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A watershed in the approach to rainfed areas
Rita Sharma

Foodgrain production for 1999-2000 is estimated at 201.6 million metric tons. It is estimated that 37 per cent of the cultivated area which is irrigated, contributes 55 per cent of total foodgrain production, whereas 63 per cent of rainfed area, accounts for only 45 per cent of the output. Going by past trends, the average spread of irrigation is around four million hectares every five years. Extrapolating this, it is projected that about 20 million additional hectares are likely to be brought under irrigation in the next 25 years. This will still leave 70 million hectares, nearly half the cultivated area rainfed.
Rainfed agriculture is complex, diverse and risk-prone and is characterised by low levels of productivity and low input usage. Vagaries of the rain gods result in wide variation and instability in yields. The bulk of the rural poor live in rainfed regions. The challenge before Indian agriculture is to transform rainfed farming into more sustainable and productive systems and to better support the population dependent upon it.
The Green Revolution, considered the cornerstone of India’s agricultural growth by-passed the rainfed areas, remaining confined primarily to irrigated tracts. With productivity levels of staple crops in the irrigated areas plateauing off, the ability of the traditional bread-basket areas to continue to fill the grain coffers is in question.
If food production is to be doubled in the next decade, all areas where rainfed farming is predominant will need to contribute substantially.
The `watershed approach’ represents the principal vehicle for transfer of rainfed agricultural technology. A watershed (or catchment) is a geographic area that drains to a common point, which makes it an ideal planning unit for conservation of soil and water. It enables a holistic development of agriculture and allied activities. This systems-based approach is the special feature that distinguishes watershed development from earlier plot/field-based approaches to soil and water management. The key attributes of watershed management are conservation of rainwater and optimisation of soil and water resources in a sustainable and cost effective mode. It aims to optimise moisture retention and reduce soil erosion, thus maximising productivity and minimising land degradation. Improved moisture management increases the productivity of improved seeds and fertiliser, so conservation and productivity enhancing measures become complementary.
Currently a large number of projects for productivity enhancement are being implemented based on the watershed approach.and the number of success stories is legion. In 1999-2000. for the first time a Watershed Development Fund (WDF) was established at NABARD on the lines of the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund (RIDF) to enable States to access credit for treatment of larger areas under watershed development. Impact evaluation studies both on the ground and through remote sensing techniques have shown that watershed based interventions have led to increases in ground water recharge, increase in number of wells and water bodies, enhancement of cropping intensity, changes in cropping pattern, higher yields of crops and reduction in soil losses.
While there were major visible gains, the problem of sustainability plagued the first generation watershed development projects as evidenced by the unwillingness of local communities to operate and maintain completed structures and plantations on community property. The beneficiaries were too often merely passive recipients rather than active participants. The restructured, second generation, watershed projects have kept people’s participation centrestage. It has now become mandatory for watershed development to be planned, implemented, monitored and maintained by the watershed community themselves.
Three decades after the advent of the Green Revolution, watershed development in rainfed areas is gaining the same momentum and appears to be on its way to becoming a people’s movement.
The author is an IAS officer. The views expressed are personal.
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