ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reinvigorating Watershed Development

   Reinvigorating Watershed Development Studies have repeatedly shown that poverty and distress in India are increasingly concentrated in its dryland areas. It has also been argued that the impact of growth on poverty would be the highest in such areas. The key to creating such an impact lies in reversing the trend of declining public capital formation in agriculture as well as in giving priority to rainfed areas in agricultural research and development and altering the pattern of state support (price and subsidies) to favour these areas, which are now increasingly characterised by farmers

June 3, 2006 E L L WEEKLY
Reinvigorating Watershed Development Studies have repeatedly shown that poverty and distress in India are increasingly concentrated in its dryland areas. It has also been argued that the impact of growth on poverty would be the highest in such areas. The key to creating such an impact lies in reversing the trend of declining public capital formation in agriculture as well as in giving priority to rainfed areas in agricultural research and development and altering the pattern of state support (price and subsidies) to favour these areas, which are now increasingly characterised by farmers’ suicides and vulnerability to Maoist insurgency. What perhaps matters just as much is the way these areas are governed and how programme implementation and service delivery take place. This is the central thesis of the recent report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes in India, which was constituted by the ministry of rural development. The report reviews the history of the watershed programme in India and provides clues as to why it has failed to live up to its widely acknowledged potential. The crucial problem appears to lie in the way the programme has been implemented. While there have been isolated success stories scripted by non-governmental organisations, in the main the programme has been run by government officers who appear to have taken little interest in the intricacies of its execution. Nor have they been seen to possess the requisite professional expertise demanded by this interdisciplinary programme. What has been termed the “turf war” between government departments (such as between rural development and agriculture ministries) has not helped matters either. Taking off from the prime minister Manmohan Singh’s suggestion of a rainfed areas authority in his independence day speech last year, the report comes up with a radically new blueprint to overcome the limitations of the present set-up. It proposes the setting up of a National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA). The title underscores the need for development to be sustainable in a context where indiscriminate over-exploitation of natural resources, such as groundwater, has engendered a man-made crisis of water in many parts of India. The committee advocates the setting up of an authority “endowed with the autonomy and flexibility to respond innovatively to local needs and clear accountability for performance”. Drawing upon the experience of the National Dairy Development Board, the committee suggests setting up the authority as a registered society that could be converted into a statutory body at an appropriate time. NASDORA is to be managed by an apex governing board comprising a competitively selected professional as chief executive officer (CEO), official and non-official representatives and various professionals. An Apex Rainfed Areas Stakeholders Council chaired by the prime minister will provide overall policy support and guidance to the apex board. It will include representatives of the farming community. Similar structures would be developed at the state and district levels. The professionals employed by these bodies would be selected competitively from the open market and may or may not be government officers. The committee has also proposed a dedicated District Watershed Development Agency (DWDA), separate from the existing District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), to oversee the implementation of the watershed programme within each district. The DWDA will be a branch of NASDORA at the district level and will be answerable to the district panchayat. It has been suggested that the CEO of the DWDA will sign a fiveyear memorandum of understanding with the panchayat that will spell out well-defined annual goals, against which his/her performance will be monitored each year. Major changes are also proposed in the existing Hariyali guidelines that govern watershed programmes today. The role of panchayat raj institutions, which came under needless fire from some sections due to the way it was conceived under Hariyali, has been redefined so that they become genuinely effective. Women’s Watershed Councils are to be set up to give requisite weight to

women’s perceptions and priorities in the formation of the watershed action plan and to act as an effective watchdog protecting women’s interests during implementation.

In order to be able to achieve the qualitative outcomes mostly absent in the programme so far (such as building durable local institutions, focus on rural livelihoods, arrangements for equity, sustainability, transparency, and people’s empowerment), the committee recommends extending the time frame of a typical watershed programme to eight years (from the current five years). This also entails a doubling of the per hectare cost norm from Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 (justified with reference to inflation since the time norms were last fixed).

The report constitutes a long overdue attempt at extending the process of public sector reform to rural development. It makes extremely detailed proposals in this respect, each of which may or may not be accepted by the government. But what the government must do urgently is to initiate a series of dialogues with all concerned stakeholders on the proposals, so that a new beginning may finally be made in the way rural development programmes are implemented in India. m

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

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