Biplab Paul has come up with a cost-effective and affordable solution to water scarcity that provides a reliable system of irrigation. In the rural areas of arid Gujarat, high saline soil creates an impermeable layer that prevents rain water from percolating; marginal farmers are unable to farm their crops and are eventually forced to abandon the land to join the growing workforce of migratory labor. Biplab’s approach improves the lives of the rural poor through this unique participatory irrigation system based on rainwater harvesting. Through his organization, Naireeta Services Private Limited, Biplab empowers rural women to contribute to agriculture and to restore the biodiversity of the region.
The New Idea
Beginning with over a 100 existing farmer clusters in the rain-scarce and salinity-prone West Indian state of Gujarat, Biplab has created a system of irrigation that is run by women. The community-led initiative does not require any initial investment by the potential beneficiaries, while it assures guaranteed returns from the very next crop.
Biplab has introduced a five-stage process for solving the irrigation problem with the re-introduction of Bhungroo (meaning straw in Gujarati). This concept does not warrant farmers to pay anything upfront, instead, they agree to a five-year contract to repay the services of water logging-freeing and irrigation water through their cash crop. Naireeta Services Private Limited and SHGs take loans from financial institutions to install the infrastructure (i.e. bore-wells, pumps, piping systems, and other overhead costs) as well as the cost for supplying irrigation water to farmers for next five years. Irrigation cost for food crop (monsoon crop) is waived, so poor and marginal farmers are able to access food security. Eventually, farmers are allowed to pay 30 percent of their standing winter crop (cash crops). Instead of fixed cash payment, farmers are allowed to pay their preferred crop and crop type, which facilitates a farmer-centric flexible payment system. This process stems from a farmer-defined unique agro system based on an innovative technology and implementation process. This also attracts more small and marginal farmers to access the services of Bhungroo. After the stipulated time, whole hardware technology/systems along with need-based training are handed over to the group of participating farmers. At a basic level, Biplab’s idea addresses the threefold problem of the absence of year-round irrigation, lack of women’s empowerment, and low crop productivity. He has developed a network of citizen organizations (COs) to spread his work in different regions of India. Biplab also works closely with universities and governments for a faster transfer of the technology to a wider audience.
Older irrigation systems divert water from rivers to be used in the cities which leads to a decrease in farming and an increase in migration to the cities. The scarcity of water causes both domestic and social violence. Women are most adversely affected by the water crisis, and as a result, they rarely break free from the patriarchal system.
High salinity adds to the problem. Salt deposits on the surface and the aquifer salinity adversely affect the local ecology; agriculture dwindles while human health deteriorates. Scanty monsoon rainfall of 416 mm pours over a short span of 10 to 15 days which causes water logging for three to four months during the peak cropping season. The salt does not allow the water to percolate while the standing water increases topsoil salinity due to capillary action. As per 2001 reports of the Ministry of Agriculture, 12 states in India account for 300 million farmers and over 15 million hectares of agricultural land, affected by salinity.
Due to overexploitation of groundwater, the water table has receded in the last few decades and depleting green cover has reduced moisture formation which eventually has led to desertification of fresh areas. An innumerable amount of deep tube wells has lead to the over-exploitation of ground water and the formation of a “water mafia” which controls the water. The poor villagers who purchase water from the mafia (well owners) eventually slip into a vicious debt trap. Water scarcity results in a class divide, and a powerful “water-owner class” controlling the water sources, ultimately gives rise to violence.
With the state’s emphasis on industrialization there has been a battle raging between the poor farmers and the industrial lobby. The state acquires these “farmlands with high salinity” at cheaper prices which are then transferred to industrial houses at higher prices under concepts like the special economic zone (SEZ). The marginal farmer loses the price of the land as well as the only source of livelihood that has provided food and cash for many generations. The same farmers are employed at less than minimum wages in the manufacturing sector.
Fragmented landholding lowers the bargaining power of the marginal farmers. High input costs push prices upwards and farmers lose collective bargaining power; the economies of scale are lost. As a result, rural inhabitants are pushed further toward extreme poverty, while the forced migration for livelihood puts immense pressure on urban resources.
In 2007 Biplab conceptualized the social enterprise Naireeta Services Private Limited, a community-based organization, managed by women. As an entry strategy, Biplab’s team of 11 experts and 131 volunteers mobilize women to come together in groups. Biplab has borrowed the concept of peer accountability as social collateral from the Grameen Bank. The five women who form a Bhungroo group cannot default on any of the deliverables.
A big underground water reservoir enables the farmers to store the rainwater and avail of dual cropping during the monsoon and winter. This massive underground reservoir can hold as much as 40 million liters of rain water. It harvests water for just about 10 days per year and can supply water for as long as seven months. Artificially recharging aquifers by adding rainwater to underground water reservoirs through induced infiltration enables the communities to continue farming over seven to eight months in a year. The non-saline rainwater when mixed with the underground saline water brings down the salinity of the groundwater making it fit for agricultural use.
Central to Biplab’s solution is the simplification of the idea for technology-averse illiterate farmers. The five-step process that Biplab has introduced involves technical and social evaluations of feasibility of Bhungroo in a given village. In the first stage of this process, women SHG members identify the below poverty line women members of a village with the help of Biplab’s team. They ascertain the land ownership, poverty status, and creditworthiness, and measure the gradient of the land. All information is crosschecked by SHG members through a three-tier selection process at the village level, cluster level, and organization level. When the poorest woman of the group is identified, her land is selected for construction of Bhungroo. In the second step the women members check simple geohydrological feasibilities, for example, the gradient of the land, without any high-tech scientific equipment. Their lands do not necessarily have to be contiguous, only the gradient is ascertained. In the third stage of the process documents such as land revenue records, bank details or internal borrowing records, ration cards, and migratory status are collected from each member by Biplab’s team, which are then authenticated by the local panchayat. All five participants brought together by Biplab’s team sit together and agree to the rules of engagement, i.e. specific roles within the group and sharing the costs of maintenance. In the fourth stage the documents go to the “cluster”: A cluster is representatives of SHGs from different villages. The application and the relevant documents are then evaluated by the SHGs. Finally, in the last stage, Biplab’s team constructs the Bhungroo free of charge for those five farmers and the water lifting and filtration systems are put in place.
People are hired to construct the drainage systems and the five participating families drill. A pipe five inches in diameter is hand-drilled into the surface from the lowest point of the catchments area where the rainwater rushes and accumulates to a maximum depth of 110 feet to touch the subsoil aquifer. The pipe then guides the captured water to the saline aquifer. It frees the surface of the land from water logging while it dilutes the salinity of the aquifer water. The atmospheric moisture helps to grow crops for the duration of the next month while the water is stored there for the rest of the year. Evaporation barely happens due to the thick earth surface and farmers can use non-saline water for the next eight months.
One of the five women gives a part of her land for construction of the Bhungroo while the other members contribute their labor, bringing an added sense of teamwork. A one-time investment of Rs 2,500 was initially given to them as a grant by Biplab, but now his organization takes loans from the bank and pays them back in nine months, Bhungroo is operational. Biplab targets the small and marginal farmers and enables them to get their land free from water logging through the existing unused tube wells.
Traditionally land ownership rights rest with a male member of the family, but with this new process a power-of-attorney is obtained in the name of the woman member from the male member (i.e. the husband or brother) to make the land a part of the Bhungroo initiative. The male member of the family usually agrees to the conditions because he clearly sees how the increased productivity would generate a higher income for the family. There is a lot of potential for women’s empowerment throughout this process; women members pay back with one-third of the crop produced by each of the participants to the SHG and the SHG then sells the crop in the market and reimburses the bank; the break-even period varies from 9 to 11 months.
The farmer’s work in collectives and they exercise better bargaining power with the input selling agencies now. It has become a fully women-driven process from repairing the water pumps to transporting them from one place to another and has drastically reduced rural-to-urban migration and land ownership transfers to the manufacturing lobby.
Biplab also talks to opinion leaders and policymakers and creates connections for expansion. Gujarat Ecology Commission has replicated this model in other parts of the state while the state education board has incorporated the idea into students’ school curriculum. Biplab has collaborated with an international CO for a national level replication of the idea through 178 partner organizations. He has also collaborated with a couple of COs those are replicating the concept in the saline coastal regions of West Bengal and Orissa. Change Agent, a Boston-based organization has helped Biplab spread his idea to parts of Africa, venture capital companies such as Angel India Investment Network and Wisecraft while Boston-based in conversations with him about financially assisting the replication of his work in areas where banks are not coming forward. In 1999 Biplab participated in the Global Water Summit in Foz de Iguassu in Brazil where he shared the idea of Bhungroo.
Born in 1970 in the small town of Chinsurah in West Bengal, Biplab went to a local school where he engaged in Indian Scouts and Guides. He fondly remembers his scouts training as teaching him to be empathetic to the needs of others. Here, Biplab started becoming recognized as a star in Indian Scouts and Guides activities. Later he studied humanities, which increased his passion for peoples’ welfare. At the age of 10, Biplab witnessed a devastating flood and realized the destructive power of uncontrolled water and at 14, the water scarcity among the tribal people of Purulia in West Bengal, where he had gone as part of a mountaineering expedition.
Biplab completed his master’s degree in economics from Jadavpur University of Kolkata (1994) before taking a course on environmental education at the Center for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. He also joined a philanthropy organization working under the Aga Khan Development Network. Biplab’s time of over a year exposed him to the problems of the rural poor in an arid region of Gujarat. This changed his perspective and he began to understand the importance of using technology to improve the lives of those in underserved communities. Biplab observed the dramatic decline of child health due to fluorisis (i.e. early aging children), malnutrition, anemia, the forced migration of farmers, and their subsequent conversion into the status of bonded labor, the resulting deterioration of their socioeconomic position, and the emergence of a class that controlled the water sources and the lives of the poor farmers. This painful experience convinced him that water was the basic need for people to lead better lives. Biplab then started working toward an innovative solution that could eventually reduce gender violence, maternity mortality, child mortality, and social conflict, besides known problems such as crop failure and poverty. In 1997, after seeing his work in western Gujarat, a local CO, Lok Vikas, invited Biplab to provide technical know-how to solve critical drinking water issues. In 2001 Biplab conducted a biodiversity analysis of 59 villages which revealed that traditional varieties of crops were lost due to too much emphasis on commercial cropping; the nexus among agro input sellers, the deep tube well owners, and the industrial lobby who buy the agricultural produce from the farmers further aggravated the situation. After the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, Biplab provided relief services and organized illiterate women to develop remediation plans for their water issues, realizing that if mobilized, women can make high-impact social change at a faster rate.
Biplab was a part of the panel that drafted the alternative water vision for the state of Gujarat in 2002. This brought him a number of awards such as the Ambassador for Peace Award from Universal Peace Foundation of New York, recognition as Young Leader on Water Resource Management from the U.S. Department of State, the World Bank’s India Development Market Place Award (2007) and the Aga Khan Innovation Award.
The World Bank also supported a documentary of Biplab’s work. He was selected the conceiver of one of the best social entrepreneurship ideas by Maruti-Suzuki Motor Company, as part of a national business ideas competition. In the meantime, Biplab built a competent second line to run Lok Vikas while he prepared himself to become a full-time water expert. By the end of 2009 he quit Lok Vikas to start his own organization.
Biplab lives in Ahmedabad with his wife Trupti, a LEAD’s Fellow and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, in addition to being a Commonwealth scholar. The couple has a nine-year-old daughter, Naireeta, whose name coincidentally means the “best cloud for cropping” according to the Vedas.