Atop the hill, in a two-acre lush green organic farm, over a dozen oscillating sprinkler jets splash water on 300 arecanut palms, 75 coconut trees, 150 cashew trees, 200 banana saplings and pepper vines for two hours daily. And the hands behind converting a piece of barren land into a full-fledged farm are of the 68-year-old illiterate but skilled farm labourer, Amai Mahalinga Naik.
The 40-year-old model farm located near Adyanadka (50 km south east of port city Mangaluru) draws scores of visitors mainly farmers and was the subject of a documentary telecast on History channel in April. Water conservation activist Shree Padre says, “After seeing for themselves, not a single visitor has returned without appreciating the one-man army’s efforts in achieving zero-energy micro-irrigation system which helped in transformation of an arid sloping hill into a fertile farm.”
But the journey till here was not an easy one. Forty years ago, Naik used to eke out a living by plucking arecanuts, coconuts. “A landlord, Mahalinga Bhat, pleased by my sincerity gifted a barren land to me in 1978. My dream to raise an arecanut farm atop rocky hills with poor vegetation was initially mocked by all. But I started to work. I decided to rely on the ancient method of water harvesting, Suranga, as there was no water source for irrigation nearby,” says Naik.
As hiring workers for digging would have been highly expensive, he took up the task himself. Though Naik was no water diviner, he followed his gut instinct and begun digging the same year. “After harvesting coconuts and arecanuts, I used to return home and resume digging during the spare time. The tunnel being narrow, I had to crawl on all fours and crouch in order to hold the metal basket between my legs for collecting excavated soil. Toiling for as many as six hours a day under the flickering light of a coconut oil lamp (as it gave out less soot), I sometimes needed to be told to stop work by my wife who would come searching for me after 9 pm,” Naik says.
Work on the tunnel was disrupted during monsoons and was resumed only in December. After digging up to a depth of 40 ‘kolu’ (a kolu is equal to 2.5 ft or 0.76 metre), he gave up and begun digging at another location guided by his instinct. But water still remained elusive at a depth of 45 kolu in second tunnel. When he had to abandon digging third and fourth tunnel at 45 kolu again, the hard work of four years seemed to have gone up in smoke.
Villagers, who were keenly following the progress of surangas, declared that Naik was on a fool’s errand. “But ignoring all this, I began digging the fifth suranga located at an elevated place. And finally at 50 feet, I discovered moisture on ceiling,” he says.
That very moment, a thought that was to change his life forever crossed his mind.“And then, I thought of digging another tunnel further uphill, as gravitational force would run the sprinkler jets eliminating any need of irrigation pump sets,” he says. This time the calculations did not go wrong. At 315 ft long, he found water. “After four years of digging and failed attempts, my faith was finally rewarded,’’ says Naik, who went on to dig the seventh suranga behind his house to provide water for drinking and domestic use.
Next task was to level flat plots out of the sloping hill for farming. Naik singlehandedly carried over 6,000 laterite stones from his workplace to build retaining walls and prevent soil erosion in his farm. “Same work would have taken 200 man-days and an amount of one lakh,’’ says Shri Padre. He built two revetments (15-ft long, 30-ft wide and five-ft high) and a tank of 12,000-litre capacity to fill up revetments.
“Even the ‘grey water’—relatively clean waste water from washing and bathing—is diverted to a cement tank of 3,500 litres. Ninty-nine per cent of trees in the farm were raised from ‘discards’ given to me by landowners. Still there is no difference in yield,’’ says the farmer. Apart from putting in hard work, Naik keeps himself abreast with new developments in farming by attending farmer meets.
On learning about rainwater harvesting at a meeting, he dug 300 percolation pits in the hills surrounding the farm. “Rainwater drains contributed to increased water flow from surangas,” says Naik, who is also into bee-keeping and grows Azolla as food supplement for his cows.
Today, not only his farm is the living proof of a man’s extraordinary optimism, but Naik is also a role model for small farmers.
‘Surangas’ are tunnels that go into the very depth of hard laterite rocks to groundwater, through which water flows perennially in a small stream, without the use of a pump. The water is collected in mud reservoirs, called ‘Madhaka’. Naik has further improvised the traditional ‘surangas’ by raising a small reservoir.