The fallacies of integrated watershed development in India

Over the last three decades, watersheds have become the pivotal unit for rural development programmes in India. National guidelines for integrated watershed development were first developed in 1986, as an alternative to green revolution policies. They were based on the assumption that investments in watershed management would have a long-lasting impact on the livelihoods of small farmers who exploit the 60 percent of Indian arable land that is not suitable for large-scale irrigation and hi-tech agriculture. The core objective of India’s watershed management programme was therefore to enhance rural food security and income through improved natural resource management.

Between 1994 and 1999, the programme implemented about 10 000 watershed projects in India. In 2001/2002 about 6.2 million ha of rainfed land in 5 200 micro-watersheds was under treatment, at an estimated cost of US$175 million. These figures reflect the coverage and the resources being pumped into watershed development, but although watershed projects are one of the main ways of investing in integrated rural development, there are no comprehensive data on their performance and impact.

Local assessment and national indicators suggest that many unsuccessful projects outnumber a few successful ones. Some watershed projects failed even to provide watershed inhabitants with the minimum amounts of drinking-water and fodder. Some neglected to develop pastureland and propagate soil-moisture conservation practices, and many failed to arrest land degradation. One study indicates that the rate of land degradation in rainfed areas in the 1990s was more than twice that in the 1980s, largely because of increased soil erosion. The continued lack of drinking- and irrigation water in several Indian states shows that drought-proofing interventions have not generated significant downstream impacts.

The disappointing performance of India’s integrated watershed programme is largely due to flaws in the financing and implementation mechanism foreseen by the guidelines. Fixed budgeting often failed to take into account wide biophysical and socio-economic variability. The design of most projects did not account for local variability, and an insistence on following the guidelines ruled out the possibility of learning from other projects’ experiences. Moreover, with their multiple objectives, watershed projects channelled limited investments into a range of on- and off-farm activities, often involving trade-offs among the interests of different stakeholders. The package of measures implemented by watershed projects, from building check dams to promoting income-generating activities, was too large and difficult to manage. The scattering of funds over an array of different micro-actions made impacts slow to materialize and often intangible. Projects often went well beyond the scientifically determined methods of soil and water conservation, decreasing the cost-effectiveness of their land and water conservation measures.

A lack of project sustainability and equity was another problem in India’s watershed management programme. Many projects failed to develop strategies to maintain assets once project support ended. Feedback from several projects indicates that many farmers benefited from watershed projects only through obtaining short-term paid labouring work. Because communities see few long-term benefits emanating from these projects, they have little interest in operating and maintaining project assets. Moreover, some property regimes in rural India contradict the requirements of watershed management guidelines. Land is inequitably distributed and rights over groundwater are bundled with landownership. Most watershed development projects have a clear hierarchy of benefits and beneficiaries. Farm households benefit most, with improved irrigation; they are followed by those farmers who receive on-farm treatments such as field bunds. The landless and those who do not own livestock benefit the least. These issues have been treated as inevitable, and have not been made the object of a participatory process. There is a need to initiate negotiations among different beneficiaries and stakeholders.

Adapted from S. Sharma. 2005. “Rethinking watershed development in India: Strategy for the twenty-first century”. In M. Achouri, L. Tennyson, K. Upadhyay and R. White, eds. Preparing for the next generation of watershed management programmes and projects. Proceedings of the Asian Workshop, Kathmandu, 11 to 13 September 2003. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 5. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007