Learning the mantra
It was quite visible in several districts, whether it was Rajkot, Junagadh or Jamnagar in Saurashtra or Bhuj in Kachchh. People in several villages of these drought-prone regions looked a lot more confident in September 2000 about dealing with drought in the future. Barely four months ago, they had looked doomed and defeated. But now they have water. The reason for the change: check dams built by the hundreds in the past few months. This has been possible only under the Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation Programme (SPPWCP) launched by the state government in January 2000 in response to the drought. The response from the people was tremendous; 25,234 proposals were received. Initially, the plan was to build 2,500 check dams at the cost of Rs 100 crore. This went up more than four times to 10,500 and the cost was doubled to Rs 200 crore.
One such village is Padodar in Gharda tehsil of Bhavnagar district. In the past two years, no government water supply reached the village. Yet, in September 2000, there was ample water. Between March 17 and June 17, the villagers built 51 check dams. After the first showers of the monsoon, all of them had water. Madhujibhai Dadojibhai, head of the village committee to make check dams, says, “During last year’s drought, 20,000 litres of water was being brought in tankers. Now we are hopeful that drinking water will be available even during summer.” In Dahisarda village of Rajkot district, a checkdam had been built on Aji river 20 years ago. But water would stay for only 10-15 days after the rains, says Jagdanjibhai, member of the committee formed to raise the height of the checkdam by one metre in May 2000. After the height was raised, 300 dugwells and 50 handpumps have been recharged in 40 per cent of the village land which is under agriculture, he points out. The dams stop enough water to facilitate lift irrigation, improving the lot of farmers.
Nitinbhai Patel, Gujarat’s minister for minor irrigation programmes, says, “During the recent rains, water overflowed in about 8,000 (of the 10,500) check dams. Dugwells in the adjoining areas got recharged, improving the water availability. While tankers were providing water to 2,500 villages during the drought, the figure went down to 1,400 after the first rains.” He says almost all the work was accomplished by the villagers themselves and there was “no interference from anyone.”
M S Patel, secretary (water resources) of Narmada, water resources and water supply department, is confident that in places with check dams, the problem of drinking water will now get deferred to the months of May or June, instead of February. He says the SPPWCP is not merely a temporary intervention to fight the drought but a reflection of our policy to deal with the water crisis in the long run. SPPWCP is based on the ‘60:40 concept’. The government bears 60 per cent of the cost, while the villagers contribute the remaining 40 per cent.
“SPPWCP is a novel programme. It has provided the necessary impetus to the concept of water harvesting,” says Anil C Shah of the ngo Development Support Centre (DSC), Ahmedabad. “It is popular because the government has been sensitive to people’s problems. It has been formulated keeping the last person in mind,” says Ghanshyambhai Savani, head of the Gharada taluka panchayat in Bhavnagar district.
Common sense dawns
How did the state government come up with such a decentralised water management programme, especially in a state that is in the middle of the colossal confusion over the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, work on which lies stalled due to litigation? The drought in the past few years had created a compulsion for the government to look for additional strategies to deal with the water crisis. In 1997 itself, it launched the “Own your own checkdam” programme. Its failures were too glaring. It yielded merely 62 check dams in three years despite the fact that the government was bearing 90 per cent of the cost (see table: A lesson in mass mobilisation).
Even M S Patel acknowledges that the people stayed away from this programme due to complicated government procedures. It was obvious that a novel approach was the call of the day. Apart from the drinking water crisis, agriculture, too, was in doldrums. “In Saurashtra, the main crop in the kharif season is groundnut,” says the secretary. “The total cropped area for kharif in Saurashtra is 4 million hectares (mha). At present, water for irrigation is being provided by 113 dams for 0.3 mha. Even after the Sardar Sarovar Project is implemented, 0.4-0.5 mha will be irrigated. Therefore, 3.15 mha will still be dependent on rain. Threfore, even Narmada water cannot solve the problem. However, with the small structures in Saurashtra, villages would have water for irrigation and drinking.”
While the need of the hour was evident, how did the government hit upon the idea of a large-scale, decentralised programme to build check dams? The thought behind SPPWCP lies in the success of several people’s efforts led by the civil society (see box: One per cent inspiration). “The government had seen the work of voluntary, religious and spiritual organisations. They were interested in replicating the process across the state,” says Sachin Oza of DSC.
In fact, the government circular dated January 17, which announced the creation of SPPWCP, says, “Several active workers and service-oriented non-governmental organisations have taken up several water conservation projects in these areas by collecting voluntary contributions from the people for preventing the rainwater from flowing out of their respective areas and to recharge the groundwater… and the results are overwhelmingly successful.” The circular also mentions that the scheme is in response to the fact that “the people of these regions are determined to implement such projects” and also due to public demand as well as representations from members of the legislative assembly and NGOs.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the SPPWCP. While Nitinbhai Patel was working out the details of the new, decentralised programme, the minister for Narmada and major irrigation projects, Jay Narain Vyas, was too busy foul-mouthing it as merely a diversionary tactic of the anti-dam lobby. Without Patel claiming that water harvesting was an alternative to the Narmada dam, Vyas began to cry wolf. Rather than seeing the two issues separately, he took it upon himself to belittle the media attention that water harvesting was getting (see box: Still blind to rain).
How was the programme still successful? The irrigation minister says the chief minister Keshubhai Patel supported the programme, which led to the germination of a state-level initiative. Moreover, water has become one of the most important political issues in Gujarat, which meant the political will to tackle the water crisis was stronger than ever before.
More so after the water crisis started causing civic problems, such as deaths due to police firing against rural people rioting to protest government decision to reserve water for urban centres (see ‘Riots for water’, Down To Earth, January 15, 2000). Politicians started realising that their political survival depended on the availability of water. With the impasse on the Narmada dam continuing, they began to look at an ignored area: water harvesting.
Even with water harvesting gaining prominence, there were hurdles, especially in Rajkot district. Some reports in the media highlighted the urban-rural divide over the issue of water. A June 14 report in The Indian Express mentioned that the Bhadar reservoir, which supplies water to the towns of Rajkot, Jetpur and Gondal, had not received a drop of water despite 76 mm of rainfall in its catchment area. This, the report said, was due to the 25-30 check dams built in the catchment, which had got filled up after the rain. Several other media reports highlighted the condition of Rajkot residents scampering for water.
All these reports fail to understand a crucial lesson of water management: those who harvest rainwater are relatively secure even in a drought. Those who wait for others or the government stare at empty taps. This lesson has been reinforced by the success of SPPWCP, and the local media has taken note of the fact. The political leadership has to be commended for finally considering the rural poor in its agenda.
Once the political will started driving water harvesting efforts, things started moving. To mobilise the masses, the government relied on the method of civil society groups: jalyatras (marches for water). The government jalyatra was organised in January 2000. It moved in three streams. While Nitinbhai Patel led one jalyatra, the other two were led by Narottambhai Patel, minister of water supply, Anandiben Patel, minister of education, and Kaushikbhai Patel, minister of energy.
The jalyatras visited 6,000 villages in Saurashtra and Kachchh. In each village, a gram sabha (village assembly) was organised. As it is, the people were quite eager for an initiative to get rid of the water crisis. The situation was all prepared for what was to become a major sociopolitical initiative.
...and exceeding expectations
Referring to the government decision to increase the number of proposed check dams from 2,500 to 10,500, M S Patel says the government reacted positively. However, this was done on an ad hoc basis, and this has come in for criticism as the programme became target-oriented rather than process-oriented. “They acted in great hurry. The planning should have been done from the tehsil level. To implement such a scheme, a minimum of 7-8 engineers are needed for sanctioning and monitoring,” says a government engineer, who did not want to be named. He said the department just did not have the infrastructure and the staff strength to deal with such a major initiative.
Technology, process and the flaws
The minor irrigation ministry came up with six designs for concrete check dams. However, there was a provision that if a village came up with its own design, it could be approved after a technical assessment, informs M S Patel. “We had to earn the faith of the people. Towards this end, we adopted a transparent and accountable style of functioning,” says Nitinbhai Patel. An effort was made to avoid the governmental system of issuing tenders and then dealing with contractors. “For the first time, the responsibility was handed over to the villagers,” says M S Patel.
A village-level committee with at least 11 members was made in charge of implementation. Each committee was to have a head, who was responsible for purchasing materials, arranging for labour, ensuring that the village contributed its 40 per cent share, and monitoring the work.
The formation of the implementation committee was followed by the selection of design and the site. The next step was preparing an estimate, for which the committee could consult whosoever they wanted. The sanctioning power of a district-level engineer was restricted to projects worth Rs 6 lakh. Anything over this had to approved by the secretary of the department at the state capital, Gandhinagar. These logistics had to be filled in a simple form, and work would commence immediately after the sanction. An inspection after three weeks of commencement of work was followed by release of the government fund.
Several concerned citizens said selection of sites was influenced by contractors in several places, paving the way for bigger structures which allowed better opportunities for corruption. The monitoring of the work is also being questioned. Despite a committee set up by the state government to monitor the progress of SPPWCP, monitoring was haphazard at best, non-existent at worst.
But the main problem was the several shortfalls in the decentralisation process, which was hurriedly implemented. As a result the intricacies involved in the formation of the village-level committees to supervise the construction were overlooked. The gram sabha and not government officials or contractors should have been in control of the formation of the village committee. The gram panchayat also had no say in the implementation of the project. The committee should have been made accountable to the gram sabha. Due the restricted involvement of the gram sabha there were several problems. In some cases people with little influence in the local community became members of the village committee. Ideally there should have been a village elder as the head of the committee who could control 11-members, what was missing also in most cases was a representative of the gram panchayat and women members, the user group, were conspicous by their absence.
The jalyatra was the only medium used to make contact with the local people. It was firmly believed by the government that this strategy was sufficient to educate and motivate the people. But while the people got motivated they lacked the skills to effectively implement the projects. Capacity building and training was not done.
As part of the decentralisation process the government should have also handed over the costing of the projects to the village committee. The stakeholders were supposed to contribute 40 per cent of the total cost of project. But government approved rates were so high that it was possible for contractors to construct inferior structures within the 60 per cent allotted by the government and even make a profit. This negated the need for people’s own contribution