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Rethinking watershed strategy

By Mihir Shah

RECENT YEARS have seen a welcome emphasis on watershed programmes as a cornerstone of rural development in India. In our work "India's Drylands", my colleagues and I have shown that spending a mere 1 per cent of the national income on watershed and micro-irrigation development programmes can lead to both employment guarantee and food security in rural India. Not only that, we show that these goals can be attained in a manner that is both non-inflationary and sustainable. For, what watershed programmes yield is, to use the phraseology made famous by Joan Robinson and K.N.Raj, not merely short-term and "revolving", but truly long-term, "sedimented" employment. Not many people know that according to National Sample Survey data, nearly 80 per cent of agricultural labour households (those who earn more than 50 per cent of their income from labour) in India are landed. The land they own has such low productivity, that it does not yield enough income to support their families. So they are compelled to work outside their farms as labourers. Watershed programmes aimed at increasing the productivity of such small and marginal farmers in the drylands, hold the key to future agricultural development, employment generation and poverty alleviation.

The last four decades have seen an increasingly widening gap between the productivity of irrigated and dryland agriculture. This has, of course, been no accident. It is a direct and predictable consequence of the strategy adopted in the mid-1960s of "betting on the strong", whereby massive investment flowed to the already well-endowed regions and farmers of the country, in the hope that the benefits of their accelerated growth would eventually "trickle down" to the vast majority. The absurdity of a succession of droughts, occurring concomitantly with overflowing foodgrain stocks with the Food Corporation of India in recent years, must be regarded as the final nail in the coffin of this strategy. India's drylands have suffered massive neglect, both in terms of public investment and appropriate R&D. These are the regions where the poorest of our poor live. These, especially the tribal pockets within them, are the flashpoints of often violent protests, a reflection of intense disenchantment with the national mainstream. It is for these regions that we most urgently need the new watershed approach. Especially because the rate of growth of irrigation development in India, as also everywhere else across the globe, has been steadily decelerating, after peaking in the 1970s

To begin with, we need to recognise that it is not enough to harvest rainwater. However much water we may collect will prove inadequate if we do not pay very careful attention to its end-uses. Watershed development in India is plagued with a supply-side obsession. Very little is being done to integrate a sustainable dryland agriculture strategy with programmes of water conservation. Thus, we have the tragic spectacle of drought-prone Ahmednagar district of the pioneering Ralegaon Siddhi experiment, growing vast acres of sugarcane, making a mockery of the watershed approach, by engendering man-made scarcity of water. Indeed, what we require are not just viable agriculture packages but meticulously worked out location-specific land-use planning modules which would make careful use of the harvested water and match the widely varying natural resource matrices within each watershed.

A logical extension of this neglect of agriculture is the lack of attention being paid to the challenge of sustainably utilising groundwater, the single most important source of water in India today. It appears that the watershed programme has begun to suffer from its own brand of fundamentalism. Somehow, groundwater harvesting through well construction, deepening and repair are not regarded as admissible watershed practices, even in areas with unutilised groundwater potential. At the same time, an ostrich-like blind eye is turned to the over-exploitation of groundwater through tubewells, a widespread phenomenon in many areas. An integral part of any watershed programme should be systematic studies of the storage and transmission characteristics of aquifers, so that collectively rational protocols for pumping of wells and sequencing their use can be set up. This will ensure that groundwater is neither allowed to lie under-utilised nor is it subject to indiscriminate and unsustainable over-exploitationAnother problem area concerns the modalities of fund allocation. Micro-watersheds of between 1,000-2,500 hectares are allotted funds at the (recently revised) rate of a theoretical maximum of Rs. 6,000 per hectare. The theoretical usually turns out to be the actual and each micro-watershed can get up to Rs.1.50 crores, to be spent in a short span of 5 years. This leads to a massive concentration of resources in a few villages, creating inequities across selected and left-out villages with attendant resentment, especially given the absence of justifiable criteria of selection of villages, in the first place. It would be far better to move much more slowly, spending lesser money per year in each village across a larger number of villages, over a longer period of time (say ten years), which would also allow the more critical processes of people's mobilisation for equity and empowerment to take proper shape.

More important, of course, is the question of the implementing agency. Government departments, which remain the main implementers, have been a failure, by and large, even in the best States. People's involvement and empowerment, key to the success of any development programme, are weakest in Government projects. But the problem is the lack of an alternative implementation mechanism that can match the operational scale of the Government. Most NGOs tend to be very localised in their operation. And those who try to work on a large scale suffer the problems of neo-governmental bureaucratisation. Glimmers of a solution are, however, beginning to emerge. The key lies in linking up the thousands of disparate small groups working in far-flung corners of the country, and providing them the necessary wherewithal to contribute effectively to the overall process. This is a massive search, screen, train and support operation. A small beginning has been made in this direction, which has the potential to add up to something significant.

There are around six lakh villages in India. Approximately, four lakh villages can be said to be in need of urgent watershed intervention. These villages belong to around one lakh watersheds. The need, therefore, is to empower one lakh Village Watershed Committees, which must be the ultimate vehicle of implementation. To empower these we require up to two thousand NGOs, each of whom could well look after fifty watersheds. To equip these NGOs for this task, we need at least ten Support Voluntary Organisations (SVOs), each of whom would be responsible for 200 NGOs. Seven such SVOs have already been recognised in different parts of the country by the Government of India. The empowerment effort throughout the country has been divided among them and more SVOs are in the pipeline. If this effort continues at the necessary pace, over the next 20 years, we could look forward to 200 million hectares of India's most needy areas being covered by people-centred watershed programmes. Six hundred million people inhabit these areas. Thus, both 60 percent of India's area and its population could be covered over 20 years. This is, of course, only an indicative scenario but it provides a picture of what is possible if the required level of public investment and NGO momentum is maintained and the necessary mid-term corrections adopted.

(The writer is Secretary, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a watershed implementation and training support voluntary organisation based in Madhya Pradesh.)

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