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

A+| A| A-

Towards Reforms

The report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes (the Parthasarathy Committee) on watershed reforms recommends a reformed and expanded activity which holds the key to livelihood security. It analyses the drawbacks of the current Hariyali guidelines - a panchayat-centred watershed programme - and emphasises the major role of civil society in guiding reforms in the state sector. This article is a synoptic view of the main findings and recommendations of the report.

Ovarhauling Watarshad Programma

Towards Reforms

The report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes (the Parthasarathy Committee) on watershed reforms recommends a reformed and expanded activity which holds the key to livelihood security. It analyses the drawbacks of the current Hariyali guidelines – a panchayat-centred watershed programme – and emphasises the major role of civil society in guiding reforms in the state sector. This article is a synoptic view of the main findings and recommendations of the report.


decade on from the Hanumantha Rao Committee report that provided a new direction and impetus to the watershed programme in India, the ministry of rural development constituted, under the chairmanship of S Parthasarathy, the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes in 2005 to review the performance of the programme and suggest a possible way forward based on the major lessons of this review. The Parthasarathy Committee has recently submitted its report to the government. The 222-page report is based on an extensive consultative process and a comprehensive review of available studies and reports on the subject. The committee met with and received representations from 14 state governments, visited 33 watershed projects and participated in 16 consultation workshops with NGOs, independent professionals and leading think-tanks across the length and breadth of the country. The World Bank, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA), Indo-Swiss Watershed Programme, National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) also organised presentations and consultations for the committee.

As honorary adviser to the committee, it was my responsibility to draft out a report, based on the insights gained from these visits and consultations and from a study of available data and literature. This article is intended to provide a synoptic view of the main findings and recommendations of the committee. But it will also try to give an indication of why we arrived at the conclusions we did. For it may be of interest to readers to know the thinking that went into what we have said. This process is both instructive in itself and also aids an understanding of the various positions taken in the report.

Point of DeparturePoint of DeparturePoint of DeparturePoint of DeparturePoint of Departure

The point of departure for the report is the monumental neglect of the drylands that has created a crisis of livelihoods and governance in the hinterlands of India. For the first time since the mid-1960s, foodgrain production grew slower than population in the 1990s. A major contributing factor was the absolute decline in the output of dryland crops (coarse grains, pulses and oilseeds). A key reason for this slowdown, the report argues, is the precipitous fall in public investment in agriculture. Both per capita foodgrain production and availability have fallen below their 1960-63 levels. The consumption data based on NSS surveys show that foodgrain consumption and calorie intake has declined substantially during the 1990s in aggregate and for the poorest deciles in terms of expenditure. The results of the 55th round of the NSS also reveal a dramatic decline in the rate of employment generation. The result – starvation deaths and suicides – matched only by the number of people turning to extremist violence. The latter also reflects the deep cynicism among these people that grows by the day, as systems of rural governance, service delivery and programme implementation, come apart at the seams in these areas.

The report argues that it has become increasingly difficult to see further large dam or tubewell-based irrigation development as possible answers to this crisis. It cites evidence from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to show that since the mid-1970s, the rate of expansion of irrigated area has undergone a global decline. India shows a similar pattern. The steering committee on irrigation for the Tenth Plan estimates that total spillover costs of previous projects to the Tenth Plan will be Rs 1,77,739 crore, nearly double the total allocation during the plan for all irrigation and flood control. The report is, therefore, also sceptical of the ability of the government to raise resources for the gigantic interlinking of river projects, apart from the huge ecological question marks against the scheme. Equally serious questions surround the further possibilities of expansion of tubewell irrigation, which accounts for over 85 per cent of the growth in irrigated area over the last two decades.

Public Sector Reform inPublic Sector Reform inPublic Sector Reform inPublic Sector Reform inPublic Sector Reform in
Rural DevelopmentRural DevelopmentRural DevelopmentRural DevelopmentRural Development

In view of the virtual plateauing of irrigated agriculture, the Parthasarathy Committee suggests that a reformed and expanded watershed programme holds the key to livelihood security in rainfed India. It summarises a large number of studies on watershed projects that clearly demonstrate the enormous potential of this approach to dryland area development. However, this review also indicates that the programme is in need of urgent reform as it has delivered way below potential. A large part of the report is devoted to providing a summary of the lessons learnt so far and a possible outline of this reformed programme.

The report provides a 50-page review (with 67 references) of watershed development in India, which shows that, in the main it has none of the differentia specifica that were to make it a standout programme. In all our consultations, we found complete agreement on this view. Differences arose

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 when it came to deciding what, therefore, needed to be done. On the one side, we have the “throw-the-baby-out-with-thebathwater” school, led by right wing fundamentalists, who generally believe that privatisation and market forces are the answers to all ills. Many NGOs too advocate a form of privatisation, viz, NGOs as the all-embracing panacea. They are right on one important count – that a key factor explaining its failure is that the overwhelming proportion of the programme has been implemented by all manner of government officials – unmotivated, overworked, cynical, corrupt and fragmented. These officials have not involved stakeholders in the programme and made little effort to build local institutions, characterised by equity. The best work has undoubtedly been done by the voluntary sector. Oases of excellence in a vast desert of incompetence, corruption and lassitude.

But the Parthasarathy Committee does not, therefore, advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Despite the abysmal failure of the state sector, it does not take the lazy way out by advocating privatisation. Despite the huge problems of the panchayat-centred Hariyali guidelines, it does not support excluding panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) as demanded by many NGOs. Rather it takes the middle ground of charting out a course of public sector reform in rural development. The drylands of India represent a classic case of “market failure”. There are too many externalities involved. This is a fit case for public investment. A profit-oriented private sector does not have enough incentive to chew on here. Nor are welfare-oriented NGOs the answer. NGOs cannot hope to replace the government. One, because it is hard to imagine the voluntary sector being able to upscale operations at the requisite level but even more importantly because of questions of accountability in a democratic polity. Yet, the report sees a major role for civil society in guiding reforms in the state sector. The doors are once again opened for NGOs who were virtually eliminated by Hariyali. What we have tried to do, however, is to emphasise that civil society needs to see its primary role in engagement with the state sector and panchayats, rather than carving out a comfortable, isolated cocoon for themselves. The voluntary sector has a vital role to play in ensuring transparency and accountability of state institutions and in empowering the panchayats in close partnership with them.

Based on an extensive study of public sector reforms all over the world, the committee provides a detailed (some would say too detailed) blueprint of a new course of watershed implementation in rainfed India. And a completely new way of visualising the role of PRIs, which remain central but emerge playing their functions more effectively.

Nine PrinciplesNine PrinciplesNine PrinciplesNine PrinciplesNine Principles

There are nine key dimensions that the committee seeks to ensure in watershed implementation in India:

  • (1) Professionalism: Professionals must occupy key positions at every level of implementation. Currently a large proportion of officers have little understanding of or commitment to the goals and approach required for this quality-intensive, multidisciplinary programme.
  • (2) Opening up: These professionals need to be competitively selected from the open market. They could include government officials on deputation but should not be restricted to them. At present, we are overburdening our collectors, chief executive officer (CEO), district panchayats and secretary of village panchayats with the responsibility of a full-time job that cannot be executed in a professional manner by those with much else on their minds.
  • (3) Accountability of performance: A memorandum of understanding (MoU) will be signed with these professionals that ensures strict monitoring of their performance against specific outcomes specified in the MoU.
  • (4) Security of tenure: A major problem has been created by frequent transfer of officials that does not allow even committed officers to perform. There has to be a fixed tenure for the selected officials and relative freedom to take bold decisions, within the purview of the MoU and accountability to PRIs.
  • (5) Convergence: The current divided mode of implementation across departments has led to waste of time, energy and resources. There needs to be a convergence across departments to implement the programme in a mission mode.
  • (6) Sustainable livelihoods: Livelihood security must be seen as the overriding goal of the programme, not as an afterthought. But what also needs to be understood is that livelihoods have to be sustainable and for that an ecosystems perspective, with central emphasis on ecological balance, is emphasised throughout the report.
  • (7) Answerability to PRIs: Each of the professionals is answerable to PRI representatives at the district and gram panchayat levels.
  • (8) Stakeholder participation: Implementation structures at each level must entail active stakeholder participation right from project planning through implementation and post-project maintenance.
  • (9) Social and physical audit: Our review of the programme shows that monitoring of physical outcomes on the ground and social audit have largely been missing thus far. The report suggests detailed protocols and makes special financial provisions so that these activities are carried out with due rigour.

    In order to facilitate the adoption of these basic requirements of a reformed watershed programme, the Parthasarathy Committee suggests the setting up of a National Authority for Sustainable Development of Rainfed Areas (NASDORA). The NASDORA is visualised as a quasiindependent authority to manage the national watershed programme. It must be endowed with the autonomy and flexibility to respond innovatively to local needs and must have clear accountability for performance. A body that will invest in buildinghumanand institutional capacity at differentlevels, to carry forward its agenda. The proposal is for setting up a totally new professional and output-oriented organisational structure geared to meet these requirements. NASDORA will be managed by an apex governing board consisting of a competitively selected professional as CEO, onerepresentative each from the union ministries of rural development, agriculture and environment and forests, competitively selected whole-time professionals, eminent experts in the field of watershed management and civil society. An Apex Rainfed Areas Stakeholders Council will provide overall policy support and guidance to the apex board and review the performance of NASDORA. It will be chaired by the prime minister, with the ministers of rural development, agriculture and environment and forests as vice-chairpersons. The council will include the chief minister of each state covered by NASDORA, secretaries of the union ministries of agriculture, rural development and environment and forests, eminent national experts on watershed management and representatives of the farming community.

    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

    The committee recommends a separate, dedicated district watershed development agency (DWDA) to oversee the implementation of the watershed programme within each district. The DWDA will be answerable to the district panchayat (DP), which will approve the action plans formulated by the DWDA. A full-time CEO will head the DWDA. The CEO will sign a five-year MoU with the DP that will spell out well-defined annual goals against which the performance of the CEO will be monitored each year by the collector and DP. The CEO will be competitively selected from the open market in a fully transparent manner. The CEO of the DWDA could be a serving government officer on deputation, a person from the voluntary sector or an independent professional. A similar structure is visualised at the milli-watershed level, where a competitively selected professional will serve as a project manager. Whether they are from an NGO or government, in either case these managers need to possess the necessary qualifications for the job – of understanding, experience and passion. Not any sundry government functionary out there in the district, as has been the case so far.

    Role of PRIsRole of PRIsRole of PRIsRole of PRIsRole of PRIs

    One of the main criticisms of the Hariyali guidelines, which currently guide the watershed programme of the ministry of rural development, is that that they completely do away with the concept of the village watershed committee (VWC). The Hariyali guidelines have handed over the VWC’s role to the gram panchayat (GP). The ostensible aim of Hariyali was to empower PRIs for self-governance particularly in planning, implementation and management of watershed programmes. The Parthasarathy Committee accepts that there are powerful arguments in favour of involving PRIs in the watershed programme. It believes that since one of the most important issues that arises in the case of watershed projects is that of conflict-resolution and equity, the implementing agency needs to be equipped with necessary legal and administrative powers to enforce its decisions. The central role of PRIs ensures this. We also believe that PRIs hold the key to the future of democratic governance in India and to realising Gandhiji’s dream of “gram swaraj”. The only question is: “what is the best way to involve PRIs in watershed development?”

    The experience, we reviewed of the working of the programme all over the country since Hariyali, provides overwhelming evidence that this institutional arrangement is not working well. The GP members are not able to discharge their responsibilities towards the watershed programme. The biggest weakness is that the panchayat secretaries are already overloaded with so many diverse responsibilities of revenue, development and administration that it is completely unreasonable to expect them to find the time required of such a quality and processintensive programme. As a result, watershed development has suffered a big setback. The challenge is to find a way of empowering PRIs while at the same time getting work done to meet the goals of this crucial programme. For this the Parthasarathy Committee suggests restoring the key role of VWCs, but positions them as one of the committees of the gram panchayat. In many states, GPs have been strengthened and further democratised by designating committees elected in gram sabha meetings to carry out many of the functions devolved upon the panchayat. This is a way of making more effective the functioning of GPs and also widens their democratic base. Thus, the VWC should be elected in the meeting of the gram sabha and function as a committee of the gram panchayat. We also strongly believe that the panchayat secretary must not be the secretary of the VWC, because s/he is already a highly overburdened functionary who has so many roles to perform. There is no way s/he can do justice to the huge responsibilities of the watershed programme.

    Enduring Local InstitutionsEnduring Local InstitutionsEnduring Local InstitutionsEnduring Local InstitutionsEnduring Local Institutions

    One of the key weaknesses of the watershed programme identified by the Parthasarathy Committee is that it has not led to the creation of enduring institutions at the village or milli-watershed level. This is a weakness of NGO programmes as well, that have also tended to foster a culture of dependence. Processes set up during the project have collapsed soon after the withdrawal of the NGO. Much of the report has thus been devoted to reflections and suggestions on institutional issues. Watershed practitioners all over the country explained to us that a four-five year programme just does not allow the time and space for local institutions to mature. For this reason, we recommend that the duration of the programme be extended to eight years and a special allocation of 4 per cent of the funds be made for institution-building. The rationale for new local institutions such as Women’s Watershed Councils (to give requisite weight to women’s perceptions and priorities) and Milli Watershed Councils (to provide adequate space for all stakeholders and a forum for resolution of intermicro-watershed conflicts) has been elaborated in the report.


    Why should the process of reform be confined to the government’s dealings with the corporate sector? When will the rural poor become the focus of attention of policy-makers? The Parthasarathy Committee believes that public sector reform in rural development is an idea whose time has come. We have laid out the broad parameters within which this needs to be attempted. Our suggested design has some essential features (nine principles outlined above) that must not be compromised with. But we have also gone further and suggested a detailed blueprint through which the rainfed authority announced by the prime minister last year can be visualised. Rather than spout mere homilies of high principle, the committee felt it had a responsibility to provide something concrete for the government to work upon. We thought a road map would provide a healthy provocation. But this includes several aspects that can easily be modified in the interests of arriving at a consensus. For instance, whether it would be better to structure the authority around administrative or ecological boundaries was a matter deeply debated upon within the committee. The state-level structures have been suggested in the interest of getting the states on board. But this is a matter for the polity to debate and decide upon. On the other hand, a strong view in favour of making NASDORA a company was rejected by the committee as an unacceptable move in the direction of corporatisation of rural development. As Abhijit Sen, member, Planning Commission advised us, a company requires a commodity to sell. A watershed programme is a completely different ball-game altogether, involving complex social dynamics. Even the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was started as a registered society and this is what we have recommended for NASDORA. Like the NDDB

    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 it could grow into a statutory body if and when it takes off and firmly establishes itself as a viable entity, delivering on its promise.

    The committee has suggested a bold tripling of financial allocations for the watershed programme to around Rs 10,000 crore per year based on a revised norm of Rs 12,000 per hectare. This would make it possible to cover all rainfed areas of India by the year 2020. We received representations to go even higher, on the ground that a much wider range of investments were required for livelihood security. Not wanting to overburden the programme and make it lose all focus, we took a call on what would be a reasonable, attainable, fully justifiable demand to make. For we are also acutely aware that even more than money, it is governance reform that holds the key to banishing poverty from the drylands of India.



    Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here


    (-) Hide

    EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

    Back to Top