Tryst with rain

Following the monsoon failure of 1999-2000, two states - Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh - launched crash programmes to encourage water harvesting. An appreciable shift, because governments in India have always gone in for high-cost, high-technology solutions to our water crisis. Ignoring the fact that rainwater has helped India survive through millennia. Down To Earth scrutinises the programmes even as the region faces another year of drought

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Tryst with rain

Water flows over the checkdam< (Credit: Eklavya Prasad / CSE)In our January 15, 2000 issue, Down To Earth had highlighted the situation in drought-struck areas of Gujarat. The conclusion was that villages with structures to harvest rainwater were faring much better than villages which had forgotten the value of rain (see: 'Standing the test of drought', Vol 8, No 16). They had enough water to drink; some had enough for irrigation, too. By April, as the effects of drought became more apparent, the media discovered what the Indian subcontinent has known and practised for millennia: that the only source of water is rain, and the monsoonal bounty has to be stored through apt means for use through the rest of the year. There was widespread acknowledgement of the fact that large water supply schemes of governments would never be able to solve India's water crisis by themselves. There had to be a paradigm shift in our management of water.

Two drought-hit states, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh (ap), came up with crash programmes that encouraged rural communities to build new water harvesting structures and revive old ones. The reason for these responses remains unclear; some say it is political, some say it is motivation from the civil society, some say it was the need of the hour. But the fact remains that

the Gujarat government launched the Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation Programme (sppwcp) in January 2000; and

the ap government launched the Neeru Meeru (Water and You) programme in May 2000.

No matter what their motive, the two state governments have to be congratulated for venturing into uncharted territory, into something essential that governments in independent India have consistently ignored. It becomes essential to assess the performance of these schemes. While it is certain that community-based water management, based on water harvesting, is essential to deal with drought, the future of this potential depends on how the Indian administrative establishment takes to it. If water harvesting falls victim to corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, India's future would be so much poorer.

To look into all these issues, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse), which actively promotes community-based water management and the seminal importance of water harvesting, sent two researchers from its Campaign to Make Water Everybody's Business. For about one month, they travelled to several parts of Gujarat and ap, visiting villages, panchayats (village councils), government departments, civil society groups, technical experts, research institutions, religious outfits, and what have you. Their experiences led to some conclusions.

In Gujarat's drought-prone Saurashtra and Kachchh regions, there were clear indicators that the government programme has made a significant difference. Despite the fact that the rains were very poor in the year 2000 monsoon, there are claims that water overflowed in more than three-fourths of the 10,500 check dams built under the government programme over the last few months. In several villages which have built check dams, the groundwater table had improved and dugwells have water. The Indian media -- at the regional as well as the national level -- reported quite a few success stories of villages which are confident about facing drought in the future. The fact that the media took note of these stories is itself a good indicator, because the Indian media, biased as it is towards urban centres, regularly ignores the problems and successes of our villages.

Not only did the Gujarat government learn from its past mistakes in water management, but it also learned from the successes of villages led by civil society groups. The sppwcp was formulated in a way that bureaucratic wrangling would be sidelined. The people responded with enthusiasm, submitting proposals for more than 25,000 check dams. This again proves that India's problem is its governments, not its people. Another factor worth noting is that the success rate of the programme was seen to be better where civil society groups were involved. This gave fewer opportunities of siphoning funds to corrupt government engineers and contractors. It also helped in mobilisation of villagers. But, apart from some cases of exceptional effort by villages on their own accord, the programme actually led to corruption in several places where civil society groups were not involved. So much so that the government resorted to withholding of funds in some cases, again revealing a willingness to learn from mistakes and rectify them.

AP was more of a disappointment. Although the Neeru Meeru programme was initiated only a few months ago and it is early days for judging its impact, the initial indicators do not bode well. While the programme covers several aspects of water harvesting, one of the major thrusts in the initial stages has been to desilt old tanks, which has been carried out in 3,348 villages. But the way the programme has been planned, has left a lot of room for contractors and engineers to exploit poor villagers. The programme does not encourage employment of the rural poor in desilting operations, relying on the machines and corruption of contractors. Some exceptional success stories apart, there are numerous allegations of corruption and nepotism. Let aside the opposition political parties, even neutral groups and technical experts are critical of the ruling Telugu Desam Party for using the community-based programme to build up its own cadres and political base, rather than finding a lasting solution to the water crisis. Several villagers complain of exploitation at the hands of local politicians, bureaucrats, government engineers and contractors.

In the following pages, we present two reports, one from each state, to assess which way these programmes are headed. It is crucial to do this at present, because the spectre of drought is looming large over several parts of western and central India after the monsoon failed the states again this year. The story of villages and governments that have made sound investments in water harvesting need to be publicised far and wide. Only after they get due credit and attention can their examples be replicated.

The lesson is clear. While harvesting rainwater is the right direction, the bureaucracy and petty politicking will ensure that instead of solving the water crisis, it becomes another excuse for mismanagement and corruption. This would be a real shame, because it might close the last door for a developing country like India to sustainably manage its water needs. It would be an even greater shame if it were to prove that Indians have little to hope for a better tommorrow.

Learning the mantra

Political harvest

The rural poor labour dig a ra (Credit: Binayak / CSE)Achampet mandal of Mahabubnagar district, Andhra Pradesh (AP), was in the clutch of drought six years ago. But it is doing well at present. "Satellite images show an improvement of about 300 per cent between February 1994 and March 1998 with regard to the groundwater table," says Ramesh Reddy, head of the department of civil engineering at Osmania University, Hyderabad. He is also the chairperson of the Centre for Rural Youth Development (CRYD), a non-governmental organisation in Achampet.

In 1995 the people of this region, along with CRYD, took up the AP Groundwater Borewell Irrigation Scheme, known as APWELL in short. This scheme of the state government was aimed at watershed development to improve groundwater resources and recharge borewells. The scheme was made available in seven drought-affected districts and was a result of an agreement between the state government and the government of the Netherlands to fund watershed development.

In 1999-2000, the state faced a severe drought. More than 17 per cent of the habitations in the state face drinking water scarcity, says a May 2000 report by AP's department of rural development. The government responded by putting its various programmes like APWELL into a concerted effort called the Neeru Meeru (Water and You) programme, which is the 12th part of the Janmabhoomi initiative of the of the ap state government. Janmabhoomi translates to motherland in English. Launched in May 2000 at the behest of the ap chief minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, Janmabhoomi aims to create self help groups -- women's groups, water users' associations (WUAs), watershed development committees or youth groups. The message is that people should realise their duty towards the motherland. This is part of an ongoing initiative of the state government to involve communities in their own uplift, as is the idea of creating vana suraksha samitis (vss, or forest protection committees) to protect forests through watershed development.

"All these activities were going on individually but there was no impact analysis and individual decisions were giving poor deals to the people," says Chandrasekhar Reddy, special officer in charge of Neeru Meeru with the rural development department. This is exactly where the programme aims to make a difference by involving people in all development activities linked to water. The chief minister told Down To Earth, "Through Neeru Meeru I want to increase the percentage of rainwater we conserve... we are working in so many ways. Whatever the experiences of the many experts working all over the country, I am borrowing all these." As the push for the programme was coming straight from the chief minister, there was hardly any opposition to it within the ruling party and the administration.

The Andhra Pradesh government has formed a water conservation mission (WCM). This is a mission consisting of experts on water from various parts of the country. The mission has been formed under the chairperson of the chief minister, Chandra Babu Naidu. As a part of its activities on watershed management the government has already formed 5,260 watershed committees in the state. The principal secretary, department of panchayati raj and rural development have been made responsible to implement the programme. The village level committees have the village sarpanch as president and the village development officer as convenor. The stakeholders are the water users association (WUA), self help groups, village officials, women groups, NGOs and research organisations. The mission also includes providing training, fund, technological assistance to the villagers.

Top down approach
But the bureaucracy still drives the entire programme. This top down approach pursued by the state government, however, has given rise to resentment and non-participation amongst the stakeholders due to two major drawbacks. To begin with the process of decentralisation was seen as a means to promote the building of a cadre for the TDP, say experts working on minor irrigation.

The village community has to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the district authorities which gives total control to the bureucracy over what is supposed to be a participatory process. The local community is supposed to look into the aspects of planning; implementation and subsequent management of the watershed project. The MOU also mentions that the village community has to agree to a change in cropping patterns by not using water intensive crops and go in for social fencing. But the scope of participation is subject to strictly adhering to guidelines. Failing this the government reserves the right to convert the money released for the projects into a loan and initiate recovery proceedings.

Desilting without channels
The programme planned for construction and revival of watershed development structures, including checkdams, contour trenches, rock-filled dams and gully bunds. Water harvesting trenches and other such structures are also being constructed in various villages, agricultural lands, temples, urban houses, institutions and open areas. Funds for all this are being provided by multiple agencies.

One programme that has received a major fillip is desilting of old tanks, which has been carried out in 3,348 villages, the work being stopped currently due to the monsoon. Contractors' poclains (earth moving machines) extract the silt and farmers bring their tractors to carry the fertile extract to their fields. Desilting by the hour requires the services of 20 tractors. One has to be present next to the poclain every 2-3 minutes as costly machines are rented on an hourly basis. "This is how people were mobilised. They were present at the site with their tractors," says Reddy.

Desiltation work has also been undertaken in the many tanks controlled by the Panchayati Raj and minor irrigation's department. The tanks were traditionally under the maintenance of the community.

There are about 80,000 tanks in ap whose worth today stands at Rs 50 lakh per tank, says Uma Shankari, convenor of Neeti Samkhya, an NGO based in Chittoor district. They are in poor condition today due to neglect by the government and the people. Out of the total percentage of outlays for irrigation, the major and medium irrigation project gets three-fourths of the allocation. The minor irrigation and the panchayati raj gets the rest of the onefourths allocated fund. Of this, 80 per cent goes as salary and administration work. The amount that gets involved in the actual work for the tank stands at 1-2 per cent. "The local waterbodies below 41 ha ayacuts should also be entrusted to the panchayats. New wua's under these will be useless as they are too small but the panchayats can organise and maintain the tanks without professional help," says Uma. The village of Gaur, Nizamabad, however, tells a story. Two tanks with total tank area of around 53 hectares have not been desilted in spite of the villagers' appeals. Yella Reddy, the village sarpanch expresses their anguish, "We have appealed to the irrigation department two times since last year to take up the work of desiltation of the tanks as these tanks are their sole source of agriculture, but the department people told us that there is no fund to renovate the tanks." The silt has accumulated on the feeder channel of the upper tank which is stopping the flow of water to the lower tank. The resultant is the flooding of the kutcha village roads. The village does not have a link road to the state highway and now, the panchayat is constructing a pucca road on their own. Yella Reddy also says that if the tanks were under the panchayat instead of government department, then the village panchayat could have taken responsibility of the tanks, but now they cannot, for it is illegal under government law. This type of neglect is possible. Monsoon started in mid-June, so it was late for desiltation but the programme was implemented in May, then it could have been taken up but the Neeru Meeru officials came to the village three times to repeat that there is no budget. In many places like Ballamntary village of Nizamabad district, the feeder channels are blocked and not work has been carried out. In the case of Gaur also, there are two tanks, but the supply channel from one tank to the other has vanished due to no care being taken. "What is the point of desilting of tanks, if the supply channels are not in order and water does not flow into the tank? Desiltation programme should include supply channel cleaning too," says Uma Shankari.

Too many cooks
Innumerable committees have been formed at every level, leaving the common person confused. M S Kodarkar, zoologist with the Vivek Vardhini College in Hyderabad, who has a special interest in lakes and waterbodies, says, "There are already multiple government departments which are controlling one single aspect: water. There is the metro water supply department, the irrigation department and now various WUAs are sprouting all over. Various authorities control different aspects of water right from supply to treatment of water to its use. There are a number of laws. Creating one more authority, in this case the WCM, the administrative structure has become vague."

Siphoning of funds
The project funds are handled by WUAs, and there are allegations of corruption in this area. While it is very difficult to prove how it is done, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed how funds are swindled. "I can personally tell you what has happened in a particular case. A watershed committee president received some Rs 7,000. When I enquired about the source, he told me that he received it for signing a cheque for Rs 28,000." Such stories are quite common.

The WUA president is responsible for signing cheques to release money to contractors. Even when half the work is done, the contractors claim the money for the work in connivance with the WUA president, who gets a cut. The projects suffer extensively due to this. "A lot of corruption is going on, though no one comes forward to point it out," says Rukmini Rao of the Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, who is working on watershed projects in Rayalaseema district. "Small NGOs are forced to give money. After the work has been taken up with the community, the government funds do not reach and these NGOs have to bribe to get the money released. It could be as small an amount as Rs 2,000-5,000."

This was reflected in Mahabubnagar, where a handful of elite farmers formed a watershed committee which released all the goodies to their relatives. One beneficiary got Rs 72,000 for horticulture. Clearly, the distribution is biased against the landless as well as people from the schedule castes. When asked about what they received, they say most have not even been called for work. Those who were called for work had their wages deducted and contributed to the fund as part of the 10 per cent contribution to the wua fund. The wage employment aspect of watershed-related works suffered tremendously. Instead of the schedule of rates, local wage rates were followed. These were discriminatory to women. So, if the schedule of rates in Mahabubnagar is Rs 9 per cubic metre of silt removed, this got reduced to Rs 7. The members demanding a reduction are invariably landholders.

"Money from the village development fund is taken for the watershed fund. When government officials come visiting, they are received using the watershed funds. They have to make a tent for the dignitaries, put a few chairs and give them tea and snacks. All the money comes from the fund. After the rains, tanks have breached. But there are no funds for repair," says Rukmini Rao. The watershed fund is there, but cannot be used for a period of four years due to a faulty policy.

Employment degeneration
While the Neeru Meeru programme clearly lays down the importance of keeping contractors at bay, this has not been the case. "Because of the contractors, the money has been involved more than the people. There is a vast humanpower in the villages. People could have gained employment if the private contractors were not involved," says B N Chetty, who works on vss watershed development with Jan Vikas Sangh in Kurnool district.

Poclains have been used on a large-scale to desilt tanks. People commonly point out that the poclain contractors are connected to political parties. "They immediately put the poclains to work and the money goes to the political boss and the work is not executed properly," alleges Ramakrishna Reddy. "The problem of migration could have been addressed if the local villagers had been employed," says Ramesh Reddy, head of the department of civil engineering at the Osmania University.

Rajendra Singh, secretary Alwar-based Tarun Bharat Sangh, which has transformed the ecology of the Rajasthan district through water harvesting, visited some parts of the state. "AP waterworks are not in accordance with people's vision," he points out. "It is technocratic and work has been done at a very fast pace."

The Neeru Meeru programme is fast becoming a problem bigger than the one it was meant to solve. It is clear that the crash programme won't take the state anywhere. It is of utmost importance that the government does a serious review of the programme and looks into all the irregularities. The current approach is to become technology-friendly and contractor-friendly. The only group to which it is unfriendly is the poor and the downtrodden, for whom the programme was formulated in the first place.

World Bank funds for Neeru Meeru programme
Activity Amount granted for
(in Rs crore)
Recharge and desiltation of 6,000 tanks under the Panchayati Raj department 120
Rural drinking water supply scheme (for 250,280 handpumps) 25.8
Transportation of water in 932 villages of 18 drought-prone districts 6.99
Power connections in 146 habitats to recharge borewells 0.73
Installation of power pumps to run public water structures 3.44
Flushing of borewells with
7 tractor-mounted compressors
Borewell handpump repairs 6.10
Borewell hydro-fracturing 0.37
Construction of water harvesting structures and checkdams 5.76
Urban drinking water scheme 30
Watershed approach for water conservation in urban areas 24.2
Total 225.84
Source: Anon 2000, Water Conservation Mission — The Information guidelines, government of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, mimeo

Drought is in the mind

The government needs to reach< (Credit: Amit Shanker / CSE)SEVERAL messages emerge from the analysis of crash programmes to harvest rainwater in Gujarat and ap. It is amply clear that the government of Gujarat has been much more successful in addressing the need of the hour than the AP government.

POLITICIANS' RESPONSE: The way the political establishment has gone about social mobilisation in Gujarat needs to be commended. The state government recognised the failures of its past programmes and learned from the examples set by the civil society. It did not let the controversy over Sardar Sarovar Project get in the way of people's wellbeing. In AP, however, despite the thrust from the chief minister, the programme has got caught up in the corruption of petty politics. The government needs to listen to its critics and learn from the positive examples of civil society groups.

DECENTRALISED APPROACH: The Gujarat programme succeeded because the government let the people decide their response to drought. When common people are allowed to have a say in governance, they cease to be victims and become stakeholders. The tank desiltation programme in ap has suffered in its initial stages due to indifference of the masses. This undermines the sustainability of decentralised water management, making drought more sustainable. As India's problems lie more with the government than with its people, the first step to any improvement is a government's recognition of its mistakes.

CORRUPTION: While this plague of India's governance system is difficult to uproot -- even the successful SPPWCP in Gujarat has suffered -- a decentralised approach to development brings about greater transparency and accountability to the system. Again, the civil society's influence helps limit this problem, checking the deadly engineer-contractor nexus.

PLANNING: This seminal aspect of any development effort is still not receiving the due attention. The best of intentions simply crumble under the absence of foresight. That the AP government did not spend enough time planning is obvious. But, experts say, Gujarat could have achieved a lot more if a little more care had been put into planning of government activities, especially monitoring of ongoing work.

URBAN-RURAL CONFLICT: In Rajkot district of Gujarat, there have been voices of discontent among urban populations about the issue of checkdams stopping water from reaching reservoirs that feed urban populations. This is a major problem for the future, and requires immediate intervention to prevent incidents of rioting and deaths over water rights. To this end, promoting water harvesting in urban areas can be a great solution. The government of Gujarat would show great leadership if it were to promote water harvesting in all walks of life. If urban people can manage their own water, there would be no reason for conflict. The AP government deserves to be commended for taking up the issue in the state capital Hyderabad. But the implementation of the programme leaves much to be desired.

CRASH PROGRAMME MENTALITY: This will be a major threat to all that has been achieved. If the Gujarat government treats SPPWCP as a temporay measure to deal with drought, it would not only worsen the water crisis but will also show the best available strategy to deal with it in a poor light. the lead taken by Gujarat has to emerge as an example to the rest of the country, especially its neighbour Rajasthan, where the government has done little beyond the traditional crisis-mongering to deal with drought.

Gujarat has championed industrialisation in the country. It is time it shows that its achivements are not merely economic in nature. That it can do what governments in India have consistently ignored: real development lies in sound environmental governance. For AP, which features as an 'also-ran' in this report, it would be a good idea to send some ministers and bureaucrats to Gujarat for training. Gujarat is not very far from AP. And the example of Gujarat is also not very far from replication.

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