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A national authority for rainfed India

Mihir Shah

The Government should examine the Parthasarathy Committee report, hold wide-ranging consultations on its key recommendations and act to implement a new consensus on governing rainfed areas.

WITH IMPRESSIVE macro-economic rates of growth and a booming stock market, India is one of the most exciting economies in the world today. It has reportedly displaced the United States as the second most attractive destination for foreign direct investment after China. This spectacular overall performance, however, hides one dark spot the people of India exposed through Verdict 2004. The benefits of this growth have not been evenly distributed. Large parts do not find a place on the development map of the country. Massive statistical data establish that there is a concentration of poverty and distress in the drylands of India as also in its hilly and tribal areas. This phenomenon of regional imbalance in India's development finds official recognition in the Planning Commission's recent Report of the Inter-Ministry Task Group on Redressing Growing Regional Imbalances that has developed a list of 170 most backward districts, including 55 extremist affected districts. Extremist violence is most frequently encountered in areas where backwardness is intense. Suicide by farmers in recent years and starvation deaths of children have been concentrated in the rainfed areas.

At the heart of all these symptoms is the poor performance of agriculture, which appears to be in the throes of a crisis. For the first time since the mid-1960s, foodgrains production grew slower than population in the 1990s. While irrigated agriculture appears to be hitting a plateau, dryland farming has suffered neglect. The output of crops grown and eaten by the poorest of the poor (coarse grains, pulses and oilseeds) and cultivated largely in the drylands actually declined during this decade and the rate of growth of their yields decelerated considerably.

In a candid acknowledgement of the enormity of the problem, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his recent inaugural address at the 93rd session of the Indian Science Congress, spoke of the need for a second Green Revolution with a special focus on dryland agriculture and small and marginal farmers. He called upon scientists to devise appropriate and affordable, labour-using technologies for energy and water, especially designed for farmers of drought-prone regions. Dr. Singh strongly endorsed the five-point programme suggested by M.S. Swaminathan's National Commission on Farmers. This includes the much neglected issue of soil health enhancement; water harvesting, water conservation and sustainable and equitable use of water; access to affordable credit and to crop and life insurance that needs urgent focus after the unending spate of suicides; development and dissemination of appropriate technologies; and improved opportunities, infrastructure and marketing regulations. To this the Prime Minister has thoughtfully added application of science to animal husbandry. This is of the greatest relevance to the landless, Dalits and pastoral communities.

The crucial question that remains unanswered, however, is that of the institutional mechanism through which such a watershed development programme is to be implemented in rainfed India. The Prime Minister hinted at the importance of this problem in his Independence Day speech last year when he spoke of the Government's intention to set up a national authority for rainfed areas. Happily, a technical committee set up by the Union Ministry for Rural Development to review watershed programmes has come up with a blueprint of a National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA). The report of the Parthasarathy Committee (named after its chairperson) has just been printed and is in the public domain.

The committee argues that one of the major problems with the watershed programme is that at each level it is administered by people who have much else on their hands. This is true at all levels especially at the district level, where the Collector or the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), district panchayat, is expected to look after the programme. Similarly, under the Hariyali Guidelines it is the panchayat secretary who is the CEO of the programme at the micro-watershed level. These officials with a host of responsibilities are unable to do justice to the requirements of this quality- and process-intensive programme.

There are also policy and executing discontinuities because of the frequent transfer of these officials. Coordination among transient actors pursuing departmental agendas is another problem. With many competing priorities and insecure tenures, agency heads cannot follow any endeavour that calls for focussed, long-term engagement. Again, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly emphasised, there has been a lack of focus on outcomes. Merely utilising outlays has been the norm. As a result, government agencies at different levels have not felt challenged to develop a problem-solving culture and practices marked by flexibility, pro-action, goal orientation and open-ended engagement with rural communities and potential resource agencies within and outside the government.

The Parthasarathy Committee, therefore, recommends the setting up of an all-India Authority that is functionally focussed, operationally integrated and attuned to collaborate with a diverse set of stakeholders. It must be endowed with autonomy and flexibility to respond innovatively to local needs and must have clear accountability for performance. It must be willing and able to invest in building human and institutional capacity at different levels to carry forward its agenda. The proposal is for setting up a totally new professional and output-oriented organisational structure geared to meet these requirements. The proposed design draws on successful international innovations in governance as well as experience with the enabling management structure that has been evolved in Indian public sector enterprises.

NASDORA is visualised as a quasi-independent authority to manage the national watershed programme. Its overarching goals would be to ensure access to safe drinking water to the local population, provide it sustainable livelihoods and secure freedom from drought for the vast rainfed regions by 2020. The Authority would address the challenge of bringing prosperity to these regions through sustainable development of their natural resource base. It is envisaged that NASDORA will identify, finance and monitor action programmes in a systematic and time-bound manner. To ensure freedom and flexibility in its functioning, the Authority should be registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. Over time as it matures in functioning, a proposal for converting it into a statutory body could be considered. This was the institutional trajectory followed by the National Dairy Development Board.

A two-tier governance and management structure is envisaged to ensure broad policy support as well as operating oversight. NASDORA will be managed by an apex governing board consisting of a competitively selected professional as CEO, one representative each from the Union Ministries of Rural Development, Agriculture and Environment and Forests, three competitively selected whole-time professionals representing operations, finance, and human and institutional development, two eminent experts in watershed management, and two eminent members from civil society. An apex rainfed areas stakeholders council will provide overall policy support and guidance to the board and review NASDORA's performance. It will be chaired by the Prime Minister, with the Ministers for Rural Development, Agriculture and Environment and Forests as vice-chairpersons. The council will include the Chief Minister of each State covered by NASDORA, Secretaries of the Union Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment and Forests, national experts on watershed management, representatives of facilitating agencies of high standing, and representatives of farmers. The State Governments will set up boards with a structure similar to the one at the apex level. Each State board will have a CEO and professionals appointed on the recommendations of search committees.

There also needs to be a separate dedicated District Watershed Development Agency (DWDA) to oversee the implementation of the watershed programme. The DWDA will be a branch of NASDORA at the district level. It will be answerable to the district panchayat, which will approve the action plans formulated by the DWDA. A full-time CEO will head the DWDA. The CEO will sign a five-year MoU with the district panchayat that will spell out well-defined annual goals, against which the performance of the CEO will be monitored each year by the Collector and the district panchayat. The CEO will be competitively selected from the open market transparently. The CEO of the DWDA could be a serving government officer on deputation, a person from the NGO/corporate sectors or an independent professional.

The Parthasarathy Committee report contains a detailed blueprint and guidelines for NASDORA right up to the gram sabha level. It calculates that an expenditure of Rs.10,000 crore per annum on rainfed areas over the next 15 years would be required to meet the goals of NASDORA. The Government needs to carefully examine the report, hold wide-ranging consultations on its key recommendations and urgently act to implement a new consensus on governing rainfed areas.

(The writer served as Honorary Adviser to the Parthasarathy Committee.)

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