Hermann Bacher: The Swiss Jesuit who revolutionised watershed development in India

Hermann Bacher, who spent 60 of his 97 years in India, was deeply impacted by the Maharashtra drought of 1972; it led him to recalibrate his developmental approach

By Crispino Lobo
Published: Sunday 10 October 2021
Residents of Darewadi village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district at a condolence meet for Hermann Bacher. Photo: WOTR / Twitter
Residents of Darewadi village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district at a condolence meet for Hermann Bacher. Photo: WOTR / Twitter Residents of Darewadi village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district at a condolence meet for Hermann Bacher. Photo: WOTR / Twitter

Hermann Bacher, popularly known as the ‘father of community-led watershed development in India’, passed away at the ripe old age of 97 years in Switzerland September 14, 2021.

Born in 1924 in the picturesque Swiss alpine village of Muenster, Bacher came to India in 1948 at the young age of 24 years. He was to spend the next 60 years of his life here, most of it in Maharashtra.

Struck by the poverty he saw in rural Maharashtra, especially in the then drought-afflicted Ahmednagar district, he dedicated his life to the upliftment of the poor, the landless and rural women.

He helped thousands of landless labourers secure title to land under the Land Reforms Act, 1957, beginning in 1965.

He worked in collaboration for this with local elected representatives, government agencies, banks (particularly the Ahmednagar District Central Cooperative Bank), the regional Agriculture University and various donors.

He also organised lakhs of farmers to develop their farms and increase their agricultural productivity by helping them access irrigation, improved and hybrid seeds, modern agricultural practices and appropriate technologies.

He helped them cut terraces, level and bund their fields, dig wells, install pumps, build lift irrigation schemes, irrigation canals and check dams, underground dams and KT weirs on streams and rivers.

Bacher set up the Social Centre at Ahmednagar in 1968 and the Groundwater Investigation Team at Shrirampur to sustain this effort. 

The effects of the drought that ravaged Maharashtra in 1972 — large-scale hunger, the suffering, distress migration, empty villages and the severe water scarcity all around — had a profound impact on Bacher.

It led him to re-calibrate his developmental approach. He realised that sustainable prosperity would follow, if, like a rising tide it lifted all boats.

This meant that in rain-dependent rural Maharashtra, a shift had to be made from ‘resource exploitation’ to sustainable resource use, or ‘resource mobilisation’, as he described it.

People had to shift from over extracting and mining groundwater to harvesting rainwater, wherever it fell, conserving it and allowing it to sink underground to recharge the ground water table.

Since rain fell in the watersheds and landscapes villagers lived in, the only way to harvest and conserve rainwater wherever it fell was to undertake watershed development measures.

This meant beginning from the hill tops, across the landscapes and down to the valleys — from ‘ridge-to-valley’, as Bacher was fond of saying. The idea was that “running water must be made to walk; walking water made to stop and sink underground”.

This meant, planting trees and grasses, conserving forests, undertaking soil and water conservation works such as digging contour trenches, raising farm bunds, etc.

It also meant building water harvesting structures on the streams (check dams, earthen bunds, etc) in a systematic manner across the entire landscape of the village, beginning from the top.

He would often say that “without watershed development there is no solution to drought”, or as he pithily put it in Marathi, “पाणलोटाशिवाय दुष्काळाला पर्याय नाही”!

Thus was born the idea which later became the large-scale Indo-German Watershed Development Program (IGWDP) that he conceived and launched in Maharashtra in 1989, at the age of 65.

This was in collaboration with and the support of the Governments of India, Maharashtra and Germany, NABARD and the non-profit sector.

Its unique and ground-breaking feature was that it put the villagers in the driver’s seat — the community would plan the programme, implement it and maintain the watershed assets.

Funds, substantial amounts, would be given directly to them and they would have to manage and account for them, publicly. The non-profits would build their capacities and facilitate the interface with the local administration and the funders.

It was a momentous exercise of facilitated community action for shared development outcomes, at the grassroots. 

It was also a truly audacious undertaking given that at the time, ‘watershed development’ was a term hardly understood.

Villagers were largely seen as beneficiaries rather than as actors in their own right, village institutions managed relatively paltry sums of money and had hardly any access to technical know-how.

Despite the risks, Bacher stoutly insisted that this was the only way to catalyse a “people’s movement for watershed development” in Maharashtra and across the country.

He argued that “those who benefit must be responsible for the same — they must implement, manage funds and be held accountable for outcomes if they are to remain invested in and own the project”.

This was a pre-condition for sustainably securing water, drought-proofing the rural economy, increasing farm incomes and improving overall quality of life. 

He, together with this author, founded the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) in 1993 to facilitate, support, coordinate and build the capacities of participants in the IGWDP.

The IGWDP was singularly successful. It was replicated in other states and led to the setting up of the Watershed Development Fund at NABARD by the Government of India.

The Fund, together with allied and NABARD’s own funds, has helped replicate its approach of ridge-to-valley, people-led watershed development in more than six million acres in 19 states and Union Territories, impacting millions of lives.

WOTR and its associates have undertaken and supported developmental works in over 5,200 villages across nine states, impacting over 4.3 million people. Watershed development works cover over 3.6 million acres of the six million acres.

More importantly, the impacts realised and approach developed have significantly contributed to and shaped the discourse and practice of watershed development in the country.

Bacher was given Germany’s highest civilian award, the Federal Cross of the Order of Merit in 1994, in recognition of his outstanding efforts.

The ceremony took place in the watershed village of Mendhwan in Sangamner, followed by the Krishi Bhushan, at the hands of the Governor of Maharashtra, in the same year.

Several honours followed and in 2010, the Government of Maharashtra conferred upon him and WOTR, its highest Award in agriculture, ‘The Dr Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Ratna’.

In 2017, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertifiucation (UNCCD) awarded WOTR the prestigious ‘Land for Life Award 2017’.

Bacher returned to Switzerland in 2008, after spending 60 years in India at the age of 85 years. Switzerland was his Janmasthan (birth place); but India, and Maharashtra, in particular, was his Karmasthan (field of action).

Bacher was known for his humility and simplicity, his depth of knowledge, his love and commitment to uplifting the poor and his unique ability to inspire people to action by his own example of sacrifice and purposeful action.

He was widely regarded and respected as a true ‘man of God’ for whom selfless service of the poor was worship at its most sublime. They knew him and called him ‘Bacher Baba’.

May this great man, whose memory will long outlive his earthly sojourn, rest in peace.

Crispino Lobo is co-founder and managing trustee of the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR)

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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