if the muster roll is out. Sometimes only favoured ones get work and others are deprived.

While farm ponds help recharge groundwater, canals lead to water wastage. In Shreenagar, a canal is connected to a talab or water body which releases water for four to five days at a stretch during the Rabi.

In Chhattarpur district’s Dhubela known for the famous courtesan Mastani who fell in love with Peshwa Bajirao, 100 km from Tikamgarh, many locals use talabs for fishing. In a village called Mahiba, the government has constructed canals for water supply to farmers from seven to eight talabs.

“However, many people want the canals to stop functioning to conserve water. While farmers are getting water, there is too much wastage,” said Saurav Kaushik, who runs the Dhubela resort.

Tikamgarh Zila Panchayat chief executive officer Sidhharth Jain admitted that people migrate to Agra and Delhi for work. “But many migrate due to behavioural reasons. If one member of a family is in Delhi due to work, another also tries to be there. As Delhi and Agra are close by, they get good opportunities.”

Commenting on the need for water harvesting structures which can stem the tide of rural migration, the officer added that the more structures are created, the better is the outcome. However, instead of just focusing on numbers, focus should be on quality and spatial distribution in the district. The community also must take ownership of farm ponds.

DEEPANWITA GITA NIYOGI is an independent writer. All Photographs by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

Cover Photograph: Hand Pumps running dry are common in many villages.