Scaling up adaptation 2: Watershed management in India

From my previous jargon-filled blog on defining scaling up, let’s move swiftly and speedily on to a more interesting case study: scaling up (effective) watershed management in India.

Watershed management is the integrated management of an entire ecosystem and its water, soil, forests and pasture resources to improve their quantity and quality. This approach was at least a hundred years old, and by no means a “new” innovation, when a Jesuit priest from Switzerland, Hermann Bacher, took it up for promotion on a large scale in the drought-prone district of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, India, in the late 1980s.

The Famine Commission of 1880 had promoted the approach as part of the first attempt by the British to address widespread famine in India. After Independence, watershed management became a key component of Indian policy, with several ministries investing heavily in the approach, including the ministries of water, agriculture, rural development, and environment and forests. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of these investments because comprehensive data is not available, but the overall performance has been poor. A number of reasons have been attributed to this poor performance, including: the lack of integration of action and resources between these various ministries; “cookie-cutter” implementation without consideration for local hydrology; lack of community buy-in, resulting in little interest in operating and maintaining assets once project support ended; and inequitable sharing of benefits, with most benefits going to landed farmers.

Meanwhile, although NGOs had implemented more participatory and custom-made projects, they were mostly small-scale and expensive to replicate.

Bacher was the founder of an NGO called the Social Centre in Ahmednagar. He was aware of the potential of the watershed management in mitigating drought and poverty in Maharashtra, a state that suffers recurrent drought and crop failures. From the outset, therefore, he integrated elements that would encourage replication of the Social Centre’s work in a village called Pimpalgaon Wagha.

These elements included: a strong sense of ownership among villagers in design and implementation; a reliable and supportive funding source, including not just grants but also credit; links with government departments from the outset, for their support and subsequent role in scaling up; arrangements with agricultural universities and government departments to meet the technical and capacity needs of the villagers; and an exit strategy for support from external agencies such as the Social Centre.

Bacher brought together the Government of Germany (BMZ) and its developmental institutions (KfW and GTZ), with the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD), along with voluntary agencies and self-help groups, into a partnership and synergy that came to be called the Indo-German Watershed Development Programme (IGWDP).

Realising the importance of involving all stakeholders, including local, state and national government actors, financial institutions, and the political establishment, he ensured that each partner had autonomy in their sphere of competence, but were jointly responsible for successful project management. In 1993, he founded the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) with the specific aim of catering to the capacity building needs of IGWDP.

By 1994, Pimpalgaon Wagha saw a doubling of crop production; a ten-fold increase in milk production; year-round availability of drinking water; the creation of employment opportunities for landless labour over nine months of the year; and diversification of the village economy into artisanal and other activities.

Impressed by this success, the Government of Maharashtra adopted a Cabinet Resolution extending political, administrative and technical support to organisations involved in watershed development under the IGWDP.

IGWDP defined two clear phases for its engagement with villages in the process of replicating the success of Pimpalgaon Wagha. In the first phase, over the initial 12-18 months, the focus was on capacity building by WOTR. During this time, the Gram Sabha nominated a Village Watershed Committee, and villagers and supporting NGOs were trained in skills necessary for watershed development, such as soil, land, water, crop, fodder and forest management. An agricultural specialist or civil engineer (trained in participatory planning by WOTR) was then contracted to help in drafting a watershed development plan together with the villagers, which was submitted to NABARD. NABARD was chosen as a channel for funding mainly to create a stake for the central government; overcome complexities of Village Watershed Committees or small agencies having to tackle foreign exchange regulations; and navigate relationships with technical staff in line departments (such as agriculture and forestry), who were comfortable dealing with NABARD.

If the plan was approved, a four-year Full-Scale Implementation Phase followed. Funds from KfW were routed to local-level agencies through NABARD, and villagers contributed towards 16% of the cost of unskilled labour. WOTR provided on-going support during the Implementation Phase, while NABARD was responsible for monitoring and supervision along with project coordinators. Project funds were sent directly to a joint account of the Village Watershed Committees and supporting NGO. Once the works were complete, half of the 16% contribution made by the village was returned to the Watershed Committee, to form the core of a Maintenance Fund. A strategy was also implemented to manage social tensions, which allowed the legitimate interests of dominant groups to be met only if those of the weaker groups were met.

Within four years, the programme expanded 8 times in terms of number of projects and 10 times in terms of area covered. Now managed by WOTR, it reaches 3,594 villages in seven states – Maharashtra, Telangana, Seemaandhra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha. The impacts of this work include drought proofing, improved crop production, additional employment, restoration of depleted groundwater, creation of socially cohesive and inclusive watershed committees, and the formation of locally-owned development funds.

Some of the elements that contributed to rapid replication include: the creation of a relatively low-cost “model” that could be adapted to local circumstances; strong community involvement, including in the management of funds; arrangements to meet the capacity and technical needs of villages in adapting the approach to local circumstances (without technocrats hijacking the process); involving key stakeholders, including government departments, from the outset; building strong political support; and monitoring results to showcase success.

As we will see in the other case studies that will follow, most of these elements are echoed in other successes in scaling up.

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1 Response to Scaling up adaptation 2: Watershed management in India

  1. Parasuram says:

    I have visited many macro-watersheds and evaluated the impacts of IWMP in Andhra Pradesh State. I feel HR is a major problem for the failure of watershed projects. One is attitudinal problem another one is skill problem.

    1. All the successful watershed projects were implemented by very few good project officers.
    Best example: I observed a project officer who has made good progress in the project areas where ever he worked. At the same time, I also observed poor progress in the project activities whenever he left that project site.

    I feel the success of many watershed projects depends on the people who are implementing the programme.

    2. The overall understanding (of the watershed development project) of the people who are implementing the IWMP programme is very poor. They could not relate the activities with expected impacts in terms of livelihoods, bio-diversity, and natural resource restoration. During my field visits, I observed in many places that EPA (Entry Point Activity) is done after the completion of the watershed activities just to fulfill the guidelines. If we conduct a study, most of the people who are implementing the programme cannot explain the relationship between EPA, Actual activity, Output, Outcome, exit and Impact in a watershed project. Some of the people who are managing the programme at the State level trained me by saying IWMP programme is a sister programme of MGNREGS. But I read in my PGDFM course that IWMP is under social development policy but MGNREGS is under safety net policy. My belief is that, if we implement the IWMP programme successfully, we no need to have MGNREGS in long run.

    So, I feel, there is a need for qualified and committed people to operationalize the project objectives at ground level. Somehow, the projects are getting implemented by bureaucratic fashion. Here I would like to suggest that, the government officers should handle the inputs and outputs of the project but not the process/methodology of the project. It is a saddening fact that such a neatly written programme is failing at implementation level.

    3. I have seen some of the projects stopped temporarily because of the change in panchayati Raj leadership. New leader has threatened the implementing agencies to change some of the contracts to his known person. Strong social strata at the village level should be dismantled by innovation and people’s participation. We have to spend lot of time and energy during the planning part.

    I feel Panchayati Raj is many times an arrangement to do political mobilization at village level. And it favors only the elites of the village.

    One of the solution for the HR problem which I majorly focused in my comment can be:
    Bureaucrats should limit only at the administration level (Managing inputs and evaluating the outputs). The implementation should be left in the hands of really qualified experts. Many management institutes were established in India with an objective of fulfilling the needs of managerial professionals in NRM. But all the qualifies people finally end up doing less relevant jobs.


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