Sunday, October 11, 1998
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On the path to green wealth

Date: 11-10-1998 :: Pg: 25 :: Col: a

An ecological-economic change has come about in Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh, through a massive people's movement. This was mainly because of the support extended by the State Government with emphasis on participatory management and transparency. ANIL AGGARWAL cites Jhabua as an example that can be replicated elsewhere.

Rajiv Gandhi, in his very first address to the nation as prime minister, had said that his government would launch an afforestation drive which would green five million hectares 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 Wasteland Development Board set up to oversee the implementation of the prime minister's mandate would often ask me, ``Anil, 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 or inclination about what is meant by or how to go about social mobilisation. I could not give Chowdhry a real answer.

But this August 20, on Rajiv Gandhi's birth anniversary, at a public meeting comprising several thousands tribals in Jhabua district, I had the answer to Chowdhry's question.

Jhabua is an outstanding example because it is an effort by the State Government to involve the people in land and water management. The Madhya Pradesh government's watershed development programme is now four years old. Already, satellite imagery is showing changes in the number of water bodies and the extent of the green cover. Jhabua would have made Rajiv Gandhi proud.

Today, Jhabua is truly a temple of modern India, to use Nehru's phrase, and I would add, 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 whose architect is Digvijay Singh, Chief Minister, and which 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. And indeed that is the case in Jhabua.

To see trees coming up in a place which in the mid-Eighties looked a moonscape, and to see wells literally overflowing with water in a place that was described chronically drought-prone, is truly the most exciting thing I have seen. A reversal that I have always known could take place, having watched the outstanding transformation of villages like Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi over the last two decades, but never thought would take place on the scale it is taking place in Jhabua. 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.

So what has Jhabua achieved?

* Some 22 per cent of the district's land area has been brought under the Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Development Mission (RGWDM) by April 1998. Some 374 villages have got involved in developing 249 micro-watersheds.

* The foundation of any watershed programme is water and soil conservation. In the case of Jhabua it means arresting the water that falls on the hillslopes and instead of allowing it to run, carrying with it precious topsoil, the water is made to percolate in to the land and recharge the groundwater wells. Where necessary, small tanks are also built. Some 143 new tanks have been built and the groundwater table has increased by 0.64 metres on an average in 19 microwatersheds studied (though it must be pointed out that 1996 and 1997 have been good rainfall years). With increased water availability, the irrigated area increased to 1,115 hectares in 18 microwatersheds 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 has gone up. In seven microwatersheds studied, the cropped area has increased by seven per cent and the cropping intensity of the cultivated land is also increasing. The rabi area (dry season crop) has increased by 340 ha in the same seven microwatersheds. There is also a shift towards cash crops with the area under soyabean and cotton having increased by 340 hectares.

* Food availability has increased by a minimum of one month to about four months. Some 313 village-level grain banks have been established to ensure timely availability of foodgrains on easy credit.

The protection of the land in the watershed and planting of various species of benefit to the local people (like bamboo, anwla, Acacia catechu and neem) has shown a 66 per cent reduction in wasteland area in 11 microwatersheds studied. District officials' estimate show that over two million trees have regenerated. The regeneration rate has been far more rapid as compared to lands where only joint forest management programmes have been implemented because the water conservation efforts increase soil moisture and, therefore, plant growth. In turn, there is a more rapid increase in economic returns to the poor people involved in watershed management.

* Possibly the biggest benefit to the local people has come from the rapid regeneration of grass and, therefore, increased fodder availability. Some estimates suggest a 5-6 times increase in grass from the regenerated lands.

This change can be seen quite dramatically with the following data from the Hathipahwa watershed, where work started in 1995- 96. 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 without vegetation and heavily eroded. The six tanks which lay in the watershed would rarely ever get filled up. There was a severe shortage of fodder and villagers had to buy it from markets in neighbouring Gujarat. And there was a regular stream of distress, seasonal migration. But now - with watershed management and stall-feeding of cattle - the people of the watershed sell grass every year and seasonal migration has almost disappeared. The change has come in just three years simply from the economic benefits coming from increased grass production. Apart from earning money from selling grass, villagers have started keeping better breeds. Villagers have recently got 14 high quality cows and buffaloes. Increased water availability has also pushed up vegetable production.

*The watershed development programme is already having a substantial social impact. Dependence on local 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. And distress migration has reduced considerably.

The future for Jhabua, therefore, looks very promising. This is just the start of an ecological change that could result in 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 sale of fruits, bamboo and other minor forest produce, and ultimately long-term and high income in the form of timber. If managed intelligently, the availability of these raw materials - from milk to timber - can generate secondary economic activities like small-scale industries. And 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, amongst the most destitute in the country.

But this ecological-economic transformation will require careful management and support with the local society slowly moving out from the clutches of poverty into the clutches of green wealth. This support will have to come both from the government and from the civil society. A fine example of something that can easily tear apart this extraordinary programme is the surplus of water that it is itself generating. Now, if some powerful people in the community were to start setting up their own pumpsets, then they would lose interest in community cooperation while others will feel cheated and ultimately the entire exercise could collapse. In fact, a few such incidents of some 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 these issues. They know participatory management is not possible without openness and transparency. In fact, 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 tubewells, etc. Now when the conservation of that water has been affected 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 drawal of water from those watersheds. New community-regulated water management policy can get experimented starting with the watersheds where work has been completed.''

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. And as long as the government remains alive to these emerging problems, makes no effort to push them under the carpet, and finds non- bureaucratic answers to the problem, there is nothing 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.

How has this come about?

The immediate question a sceptic may ask is that if all this is so easy, why does it not happen everywhere? There are two critical reasons for this.

One, ownership of land in any watershed is highly fractured. Some is held privately, some by the revenue authorities and some by the forest department. Unless, first, government agencies cooperate and coordinate amongst themselves and, second give power to the village community to manage the village lands, precious little will change. Unfortunately, both these pre- conditions are rarely met.

Two, the village community itself must work as a united force. Fractures within the village community will immediately spell the death of any such effort, even if the government is well- prepared.

To overcome both these problems, therefore, requires a vision. For Jhabua, this vision came, as it has to, right from the top, the state's Chief Minister, because nobody else has the power to ensure that different departments work together in unison, forgetting their territorial egos and rivalries. Singh had visited Anna Hazare and seen the extraordinary transformation of village Ralegan Siddhi and wanted to do the same in his State. Therefore, when he became chief minister, he started the Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Development Mission and made his secretary the coordinator of the mission and then left it to the bureaucracy to work out the details. In many ways, therefore, Jhabua is an outstanding contribution of Anna Hazare through the example he set in his own village. Thousands of people from Jhabua have been to Ralegan Siddhi to understand Anna's work.

But a vision is not enough. As every industrial management guru will tell you, ``God is in the details,'' so too it is in Jhabua. In order to deal with the lack of inter-departmental coordination and intra-village community tensions, a multiplicity of institutions have been created to start, support and undertake a people's movement for watershed management. The institutional complexity of the Jhabua programme is quite extraordinary and shows what it takes to start a people's movement. There are institutions for watershed development at three levels: the state, the district and the village.

At the state level, the mission coordinator is the secretary to the chief minister and, therefore, the project is supervised directly by the chief minister himself. In addition, an empowered committee chaired by the state's chief secretary, the state's topmost bureaucrat, ensures inter-departmental coordination and administrative support. Thus, inter-departmental problems are smoothened over at the highest levels and nothing is allowed to fall between the cracks, which is normally typical of government management of inter-disciplinary issues like environmental regeneration.

There is a multiplicity of institutions at the district level, too. The collector is the mission leader and is responsible for fund flow and project progress. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Zilla Panchayat (District Council) is directly responsible for the project and reports to the collector. There are two committees at the district level. One committee is called the District-level Advisory Group and another is called the District- level Technical Group. The chair of the Advisory Group is the chair of the Zilla Panchayat and the group includes MPs, MLAs, NGOs and members of the technical group. Under the CEO, Zilla Panchayat is a Project Implementation Officer, one for each milli-watershed which usually consists of 5-10 micro-watershed.

At the village-level, the start-up itself consists of an elaborate process to involve all sections of the village society - from the collective to specific interest groups. Work begins with a participatory rural appraisal exercise in which problems and solutions, which include the structures to be built, are identified by the village community. The plan thus formulated by the watershed committee is then approved by the district level technical group and funds for executing the programme are transferred directly to the watershed committee. For each structure proposed in the watershed development plan, a user group is created. As these structures mainly benefit villagers with land, user groups basically represent the landed in the village community. In order to involve the landless, self-help groups are created who benefit from the employment generated through the watershed development programme but who may like to take up a non-farm activity like setting up a nursery to produce saplings for the afforestation work. And, finally, to involve women, women's groups are created. The village watershed committee consists of the chairpersons of the users groups, self- help groups ad women's groups. At least one-third members of the watershed committee have to be women.

Thus, in this complex way, literally everybody who matters - from the top echelons of the state to the lowest echelons of the village - is involved in the watershed programme. District-wide there are:

*1256 self-help groups involving 9699 participants,

*1668 user's groups with 13,947 participants, and

*1748 women's groups with 25,506 participants.

What does the financial picture look like?

The funds for the programme have come from the various Central Government sponsored rural development-employment generation programmes. Both the Central and State governments send their share of the money to the Zilla Parishad, which then disburses 80 per cent of the money is given to Watershed Development Committees.

In Jhabua, the total expenditure uptil mid-1998 has been Rs. 13.66 crore. Of the Rs. 13.66 crore, Rs. 9.68 crore has gone in direct investments into watershed development works, a large part of which has been spent as wages for the employment generated.

The programme encourages villagers to save a part of their wages to develop a watershed development fund (WDF), for future use for the management of the watershed; a Gram Kosh (village fund) for use by the village for collective activities; and, Baira ni kuldi (women's thrift and credit groups) which women can use to help each other with soft loans.

All the WDFs of Jhabua together have Rs. 0.48 crore (some 3.5 per cent of the total expenditure on the programme), all Gram Kosh's together have Rs. 0.42 crore (about 3 per cent of the total) and all Baira ni kuldis with a total number of 17,297 members have a total deposit of about Rs. 2.44 crore (about Rs. 1400 per member or about 18 per cent of the total expenditure). In other words, the programme has not just resulted in an improvement of the local ecology but also an improvement of the collective and individual financial security of the local villagers.

Why has the media ignored Jhabua?

One question that I have been asking myself repeatedly is why is so little known about the change that is taking place in Jhabua. Why is the media so silent about it? Is it because the media does not care about our rural problems?

But this lacuna can have serious implications. The transformation of Jhabua, if it is to continue, requires a ``societal commitment'', not just a short-term political commitment. Jhabua has to be properly supported and empowered for years to come. What happens when Digvijay Singh goes? If there isn't a societal commitment then will Jhabua's transformation go on? The next chief minister will then decide on his or her own whims and fancies. But if everybody knows about the change taking place in Jhabua, values it, and insists that not only must this continue in Jhabua but also be replicated elsewhere, then this will get translated into a steady political commitment, regardless of who comes and goes - green, red or saffron. The media has a critical role to play in creating that societal commitment, which sadly it is not playing.

Decentralised governance and electoral politics?

There is yet another critical issue that has bothered me about Jhabua. If Digvijay Singh has done such an outstanding job there, will he get any political or electoral benefit out of it? Again, sadly, the answer is `no'. If a politician is not going to get political returns from good work, then why would he or she do it? Just out of goodwill? I think that is asking for too much out of political leaders. And this worries me enormously. If the media does not focus attention on good work; if other politicians do not care; and, if the public is not bothered, except possibly for the tribals of Jhabua, then why will any politician do such things? Digvijay Singh says that he has done this because this is what he thinks should be done. He is not looking for political mileage. But clearly that is not a sustainable situation.

The more I have tried to understand Jhabua, more worried I have become about rural India's future and the future of the kind of people-based strategies we espouse. Good rural development, especially one which is based on good natural resource management, demands decentralisation of power and money expenditure. But any politician who tries to do such a thing will fall afoul of his colleagues at all levels - from the national and state level to the district and village levels. Everybody wants decentralisation but only upto their level. When money reaches the public directly, and in a manner that is transparent, then nobody is able to siphon it off. In a country in which corruption is a tidal phenomenon, which operates from the top all the way down to the panchayat level, where pelf, privilege and pilferage are the bottomlines of the political system, effective decentralisation will only earn political ire for the politician rather than political support. The watershed development programme in Madhya Pradesh has not received the political support that it should get. In fact, there is a strong feeling among many that there is an undercurrent of political opposition. Which raises serious questions about what will happen to the process that has been started in Jhabua.

The only solution to this problem lies in strong public consciousness, understanding and support of good acts by politicians. But that does not exist. As a result, even when Jhabua has given me an excitement that I have not known for years now, I am equally saddened by the fact that in the forthcoming Assembly elections, Jhabua will have nothing to do with Digvijay Singh's win or loss. This cannot be a good sign for any democratic politics. I may be cynical but it seems to me that if Digvijay Singh had focussed on Madhya Pradesh's industrialisation, instead of rural development, and succeeded as well as he has in Jhabua, he probably would have been a hero by now with the state's elite and media.

Whatever be the future, I feel extremely proud of what has been achieved in Jhabua.

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