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Need to Flesh Out Proposals

The Parthasarathy Committee on watershed development provides a crucial step in designing and promoting a delivery model that addresses some of agriculture?s most pressing issues. To take it forward, however, there are issues of organisation that first need to be addressed.

Need to Flesh Out Proposals

The Parthasarathy Committee on watershed development provides a crucial step in designing and promoting a delivery model that addresses some of agriculture’s most pressing issues. To take it forward, however, there are issues of organisation that first need to be addressed.


he report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes in India (the Parthasarathy Committee report) warns that the exhilaration of seeing the Indian economy reach an inflection point, with the promise of rapid growth in the years to come, has to be tempered with the bleak reality of a growing and deepening regional imbalance, concentrated in the drylands and the tribal uplands. A comprehensive analysis of Indian agriculture, impressive for its depth and breadth, clearly demonstrates why the present agriculture regime generally, and water development policy in particular, will simply unravel in the face of mounting socio-economic and ecological challenges. The story of agriculture has not been a happy one during the past decade or more. Falling growth rates of crop production, including foodgrains, and a secular decline in productivity are now threatening food security.

A sharp fall in public investment in agriculture has been the main offender, with irrigation being the main victim of this neglect. The momentum of growth of irrigated area could not, therefore, be sustained: the 1990s saw the lowest growth rates compared to earlier decades. But, as the Parthasarathy Committee points out, a mere increase in budgetary allocations will no longer suffice because the two main planks of the government’s water policy have reached a natural limit to growth. One, creation of large and medium tanks is becoming a prohibitive option, since the best sites have been or are in the process of being fully exploited. Two, extraction of groundwater, the main impetus for growth in irrigated area, has become unsustainable even in those geological strata where groundwater is relatively abundant. Such concerns get magnified several folds when groundwater development moves into hard rock areas, where natural recharge is low.

A Compelling AgendaA Compelling AgendaA Compelling AgendaA Compelling AgendaA Compelling Agenda

The argument in favour of adopting a watershed approach as the cornerstone of Indian water policy is thus compelling on many fronts. Not least because such interventions will, in fact, increase the life and efficiency of dams and wells since reduction of siltation and recharge of groundwater is what any good watershed project attempts. But that is not all. Numerous studies cited in the report unequivocally demonstrate the power of watershed projects in drought-proofing, agricultural growth, environment protection and employment generation. In most well-implemented watersheds programmes, run-off and therefore soil losses are significantly reduced, water storage increases recharge considerably. Agriculture in these areas witnesses sharp gains in productivity, an increase in irrigated area and cropping intensity, leading to improved returns from crops and an increase in employment for the landless. In short, it has the potential to address almost all the concerns that the report highlights in its opening chapter. It not only increases agriculture’s contribution to economic growth, but does so in an equitable and an environmentally sustainable manner.

While these arguments leave little room for doubt, the case in favour of a watershedbased approach is made more persuasive

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 still by the report when it points out that even in the best of possible scenarios of irrigation development, nearly 40 per cent of additional foodgrain supplies will have to come from dryland areas where watershed development has yielded the best results.

On a Mission ModeOn a Mission ModeOn a Mission ModeOn a Mission ModeOn a Mission Mode

Challenging times call for bold approaches. That the committee has not ducked its responsibilities is evident from its recommendation to set up a national authority for watershed development, which not only pushes the agenda to the centre stage of the development thinking, but marks a paradigm shift in the state’s approach to rural development. The National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA) has been designed with the explicit purpose of addressing all those concerns that have plagued watershed projects so far and to provide a comprehensive thrust and focus to its development.

One, the proposed structure aims to provide a focused, long-term approach that is not possible under the current regime characterised by diverse programmes under different ministries, competing priorities and insecure tenure of agency heads. Two, at the operational level, it promotes a plan that is premised on a coherent policy framework, comprehensive guidelines to ensure optimum results, and an institutional framework that ensures equity, transparency and participation. The phasing of discrete parts of the comprehensive plan is sensible – it guards against a dilution of focus and mix-up of objectives. All this is backed up by a robust system of monitoring and audits to ensure accountability and quality delivery. Three, by ensuring convergence of funding, from the state and other agencies, it offers the possibility of a single clearance window for financing such programmes across the country.

This is a move in the right direction and needs to be supported widely. More importantly, if adopted, it must work. The few issues explicated below are therefore presented in the spirit of offering inputs that will help this idea metamorphose soon into a reality.

Devil in the DetailsDevil in the DetailsDevil in the DetailsDevil in the DetailsDevil in the Details

Process intensity: One of the strongest points of the operational details recommended in the report is the emphasis on quality at every level, premised on minute detailing at every step. But this could also be the model’s weakest link. On a rough count, a plan and implementation, to be considered satisfactory, requires looking at least at 50 important variables each with its own sub-sets. The problem is not so much with numbers as the intensity and detail that the report counts on. The tender, loving care with which these plans are expected to be developed and delivered might be possible through the agency of an NGO working on a small scale, but it is bound to get diluted beyond a critical scale. The roadblock will be in the form of human resources. One, to attract and retain talent in the face of intense competition from the private sector, which competes at the same campuses as other development agencies, will be a major challenge. The development sector is already feeling the pinch and the going will only get worse in the face of aggressive expansion plans that companies like Reliance, Godrej and ITC have for their agribusinesses. Two, this impediment could be compensated by the solid training plans that the report envisages. But caution needs to be the watchword. Imparting quality training, entailing not only domain knowledge but also an allegiance to a cause, might not be possible on a large scale.

In brief, the availability of a less-thandesirable quality of human resources must be factored into the plan. While this might risk diluting the high standards set by the committee, pragmatism demands that the set of variables on which the success of the plan is dependent be divided into “must have” and “nice to have”. It will go a long way in ensuring focus and attention on the most important components of the plan.

This is as good a place as any to also take up two side issues. One, if the mandate covers all untreated milli watersheds, is there a need to take up the additional task of identification of villages and watersheds? They should, by default, be part of the milli watershed that is selected for development. Two, the committee might consider shortening Phase I to a single year instead of two. It might be difficult to retain the interests of villagers with nothing to show on the ground for two years. While the anxiety to ensure the development of a robust institutional framework and plans is understandable, the past failure in this regard could well have been due to insufficient emphasis and monitoring, which this report takes care of adequately. Responsibilities and roles: While the report clearly articulates and delineates the roles and responsibilities of NASDORA down the line, the quality and optimality of implementation is predicated in large measure on certain commitments by the government, which the report highlights in several places. These include issues such as inter-departmental synergies, fund convergence, ground water extraction and modifications to the labour schedule of rates (SoRs). A precise list of these expectations along with specific recommendations for implementation must be put together in a separate section, seeking explicit sanctions for the same. A prior commitment by the government on these issues will not only reveal the significance it gives to the proposal, but also send a salutary message to the political and administrative establishment. Management structure: Prima facie, a look at the organogram suggests a fairly lean and streamlined structure. But when this is further subdivided into states, districts and milli watershed level, the units proliferate exponentially. Such a sprawling structure may well work. But past experience weighs heavily in favour of increasing bureaucratisation, heavy-handedness and a clumsy decision-making process. There could be three possible ways of re-assessing this issue:

  • (i) Can decision-making within this structure be made more nimble? Each plan, for instance, has to pass through five separate filters before it is sanctioned not to mention the number of ombudsmenlike agencies that have to ratify it at every level. Is each step absolutely necessary considering that, in any case, plan approvals and fund release are subject to prefunding assessment, annual monitoring and external monitoring prior to release of funds? Similarly, it is difficult to understand why disbursements have to be routed down, step by step. Since the request for fund release is contingent on several layers of control and verification, which the management process guarantees, there is no reason why the funds cannot be released directly to the Watershed Development Teams (WDTs).
  • (ii) Can the existing structure become more flat? This requires a thorough re-evaluation of value addition at each stage of the decision-making process, which would be better attempted by the committee. However, one suggestion for the committee’s consideration is to cut out the layer at the district level. The District Watershed Management Team’s (DWMT) two main roles are to (a) provide technical and
  • Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

    institutional capacity building; and

    (b) coordinate monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment. Both these responsibilities, as envisaged in the report, are to be fulfilled by two separate agencies. The DWMT’s role is therefore mainly that of coordination along with selection of programme managers (PMs) and identification of untreated milli watersheds. Would the committee like to consider making this the responsibility of a state level agency – a State Watershed Development Agency (SWDA), for instance? Considering that the number of milli watershed is not so large as to be daunting (about 31,000 nationally, if the smallest size of 4,000 hectares is considered) and might become more manageable when divided state-wise, the suggestion is worth examining.

    The committee might like to consider such a pairing down for another, more prosaic reason. It might release funds to increase the administrative support cost for the WDT staff, which is the most critical link in the entire edifice. A rough calculation suggests per head per month availability of Rs 10,000 (assuming five professionals, a 10 per cent allocation for each WDT and an 8 year time span). If this includes both salaries and overheads, the WDTs will have a tough time retaining people.

    (iii) Most provocatively, do the WDTs necessarily have to be part of the NASDORA structure? This is being raised both to make the structure leaner and the WDTs more active and nimbler. While the details need to be fleshed out, a possible alternative scenario might look as follows: The state governing board, through the agency of a SWDA as suggested above, identifies and clearly demarcates untreated milli watersheds and throws it open for competitive bidding to solicit expressions of interest from grassroot organisations that could be panchayat raj institutions (PRIs), CBOs, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even the private sector with business interests in that location. Of course the expression of interest must strictly adhere to guidelines laid down by NASDORA so that there is no compromise on quality of work that is envisaged. This should make the selection of the implementing agency possible. Thereafter, each step, as enunciated in the report, can easily be followed.

    Such a process has interesting, potentially exciting, implications. To begin with, its very inception will generate a bottomup driven process and therefore make it fully participatory. Since it is competitive, each potential player will have to do its homework well in order to win access to scarce development funds. This sheds crucial light on the agency’s commitment to the project even before it has received funds and an important indicator for selection. By the same token, NASDORA has a choice of the most committed agency. The agency that is selected will have the responsibility of appointing its own WDT as per NASDORA’s guidelines. But the crucial qualitative difference is that this will be its own team and not an agency given to them. From the very beginning then, the WDT will be totally and wholly committed to its primary stakeholders that have created it in the first place.

    The next, interesting, step kicks in once the agency has been selected. The apex governing board, which by now would have lined up all interested funders, acts as a clearing house, matching winning entries with funders who can now make an informed choice on who to work with, where to work and what activity to fund. This is a more appealing method for attracting funders other than the government, because there is very little reason to assume that international charities, financial institutions and businesses would agree to pool in resources into a kitty of an organisation with an untested track record. Monitoring: The committee’s anxiety for a robust monitoring and evaluation system to promote accountability and performance is understandable. But surely the measures proposed are excessive and definitely need a relook. Apart from discrete audit/monitoring streams, the checklist itself is daunting – 39 broad areas to be monitored by Phase 3, with many of them being qualitative. The longer the list, the more tedious the audit process becomes, leading to time being used unproductively on providing explanations, and dealing with counter queries moving back and forth. At the end of it all, it generates ill feeling all round and no one’s the better for it. It would indeed be naïve to assume that any person placed as an auditor or monitor can transcend this role to become an enabler. In addition, the mind boggles at the sheer paper work that 31,000 milli watershed projects will generate.

    In this instance, given the command and control systems being put in place, such a stifling audit/monitoring process is simply not essential. As already pointed out above, the plans and performance appraisals go through several layers of filters comprising technical and professional resources. Secondly, pre-funding appraisal assesses all critical parameters including the integrity of technical designs and the inclusiveness of social processes. With all this in the bag, one of the two proposed audits – annual monitoring or pre-fund release audit – must be dropped. It might be preferable to stay with the latter since it is to be conducted by a third party. But even this should be against clearly laid down measurable indices. Open-ended quality parameters involving judgments from a set of people who cannot appreciate field realities bodes ill for the health and motivation of the field teams. Local contributions: Mandating an arbitrary cap of 5-10 per cent on local contributions is not in sync with the analytical rigour of the rest of the report. And it misses an important point by seeing it as a one-off payment at the beginning of the project. While an upfront payment does create an important psychological feeling of ownership, there is a strong case for effecting full repayment over a period of time to achieve financial sustainability of such projects and, therefore, scale. Given the healthy internal rates of return cited in the report, why cannot the possibility of repayment to the concerned CBO over a period of time be considered? Such a strategic thrust goes beyond mere financial sustainability. By creating a fund at the grassroot level, the CBOs can be in a position to (a) add depth and/or coverage to an existing watershed project; or (b) fund the watershed plus activities that is an integral part of the committee’s recommendation. I cannot imagine a more empowering feeling than the satisfaction of promoting village development through funds generated organically, and no better way of removing the apathy associated with a dependent-development syndrome. Public-private partnerships: While the second and third recommendations in this context are areas where businesses can contribute significantly, the first recommendation, to encourage generous contributions, calls for special pleading, which is not sustainable in the long run. The committee needs to strategise the flow of such contributions by building a plausible business case for investments in the social sector by promoting a healthy convergence between business plans and social sector investments across several

    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 value chains of, specially, agri-based companies. This, by far, would generate the largest resources, with the 100 per cent tax exemption an additional attraction. A second method would be to tap into the aspirations of companies who wish to go “green”. There is business pressure to do so as a result of globalisation, with many Indian companies seeing a competitive edge in a corporate brand equity that encompasses social and environmental responsibility. In this context it would be worth promoting the concept of “water positive” companies – those that create storage to compensate for the net freshwater intake in the running of their businesses. The storage could be water-harvesting structures in identified watersheds. Finally, the committee should ride on businesses’ successes at efficient and effective extension, to promote knowledge on water-harvesting, conservation and efficient management. Indeed, the next step should be to mandate agri-businesses to undertake water budgeting for the crops they promote and put in place compensatory mechanisms for soil and moisture conservation works.

    This report is a crucial step in designing and promoting a delivery model that addresses some of agriculture’s most pressing issues by giving a strategic thrust to India’s most neglected dryland regions. It needs to be taken forward.


    [This article reflects the views of the author and not of the organisation to which he belongs]


    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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