down to earth
environment and you
The house that Digvijay built
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
by Anil Agarwal
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.
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.
|ACHIEVEMENTS IN JHABUA
- 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
- 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.
THE FUTURE OF JHABUA
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.
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
most beautiful thing in the state bureaucracy was its transformation: its openness to
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.