Watershed management: People matter
On the occasion of World Environment Day on June 5, M.S.S. VARADAN writes on the need for people's participation in successfully implementing watershed activities.
A framework for water resource management is needed to correct regional imbalances.
IN Urban India today, it has become a symbol of culture and refinement to talk about and to support environmental causes. But not so in the rural areas where farmers are trying desperately to make both ends meet. Environmental problems in urban areas have received much attention and action while the rural areas, home to 70 per cent of the National population continue to deteriorate. Victims of the whimsical monsoons and fickle market prices, these poor farmers have very little control over their destiny. Furthermore, due to increasing pressure of population, there is demand for more land for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Unhealthy practices on available land have resulted in creation of vast stretches of wastelands due to soil salinity, water logging, desertification and soil erosion.
In fact, according to the Ninth Five Year Plan Document, soil erosion is contributing to degradation in about 45 per cent of the cultivable area of the country. The estimates of wastelands range from 76 million hectares to 175 million hectares. In a densely populated country like India, one cannot afford to let so much land remain idle. To make this land cultivable, the productive approach is through watershed development.
A watershed (or catchment) is a geographical area that drains to a common point, which makes it an ideal planning unit for conservation of soil and water. The idea is really quite simple and is perhaps as old as the history of farming. But, the benefits are manifold. It changes the entire landscape of an arid area making the land fertile, making growth of trees possible and checking soil erosion and water logging.
Therefore, the government is giving high priority to holistic and sustainable development of rain-fed areas based on the watershed approach. A large number of projects for productivity enhancement are being implemented based on the watershed approach. This is being done through centrally sponsored schemes of the Government, externally aided projects and private initiatives of local communities and NGOs.
The watershed programmes are implemented by the Zilla Panchayat through watershed associations. A Project Implementing Agency (PIA), which may be a Government Department or an NGO, is assigned about 10 micro watersheds, each micro watershed covering about 500 hectares. The PIA forms a watershed development team that interacts with the watershed associations and provides technical assistance to the watershed association in the planning and implementation of the watershed programme. The residents of the area covered by the watersheds are also organised into self-help groups and user groups. In fact, these user groups are the beginning point as well as the end point for Watershed Development programmes. Their initiative is crucial to the success of the programme and they are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Evaluation reports have shown that watershed projects cannot succeed without full participation of project beneficiaries and careful attention to issues of social organisation. This is because their success depends on consensus among a large number of users. Moreover, collective capability and action is required for management of existing as well as new structures created during the project. Otherwise, the costs and benefits of watershed interventions are location-specific and unevenly distributed among the people affected.
The unfortunate truth today is that most projects have failed to generate sustainability because of the failure of government agencies to involve the people. Up to the end of the eighth plan period, 16.5 million hectares of rain fed/degraded land have been developed under different schemes. However, this does not get reflected in the data for Net Sown Area, which has remained almost stagnant at around 142 million hectares for the last 30 years. This indicates that there was no sustainability of efforts made.
This lack of sustainability can be attributed to a number of practices followed by the Government in the implementation of the watershed development programmes. Strict orientation to achieve physical and financial targets discourages the project authorities to promote people's participation. There is considerable pressure to spend substantial resources by a fixed deadline leaving no room for pursuing participatory approaches. It is imperative for the successful implementation of the watershed projects that people participate in the planning and execution of the project from the beginning. This would inculcate a sense of ownership among the people. Fostering a sense of ownership will undoubtedly go a long way in ensuring the success of watershed programmes.
Although encouraging people's participation is the key to sustainable watershed development programmes, these programmes face some other bottlenecks as well:
* There is no arrangement for handing over of structures and maintenance of plantation after a project is completed.
* In the present form, schemes are planned and executed by district level officers who have very limited capacity to do so. So, there is a need to train both the government officials and functionaries of agencies, which take up watershed projects.
* Little evaluation of the programme is done after it has run for a couple of years as it is taken for granted that once money has been spent, physical progress automatically results. But, this is far from the truth.
* Programmes are run departmentally with little vertical compartmentalisation. Horizontal linkages between various agencies are very weak. Thus, although watershed development may require integration of soil conservation techniques with plantation, there is little likelihood of effective coordination between the District Soil Conservation Officer and the District Forest Officer.
* Forest lands, non-forest pastures, wastelands and crop lands must be looked at in an integrated manner. As this is usually not done, treatment upstream to reduce soil movement does not benefit large farmers who are downstream. They see no advantage and are indifferent or opposed to this strategy. They would prefer to conserve and harvest water in the drainage line to be used for irrigation or to replenish groundwater. However, lands in the upper catchment areas must always be rehabilitated first.
Despite problems, there are many success stories. Successful and sustainable projects include Ralegoan Siddhi, revival of johad in Alwar, Sadguru Foundation's activities in Gujarat, Watershed Development in Jhabhua and Sagar districts of Madhya Pradesh and externally aided projects like KAWAD, SDC, DANIDA in Karnataka, World Bank Project in Andhra Pradesh and DANIDA project in Tamil Nadu.
All of these successful projects have some characteristics in common emphasis on social issues, social mobilisation, clear direction to the Government to accept principles of participatory management, transparent project monitoring and a strong sense of ownership by the local community.
In fact, Ralegaon Siddhi has become a role model for people across the country to learn how people's involvement is instrumental to the success of watershed activities. It stands testimony to the fact that the key to rural economy is the development of watersheds and the key to development of watersheds is participation of local farming communities.
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