When the Haryali watershed programme was first introduced, there was a lot to be hopeful about. While similar to the Integrated Watershed Development Programme (IWDP) the key difference in the Haryali scheme is that the implementation of the programme is taken up through the Panchayati Raj institutions. This devolution of power to the local levels, it was hoped, would alter the landscape of watershed management. But now those expectations look increasingly futile; indeed the decentralisation of decision-making is being ridiculed as the decentralisation of corruption, as the three-tier (Panchayat-village, block, and district) system has fallen victim to the same old political compulsions and defeated hopes for grassroots-level democracy.

"Balwan group (meaning a few heavy-weights among the local population) hi panchayat chalati hai" is how a Jilla Parishad member from Rajasthan sums up the political status of Panchayats.

Contrary to the principles of a bottom-up approach where Gram Sabhas of villagers demand and decide what they want, it is still practically a top-down approach in which vested interests thrust ideas about some development project or the other and get Gram Sabhas to endorse them. Often, under the guise of people-led government programmes, local politicians and contractors take up unjustified work just to avail of the funds earmarked for the programme. For instance, in Kurampally village in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, a check dam has been constructed at a cost of around Rs.2 lakhs, but this dam lies on virtually flat terrain where visibly there is no scope for accumulation of water. Not only did the Gram Sabha pass a resolution approving this work, even technical clearance was obtained!

How did the much-celebrated initiative degenerate to this degree? A combination of unrealistic expectations, the realities of local leadership tussles, and flaws in implementation, is responsible.

Complex local realities

Many well-meaning policy makers begin with the supposition that villagers know their terrain better that outsiders, and have simple technology solutions to fix problems. No doubt, there are many success stories of a community's initiative solving its problems without any technical or financial support from the state. For example, the stonecutting Vadar community in Maharashtra was expert in constructing dams by piling loose boulders and filling mortar or soil between the gaps; these age-old structures, some even 500 years old, still exist in Dhule, Bhandara and many other regions. From recent times, there are other examples: Maharashtra's Ralegan Sidhdhi, Hiware Bazar and many such famous community led watershed projects. But there also have been many instances of failures in community initiatives through - and sometimes despite - the state or NGO interventions. In an NGO-led community programme in Chitrakoot, UP the topsoil was scrapped off to build an earthen dam, and this left the farms infertile.

Struggles for power in local communities compound the risk of expectations being misplaced. K R Verma, a soil conservation officer from Jharkhand, observes that at the village level, people feel that the funds coming to village panchayat is 'given' to the Sarpanch, and hence it is the Sarpanch who ultimately decides over the fund utilisation. Panchayats are run by strong groups that create a facade of decision-making by consensus, often using muscle power. Inevitably, this leads to tussles as panchayat heads are rotated by elections. A Haryali programme undertaken during the tenure of one Panchayat is often criticised by the next elected Panchayat, and something different is taken up, without regard to the work already done or the maintenance work necessary, adds Verma.

The Haryali guidelines prescribe cost norms for watershed development at Rs.6000 per hectare, which is arbitrary, without taking into account many ground realities. This often results in compromised planning.
 •  The grey in Haryali
The Gram Sabhas too are not empowered to take informed decisions, despite the fact that the major part of Haryali funds or that of the erstwhile IWDP - is spent on IEC (Information, Education and Communication), capacity building, training and engaging NGOs. The Panchayats are already burdened with all kinds of rural programmes - watershed, drinking water, health, sanitation, housing, employment - and therefore not able to do justice to Haryali, even when their intentions are good. The erstwhile village water committees (VWC) might have been the more suitable bodies for this work, therefore, leaving the Panchayat Committee to its other roles.

Drawbacks in guidelines

While the grassroots reality is complex, additionally the Haryali guidelines have many drawbacks, according to some informed observers. Says V W Ambekar, retired Director of Agriculture, Uttar Pradesh "Haryali only talks of management aspects and very little about the technical issues." The programme requires formation of Watershed Development Teams (WDT) of technical experts like civil or agriculture engineers, agronomists, soil scientists etc. to assist watershed committees. Ambekar, however, questions this expenditure on outside experts when the government itself has all the line departments employing expert and trained technical persons. Also it is suggested that the misuse of funds may be curtailed by assigning joint accountability - e.g. by requires withdrawal of money to be jointly authorised by the Secretary of the VWC and the leader of the WDT.

The Haryali guidelines prescribe cost norms for watershed development at Rs.6000 per hectare, which is arbitrary, without taking into account many ground realities. This often results in compromised planning. For instance, if watershed development needs to cover 500 hectares but the per-hectare cost is higher than Rs.6000, then the programme reduces the area under treatment - negating some of the expected benefit. Therefore, Ambekar suggests preparing distinct model watershed development programmes for some 126 agro-ecological situations to take into account soil, climate, cropping pattern, farming systems prevalent in these areas and then prescribe realistic cost norms for each agro-ecological zone.

The guidelines also encourage the involvement of users groups (UGs) and self help groups (SHGs). But subsidies available to such groups under other schemes - like Sampoorna Gram Rojgar Yojana - are not available under Haryali's watershed development efforts. Hence, often the groups are formed to satisfy Haryali requirements, but don't play any meaningful role; their composition is simply to satisfy a check-list and get the funds rolling. Similarly, for facilitating implementation of Haryali, the District Rural Development Agency or the Zilla Parishad selects a programme implementation agency - usually an NGO that is floated politically and serves private interests more than the programmes. It is now being suggested that instead a District Water Committee of technical experts should be appointed to select the implementers - so that the selection would not smack of politics but would be purely on merit and technical grounds.

There is also the problem of too many implementers - six different watershed programmes are now in operation - three under the Ministry of Rural Development and three more under the Ministry of Agriculture. These programmes are implemented by the state governments through the departments of Agriculture, Forest, Land and Water Management, and District Rural Development Agencies (DRDA). With so many actors in the field, confusion and conflicts regularly appear. For example, land under watershed needing treatment for overall efficiency may fall under the forest department's jurisdiction, and gets bogged down with its rules and regulations. The demand for an integrated approach to watershed development has been long-pending.

Apportioning funds is also tricky. As per the current institutional set-up, funds come to the district level, for which Zilla Panchayat has to present a plan based on the demands received from the villages and intermediate panchayats. But what actually happens is that at the district level, the funds get earmarked block-wise and it is anybody's guess on what basis this happens. There is need to identify and select watershed areas based on scientific baseline survey using remote sensing techniques, satellite imagery, topo sheets, GIS and water maps, etc. The identified watersheds then should be accorded need-based priorities. Another aberration is that the project areas are based on village boundaries, and not the watershed boundaries. This means that only micro-watershed areas can be selected for projects, since anything larger would cross village limits.

These issues, and many others, need serious attention if Haryali is to get green. The Dr. Hanumantha Rao Committee appointed in 1994 to suggest reforms in watershed development is now a decade old, and a relook at its recommendations for the participatory approach may need to be reconsidered, in light of the experiences so far.