Sonu Kalkal, a farmer living in Imlota village in Charkhi Dadri district of Haryana, used to cultivate his own land and harvest bumper crops. The 42-year-old has now turned landless. The stagnation of excess water and a high rise in water table in the agriculture fields have turned the once fertile lands into sandy ruins, forcing Kalkal and many farmers in this part of the north Indian state, to sell off their agricultural lands.

“I could not take it anymore,” said the worried Kalkal, who had to sell off five acres of his land. “I was under a debt running in lakhs and the compounding interest on it was killing me. The agricultural land, which once used to spin gold, had turned into a liability for me.”

“It has been one-and-half decades,” said the father of four. “As the water table was rising, the financial wealth of farmers in the cluster was falling at the same pace.”

The residents of the village, whose main occupation was farming before the waterlogging situation, now work as motorcycle mechanics, small-time shopkeepers or labourers in factories at Gurugram.

Manoj Kalkal, a graduate from Dadri’s Janta Degree College, said that out of 1,700 acres of agricultural land, 1,200 acres were left without sowing this season. People like him, whose only livelihood skill is farming, have taken land on lease in other villages and practice farming there. “Despite having our own land which is underwater, we are forced to run from pillar to post for survival,” he said.

Manish Kumar, another resident of Imlota exposed another social issue. He said that the constant waterlogging in the fields has not only turned the lands infertile but has also impacted matrimonial alliances for the men of Imlota.

“Every household in my village has a boy, who is of marriageable age but is rejected by the brides as he is deemed unsuitable,” Kumar said. “In Haryana, for finding a suitable bride, the prerequisite is either a government job or an agricultural land.” Although they have the latter, it has been of no use for the last 15 years.

Increase in waterlogging

According to the Charkhi Dadri district agriculture department’s survey of waterlogged and saline areas in villages in the district, from 2017 to 2022, of the total 79,595 acres of agricultural land, 9,190 acres were found to be waterlogged in 2017.

This number increased each year. In 2018, the waterlogged area increased to 9,540 acres and in 2019, it increased to 9,840 acres. In 2020 it remained steady at 9,840 acres. However, in 2021, the number of acres under waterlogging has increased to 10,490 acres in the district.

Imlota village is a part of seven villages called Satgama (a cluster of seven villages) where excessive cultivation of paddy has resulted in waterlogging. Photo credit: Sat Singh

According to the district agriculture department, in 2022, it found that 10,490 acres of land, was waterlogged and left out of sowing again this year. In Imlota, of the total 3,450 acres that were surveyed 1,900 acres were found to be waterlogged and left out of any type of sowing. The survey also found that while 600 acres of land in Imlota were waterlogged in 2017 and the area had increased to 1,900 acres in 2022.

Excess groundwater

While parts of North India are suffering from falling levels of groundwater, Charkhi Dadri is suffering from an excessive increase in groundwater levels.

About 25.9% of villages in Haryana are severely groundwater stressed and a similar situation is developing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Additionally, a study published by Punjab Agriculture University found that between 1998 and 2018, each year, the water table fell by more than a metre in 18 of Punjab’s 22 districts. The Punjab Agriculture University study cites changes in cropping patterns and intensity, increase in tube wells and reduced canal water availability as the major reasons for groundwater depletion.

However, villages in Haryana have the opposite problem. According to data released by Haryana Water Resources Authority, 319 villages in Haryana are potential waterlogged villages, with water table depths ranging from 1.5 metres to 3 metres. There are 85 villages in Haryana that are severely waterlogged, having water table depths of less than 1.5 metres. A water table depth of 5-10 metres is usually a good level.

Perennial issue

Imlota is a part of a cluster of seven villages in Haryana’s Charkhi Dadri district, that have been facing perennial waterlogging issues since 2008-’09. The other six villages are Swaroopgarh, Sattor, Morwala, Kanheti, Bigowa and Badvi. Imlota, housing about 2,000 residents, is the largest among the seven villages. It is located on the Jhajjar-Dadri highway. The travellers on the highway can view hundreds of acres of agricultural land logged with water, almost round the year.

Jasvir Kalkal, 39, a farmer who owns 15 acres of land in Imlota told Mongabay-India that the village land used to be quite fertile and farmers used to cultivate wheat, mustard, grams and paddy as the main crops. But the continuous sowing of paddy by the farmers, over a long period of time, upset the groundwater table and it raised to two feet below the surface level today from being at a depth of 20 feet in 2008-’18.

A farmer showing how continuous waterlogging has turned his land barren at Imlota village of Charkhi Dadri district in Haryana. Photo credit: Sat Singh

Another issue according to Jasvir was that the seven villages had a topographic disadvantage of being located at low-lying areas, compared to other villages in their vicinity. The rainwater from adjoining villages makes its way to Imlota and it gets accumulated in the agriculture fields, due to lack of proper exit channels. Water that gets accumulated in the rainy season from surrounding villages remains trapped in these seven villages.

Jasvir revealed that farmers now buy wheat from the city to eat. “Wheat is the basic crop which every farmer is proud to cultivate in Haryana, but we cannot even sow wheat as the agriculture land has gone underwater and it has turned barren,” Jasvir explained. He said that they cannot take tractors to the field, as the land has become so shallow that tires of tractor-trailers get caved in due to the marshy texture.

According to a 2021 study, waterlogged soils tend to collapse quickly through the dispersion of clay particles. This is especially the case in soils with high sodium and calcium ratios, these soils are often called dispersive or sodic soils. Waterlogged, non-dispersive soils can also lose soil structure by collapsing under their own weight in absence of additional strength generated by soil moisture suction of unsaturated soil disturbance by machinery at the surface.

In the irrigated areas of semi-arid regions, especially in northwest India, a considerable recharge to the groundwater leads to waterlogging and secondary salinisation, says another study. In several sub-areas groundwater is mined, water table falls, and salts are added to the root zone because a high proportion of irrigation water is derived from pumped groundwater of poor quality. Out of one million hectares of irrigation-induced waterlogged saline area in northwest India, approximately half a million hectares are in the state of Haryana.

In 2017, a panchayat was organised in Charkhi Dadri and a ban on sowing paddy in their agriculture land was announced. The objective was to correct the disturbed water table due to paddy cultivation.

Jagbir Numbdar, an elderly man from Imlota said no farmer in these seven villages is permitted to sow paddy, irrespective of whether the land is cultivable or not. “This is the only possible solution which may work but it needs years of patience. As it took years for the water table to be upset, it may need the same amount of time to get reset,” he added.

Farmers of Imlota village discuss ways to deal with groundwater issues at a Chaupal. Photo credit: Sat Singh

Interventions by government

In May 2020, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar launched the Mera Pani, Meri Virasat (My Water, My Heritage) scheme and announced the state government will buy maize and pulses at the minimum support price. He announced that the farmers switching over to alternate crops in place of the “water guzzler” paddy will get Rs 7,000 per acre incentive. The farmers become eligible for the scheme if they ensure crop diversification in a minimum of 50% of the land.

Haryana produces about 68 lakh metric tonnes of paddy, including over 25 metric tonnes of the basmati variety, across about 32 lakh acres.

Talking to Mongabay-India, Keshni Anand Arora, Chairperson, Haryana Water Resource Authority, said that the state is working to fix the problem by forming a team to work with multi-departments. Apart from Haryana Water Resource Authority, the agriculture department, fisheries and micro-irrigation departments have joined hands to sensitise the affected public and motivate them to implement the suggested solutions. She said that work is in progress to drain out saline water through subsurface drainage technology.

In Jhajjar, Rohtak and Charkhi Dadri, applications have been invited from farmers who want to free their land from salinity and waterlogging. The farmers would have to bear 20% of the cost while the rest would be borne by the government. The state government is also considering adopting vertical farming technology and farmers are encouraged to adopt crop diversification and irrigate land through sprinklers, replacing the traditional flooding method. The panchayats have been given free land to be leased out for fisheries for a longer period, which is seen as a successful method to deal with the crises of salinity.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.