Why only panchayats?
The government of India has for long considered watersheds as catalysts for development activities in rain-fed areas. In 1994, it developed guidelines for implementation of watershed programmes. These were subsequently revised, in 2001, by the department of land resources of the ministry of rural development and circulated as guidelines for watershed development (gwd).
gwd aimed to bring local communities to the center stage and push the administration towards a facilitating role. It proposed a user-friendly organisational structure with watershed associations (was) and elected/nominated watershed committees undertaking field/village-level implementation of each watershed. This was to be done under the supervision of a project implementation authority (pia). Each pia had to manage 10-12 watersheds with technical inputs from experts. A district watershed committee was assigned the task of preparing detailed action plans for watershed projects.
gwd focussed on enhancing the quality of rural livelihood support systems; special attention was given to poverty alleviation and village communities were encouraged to use simple and affordable technological solutions.
Panchayati raj institutions (pris) were assigned the task of reviewing the implementation of these programmes. However, they had to adhere to gwd norms to become a pia. They also had to compete with other community-based organisations (cbos), non-governmental organisations (ngos) and government organisations (gos) to get selected as an implementing authority.
Haryali Just as the programme was beginning to bear fruit, the ministry of rural development, government of India, decided to replace it by a new programme: Haryali. Its guidelines speak of harnessing every drop of rainwater for irrigation, horticulture, floriculture, pasture-development and fisheries to create sustainable sources of income for the village community. It also talks of providing clean drinking water to all parts of rural India. The most radical change proposed by Haryali was making panchayat bodies sole managers of watershed development activities. Other institutions that had participated effectively in watershed management were completely sidelined. Moreover, Haryali guidelines have also reduced the budget for community development and capacity building.
The aim of the Haryali programme is evidently to strengthen pris. But in this author's view these institutions are not the sole representatives of local communities. Moreover, they function in a manner very different from watershed user groups. Experience has shown that panchayat bodies have not always been efficient watershed managers largely because they are territorial units and not ecological entities. In places where the watershed area is coterminous with the gram panchayat (gp), pris have done well. However, if a gp has several watersheds, then each watershed area should have its own wa. This of course depends on the resources available to the concerned people.
Futile measures Replacing watershed committees with panchayats takes away decision-making from direct stakeholders. The prime objective of all watershed efforts should be improving land and water management and optimal use of natural resources. This should lead to increase in rural incomes. Strengthening panchayats require other measures such as devolving many powers of state governments to them.
It also makes no sense to let the capacities of cbos, ngos, gos and other agencies, that have been built up over time, go waste. Retaining their services is not just a matter of economic prudence. It will also enable effective watershed management.
pris are the third tier of Indian federalism. Watershed bodies working parallel to, or at levels lower than, panchayat bodies are part of a fourth tier whose importance is gradually being understood. Both tiers can co-exist and reinforce each other.
Rakshat Hooja is a research scholar at the Centre for Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi