The Prime Minister recently launched a nationwide Watershed Development Programme named 'Haryali'. Launching the initiative he said that under the proposed watershed management, villagers can take up many small works to conserve water for drinking, irrigation, fisheries and afforestation which , to him, would not only add 'Haryali' to the rural landscape but also create new employment opportunities. Significantly, he added that the programme is to be implemented by Panchayti Raj Institutions (PRIs) and said that this is part of a new trend under which the center is giving Panchayats the responsibility for implementation of schemes. Indeed the 'Haryali' initiative came close on the heels of another national level scheme for rural water supply called the 'Swajaldhara' where again Panchayats are the implementation agents.
The launch of Haryali further affirms that Participatory Watershed development, through the PRIs is now an accepted national strategy. However an agreed common approach to it remains to be worked out, primarily because Watershed Programmes today are being carried out by different Union Ministers with different approaches and differing institutional mechanisms. The District Rural Development Agency and the Block Development Officer are implementing the Rural Watershed Programmes under the Ministry of Rural Development. The Agricultural Ministry implements the programme through its Soil Conservation Department, while the Ministry of Environment and Forest implements it through Joint Forest Management Committees under the control of Divisional Forest Officer. Each Ministry believes that its approach is the best and therefore an agreement on common guidelines for Watershed Development remains elusive. There were recent reports that the Centre proposes to consolidate all watershed programmes under a single ministry. However we still await a decision in this regard.
Time for Decisions!
Not so green after all
The empowerment of PRIs makes sense. However when it comes to the role of PRI in these progmammes there is more confusion than clarity. Over the years, notwithstanding the constitutional requirement of empowering Panchayats for Watershed Development (under the 73rd Amendment), there has been a proliferation of user groups and informal village associations carrying out watershed management at the local level. Typically associations formed for the purposes of watershed management have been informal associations which are not formed under any of the formal laws of the State concerned. The associations include the User Groups which are most desegregated implementing groups in a watershed project. Each user group generally selects a Managing Committee comprising members within the user group. The members elected from each user group also constitute Village Committee which is the main activity and fund management unit in the watershed. Finally, there is a Watershed Committee comprising members elected from each of the village committees which perform crucial roles of conducting inter village negotiations.
The Prime Minister's unequivocal statement now that Haryali is to be carried out through the Panchayats, however makes one thing clear. The time has come to honor the Constitutional commitment. As Pari Baumann puts it the question is not whether PRIs should take over functions of Watershed Development. Rather it is about how, and how rapidly, this should be done.
The new guidelines for Water Shed Development issued by the Union Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) in 2001 implicitly concede this. They lay down that Zila Parishad (District level Panchayat body) and other PRIs shall have very important roles to play in the Watershed Development Programme. They provide that the PRIs should have the right to monitor and review the implementation of programmes at the village level. Further, the Gram Panchayat should be fully involved in the implementation of Watershed Development Programmes. In fact the guidelines add that the Gram Panchayat may use its Administrative and Financial Resources to support and encourage the formation of Self Help Groups / User Groups and that they may also ensure that funds from the development programmes of MoRD are used to supplement and complement the Watershed Development Programmes. Clearly, while the guidelines grant the significance of involving the PRIs in as much as it says that they have 'very important roles' or that they 'shall be fully involved', there is no suggestion of how this role can be precisely determined both for village level implementation and district level monitoring of the watershed development Programme.
Real and Imagined notions of Decentralisation
It has been argued before that the objectives of the Panchayati Raj and the guidelines for watershed development are based on fundamentally different notions of decentralization. While the guidelines do not recognize the importance of democratic politics in deciding the development priorities, the logic of Panchayati Raj system supposes that democracy and development are intertwined. It is also believed that these different bases also result in differing conceptualizations of community and empowerment. Granting that these differences exist, there are still ways to work around them. Ultimately both Panchayat and village level Watershed Development Organizations seek collective action for development purposes and in many cases comprise the same people - who are both members of village level Watershed Committees and the Gram Sabhas.
There are other differences that are more in the mind that may not necessarily reflect in practical terms. A major reason given for not involving Gram Panchayats is that they are too big for Watershed Development. However it is possible now for having smaller entities as Committees of Gram Panchayat of Gram Sabha at the village Level for Watershed Development purposes. Almost all State Panchayat laws provide for creation of such Committees.
It is also said that watersheds are based on ecological boundaries unlike Panchayats. However here again it is possible to closely look at these ecological boundaries from the standpoint of their administrative viability. Infact the working group of the Planning Commission has recently pointed out that the earlier watershed development programmes - including the 'Drought Prone Area Programme' (DPAD) and 'Desert Development Programme' (DDP) - treated development blocks as single units and because of the size of this unit the programme might have proceeded at a very slow rate. The working group had recommended the unit for delineation of working areas of different central ministries for Water Shed Development Programme should be the area of Panchayat, in place of the block, with the same cost norms. Finally, the argument that Panchayats are political bodies and hence unsuited for development purposes, naively presumes that participatory structures for watershed management are political. This is apart from the fact that democratic politics itself can be decisive in the terms of ascertaining development priorities, as also for sustaining the institutions particularly where they interface with the State apparatus. o
Mechanisms? Yes. Will?
The appropriate institutional mechanisms compatible with the legal mandate can be devised. However the challenge here is to muster a collective will to work on it. So far the watershed institutions were ultimately responsible to the District Administration and the tendency of the collector to shape decision-making for watershed development programme has been sighted in some past studies. Further at the state level, the MLAs themselves are identified as the biggest sources of opposition to Panchayati Raj. Democratic decentralization for Watershed Development Programmes - and otherwise - can only happen when the centralizing tendencies of the vested groups are curbed. It is only then that a collective will is generated, whereby each stakeholder has a stake in implementing the mandate of the Constitution and of the Haryali.
A steering committee of the Planning Commission for the tenth five year plan has recently pointed out that instances have come to light where elected members of Panchayats who were not associated with Watershed Development Projects have become instrumental in sabotaging the projects. It is time that we think through the appropriate institutional mechanisms for Haryali before they precipitate an unfortunate situation, and conflicts on the ground.