Nov 19, 2023
A Dehydrated District
On the eve of the Kali Puja festivities, we spent the afternoon speaking with members of the Mitha-Am village in the Bankura district of West Bengal. Malabali Mandi Tudu, a member of the village, shared with us the transformational change that had occurred in Mitha-Am over the last five years. Malabali told us that Mitha-Am is an agricultural village that has historically been characterized by having some of the lowest incomes in the region. Her household used to earn less than ₹35,000 (roughly £350) per year, and she was forced to migrate seasonally in search of higher wages. However, everything began to change in 2020 when an organization known as PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) began working in Mitha-Am. PRADAN served as a catalyst, helping ensue a range of infrastructural and organizational changes that have had a significant impact on the village. Malabali gleefully shared that her annual household income has more than doubled to ₹70,000 and that her family no longer faces the pressure to migrate. Her story was echoed by several other women we spoke to that afternoon and is illustrative of the important work that PRADAN does in the Bankura district.
Malabali Mandi Tudu, a member of the Mitha-Am village, standing in front of her house.
Bankura is a district of West Bengal located in the western part of the State with a population of more than 3.5 million people. It sits just two hundred kilometers to the west of Kolkata and is known for its cultural richness being a site of ancient terracotta temples and Baul mystics. A majority of the Bankura’s residents are directly employed by the agricultural sector with paddy (rice) being the main crop under cultivation. Yet, Bankura suffers from poor soil fertility, seasonal droughts, and inopportune topography. The average annual rainfall in the State hovers around 1,400 millimeters, which could be adequate for year-round cultivation. However, most of the water falls in high-intensity rain events and is lost as runoff. As a result of these conditions, the per capita income in Bankura is less than half that of West Bengal’s average and a little more than a third that of India’s average. Additionally, Bankura is home to some of the most marginalized people in India, including indigenous and Dalit populations. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these existing challenges.
A traditional Baul performance on the riverbank of the Bankura’s Rupnarayan River.
Harvesting Water and Knowledge
The issue at the center of Bankura’s challenges is insufficient water for agriculture and domestic use. Insufficient water limits the amount of land that a farmer can cultivate and the number of crops they can grow per year. Incomes are consequently depressed, and many households are forced to migrate to seek wages elsewhere during the dry season. We spent a morning with members of the Guniada village to learn more. Sitting on the ground around a map of the village, Mithurani Mondal told us about how barren her land was just a few years ago. The monsoon rains would come but very little of the water would remain after a few months. Fields were often left fallow, and crop failures were frequent. There was little vegetation around the village, and without shade, temperatures would rise to over 45 degrees Celsius (or 115 degrees Fahrenheit). Domestic activities, including bathing and washing clothes, were occasionally sacrificed during the dry months due to a lack of water. Life in the village was marked by constant upheavals. The lack of sufficient water lay at the crux of their difficulties. Yet, their situation was not permanent.
Members of the Guniada village showing us the locations of different water resources in their village.
In 2016, PRADAN began working with members of the Guniada village to address issues of insufficient water and depressed incomes. Its approach was to act as a catalyst for community-led change and to have women lead the charge. The first step was to help facilitate mapping of the community’s natural resources and identify areas for potential development. Local knowledge of the land was utilized, and a community of women was responsible for the process. The next step was to select projects from the areas of potential development identified through the mapping. A variety of water harvesting structures, such as retention ponds, as well as improved agricultural techniques and other alternative income streams were selected by the group of women with the help of PRADAN’s technical expertise. The last step was to implement these projects by leveraging government and corporate funding. In the last seven years, there have been 12 new water harvesting structures constructed in Guniada with 10 more structures already planned. As a result of the water harvesting structures and other interventions catalyzed by PRADAN, life in Guniada has been transformed.
Basaki Mandi, a member of the community of women responsible for the water harvesting structures in Guniada, smiling after an interview.
Basaki Mandi, another member of the Guniada village, told us about the changes that she witnessed for her family over the last seven years. Her household no longer just cultivates one crop of paddy (rice) per year but now grows vegetables, lentils, and melons during periods when the fields previously remained fallow. This change is known as a switch from single-cropping to multi-cropping. Basaki explained that the water used to “run away” after the monsoon rains. Now, due to the water harvesting structures, the water is stored locally and is available to be used for irrigation. Since the beginning of PRADAN’s involvement, the village of Guniada has experienced a 145% increase in its crop production, which has translated into higher incomes, improved nutrition, and reduced migration. Basaki added that there has also been a noticeable change in soil health due to regenerative farming techniques that she and other farmers in Guniada have begun to implement. There is now shade in places that used to be bleached by the sun, and the problem of not having water for domestic needs is no longer a concern. She ended our conversation by emphasizing that life in the village is only possible with water.
A plot of cauliflowers growing in the Dakshin Kendbana village.
Bankura’s New Beginnings
The transformative change that we witnessed in Mitha-Am and Guniada exemplifies only part of PRADAN’s efforts in Bankura. PRADAN works towards systems change by attempting to achieve what it calls comprehensive livelihoods. In addition to their work on helping communities construct water harvesting structures and switch to multi-cropping, PRADAN also strengthens women’s self-help groups, forms water user associations, and promotes farmer producer companies. Furthermore, it has recently helped communities develop additional sources of alternative income, including from fishing and livestock rearing. These interventions directly increase household incomes while making communities more climate-resilient and equitable. PRADAN leverages its partnerships with regional government actors, including administrators at the gram panchayat, block, and district level, other nonprofits, such as the Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation, and local development partners to achieve these outcomes.
Members of the Dakshin Kendbana village catching fish before the Badna festival.
Although the transformative change that occurred in Mitha-Am, Guniada, and Dakshin Kendbana was inspiring to witness, there are still issues in each of these villages and throughout Bankura. PRADAN’s interventions help benefit land-owning farmers the most and aren’t as effective at transforming the lives of those without land ownership. Additionally, the phasing out of PRADAN’s involvement to achieve complete village self-sufficiency is a tricky process that hasn’t had much success in Bankura yet. There are also many villages in Bankura where PRADAN hasn’t served as a catalyst for change. Limited funding and human resources restrict the number of places where PRADAN and similar organizations can work. Rajesh Mit, the integrator of PRADAN’s Bankura office, elaborated that many international donors that could provide funding for PRADAN demand quick turnarounds within the span of just a few years. However, the kind of systematic change that we witnessed doesn’t take just a couple of years but rather decades to materialize.
Rajesh Mit, integrator of PRADAN’s Bankura office, showing us water harvesting structures in the Guniada village.
On our last day with PRADAN, we visited the Dakshin Kendbana village and heard about the tangible effects of these changes. Sonamani Tudu, a member of the village, shared that an increase in her household’s income allowed for her to invest her in children’s education, rebuild sections of her house, purchase new agricultural equipment, and spend more on the annual festivals. Life in the village of Dakshin Kendbana had been transformed. We left the village hearing drums and laughter echoing through the streets marking the beginning of the Santal festival known as Badna.
Women of the Dakshin Kendbana village walking us around their village.