What rural folk need is motivation

V B SALUNKE, a 58-year-old social worker, abandoned his engineering firm in 1972 to mobilise villagers towards community participation in the management of natural resources. The son of an army officer, Salunke developed the system of pani panchayats, or water management, which the Planning Commission recommended in 1981. His work, which has extended to more than 30 villages (including some in tribal areas) in Maharashtra, has got him many awards, including the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1986 and an award from the Swedish International Innovation Institute the same year. Salunke speaks to Down To Earth about pani panchayats and his experiences with farmers

By S Rajendran
Published: Sunday 31 July 1994

What is the basic concept of pani panchayats?
Pani panchayats are arrangements between the farmers of a village to share water resources. There is a limit on the amount of land that can be irrigated -- 0.2 ha for an individual and 1 ha for a family. The beneficiaries should chip in 20 per cent of the capital cost. We provide the remainder as an interest free loan. The farmers are encouraged to manage and operate the scheme.

We try to bring more seasonal crops under irrigation and discourage the farming of water-guzzling crops. Landless labourers are also allowed to join as sharecroppers. This provides employment and helps prevent migration.

What made you start it?
In 1972, Maharashtra was reeling under a severe drought. I visited some villages in Pune district where the drought had decimated the domestic animal population. Villagers, including big farmers, had to migrate and take up jobs in quarries. At that time, we decided to do something to improve water resource management at the village level. I had an engineering firm but I left it and started working towards this end. Two years later, we started the first pani panchayat in Naegaon village in Pune district.

How did you mobilise the local people?
Rural folk are generally intelligent and hardworking, but they are unorganised. What they need is motivation. Once they are rightly motivated, organised and guided, one can successfully implement water management measures through community participation. Initially, we held discussions with the villagers. Later, we explained the principles of pani panchayat. If the farmers agreed, we would survey the area and start the project. Usually, only a small section would come forward initially. But many more joined once the increase in productivity became evident.

What do you think of major irrigation projects?
I am for major irrigation schemes because they are multipurpose projects. But I am not convinced about the way the projects are executed, the manner in which water is distributed and used. It is a piecemeal approach. The administrators think that their job is over once the project is completed. They are not bothered about the proper distribution and utilisation of water. Water is a common property resource and has to shared equally by the community. But under the present system, farmers in the upper reaches are plagued by crop failures because of waterlogging while those in the lower reaches suffer from water shortage.

Also, the target-oriented nature of major projects often runs counter to the concept of equitable water use. Even among farmers, there is no rational method of utilising water because, in the major portion of the command areas, the flood irrigation system is used. It not only affects crop production but also soil fertility and distribution of income.

But there are government schemes like watershed development programmes for irrigation management...
Undoubtedly. But most of them are target-oriented and ultimately even the target groups hardly benefit from them. For instance, in one tribal village, the Public Works Department (PWD) constructed a dam at the cost of Rs 7 lakh. However, even after 5 years, none of the farmers used even a drop of water from the dam for irrigation. The poor tribal farmers were under the impression that they should not use the water from the dam, as it was owned by the government. The farmers have been suffering from a paucity of water for irrigation, even as water from the dam goes waste. In another tribal village, a drainage system constructed by the government does not carry even a drop of water.

What is the alternative?
Instead of targeting reservoirs, dams and canals, all villages should be given minimal support for managing minor irrigation schemes on a micro-watershed basis. The emphasis should be on total agricultural development. For irrigation experts and planners, small irrigation projects or watershed schemes are like drops of water in the ocean. They always plan projects involving large amounts of money to irrigate millions of hectares and do not take into account the consequences.

Can you elaborate?
For balanced agricultural development, land, water and forest resources should be considered in tandem. It is not possible to irrigate the entire land available in a given area. Therefore, about 30 per cent of the land should be brought under irrigation, 30 per cent under forests and the remaining under rainfed farming. This model will mitigate shortages of food, fodder and fuel. This system is better than taking the different aspects of rural development in isolation. It is possible to develop a watershed programme in each village through community participation.

What is the potential of a watershed programme developed through people's participation?
If there is effective community participation, micro-level watershed programmes are economical, feasible and more in line with the needs of the local community. In Maharashtra, about 60 per cent of the water from the major projects is used for irrigating the water-guzzling sugarcane crop, which is cultivated in just 3 per cent of the cropped area. If the same water is provided for the cultivation of cereals, pulses and oilseeds, there may not be a shortage in food supply. Besides, collective decisions have to be taken on crop selection and water management.

Non-governmental organisations have a major role to play in achieving these ends, as government agencies often plan and implement their programmes without consulting or seeking the cooperation of the local communities. Making the community participate in the process of decision-making, planning and implementation of irrigation management schemes not only results in the efficient use of water and other resources, but also brings about a feeling of community ownership.

How do farmers participate in such community projects?
Before the project is undertaken, the potential of land, water and other resources is explained. Participants are asked to contribute their labour for digging channels, wells and pipelines. Later, the farmers are assured that they will be allowed to cultivate equal areas of land. Besides, the farmers themselves irrigate the crop. They are discouraged from cultivating water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and are advised to cultivate cereals, which are essential for subsistence. Only if the availability of water is more than what is required for such crops, are the farmers allowed to cultivate other crops.

What lessons have you learnt from the community water management system and what are your future plans?
Water is an asset and only community participation can ensure effective management and equitable use of this precious resource. People urgently require water to irrigate their crops. Once the supply of water for irrigation is assured, the farmers will be willing to pay back their loans given to them and also extend the area under cultivation. Once the project is accepted by the villagers, they volunteer their labour.

We have found that the farmers pick up many useful things as we interact closely with them. In the villages where our programme has been implemented, we demonstrated the techniques of crop selection, cultivation, and water and soil management. In the process, problems regarding fuel, vegetables, edible oil and other essentials were also discussed. Moreover, the sharing of knowledge and experiences became a reciprocal process.

Because of the success of the water management schemes and the appreciation that we have received from the non-tribal areas, we have now undertaken such projects in remote tribal areas. If these ventures are successful, water management schemes will be undertaken in many more tribal villages.

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