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Reforms for Watersheds

Reforms for Watersheds MIHIR SHAH In his comments on the Report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Programmes in India (Parthasarathy Committee report, henceforth PCR), V Ratna Reddy (EPW, October 7, 2006) repeatedly ties himself in knots. His piece is riddled with factual misrepresentations, internal inconsistencies and poor argumentation.


VWC will be a committee of the gram panchayat that will be elected at a meeting

Reforms for Watersheds

of the gram sabha…It must mandatorily


n his comments on the Report of theTechnical Committee on Watershed Programmes in India (Parthasarathy Committee report, henceforth PCR), V Ratna Reddy (EPW, October 7, 2006) repeatedly ties himself in knots. His piece is riddled with factual misrepresentations, internal inconsistencies and poor argumentation. He faults the PCR for not sufficiently broadening the mandate of its proposed national authority for sustainable development of rainfed areas (NASDORA), even though he acknowledges that the PCR places an unprecedented emphasis on the larger question of sustainable livelihoods. Based on learnings from the watershed programme across the country, the PCR suggests “shedding watershed fundamentalism” and linking activities of watershed projects to the larger question of sustainable livelihoods. But strangely enough Ratna Reddy goes on to strongly oppose this. He believes that “this would dilute the main purpose of watershed development, i e, soil and water conservation” (p 4293). First a call for a broader mandate and when he gets it, the fear of dilution! Without getting involved in a philosophical discussion on the notion of “main purpose”, we suggest (as has been amply demonstrated by the best watershed programmes in India) that there is absolutely no contradiction in moving on to expanding livelihoods based on the restoration of landscapes and water tables that watershed development ensures. A long list of examples of such successes can be found in the comprehensive review of the watershed programme in PCR. Indeed, it could be argued that in millions of hectares of the eco-fragile drylands of India, sustainable livelihoods can only be developed on the basis of eco-restoration through watershed programmes. At the same time, the PCR shows that the real potential of watershed programmes is realised only when they are linked to the vital question of livelihoods. The greatest acclaim PCR has received is for its emphasis on linking the watershed programme to livelihoods and affording greater space for doing so within the watershed programme, thereby broadening the mandate of the programme itself.

Ratna Reddy argues that “departmental integration…is a precondition for making watershed development central in the context of overall rural development. This integration should take place from top to bottom” (p 4292). Considering that this is one of the primary impulses for suggesting the setting up of NASDORA, one is left wondering whether Ratna Reddy has even read the report. The PCR cites the national advisory council and several state governments who bring out the problems created by a multiplicity of agencies/programmes in this sector and the resultant “turf war” that has deeply compromised the quality of work on the ground. The PCR has outlined an operationally integrated organisational structure for NASDORA that extends from the apex rainfed areas stakeholders council (to be chaired by the prime minister) right up to the women’s watershed councils (WWCs) at the villagelevel. It recommends that “all funds for the watershed programme will be converged in NASDORA” (p 125). The single apex body for the programme in each district will be the dedicated district watershed development agency (DWDA).

Ratna Reddy rightly argues that activities like tank rehabilitation and watershed development must be integrated. This is one of the reasons why the PCR has brought in the concept of the milli-watershed (4,000-10,000 ha), which includes several micro-watersheds (500-2,000 ha) within it. The milli-watershed better enables the incorporation of the groundwater catchment into preparation of watershed action plans, something completely absent from almost all watershed projects in India today. It is also suggested as a way of managing disputes that arise across micro-watersheds and for providing the requisite scale for livelihood options and economising overheads. But Ratna Reddy promptly goes on to attack the milliwatershed concept on the grounds that it “militates against participatory philosophy” (p 4293). This is a complete misrepresentation of the PCR. The PCR clearly says:

for each village there will be a village

watershed committee (VWC) that will

implement the watershed project with the

technical support of the watershed develop

ment team (WDT) in their village. The have at least 50 per cent members as

women and at least 33 per cent SC/ST

community members… The VWCs will

be answerable to and work under the control

of the gram sabha (p 119).

Ratna Reddy says the PCR is “silent on the strategies to bring in equity” (p 4293). If there is silence on this, then it is surely a very “eloquent silence” that occupies 17 long pages of the report! In fact, the report unravels the various dimensions of equity and suggests strategies to tackle each aspect. From equity in sharing groundwater, selecting beneficiaries, benefit sharing and work allocation to tackling the discrimination against women, dalits, adivasis and the landless, as also the need to protect the rights of poorer farmers and tailenders both within and across micro-watersheds

– these are all addressed.

There is a separate section on the inequities created by the use of the existing schedule of rates and very specific methods are suggested for overcoming these. All the suggestions are difficult but doable with requisite effort, drawn as they are from the experience of existing watershed programmes. Of course, there is one more thing to be said. Academics often tend to lose sight of the fact that the inequities in Indian rural society today have a long history. These are societies deeply fractured across social and economic lines. Discrimination against women, dalits, adivasis and the poor in resource-use and access is intense and widespread. It would be naive to expect any development programme to be able to overturn these in favour of these socially and economically disadvantaged groups. But the PCR seeks to emphasise and outline the kinds of steps that must form an integral part of any watershed programme if it is to make any dent at all in this direction; and at least avoid doing what many such projects have done, which is to actually worsen the balance of power. Readers interested in details may like to refer to pages 59-76 of the report.

While Ratna Reddy correctly emphasises “demand management”, he fails to acknowledge the detailed discussion on this issue in the PCR. As the PCR says,

Unfortunately, watershed development inIndia has been one-sidedly preoccupiedwith supply augmentation. Little attentionhas been paid to the end-uses of harvested

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

rainwater. In this respect it has failed tobreak with the dominant developmentparadigms of the 20th century, all of whichare characterised by supply-side solutions.These solutions are caught in the infiniteregress of forever trying to catch up withever-expanding demand. They are a majorreason for straining the delicate fabric ofthe ecosystem within which economicprocesses necessarily unfold. We need torecognise clearly that it is not merely enoughto harvest rainwater. However much water we may conserve and collect, it will proveinadequate unless we take care to put itto sustainable uses. What is required is tofind ways of not just increasing supply butmuch more critically reducing demand andregulating end-uses. So long as we do notquestion the emerging pattern of end-usesand pose the central question of efficiencyof utilisation of our resources, it will be absolutely impossible to endlessly augmentsupply. The fundamental binding constraintis really provided by the demand side. Anintegral element of the conservationistapproach has, therefore, to be a quantitative and qualitative regulation of end-usesand demand (pp 76-77).

The PCR suggests extending the watershed programme duration to eight years. Ratna Reddy welcomes this move, especially because it allows more time for the initial community mobilisation phase. But he feels “there is no provision in the guidelines as to how this is to be strictly followed” (p 4293). We would like to draw his attention to the fact that in a major departure from current practice (where there is almost complete absence of physical and social audit), the PCR links fund release in subsequent instalments to a favourable evaluation report at each stage. Contrary to what Reddy asserts there is a clear-cut provision for this in the proposed guidelines (pp 142-52 of PCR).

Perhaps the most ridiculous argument made by Ratna Reddy is his opposition to the increase in per hectare cost for watershed projects suggested by the PCR. The recommendation of the Parthasarathy Committee is, in fact, a very conservative one, based purely on the escalation necessitated by the rate of inflation, since the cost norms were last fixed. Practitioner-thinkers like M S Swaminathan and Deep Joshi have strongly argued for a much greater magnitude of increase. Such arguments are based on the historical neglect of the drylands and need for far higher levels of public investment in dryland agriculture, especially in view of its disastrous performance in the 1990s.

The PCR makes a powerful case for tripling annual expenditure allocation to watershed programmes because at current levels of expenditure it would take up to 75 years to cover all neglected areas. As Ratna Reddy himself argues, we must end the present culture of “leaving developed and rich regions as spoiled kids of the benevolent state” (p 4295). Levels of public investment need to dramatically go up in the drylands. But if we go by Ratna Reddy’s argument that such a rise in allocation will lead to even higher levels of what he euphemistically terms “rent-seeking”, then it would be difficult to argue for any public programme that targets the poor and neglected in India. For all of them are and have for long been mired in corruption and poor quality of performance.

It is for this reason that the PCR devotes a great deal of its attention to what may be described as governance reform of the watershed programme, so that the quality of results improves. This includes an exclusively dedicated DWDA for programme implementation, manned by professionals selected from the open market (not excluding government officers on deputation), with fixity of tenure and bound by and monitored against an MoU with clearly specified outcomes. The PCR also places great emphasis on social and physical audits and answerability of all officers to panchayat raj institutions. It is strange Ratna Reddy wants that “the focus should be shifted to implementation and governance issues” or that “social accounting and transparency should have been made mandatory” (p 4295), when those are, indeed, the very thrust of the entire report. Based on a study of the experience of public sector reform throughout the world, PCR comes up with its own vision of reforms in the watershed programme, covering all the aspects Ratna Reddy is concerned with (see especially pp 111-26).

What is even more puzzling is that having opposed the increased allocation for watershed programmes, Ratna Reddy does another one of his tying-up-in-knots act by loudly proclaiming himself against the Hashim Committee’s proposal for increased user contributions in watershed projects to reach 75 per cent by the 13th Plan. We completely agree with his opposition to this completely unjust proposal. But can he not see that this is precisely the point in arguing for higher government contribution to the programme? One is the flip side of the other. The PCR clearly argues against raising current levels of people’s contributions, while suggesting a major rise in state support for watershed programmes.

We are further foxed when Ratna Reddy asserts that “benefits from watershed development programmes are visualised only in the long run and uncertain in nature, while the benefits from canal irrigation are immediate and dramatic” (p 4295). Of course, we agree that “pricing of canal water is ridiculously low”, but we find his statement of contrast in the time-lag in benefits from the two programmes to be completely misplaced. We would tend to say the opposite, given the extremely low gestation of watershed programmes, compared to large dam projects.

“As long as these structures (proposed by the PCR) have to operate in the same environment (socio-economic, political and policy), the expected outcomes will not be very different” says Ratna Reddy (p 4295). How does one even begin to respond to this breathtaking proclamation! Does he expect a watershed programme to change this “environment”, as he calls it? When will we come out of such fundamentalist propositions deeply beset in a circularity of reasoning?

We can only end by urging the community of concerned academics and practitioners to move beyond this narrow arena of internal argumentation, to actively engage with policy-formulators and administrators, so that we can move rapidly along the path of fundamental reform in the programmes being carried out in the name of the poor and neglected sections of our society and that the recently notified national rainfed areas authority does not end up as a toothless, advisory body embroiled in turf war, but can play an effective and long-overdue role in the reform of rural development in India. Of course, we must debate and disagree but we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that time is running out on our democratic polity.

Those who have suffered intense discrimination over the last 60 years are fast losing patience. They are turning in helplessness and desperation to violent options, in which they do not necessarily have any conviction. The red herring of how to maintain “law and order” threatens to take over discussions at the policy level. At the same time, the wide-ranging failure of the public sector in every sphere of human and rural development is leading to a chimera of privatisation and corporatisation as the answer. The irony is that these neglected regions of our country embody a vast potential source of growth for the Indian economy. Successful watershedprogrammes have underscored this promise. But to realise this potential at scale needs urgent reforms in rural governance, service delivery and programme implementation, some of which the Parthasarathy Committee has sought to map. Beyond all our differences (that could certainly be reflected in the final blueprint), there is need to ensure that the government actually moves in this direction.



Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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