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Vol 7,  No 15   December 31, 1998
Preparing you to change the future every fortnight


The house that Digvijay built
by Anil Agarwal

p29.jpg (19919 bytes)Governments and the masses have very rarely worked together successfully in modern India. In Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Digvijay Singh has managed to do that. The state government's watershed management programme in the district of Jhabua has married environmental regeneration with economic well-being. It has been successful because power was given directly to the people by the government. This decentralisation was one important factor in the Congress's surprising victory in the elections to the Legislative Assembly in November. An analysis of the beginning and the success of this phenomenon

IN HIS very first address to the nation as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi had said that his government would launch an afforestation drive which would green five million hectares (ha) a year, making it the world's largest afforestation effort. In addition, he said, this entire exercise would be taken up through a people's movement.

Kamla Chowdhry, chairperson of the National Wastelands Development Board that was set up to oversee the implementation of the prime minister's mandate, would often ask me, "How does a government agency start a people's movement?" Indeed, an extremely difficult question to answer, especially in a country where government agencies do not have an iota of understanding of social mobilisation or the faintest hint of an inclination towards achieving it. I could not give Chowdhry any real answer.

However, I understood the answer to Chowdhry's question this August 20, on Rajiv Gandhi's birth anniversary, while addressing a public meeting of several thousand tribal people in Jhabua district. This was at the request of Digvijay Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (MP), who has personally overseen the country's finest people-driven watershed development programme which gave outstanding results in district Jhabua.

I call Jhabua outstanding because it is an effort to involve the people in land and water management on a scale and depth that no other government has attempted. The MP government's watershed development programme is now four years old. Already, satellite images show changes in the number of water bodies and the extent of the green cover. Jhabua would have made Rajiv Gandhi proud.

Jhabua is today a temple dedicated to Goddess Earth. Its architect is Digvijay Singh, and it has thousands and thousands of tribal priests

Today, Jhabua is truly a temple of modern India, to use Nehruji's phrase, in fact, a temple of 21st century India, which shows how poverty can be eradicated from its roots by empowering the local people to manage their environment. Jhabua is today a temple dedicated to Goddess Earth. Its architect is Digvijay Singh, and it has thousands and thousands of tribal priests. Jhabua is also a place that would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud. Gandhiji had said that the 'last man' has to be the touchstone of any economic development programme. In Jhabua, that is the case indeed.

To see trees coming up in a place which in the mid-1980s was a moonscape, and to see dug-wells literally overflowing with water on to the land in a place that was described chronically drought-prone is truly the most exciting thing I have seen in the country. It is a reversal that I have always known could take place, having watched the outstanding transformation of villages such as Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi over the last two decades, but never thought it would take place on such a scale. It is the result of political will combined with bureaucratic competence and commitment that I never believed I would see in India in my lifetime.

  • Some 22 per cent of the district's land area was brought under the Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Development Mission (RGWDM) by April 1998. 374 villages have got involved in developing 249 micro-watersheds.
  • The foundation of any watershed programme is water and soil conservation. In Jhabua it means arresting the water that falls on the hillslopes instead of allowing it to run away, carrying away with it the precious topsoil. The water is so trained that it percolates into the land and recharges groundwater. Where necessary, small tanks are made. Some 143 new tanks have been built and the groundwater table has increased by 0.64 metres on an average in 19 micro-watersheds studied (a micro-watershed is 500-1,000 ha). However, it must be pointed out that rainfall was good in 1996 and 1997. With increased water availability, the irrigated area increased to 1,115 ha in 18 micro-watersheds studied, which is nearly double the irrigated area of 1994-95. The flow intensity and duration of natural streams has also increased.
  • With increased irrigation, agricultural productivity is increasing. In seven micro-watersheds studied, the cropped area has increased by 7 per cent and the cropping intensity of the cultivated land is also increasing. The area under rabi (dry season crop) has increased by 340 ha in the same seven micro-watersheds. There is also a shift towards cash crops with the area under soybean and cotton having increased by 340 ha.
  • Food availability has increased by a minimum of one month to about four months. 313 village-level grain banks have been established to ensure timely availability of foodgrain on easy credit.
  • Due to watershed management programmes and planting of various beneficial species, such as bamboo, anwla, Acacia catechu and neem, there has been a 66 per cent reduction in wasteland area in 11 micro-watersheds studied. District officials' estimates show that over 2 million trees have regenerated. The regeneration rate has been far more rapid compared to lands where only joint forest management programmes have been implemented because the water conservation efforts increase soil moisture and plant growth. In turn, there is a more rapid increase in economic returns to the poor people involved in watershed management.
  • Perhaps the biggest benefit to the local people has come from the rapid regeneration of grass, which has increased fodder availability. Some estimates suggest a 5-6 times increase in grass from the regenerated lands. The dramatic nature of this change can be seen in the data from the Hathipahwa watershed, where work started in 1995-96 (see table: Written with blades of grass). The watershed covers a total land area of 323.66 ha which is used by two revenue villages, Ambakhodra and Badkua. The watershed covers village agricultural land, government forest land and government revenue land. Before the work started, the land was heavily eroded with no vegetation. The six tanks which lay in the watershed would rarely get filled up. There was severe shortage of fodder and villagers had to buy it from Gujarat. And there was seasonal migration - an annual stream of distress. Following watershed management and stall-feeding of cattle, people of the watershed sell grass every year and seasonal migration has almost disappeared. The change has come in just three years, a result of economic benefits from increased grass production. Apart from earning money from selling grass, villagers have started keeping better breeds. They have recently received 14 high-quality cows and buffaloes. Increased water availability has stepped up vegetable production.
  • The watershed development programme is already having a substantial social impact. Dependence on moneylenders has gone down. A study of select micro-watersheds revealed that loans from moneylenders had gone down by 22 per cent. Grain banks have resulted in increased food security. Distress migration has reduced considerably.

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Jhabua's future looks very promising. This is just the start of an ecological change that could result in a massive economic change. With increased grass production, villagers can move to improved animal-based activities and milk production; increased water will give them improved and stable agricultural production; and increased trees, depending on the type that are planted or regenerated, can give them both some short-term income through sales of fruit, bamboo and other minor forest produce, and ultimately long-term income through trade of timber. If managed intelligently, the availability of these raw materials can generate secondary economic activities like small-scale industries. Increased incomes can, in turn, generate a growing demand for the service sector - from schools to shops. If Jhabua stays on the path that it has taken, 10-15 years later, nobody will be able to believe that this land and its people were just two decades ago among the most destitute in India.

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But this ecological-economic transformation will require careful management and support, with the local society slowly moving out of the clutches of poverty into green wealth. This support will have to come both from the government and the civil society. A fine example of something that can easily tear apart this extraordinary programme is the surplus of water that it is generating itself. Now, if some powerful people in the community were to start setting up their own pump-sets, then they would lose interest in community cooperation, while others will feel cheated. Ultimately, the entire exercise could collapse. Some incidents of a few people wanting to do similar things and of expressions of unhappiness by others are already being talked about in Jhabua.

The most beautiful thing I found in the state bureaucracy working with this highly participatory watershed development programme is the openness to discuss issues. They know participatory management is not possible without openness and transparency. The latest government publication on the mission states clearly: "The mission after four years has come to a stage where it confronts issues of inequity in the water management policy. The present water policy regime allows anyone with access to capital and technology to mine the resource of water through tube-wells, etc. Now when the conservation of that water has been effected through collective action, should not individual rights to appropriate that water be restrained? The mission proposes to argue for allowing communities who have come together as watershed committees to be given powers to regulate the withdrawal of water from those watersheds. New community-regulated water management policy can get experimented starting with the watersheds where work has been completed."

The most beautiful thing in the state bureaucracy was its transformation: its openness to discuss issues

This clearly shows that once a government seriously starts working with the people, it slowly begins to find solutions in decentralised, people-based governance, especially for the management of natural resources and the environment. As long as the government remains alive to these emerging problems, does not push them under the carpet, and finds non-bureaucratic answers to the problem, there is no problem that cannot be solved. In simple words, Jhabua shows that if one single thing works in this country, it is bringing the spirit of democracy to the process of governance. Even though democracy is the single biggest strength of this country - a cynic may argue, it is its only strength given the state of India - it is often the one single element missing in India's day-to-day governance which is marked by non-participatory, secretive bureaucratic mind-sets.

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