CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Kerr, J., and N. K. Sanghi. 1992. Indigenous soil and water conservation in India's semi-arid tropics. International Institute for Environment and Development Gatekeeper Series No. 34. London: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in India's Semi-Arid Tropics

John Kerr

N.K. Sanghi

Published by the Sustainable Agriculture Programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development


Contour farming, however, is not unknown to Indian farmers; they adopt it in hilly areas to make indigenous terraces and in lowland areas for paddy fields under tank irrigation. It is quite common to find the same farmer using contour bunds on his tank-irrigated paddy land but boundary-based erosion control measures on his rainfed land. Farmers recognize the efficiency of contour-based systems for conserving soil and water, but they feel that on rainfed land the benefits are not great enough to justify foregoing the other advantages of indigenous, boundary-based systems.

Farmers note several reasons for favouring boundary bunds. First, boundary bunds serve the dual purposes of conserving soil and demarcating property. Contour bunds cut across farm boundaries, leaving corners in some fields and creating the risk of losing a piece of land to the neighboring field.

Second, because they tend to run in straight lines, boundary bunds make plowing more convenient than with winding contour bunds, particularly where multi-row implements are used. Contour farming also reduces the efficiency of operations (where traditional desi plows are used) because it requires repeated cultivation in the same direction. With desi plows (unlike tractors), farmers must alternate directions to turn the soil effectively.

Third, boundary-based systems enable individual farmers to invest without having to cooperate in large groups. Limited group action among adjacent farmers is sufficient. In contrast, conventional systems require cooperation among all the farmers in the watershed. This is because they distribute benefits and costs unevenly, depending on the location of bunds and drains, as shown in Figure 3. The central waterway is constructed at the end of the graded bund, encroaching on the adjacent fields. In boundary-based runoff disposal, waterways are decentralized and associated costs--land and maintenance time--are shared more widely. This reduces conflict, increasing the likelihood of adoption. Tables 1,2,3,4,5-6 provide a more detailed comparison of indigenous and recommended practices in different agroclimatic zones.