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Restructuring Watershed Development Programmes

The broad thrust of the changes suggested by the Parthasarathy Committee is necessary to get the government watershed programme out of the wasteful, fragmented and corrupt rut it is mired in. The programme is far too important for reviving agricultural growth, especially in rainfed areas, to allow the present situation to continue by default.

Restructuring Watershed Development Programmes

The broad thrust of the changes suggested by the Parthasarathy Committee is necessary to get the government watershed programme out of the wasteful, fragmented and corrupt rut it is mired in. The programme is far too important for reviving agricultural growth, especially in rainfed areas, to allow the present situation to continue by default.


aising the productivity of rainfed lands has been and remains one of the most difficult challenges of agricultural development in India. Soil conservation and improved dry farming techniques have long been recognised as essential for this purpose. Efforts to propagate them, dating back to the 1930s, focused mainly on the adoption of these measures by individual farmers. This approach continued to be the main thrust of programmes for rainfed agriculture in the early phases of planning but to little effect. It came to be recognised that basic improvements in soil and moisture conservation have to be planned on an area basis. A variety of special programmes for the development of wastelands, drought-prone areas and desert areas were launched at different times.

The concept of integrated watershed development came into prominence after the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) advocated it as the appropriate strategy and implemented model projects to demonstrate the application of this concept in several locations. Several NGOs also started innovative experiments in different parts of the country for the development of local land and water sources with community participation and to explore ways of achieving equitable sharing of benefits.

The idea was accepted as part of official policy in the early 1970s but did not make much of a difference to the way programmes were designed and managed or to their impact on the quality and productivity of rainfed lands. There was a plethora of schemes with similar or overlapping scope. They continued to be planned and implemented by numerous agencies in a fragmented and piecemeal manner. The communities which were meant to benefit were kept totally out of the process and there was practically no monitoring or evaluation of physical works, their quality and impact. There is a general consensus that they did not make a significant impact in containing land degradation or in increasing the productivity of rainfed lands.

These deficiencies attracted widespread comment both in official committee reports and in academic literature. There was a growing consensus that the programmes needed radical restructuring and that community participation was crucial. The National Watershed Development Programme for Rainfed Agriculture in 1990 launched by the ministry of agriculture was an attempt at restructuring.

Innovations to promote community participation and involvement of NGOs were tried in a number of programmes under different ministries supported and funded by foreign aid agencies.

In 1994 the Hanumantha Rao Committee made a number of important recommendations to revamp the Drought-Prone Areas Programme (DPAP) and Desert Development Programmes (DDP), and suggested a set of common guidelines for bringing together different schemes under the ministry of rural development (MoRD). The committee suggested active encouragement of community participation and a greater role for NGOs. This led to the ministry of agriculture also to make changes in guidelines for National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas (NWDPRA) to make it more participatory, equitable and sustainable. But these did not happen on the ground. The multiplicity of schemes remained and little progress was made in persuading different ministries to unify and integrate their various watershed programmes. Communities continued to be kept out.

After the Hariyali guidelines of 2003, a major controversy arose over the role of and the relation between village watershed committees (VWCs) as separate entities and the gram sabha and elected panchayat in making and implementing decisions regarding watershed development schemes. The decision of the MoRD to abolish separate VWCs and watershed associations and hand over the functions to the gram panchayat and gram sabha respectively has caused much confusion and is widely believed to have impeded the programme.

All this led to the constitution of a fresh technical committee by the MoRD to review all the issues (including the Hariyali guidelines) relating to the organisation and implementation of the watershed programme, prioritise areas and suggest approaches to special problem areas like DPAP and DDAs. The committee, whose report was submitted early this year, was chaired by a retired civil servant with first hand experience of the problems involved, serving civil servants from states who are administering these programmes, research scientists with expert knowledge of technical aspects and persons from well-known and highly regarded NGOs active in watershed development.

The committee had extensive discussions with a wide cross section of officials, NGOs, activists and researchers from all

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

parts of the country individually and in “brainstorming sessions”. They also visited over 30 watershed development schemes covering different agro-climatic conditions and under different types of agencies to get a first hand assessment of the ground reality and views and perceptions of members of the watershed communities. Though commissioned by the MoRD with a focus on its programmes, the committee’s comprehensive and detailed suggestions are relevant for the entire gamut of watershed development initiatives. In fact its recommendations on the organisational structure provide a framework in which these programmes can be unified in a rational manner to facilitate their tighter and far more efficient implementation.

Broad ApproachBroad ApproachBroad ApproachBroad ApproachBroad Approach

After all, the central guiding principles of the suggested approach – namely, participatory planning and implementation by watershed communities; equity, transparency and accountability; and concern for environmental sustainability – are unexceptionable. Their importance is widely appreciated and they figure in the rhetoric of government policy statements and plan documents. But it is important to recognise that they are relevant not only to rainfed areas but also other types of land: wastelands, waterlogged lands, lands affected by salinity/alkalinity, forests and even irrigated land. These different categories of land occur everywhere in different degrees and varying mixes. They also vary greatly in terms of rainfall, soil type and quality, elevation and gradient and physical terrain, each requiring different kinds of treatment.

Recognition of these features leads us to question the validity of the present practice of planning schemes for different categories of land. The whole point of integrated land development is to choose appropriate measures to treat watersheds in different types of areas (predominantly forested areas, regions with relatively high rainfall, and in relatively flat terrain) and categories of land and weave them into a coherent and mutually reinforcing programme to realise their optimum potential. Needless to say the appropriate institutional arrangements for this purpose, including the nature of organisations, role of community institutions and the equitable distribution and sustainable use of resources will vary. This has to be recognised and internalised as an integral part of the watershed programmes for restructuring efforts to succeed.

The state of technical knowledge regarding the physical improvements, management of land and measures to achieve optimum productivity appropriate to different situations leaves much to be desired. Research on these aspects has been done by various ICAR institutes as well as ICRISAT. Considerable knowledge has also been generated in the process of implementing programmes on the field, especially by NGOs. But much of this relates to arid and semi-arid tracts. Even in these tracts the knowledge base is not sufficient or at any rate not systematically documented in an accessible form; the extent of interaction between field level agencies and the research system and between different NGOs active in this arena to exchange experiences, identify field level problems that need further study and get researchers to provide feedback on solutions must increase. A systematic and sustained effort to collate and update the knowledge from research stations and field experience, identify gaps needing further research, keep it updated and promote closer interactions between the agencies involved is therefore essential to make watershed programmes more effective.

These aspects concerning technology and the knowledge base deserve greater attention and emphasis than they are given in the report. Perhaps this reflects the fact that its main concern is with organisational design and institutional mechanisms for planning and implementation. The recommendations on these aspects and their rationale, spelt out in considerable detail in the report, consist of two parts: one relating to the village level mechanisms where much of the action and the programmes’ cutting edge lies; and the other concerning the structure, functions and inter-relations of the larger organisation at the district, state and national levels. The central concern is to ensure community participation, equitable distribution, transparency, professionalism in management and accountability.

Restructuring at the Village LevelRestructuring at the Village LevelRestructuring at the Village LevelRestructuring at the Village LevelRestructuring at the Village Level

At the ground level, which is at the cutting edge of the programme and where most of the action will take place, community participation is sought to be achieved by entrusting the responsibility for all aspects of the programme to panchayati raj institutions. The committee recommends that the VWC will be a committee of the gram panchayat elected in a meeting of the gram sabha. Since watershed development affects all members of the community, the gram sabha is the appropriate authority to decide on priorities for the use of common outputs and equitable sharing of benefits among different segments. The functional responsibility for preparing, implementing and managing the watershed action plan will be vested with a VWC. While the VWC is empowered to decide and implement works, the details of the action plan formulated after consulting members of the community has to be approved by the gram sabha after open discussion. The VWC will report its activities to the gram sabha; and disputes and conflicts over competing claims will be resolved by the latter.

This process is an effective way of bringing in people’s knowledge of local conditions, problems and possible solutions as well as the community’s priorities into the process. However, the report rightly cautions against romanticising local knowledge and emphasises the need to bring in expert knowledge from research stations, professionals and experiences in other parts of the region and even other countries. Action plans at all levels should, it points out, emerge from creative interaction between the two.

The development and management of watersheds in an equitable and sustainable manner is also a technically complex undertaking for which existing institutions do not have the needed expertise and experience. The report therefore strongly recommends a phased approach starting with a two-year preparatory phase during which, besides completing the basic resource surveys and identifying problems and required interventions, the village community and its functionaries must be sensitised about the nature of the tasks involved, helped to set up institutional mechanisms to handle those tasks and to train those who will man them. The importance attached to training and institution building is reflected in the allocation of a substantial part (8 per cent) of the watershed programme budget for the purpose.

For this purpose, and to ensure continuing technical and managerial support through the implementation phase, the report commends the idea of support voluntary organisations (SVOs) initiated by Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) under the MoRD as an appropriate model. NGOs are envisaged to play a key role in training and

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 capacity building during the preparatory phase, helping village communities to set up and manage participatory institutions, identifying research institutions and individuals who can give expert advice on watershed management and to facilitate interactions between them and the watershed communities. Experience has shown that many of the relatively successful watershed schemes have been nurtured by NGOs working with communities.

The approval of programmes for implementation – which is the second phase – is subject to satisfactory completion of the preparatory phase. This appraisal will be done for each community by an external agency designated by the upper tiers of the programme organisation. During this phase, lasting four years, the action plan is implemented and the institutions that form the “bedrock of the programme” are expected to mature. The progress of works is to be reviewed annually and approvals for the subsequent year are contingent on it being assessed to be satisfactory. During this period, action plans for productivity enhancement and creating new opportunities in the third phase will be prepared.

The interests of equity are expected to be safeguarded through guidelines that require (a) contributions of community members to the project to be progressive and linked to capacity to pay; (b) drinking water, fuel and fodder to be given priority claims over the increase in availability of water; (c) the induction of representatives of dalits and women on the VWCs; and

(d) the landless and poor be given the benefit of increased production of trees, grass and other biomass on common land.

Besides inducting professionals in training, capacity building and technical help in drawing up the action plans, the report suggests that the secretary of the VWC, who will be the local project manager, should be a professional chosen through an open, competitive process of selection from serving officials and qualified personnel from outside the government. The appointments, to be made with the concurrence of the gram sabha, should be on a fixed term contract and the incumbent will be accountable to the VWC.

Transparency is to be achieved through extensive consultation with all sections of the community; getting action plans discussed and approved by the gram sabha; regular reporting on specific activities undertaken, community contributions, employment, etc, and guaranteed access to all information to any villager who seeks it. This also applies to reports of external reviews, audits and evaluations. Reinforcing these is a strong centralised system for continuous monitoring and appraisal of progress, impact assessment and research. These assessments are to be the basis for decisions on approval and release of funds for graduating from one phase to the next and for different stages within each phase.

The report recognises the lack of reliable data relevant both for planning and for tracking the impact of project interventions; and the serious limitations of available evaluation studies. The earmarking of 2 per cent of the overall programme budget and the emphasis on getting a network of widespread socio-economic research institutions to conduct rigorous and detailed studies of the status and use of land and water, productivity and working of institutional mechanisms periodically, for a reasonable long period, are especially welcome.

Supra Village OrganisationSupra Village OrganisationSupra Village OrganisationSupra Village OrganisationSupra Village Organisation

The proposals for institutional restructuring of the programme are, in their broad thrust and essential details, consistent with the objective of making it participatory, equitable and more efficient. Clearly the objective of raising the productivity of rainfed lands generally cannot be solved by village level programmes. Micro watersheds form part of wider, interconnected networks. There are huge gaps of knowledge and expertise. A conscious effort to learn from experience is necessary to progressively improve the quality of the programme. Being a national programme wholly funded by the centre, issues relating to prioritisation, coordination, resolving disputes and conflicts between interconnected watersheds and ensuring objective evaluation are functions that call for a strong supra level organisation.

The report has spelt in considerable detail what this supra level organisational structure should be. The structure it proposes involves a radical change from the existing dispensation in several aspects.

  • (1) All functions relating to watershed development will be taken out of the ministries and vested with a separate and autonomous entity called National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA).
  • (2) Boards of management, comprising ministers of concerned departments and
  • their senior officials along with professional experts and stakeholder representatives, will be responsible for policy formulation, prioritisation, setting up and supervising monitoring/evaluation systems at the central and state levels.

  • (3) District level boards – also comprising of local officials and experts and stakeholder representatives – will have the operational responsibility for screening and approval of schemes, release of funds, monitoring and assessment of progress of schemes at the micro and mill watershed levels.
  • (4) The chief executives of all these boards will be professionals appointed by these boards through open, competitive selection (from government officials, NGOs, universities and non-official experts) on a contract basis.
  • Sources of ResistanceSources of ResistanceSources of ResistanceSources of ResistanceSources of Resistance

    The proposed restructuring is radical and will not be readily or willingly accepted. There will, of course, be strong resistance. A legitimate criticism is that the proposed superstructure is far too elaborate, that the size and composition of the boards is unwieldy and not in keeping with the notion that they are meant to be lean and professional. It is certainly necessary to review this aspect, delimit the functions and reduce the scope for the resurgence of bureaucratic ways, and leave room for flexibility to adapt to the varying situations in different states.

    But this will not mute opposition from the political class and the bureaucracy at the centre and states who stand to be stripped of the power of patronage they now have in administering the programme. Second, though the report deals with programmes in MoRD, its rationale and design are also applicable to all types of watershed programmes being implemented by governments. This apprehension is evident in the alternative proposal for a similar authority under the ministry of agriculture, which is indicative of the ongoing turf war for control over watershed programmes. Opposition from officials arises from more mundane fears of closure of bureaus, directorates and departments and the consequent loss of jobs, and promotion prospects.

    These apprehensions are also likely to be shared by state governments. Their politicians and bureaucracy, being much more closely involved in operations at the ground level, have far greater opportunities for patronage and corruption,

    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

    which are notoriously large in watershed development (and more generally local development and poverty alleviation programmes). They can also be expected to oppose restructuring on the ground that it lays down rigid and unrealistic guidelines, that it will erode state autonomy and because of their stubborn resistance to devolve authority and resources to panchayats. Whether panachyats as presently constituted and managed will be enthusiastic and whether they will be able to function in the manner in which the proposed scheme envisages is also a source of some concern.

    Need for a Pragmatic StrategyNeed for a Pragmatic StrategyNeed for a Pragmatic StrategyNeed for a Pragmatic StrategyNeed for a Pragmatic Strategy

    All this is to be expected but the broad thrust and essential features of the changes suggested by the Parthasarathy Committee is necessary to get the programme out of the wasteful, fragmented and corrupt rut in which it is mired. The programme is far too important in reviving agricultural growth, especially in rainfed areas, to allow the present situation to simply continue by default. The rationale for an integrated watershed development programme needs to be clearly explained to persuade politicians and widely propagated among rural audiences through the media and by the NGO community. This effort will carry greater conviction if the beneficial impact of properly done watershed projects – of which there are fortunately numerous examples – in terms of increase in biomass, better and more productive land use and greater ability to cope with droughts are highlighted.

    The ideal of a single unified watershed programme from the micro shed upward, however, seems unlikely for reasons cited above. A more practical and prudent strategy would be to go ahead and implement the recommendations of the Parthasarathy Committee with modifications and simplifications along the lines indicated earlier. Announcing a decision to this effect – in which one hopes the prime minister will take a lead – will send a strong signal of the government’s seriousness about reform in this programme.

    This could be followed by consultation with all state chief ministers to achieve a consensus on the broad approach. People at the grassroots are fed up with the waste and loot that goes on in the name of watershed development schemes of the government and are keen to take responsibility for implementing them. Giving preferential treatment, both in terms of priority and magnitude of funds, to those who are willing to adopt the new model could also be used to induce wider acceptance.

    Once such a restructured programme is made operative and implemented seriously in the MoRD schemes in a few states, one can confidently expect a dramatic improvement in the quality of watershed projects in terms of the quality, cost and speed of works completed, and the impact it has on social and economic opportunities in communities. That demonstration will, in due course, serve as a powerful stimulus for the wider acceptance of the model.



    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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