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Broadening the Scope of Watershed Development

The Parthasarathy Committee report will serve as a milestone in the field of watershed development. It has brought out sharply the crisis we face in agriculture; it makes a strong case for a coherent strategy for the development of rainfed regions to ensure food security; and it argues forcefully that watershed development needs to grow out of its conservation cocoon and focus on sustainable livelihoods.

Broadening the Scope of Watershed Development

The Parthasarathy Committee report will serve as a milestone in the field of watershed development. It has brought out sharply the crisis we face in agriculture; it makes a strong case for a coherent strategy for the development of rainfed regions to ensure food security; and it argues forcefully that watershed development needs to grow out of its conservation cocoon and focus on sustainable livelihoods.


“Watershed thinking” in public

policies and programmes has

been muddled by two flawed conceptual biases. First, as the Tenth Plan1 points out, watershed development has been preoccupied with “the conventional soil conservation approach of safe disposal of run-off”. Second, in its more recent ‘avatar’ watershed development has been equated to “rainwater harvesting and conservation”, ironically suggested as the alternative by the same Plan.2

The soil conservation bias comes from the long-standing concern about silting of dams built at great cost and the more recent one about loss of topsoil, leading to expansion of wastelands and desertification. The water bias, too, has twin roots; one, the old idea, greatly boosted by the successes of the green revolution, that one must “apply” water as an “input” to produce plants, therefore one must first harvest and store it, and two, the “water crisis” that we have recently become conscious of impels us to conserve it. While both these dimensions – husbandry/ conservation of soil and conservation and careful use of water – are important, these cannot be the objectives of development/ management of natural resources; these can only set the boundaries for policies and action. The objective must be to maximise present and future well-being of the largest number of people, especially poor people, who depend on these resources.

By positing the idea of watershed development in the context of the looming crisis in Indian agriculture, the Parthasarathy Committee report has attempted to correct these biases. This is a major contribution of the report. It brings out clearly the need to think beyond the green revolution, beyond dam-canal irrigation,

beyond “irrigation-plus-wonder seedsplus-fertiliser-equals-food security” kind of formulations and makes a strong case for an alternative strategy of large-scale investment in watershed development. Sixty per cent of the country’s net sown area (about 85 m ha) is rainfed.3 As a production system, as a system of managing natural resources, rainfed farming has suffered great neglect in public policies and programmes and has performed very poorly on every count – in terms of factor usage, factor productivity, capital formation, employment generation, penetration of technology, innovation, stability, sustainability, etc. To a large extent, the crisis of India’s agriculture is the crisis of India’s rainfed agriculture. The true crisis, indeed a great tragedy, of course is that this production system is the only “assured” source of food and livelihoods for millions of families in our villages – “the faces before the figures”, to use a hackneyed phrase. It is the primary occupation for an

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 overwhelming majority of the scheduled tribes (STs). Not surprisingly, about half of the ST population remains below the poverty line and chronically food insecure. About 60 per cent of the families below the poverty line are farmers – presumably a majority of them practitioners of rainfed farming. Development – or the lack of it – of rainfed agriculture undoubtedly has a huge bearing on aggregate food security for the country as the report eloquently brings out; but first and foremost, it has a great bearing on mass poverty. The case for watershed development as a strategy for poverty alleviation and food and livelihood security for millions of citizens would gain the strength and direction it deserves if one were able to “illuminate these faces”, bring out the prevalence of food insecurity/ hunger and poverty among practitioners of rainfed farming. Perhaps this could be the first task of the national authority proposed by the committee.

Sustainable LivelihoodsSustainable LivelihoodsSustainable LivelihoodsSustainable LivelihoodsSustainable Livelihoods

The second major contribution the report makes is to introduce the word “livelihoods” into the watershed lexicon, to give watershed development a larger social perspective and purpose. By focusing on livelihoods watershed development can (and should) be the main poverty alleviation programme, given the geographic and agroecological contours of poverty in India. It would then also become the driver of decentralised growth, growth with distribution.

Unfortunately, livelihoods come out in the report as an add-on, a kind of “watershed plus”4 rather than the core objective of watershed development programmes.5 To that extent, the report has been shackled by contemporary programmes and practices.6 Watershed development, in the abstract, is only a way of developing/ managing/husbanding natural resources to make the most of the elements – particularly, to get the most out of the land-based portion of the water cycle, in a sustainable manner. The early watershed developers were our ancestors who terraced hill slopes, levelled and bunded rolling landscapes, made dikes and diversions to protect their farms the world over through generations of hard work long before “soil and water conservation” became a subject of study and professional practice. Terracing a hill slope requires a great deal of physical effort and one would do so only if one wanted to till the land to produce seasonal crops; the same with levelling and bunding.

Presumably, our ancestors indulged in these labour-devouring activities because they wanted to grow crops; it is most unlikely that growing crops was an “add on”, an after thought or some kind of a “plus” activity after they had “treated” the landscape. In other words, the detail of what one does to a landscape, the so-called watershed “treatment” is determined by what one wants from it and what can be obtained sustainably. Livelihoods are the objective function to be maximised through watershed development and sustainability is the constraint that sets the boundaries.7 The specific interventions or “treatment” in the watershed are dictated by the objective function, and not vice versa.

Is this hair splitting? In our view, no. This seemingly little flip or shift in emphasis has major implications for the kind of agency required, the processes to be followed, the mix of capabilities required, level and mix of investments, duration of engagement (dealt with by the committee), equity, potential for social conflict/cooperation, etc. This is a whole new paradigm and calls for a great deal of creativity and innovation. Multiple plans can be made for a given watershed within the bounds of ecological sustainability, each with different implications for local livelihoods. One may build a check dam to harvest rainwater and then begin to worry about fisheries as a livelihood (if one is lucky to find someone willing to take it up!), or one may conceive of fisheries as a livelihood on the basis of objective analysis carried out jointly with the watershed inhabitants and then plan appropriate water storage structures to rear fish; clearly, the two are fundamentally different approaches. Similarly, one would not take up livestock development in the proposed Phase III because grasses begin to grow in the watershed as a result of treatment; rather, one would plan for grasses and fodder trees to grow because livestock development emerged as a sound livelihood idea (it may be taken up only in Phase III but planned in Phase I itself). Without an unambiguous focus on livelihoods, watershed development practice would continue to be defined by the known tricks of the trade, the various “treatments” – check dams, gully plugs, contour trenches, etc.

An Autonomous NationalAn Autonomous NationalAn Autonomous NationalAn Autonomous NationalAn Autonomous National

The recommendation to set up an independent National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA) is a truly landmark contribution the report makes. In a way, this is at the heart of the report. That the idea had been mooted and announced by the prime minister himself lends it added weight.

The rainfed regions in India are typically in undulating, hilly or mountainous terrain. Such landscapes are characterised by great agro-ecological diversity as soil conditions and water availability may vary markedly even within a village. The great variation in rainfall across the country is the other source of ecological diversity in the rainfed regions. Such landscapes also tend to be ecologically “connected”

– what happens upstream affects the downstream and isolated actions bear no results, which is half the logic for a watershed (whole to part and back) approach. The development of these regions, therefore, calls for highly decentralised, sitespecific actions to develop and promote sustainable farming systems that combine different farm sub-sectors – and not just agriculture – to build on the agroecological diversity to maximise returns and minimise risks. It requires collaboration among “ecologically connected” groups, as isolated actions would often be fruitless. A combination of public and private investments would be required on a massive scale to suitably develop the resource base, create productive assets, build human capabilities and nurture local institutions to sustain the gains. Finally, as the families dependent on rainfed farming often are socio-economically marginalised, they need empathetic engagement to gain confidence and to begin taking risks.

In other words, the agency for the development of rainfed regions must inter alia be endowed with flexibility, creativity, ability to think on one’s feet, ability to engage empathetically with marginalised groups, ability to harness and synthesise different knowledge/technical inputs and an outcome/impact focus or purposiveness. It needs to be capable of nuanced application. That government line departments are typically not so endowed is the main rationale for creating alternative structures; the frequent transfers and multiple responsibilities of agency personnel are subsidiary reasons. Only if we admit what line departments can and cannot do – for basic structural reasons rather than due to the failings of individuals – would we begin a serious search for alternatives; that is how the economic reforms were born during the

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

1990s. Alternatives may not be in sight today but if we do not believe we need them and begin to look for them, they will never appear; that is what kept economic reforms at bay for so long!

While the recommendation for an independent authority is path-breaking, the detailed design takes away much of the promise. Flexibility is the first casualty when a proposed organisation is told “how to organise itself”! That is one reason why state agencies in India seem to end up becoming replicas of each other in spite of seemingly “innovative” and “different” forms. You incorporate them as societies, trusts, companies, anything, they all become like each other. This is not accidental.

Judging from past experience, the proposed state boards will kill the whole idea, even if unwittingly. The district watershed development authority (DWDA), with three masters – the zilla parishad, the state board and NASDORA – will trip over itself and trip everyone else. There seems no reason to believe that DWDAs would be any different from the current district rural development agencies (DRDAs). Let us not forget that DRDAs were born out of the district agencies created for the development of landless labourers and marginal farmers during the 1970s when Babu Jagjivan Ram was the agriculture minister. The logic was similar and things are far worse today than during the 1970s and 1980s when the DRDAs were born. Notwithstanding the provisions made about professional selection, etc, one can imagine what would happen in the weakest states, which need such an agency the most!

It serves little purpose to design anything beyond NASDORA as an all-India, autonomous body with a governance structure as recommended by the committee, a clear mandate and a clear policy commitment regarding resources. The proposed council is the forum to ensure that the states would have a say about coverage, priorities, resource allocation, etc. Let NASDORA have the flexibility to decide whether it wants to organise operations state-wise or large basin-wise, or AER-wise, etc. And whether it should have districts as boundaries, etc. Let designing the organisation be the first task before the chief executive and her senior team. Why can we not think of India outside the framework of states, districts, blocks, etc? Sure, districts and states might be the channels for government funds (and NASDORA would have to negotiate with them and get them onboard to finance its plans), but that does not require administrative control at these levels. Objectivity and rationality rather than the exercise of statutory power and authority is the whole idea behind professionalism; why fetter it with statutory over-design? Temporary structures can be created around missions, programmes and projects for governance and coordination as and when needed.

Cost NormsCost NormsCost NormsCost NormsCost Norms

The report painstakingly, if somewhat mechanistically, makes a case for increasing unit costs from the present Rs 6,000 per ha to the proposed Rs 12,000 per ha. This may be adequate if one remains confined to the prevailing paradigms of “safe disposal of rainwater” and “harvesting and conservation of rainwater”. But if we want to usher in a new paradigm, of creating livelihoods, spurring growth, advancing the production frontiers in rainfed regions and ensuring long-term food security, the proposed limit is far too inadequate.

The anticipated paucity of government funds might have been a consideration in setting the proposed cost norms. Rationing of public resources is presumably done on the basis of priorities assigned to various public goods. In that case one might ask, what public good does dam-canal irrigation produce to deserve public investments of Rs 1.5 lakh per ha, and does watershed development produce so little by way of public good that it deserves only Rs 6,000 (or the proposed Rs 12,000) per ha? Another comparison might be with the Gram Sadak Yojana where the per capita investment limit is Rs 4,000 (up to Rs 40 lakh to connect villages with a population of 1,000 or more).

A more rational approach would be to think in terms of (classes of) purposes for which investments are required and the criteria for deciding the level of investment rather than cost limits. In our view, the level of investment ought to be determined by expected returns – economic, social or both. How these might be financed is another matter. Regardless of land tenure within its boundaries – government, common or private – the development of a watershed always produces all three kinds of goods – public, common and private. While we need to unravel this phenomena further to develop more nuanced financing strategies for watershed development, it is clear that the entire investment in a watershed need not come out of government coffers, much less out of the programmes as presently fashioned. First, we need to tap institutional finance on a large scale. After all, a major proportion of land in watersheds where rainfed farming is practised is privately owned8 and its treatment would enhance private assets. Even otherwise, a livelihoods focused watershed development strategy would aid private production systems. Hence, institutional finance could play a major role. In the same vein, investments from private companies might be mobilised around specific sectoral activities in a diversified farming system. Second, much larger government resources would become available if we integrate and rationalise various government programmes. Besides drawing on NREGA allocations as the report recommends, there is great scope for combining various poverty alleviation programmes, sectoral programmes, programmes for special groups and programmes of state governments (especially the current favourite, externally aided projects). Indeed, a wider review of all government programmes by the committee (as mandated by the terms of reference) might have opened up greater opportunities.

Multiple Domains,Multiple Domains,Multiple Domains,Multiple Domains,Multiple Domains,
Multiple CapabilitiesMultiple CapabilitiesMultiple CapabilitiesMultiple CapabilitiesMultiple Capabilities

Considering all that the central and state governments could but have not done to empower panchayat raj institutions (PRIs),

– such as transferring more financial powers,9 handing over the administration of certain public services, etc – it is hard to believe, as the report suggests, that the change to the Hariyali regime was inspired by a commitment to empower PRIs! The Hanumantha Rao Committee report that inspired the watershed development programme in the ministry of rural development had recommended extensive participation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with a view to eventually hand over one-fourth of the programme to NGOs. This was perhaps based on considerations similar to what we have cited above for setting up an independent national authority. The Hariyali guidelines reversed this. The committee might have commented on this major policy change a bit more.

As pointed out earlier, watershed development always encompasses public,

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 common and private domains. Though the inclusion of watershed development in the PRIs’ list of subjects might have been inspired by the common misconception that watershed development deals mainly with common property resources, there can be no doubt that they have a significant role in watershed development because public and common domains are involved. The report brings this out well. Following the same logic, there is a role for other formations of the watershed inhabitants, such as user/producer groups, SHGs, etc. What is important, as the report rightly states, is not to hand over to PRIs tasks outside their domain and tasks they are not equipped to perform – that would neither deepen democracy, nor lead to watershed development. What role do the PRIs have in raising loans for the development of private land, or in creating orchards on private land, and so on?

The report brings out well the need and rationale for the involvement of NGOs as was the case before Hariyali. NGOs are needed because they bring to bear certain capabilities that the PRIs and state agencies lack. They have demonstrated far more than any other agency the abilities needed for livelihood focused watershed development. The state in our view remains quite ambivalent about NGOs and that is reflected in the oftrepeated plea about absence of criteria to select “good NGOs” and the uneven distribution of such NGOs. The state is quite competent to develop criteria, improve its regulatory mechanisms and create new ones if it wanted to engage with NGOs widely, meaningfully and systematically. It deals with myriad institutions in society and would come to a standstill if it did not do so. How does it cope with that? In what fundamental ways are NGOs different? Is it possible that NGOs are seen (rightly or wrongly) ascompetitors for the same space? Might it be that no one cares about outcomes and impact?

The “NGO sector” has changed significantly during the past quarter century. If corruption has increased, so have capability, outreach and effectiveness. This has happened in spite of an environment of suspicion and cynicism in our society and the growing fatigue about poverty and all other causes NGOs take up. The oases would surely grow into grand vistas if there were a supportive environment, enabling policies and a well-administered regulatory mechanism. The state can play a significant role in this.

Need for Scale DemonstrationNeed for Scale DemonstrationNeed for Scale DemonstrationNeed for Scale DemonstrationNeed for Scale Demonstration

There is a paucity of large-scale success stories of watershed development projects with a livelihood promotion/poverty alleviation focus. There are tiny oases as the report points out. The committee might have recommended setting up a few such projects in different agro-ecological regions with an investment of a few hundred crore rupees even as the proposed national authority ramps up. That would build experience and know-how, set benchmarks and create sites for training and demonstration.

The report often veers into too much technical/programmatic detail, especially in chapter 2. It is often prescriptive at the level of programmatic/schematic detail. While the detail brings on board practical insights gained from grassroot work, much of it in our view might have been placed in suitable annexures.

Human ResourcesHuman ResourcesHuman ResourcesHuman ResourcesHuman Resources

Development of rainfed regions to their potential to alleviate mass poverty and spur distributed growth is a huge challenge. It would require a major transformation. It would require huge financial resources, new paradigms and new institutions. Most of all, it would require a large number of qualified people who can guide/trigger the planning process in thousands of watersheds, foster and nurture institutions; in brief, catalyse the transformation. The report hints at several places that there would be experts/professionals who would work shoulder to shoulder with the watershed inhabitants. Where are such professionals/experts being trained? The report might have brought out this big hole in our preparations for the future. That would also have helped explain the “longhaul” that this transformation is.

To summarise, the Parthasarathy Committee report will serve as a milestone in the field of watershed development. It has brought out sharply the crisis we face in agriculture; it makes a strong case for a coherent strategy for the development of rainfed regions to ensure food security; and it argues forcefully that watershed development needs to grow out of its conservation cocoon and focus on sustainable livelihoods. If heeded and acted upon by our policy apparatus, these in our view

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

are adequate to usher in a new green revolution, one that would hopefully be more inclusive, especially of the poor and marginalised.




[The views expressed here are personal.]

1 Planning Commission (2002), Tenth Five-Year Plan, p 529.

2 Ibid.

3 Unfortunately, the terms “rainfed” and “dry land” have been used interchangeably in the report. The term “dry land” is normally used for arid and semi-arid regions where as “rainfed” would include all land where “plants get water only when and as it rains”, and encompasses large parts that are wet, humid or sub-humid besides the dry lands. Substituting “dry land” for “rainfed” has led to a good deal of myopia in government policies and programmes. While watershed development would be the overarching strategy for all rainfed regions, it would unfold differently depending on the dryness or wetness of a specific region.

4 The use of the word “plus” as a reminder that watershed development does not end with completion of physical activities or “treatment” is indeed welcome, as is the recommendation to increase programme duration from five to eight years. This, however, is unlikely to result in a change in perspective about the purpose of watershed development, which is what is required. We might get three more years, yet no basic shift in thinking.

5 The strongest statement about livelihoods in the report (page 87) is, “The watershed programme …comprises a major investment …for the benefit of the people…and…to realise the potential of these areas …” But then it goes on to recommend, “development of sustainable livelihoods on the basis of augmentation of the resource base (emphasis mine)”. In our view, resource augmentation itself ought to be planned to maximise livelihoods. By and large, that is not the perspective and practice today.

6 To be fair, the committee was set up to review a set of existing programmes.

7 A livelihoods perspective would, of course, take us beyond watershed development and rainfed farming, into the larger issue of integrated natural resource management, including the management of forests, the sacred cow that the committee too has largely left alone. After all, the land classified as government forests measures almost half as much as the land devoted to farming (the net sown area). How many livelihoods does it create?

8 The area that can be put to productive use is about 260 m ha. Of this, about 72 m ha is classified as government forests and 145 m ha is the net sown area. If one takes net sown area as a proxy for private land (private land would actually be more) and assumes that land not classified as government forests or private is village common land, the ownership ratio roughly works out to 6:3:2 between private, government forests and village commons.

This is a very crude analysis but serves to demonstrate the preponderance of private land. In many parts there are no commons, thanks to land distribution by government. In some places even grasslands and grazing lands are privately owned. And of course, the commons have been encroached widely where they do exist in the records.

9 Besides taxation, PRIs could, for instance, be enabled to mobilise finances from the market given their real and potential control over a variety of productive resources and the fact that the proximity between the citizens and their representatives makes it potentially much easier for PRIs to create and enforce contracts.

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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