IDFC, Policy Group, June 2012
In the drought-prone Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra lies Hiware Bazar, a village of about 1300 residents that is coping with this year’s severe drought better than others. For the past 20 years, Hiware Bazar has followed a careful plan for watershed management and water conservation that has been central to transforming this once poor village to a prosperous one today. This Quarterly examines the institutional and technical factors of Hiware Bazar’s success and draws some key lessons.
Every few years, villages in central Maharashtra, like those in other drought-prone regions across the country, face crippling water scarcity that threatens lives and livelihoods and fuels migration. Despite decades of drought-relief programs, there has been little change over the years. This year, Maharashtra is facing its worst drought since 2003.
Agriculture in this part of Maharashtra is largely rain-fed. Water retention is limited due to poor permeability of the geological structure, and accentuated by degradation of forests and green cover over the years. What water is available is poorly managed; farmers overexploit groundwater without consideration for their neighbours or their future. In effect, access to water is determined by land and the capital to dig deeper and deeper wells. Large parts of the region are therefore categorized as over-exploited, critical or semi-critical in terms of groundwater availability.
Our Quarterly looks at Hiware Bazar, a village in Ahmednagar district - one of three districts worst hit by this year’s drought. Yet unlike other villages that desperately wait for government-supplied tanker water to meet their drinking needs, Hiware Bazar today has assured drinking water. They have also managed to plant a rabi crop, albeit over reduced acreage. Watershed development and strict observance of rules that preserve the water table have been central to this village’s remarkable economic transformation. A fundamental premise of the program has been to treat water as a community resource.
Hiware Bazar: A water-led transformation
Hiware Bazar lies across 977 hectares (ha) at the foothills of the Sahyadris. The village receives only 300-400 millimeters (mm) of rainfall a year. Over time, with steady degradation of their forest land, villagers found themselves with little water available post the monsoon. Without water to irrigate their fields, villagers began to migrate to cities. Those that remained cut down remaining forest land for firewood and sustenance. Preparation and sale of illicit alcohol became a source of income, and alcoholism and crime were rife. Over 90 percent of families lived below the poverty line (BPL). The village lacked medical facilities and due to its bad reputation, teachers were unwilling to teach at the local school. As a result, its literacy rate at 30% was well below the national average (45% all-India rural literacy in 1991).
In 1990, Popatrao Pawar, after completing his MCom in Pune, was persuaded to return to his village. He was elected sarpanch and gave up a potential career in the city. Under his leadership the village drew up a plan based on priorities set by villagers themselves – with the top priorities on safe drinking water, irrigation water, employment, education and health. The village is now in the top income decile in India, has safe water and sanitation for all, and almost universal literacy (compared to national average rural literacy of 69%). The village has a secondary school and many students pursue careers in teaching or engineering.
Due to watershed development measures, the groundwater table rose and irrigated area increased (see Table 1). Farmers, previously able to cultivate only in the kharif season and grow bajra in rabi, could now grow in more seasons and switch from the traditional jowar and bajra to cash crops such as onion, potato, tomato and horticulture. As area under cultivation and cropping intensity increased and the cropping pattern changed, incomes rose sharply.
With more assured irrigation and therefore lower risk, farmers began to invest more in their land such as by building additional water storage structures. Some families that had migrated returned to the village. Many farmers used their increased agricultural earnings or took loans to buy cattle. The revegetation program, as part of watershed development, has increased availability of good quality grass which has in turn contributed to increased milk yield. Today dairying is an important mainstay of their economy.
What is most striking about Hiware Bazar’s growth is that most families gained from it, either directly or indirectly. Today the village has only three BPL families. Moreover, a commitment to sustainability helps ensure that benefits secured are not lost. Prudent water management coupled with crop planning guarantees drinking water year round, and agriculture and dairying are maintained as far as possible, even in low rainfall years.
Watershed development initiatives
A watershed is a geographic area that drains to a common point (see Figure 1). Normally, rainwater that collects in a watershed flows out along its natural drainage lines. Where forests and green cover have been destroyed, water flows out rapidly causing soil erosion and leaving little time for water to percolate into the soil. As a result, soon after the rains, the watershed turns dry again.
Figure 1: What is a watershed?
Watershed development refers to a set of measures that help retain water within a watershed. These include soil and water conservation, afforestation, grasslands development and protection of bio-mass. Area treatments are done on the land area of the watershed while drainage line treatments are done on natural drainage lines. Both sets of treatments hold rainwater longer to increase soil moisture and facilitate ground water recharge. Watershed programs are best undertaken on hilly terrain. Conservation efforts typically begin at the uppermost parts of the watershed before moving down the slope. This helps reduce soil erosion and siltation in downstream water harvesting structures. Development and preservation of non-arable lands is central to watershed development not just for its indirect benefits of raising the water table but also for its direct benefits like fuel and fodder.
Hiware Bazar began its watershed development program in 1992 with reforestation of their hilly forest land. Villagers also built trenches along contours in the hills to trap and slow rainwater runoff. Along natural drainage lines, they built shallow dams of stone, cement or earth. Once ground behind the dam walls is saturated, additional water remains stored as surface water (see Box 1). To allow groundwater stored in the upper reaches of the village to reach farms downstream, villagers undertook an ‘aquifer blast’ - a controlled underground explosion to create cracks for groundwater to flow through.
On individual plots, farmers have levelled land and constructed low earthen barriers along the perimeter to hold rainwater within the fields. Wealthier farmers have dug plastic-lined ‘ponds’ for additional surface water storage.
The village has successfully brought together financing from different government schemes to achieve their conservation plan (see Table 2). Villagers initiated a Joint Forestry Management program with the Forest Department for watershed work on forest land. Most treatments on non-forest land were paid for by Adarsh Gaon Yojana (AGY), a Maharashtra government ‘ideal village’ scheme with an emphasis on watershed development. All money received for watershed development was managed by Yashwant Krishi Gram and Watershed Development Trust (YKWDT), a non-governmental organization set up by Hiware Bazar’s Gram Sabha (GS) in 1994 as a pre-condition for AGY funds.
Voluntary labour by villagers (one member of each family) or shramdhaan has formed a critical component of watershed programs. Although introduced by AGY, the village has adopted this practice in much of its development work. Villagers provided free labour for the watershed program; only some part was paid for through government schemes or the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme (MEGS). To ensure quality of structures, when government funding was inadequate villagers contributed shramdhaan so funds could be used to purchase good quality construction materials. There is an equal emphasis on maintenance which to date is carried out using shramdhaan and money collected from villagers.
Hiware Bazar’s success has hinged on the involvement of the entire community who collectively decide their development priorities, contribute labour, and manage their natural resources by regulating and enforcing norms. Most community decisions are taken at GS meetings.
Involvement did not come overnight. Education has been an important medium to raise awareness of key issues (see Box 2). To convince villagers that watershed development was important, the sarpanch showed the failed example of neighbouring villages that were once rich from their lucrative floriculture business but had to move to dairying (aided by tanker water in summer) because they over-exploited their groundwater.
Yet even after the program started there were sceptics who thought government funds would be misappropriated. Water conservation work halted for a year. To make the process transparent the panchayat made revenue and expenditures accounts accessible to all. During this period, they also extended the school from the 4th to 7th standard. Children learnt about water and soil conservation, set up a seed bank and planted two trees in every household. As the panchayat’s commitment and potential benefits of the program became apparent, support for the program grew and work resumed.
Participation by all members has created a strong sense of ownership. School children read rain gauges and measure groundwater levels. Women collect and manage a monthly water tax on individual connections. Decisions on water budgeting, crop planning and maintenance of water structures are taken in the GS. In addition, there are village committees to monitor forest conservation, wildlife protection and cleanliness.
In the past 11 years, the village has received an average annual rainfall of just 315 mm. Despite this, the village has maintained its water table at a safe level, realising that protecting the ecological balance is necessary for sustainability. One way is by restricting activities that degrade natural resources (see 1 below). Another is through a joint groundwater use and crop plan (see 2 below).
1. Bans on activities that undo watershed efforts
AGY had introduced bans on tree-cutting and grazing which the village continues to adhere to strictly. Through collective GS decisions the village has imposed additional restrictions:
- Ban on open grazing in watershed development areas: grazing is only permitted on private land
- Ban on tree cutting: In the commons, trees and branches cannot be cut but branches can be cut on private land
- Ban on borewells (except two for drinking water): To control groundwater over-extraction, drilling borewells is banned and water access is restricted to open wells directly connected to rain/surface water recharge Ban on water-intensive crops: like sugarcane and banana. For fodder, half an acre of sugarcane per farm may be grown but only with use of drip irrigation
- Ban on ‘chullahs’ to preserve biomass: and reduce indoor pollution
2. Water budgeting and crop planning
To institutionalise sharing of water, the village introduced a practice of water budgeting about five years ago. Using a ‘water bank’ principle, the budget ensures that the village does not draw more water than it stores in a year, and a small amount is kept in reserve (see Table 3). Depending on rainfall in that year, available water is allocated amongst various uses, with first priority for drinking water for humans at 50 litres per capita per day (lpcd) and cattle (30 lpcd).
Like last year, when rainfall was barely 200mm, villagers collectively decided to reduce area under rabi cultivation and not grow a summer crop. One acre of rabi crop was permitted per private well. Further, more water-intensive wheat was replaced by less water-intensive vegetables. In general, the use of drip irrigation is encouraged as it saves 50 percent of water use, though it is costly.
Watershed programs can be inherently inequitable as:
- they primarily benefit those who own land and the benefit usually increases with landholding size
- they distribute costs and benefits unevenly with disproportionately higher benefits realised downstream. Wealthier farmers tend to own most downstream land, while poorer farmers typically live uphill/upstream
- by limiting access to pasture/forest land they can hurt the livelihoods of landless
- those who do not have land are not guaranteed access to water, even for drinking purposes. This is because in practice land and groundwater rights are not separated
There is little incentive then for poor or landless villagers to participate in watershed development. Of course, as agricultural productivity grows, the landless also benefit from increased demand for labour. In this case, during the construction phase, the poor got paid work under MEGS. The panchayat also took further steps to actively assist those who did not benefit directly from the program.
Bans were implemented in a staggered manner. For instance, a sudden and complete ban on open grazing would have an adverse impact on landless who rely on common pastures. Hiware Bazar imposed grazing restrictions on limited areas at a time viz. on a rotational basis, during reforestation. After reforestation was complete, households could collect one headload of grass a day from common lands (cut by sickle to preserve the roots) for Rs.100 per year. This fee is waived for poor/landless families. Similarly, the tree-cutting ban was imposed incrementally beginning with forest land then moving to other areas. Babul trees were initially exempt to provide a source of firewood. Notwithstanding these efforts, the landless had to spend additional time and effort in collecting fuel.
To expand drinking water access to those without private connections or wells, communal hand pumps were installed at various public places in the village.
The GS banned the sale of village land to outsiders and gave landless first priority to purchase land. Together with livestock loan assistance and sharecropping, this measure helped some landless families buy land (see Table 4). The village is currently looking to give a little land to remaining landless families either as a contribution of village land or through a purchase financed by a government scheme.
The panchayat also carefully chooses beneficiaries for government development schemes, such as for housing and farm animals, from amongst the most poor.
Key elements of success
- Community-driven priorities and regulation
- Participation through beneficiary labour contributions
- Convergence in using government schemes
- Investment in education and changing mindsets
- Emphasis on maintaining ecological balance
- Proactive steps to share benefits with all
- Hiware Bazar is relatively homogenous in terms of caste and religion: in 1991, under 10 percent of the population was SC and ST and 1 percent was non-Hindu. Achieving consensus and willingness to share resources may be more challenging where socio-economic diversity is high.
- Success was driven by a visionary and committed sarpanch who was able to mobilise the community.
- Co-ordination issues may arise if geography requires doing watershed development with neighbouring villages.
- Even with the land sale ban, landless may not be able to buy land given the recent explosion in land prices.
- Decouple land and water rights: so that water is treated and managed as a community resource
- Encourage community-based water budgeting: Securing drinking water first and adjusting crop plans to fit within available water helps ensure sustainability (see Box 3)
- Community education and awareness is necessary for creating the ownership required to sustain the program
- Look at aquifers and watersheds in conjunction: for better planning of structures and investment
For a large scale program like this to be successful needs convergence of objectives, funds and multiple actors like government, beneficiaries and NGOs (as technical support). To bring these together there is a need for strong local leadership that creates community drive and motivation. This has been fundamental to Hiware Bazar’s success.
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