It holds no water

  • 30/07/2004

It holds no water In 1994, the Hanumantha Rao committee constituted by the Union government came up with a new set of guidelines for watershed development in the country. Later, the Union ministry for rural development issued a directive to implement micro watershed (up to 500 hectares) projects through village level committees. However, impact assessment studies in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jharkhand show that in a majority of cases the projects were shoddily planned and poorly executed. Use of vegetative covers to protect command areas was not even thought of. In most areas, the project comprised construction of some concrete blocks.

Powerful landowners took control of the watersheds in Una, Himachal Pradesh and in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. The sequencing of activities was poor and in many cases even non-existent. Project execution was based on the availability of funds and not on felt priorities. Worse still, a watershed committee was thought of as a project-executing body: once civil works were completed, everyone thought the story was over. Nature created watersheds over millions of years. We destroyed them. Now they can't be restored by putting up a few concrete blocks.

Powerful landowners took control of the watersheds in Una, Himachal Pradesh and in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. The sequencing of activities was poor and in many cases even non-existent. Project execution was based on the availability of funds and not on felt priorities. Worse still, a watershed committee was thought of as a project-executing body: once civil works were completed, everyone thought the story was over. Nature created watersheds over millions of years. We destroyed them. Now they can't be restored by putting up a few concrete blocks.
A welcome exception A notable exception to this sorry state of affairs is the Sahoo watershed, 20 kilometres away from Chamba town in Himachal Pradesh. In 1997, Sahoo was a typically stagnant panchayat with limited livelihood options and internecine strife between various social and political groups competing for dwindling resources. That year, a watershed society was formed in the village under the leadership of Ratan Chand, an enthusiastic social worker.

The obstacles were numerous: dominant caste coalitions and agents of political parties resented the prospects of a better life that the project offered to Sahoo's predominantly scheduled caste population. It took two years for the society to get a bank account opened.

The project avoided the pitfalls of the other watershed programmes in Himachal. A small nursery was started simultaneously with land development work. The aim was to have an assured supply of several species of plants, including broad leaf trees and medicinal plants, for reforestation and stabilisation of the command area through extensive vegetative cover. This also eliminated the need for expensive civil work. Excess plants from the nursery were sold to ensure steady revenue supply to the society. Moreover, the newly planted species will enable livelihoods diversification through bee keeping and horticulture and also provide fodder for domestic animals

A training centre, called the "Chetna Kendra' was also set up to train young people in watershed planning and management, conservation and sustainable development. Many programmes have been videographed for future use. With proper editing, these can be sold as training material. The project's future plan is to use Chetna Kendra as a tourist lodge. Since its entry point has a motorable road, tourists can drive right up to the command area and then trek along identified routes within the watershed. The planned tourist facility would optimise the use of premises and provide another source of revenue.
The way forward Management practices such as the ones adopted at Sahoo watershed can solve irrigation and drinking water problems and also eliminate rural poverty, especially in hilly and tribal areas and the Northeast. However, such a strategy needs effective structures and processes at the village level. The rural poor should be made key stakeholders and the local leaders should have a long-term commitment towards restoring the watershed's health. Also, development programmes should be fashioned along principles of sustainable development. Above all, state government departments have to re-examine their priorities. Sustainable watershed management is beyond one department's capacity. Authorities must realise that disjointed efforts are unlikely to restore watersheds to their productive best.

Arun Shrivastava is a management consultant

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