Usuma village in Cuttack district had for long witnessed frequent fights and even serious law and order issues over rights on the canal water coming from the Mahanadi river 15 km away. But not anymore. A successful ‘pani panchayat’ formed in 2000, comprising Usuma and nine other villages and their 420 hectares of cultivable land, has ensured that the 250 households in Usuma get their fair share of water. The pani panchayats of Odisha are farmer-led bodies engaged in water management and its equitable distribution at the local level. There are now 35,511 pani panchayats involved in getting irrigation water to the fields. Their main job is to ensure that not a single hectare of land under irrigation is ‘water-deprived or water-denied’. “A farmer who loves his land will naturally want to see the farmlands of others taken care of. True, there have been major fights in the past, blood has been spilled over unequal distribution of water but it was all in the interests of the land,” says Samiullah Khan, secretary of the Usuma Pani Panchayat.
A farmer checks a water supply channel in the village
Even though Odisha is a water-abundant state with a number of major rivers crisscrossing the state, getting the water to the fields has been a huge task. Of the 6.1 million hectares of cultivable land in the state, 4.3 million hectares are irrigated with the help of canals, channels and other minor irrigation techniques. The rest of the land is rain-fed; the state averages annual rainfall of 1,400 mm.
Launched almost two decades ago, the pani panchayat concept has evolved through experience and the demands of the farmers. To begin with, they were given command of a minimum area of 40-100 hectares, going up to 500 hectares. For every 10-40 hectares, there was a water outlet (a sort of water point, fed by the main canal through field channels) manned by a committee (‘chak’) which governs the distribution of water and operation, maintenance and de-siltation of channels within its area. Now the water resources department is looking to reduce the command area of the chak to one hectare for better management and to further decentralise the pani panchayat system.
“By empowering farmers, we succeeded in minimising conflict and ensuring that not a single block is deprived of water. There are provisions for penalties and fines for misusing the supply,” says D.K. Samal, chief engineer, water resources department. “Initially, getting the farmers to agree on sharing water was not easy. We had to impress upon them that if the water stagnated in their fields without flowing to adjacent ones (through the feeder channels), it would endanger the crops, do more harm than good. The scientific explanation paid off.”
The need to reduce the command area of the chaks and empower the farmers on crop selection has arisen following the agriculture department’s demand for crop diversification and cash crops. Paddy requires a lot of water whereas groundnut, oilseeds and pulses can be cultivated with minimum water resources. “Instead of pushing all farmers into paddy, if we can encourage crop diversification, we’ll be able to save a considerable amount of water. This is possible if the land parcel is small and there are fewer stakeholders for managing water over a small area,” says the chief engineer.
“Even drought-prone Kalahandi is cultivating two crops a year with the average yield up by 15 per cent, courtesy the 267 pani panchayats there. They have been active for two decades, covering a command area of 128,000 hectares in and around river Indravati,” says Rajendra Besra, chief engineer of the Command Area Development.