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More Water, More Wealth in Darewadi Village

IN DROUGHT-PLAGUED MAHARASHTRA, GOOD WATER MANAGEMENT IS A MATTER OF LIFE and death. Small-scale farmers in the Indian state are dependent on infrequent rainfall to maintain their fields, livestock, and forestbased livelihoods. During the dry season, drinking water is so scarce that supplies are trucked into thousands of villages (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:2). In recent years, development initiatives in the region have focused on village-led watershed management activities, aimed at conserving natural resources and improving livelihoods. Among these is the Indo-German Watershed Development Program (IGWDP), which has funded 145 projects in 24 districts, successfully mobilizing villagers to regenerate land through tree-planting and water and soil conservation (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:3).

One of the program’s more dramatic success stories is Darewadi village, in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra’s most drought-prone district. As recently as 1996, the main village and its twelve hamlets were on the verge of desertification. Scarce rainfall supported only 3-4 months of agricultural activity a year, forcing villagers to migrate in search of seasonal work for the rest of the year. Today, farm-based employment is available 9-10 months of the year, and agricultural wages have doubled. More crop varieties are now grown due to extensive new irrigation, and the value of cultivated land has quadrupled (WOTR 2002:4).

Before the watershed was regenerated, Darewadi’s 921 residents depended on water deliveries from a tanker truck from April to July. Yet in summer 2004 the village was tanker-free, despite receiving only 350 mm of rain in 2003—100 mm less than its annual average (WOTR 2005).

Inhabitants have also gained in less tangible ways from the self-organization that has driven their village’s revival. They have learned new skills and found new social cohesion. The Darewadi project and similar experiments are not perfect: the role of women can be limited, and landless people may not share equally in the benefits. Nevertheless, Darewadi’s undoubted success provides one encouraging model for peopleled sustainable development in arid regions, where many of the world’s poor live.

Pioneering People-Led Watershed Management

In the 1980’s, the Indian government shifted its approach to watershed management in drought-afflicted rural areas. Traditional bureaucratic, top-down projects had often failed due to lack of consultation with or buy-in from local people. In an effort to increase success rates, the government began to encourage programs based on smaller, people-led projects. Among these was the Indo-German Watershed Development Program, launched in 1992.

Co-founded by Father Hermann Bacher, a Jesuit priest, the IGWDP is funded by the German government through the German Agency for Technical Cooperation and the German Bank for Reconstruction. It is implemented by an independent, state-wide NGO, the Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR), in partnership with the Indian government’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).

The program funds village-based, participatory watershed development projects, with communities chosen for their low rainfall, geographical position—generally within primary water catchment areas—and social composition. Villages where a few families dominate land ownership are disqualified on the grounds that such power imbalances would deter consensus on developing local land to the benefit of all. To qualify, villages must agree to temporary bans on tree-cutting and grazing on land designated for regeneration. They must also contribute free labor—a common rural practice known as shramdan—to cover at least 15-20 percent of project costs (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:4; Lobo and D’Souza 2003:9).

Capacity-building is the program’s first priority. In each community, a Village Watershed Committee of local residents is nominated, usually by the village assembly, to make and implement decisions. Villagers also work on a pilot project, learning water and soil conservation techniques, with WOTR or another local NGO providing training, technical organizational, and financial support. After 12 to 18 months, NABARD assumes project oversight, funding scaled-up watershed activities designed by and delivered through the village committee, again with local NGO support (Lobo and D’Souza 2003:6, 15).

By late 2004, the Indo-German Watershed Development Program had spent US$21.9 million funding projects on 165,439 hectares of land, occupied by some 190,000 people (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:3). After 12 years of first-hand experience across Maharashtra, WOTR’s co-founder and executive director, Crispino Lobo, summarizes village-based watershed development as “a proven strategy for poverty reduction, augmentation of water resources, livelihood diversification, enhancing well-being, building social capital, and widening the decision-making and opportunity space for women” (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:2).

A Path Out of Poverty

Many of these benefits are apparent in Darewadi, a formerly impoverished and despairing community that now generates year-round employment for a majority of inhabitants.

Back in 1995, with farm work in short supply, Darewadi’s 131 households were losing many men to far-flung seasonal work as sugarcane cutters or building laborers. Those who remained often herded sheep, further depleting grazing lands and draining the low water table. The village and its satellite hamlets were surrounded by barren hills, and women walked miles to fetch water and fuelwood. When Father Bacher visited at that time, he concluded that if rejuvenation were possible in Darewadi, it would be possible in any watershed (WOTR 2002:1).

Click to view large versionThe Darewadi watershed covers 1,535 hectares. Two-thirds is privately owned; the rest is made up of common lands owned by the Maharashtra state government’s Forest Department (WOTR 2002:1). WOTR’s first task was to overcome the mistrust of many villagers, especially sheep and goat farmers, including many poorer families, who feared that grazing bans on regenerating land would cut down the available fodder, harming their already fragile livelihoods. Through a series of village meetings, the NGO explained how the temporary bans would allow trees to grow, eventually yielding more fodder and more water for crops.

A compromise was eventually agreed in the village assembly, or gram sabha, whereby land closure would proceed in phases as the conservation and planting work progressed and any violators of the ban would pay a fine to the community. It was not an easy compromise to reach, but the villagers were encouraged by the prospect of increased income within a comparatively short period. In addition, most livestock owners are also farmers, and therefore not solely dependent on grazing for income. Another inducement to try the restoration plan came in the form of technical assistance from WOTR, which offered loans and training to livestock owners who wanted to switch from sheep and goats to high-yield milk cows (Lobo 2005c).

Once the villagers had accepted the restoration scheme, WOTR helped them take the necessary official steps to gain state permission and structure the project’s management. First they helped the community negotiate a Joint Forest Management agreement with the state Forest Department, legally granting local people the right to work on the state-owned common lands surrounding Darewadi and to own the agricultural produce grown on these lands (Lobo 2005c). Without attention to this question of land use and tenure on state forest lands, a regeneration plan covering the entire watershed would not have been possible, nor would it have been economically attractive enough to gain village support.

Next, the gram sabha nominated 24 people to the Village Watershed Committee, which became the registered project authority, legally responsible for managing funds and overseeing development activities. The watershed committee included representatives from all social groups—including landless people and seven women—and from every corner of the scattered community (WOTR 2002:2-3). This was essential, according to Lobo, to create an effective, trusted community institution that could rule by consensus. “What makes our participatory approach work…is involving all stakeholders in arriving at negotiated outcomes that are beneficial or acceptable to all”(Lobo 2005a).

Figure 1Members of the Village Watershed Committee were assigned tasks by the village assembly. Responsibilities included monitoring grazing bans, organizing paid and voluntary laborers, supervising work and wages, maintaining records, and imposing fines on villagers who broke agreed project rules. Committee members were unpaid, trained by WOTR, and held accountable for fulfilling their duties by the gram sabha (Lobo and D’Souza 2003:14-15). They also negotiated with local stakeholders, including the landless, on the specific areas of land to be set aside for phased grazing bans and regeneration. When conflicts arose, they were settled by the committee, sometimes assisted by Forest Department officials, with WOTR taking a back seat (Lobo 2005c).

The Rewards of Regeneration

Five years of regeneration activities followed, including tree and grassland planting and sustainable crop cultivation. Soil and water conservation measures to nurture the regenerating land included the construction of simple water harvesting and irrigation systems such as hillside contour trenches and rainwater-harvesting dams.

The work was carried out by villagers themselves, following training by WOTR field staff in simple conservation-based agricultural practices and management techniques such as land measurement and record-keeping. Wherever possible, the NGO worked with landowning couples, to boost local women’s confidence and involvement in decision-making (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:5). Darewadi landowners were also mentored by farmers who had already successfully implemented watershed conservation measures in neighboring villages. Villagers donated 17 percent of total labor costs and earned wages for additional project-related work over and above their shramdan (WOTR 2002:2).

The Darewadi project’s costs were substantial, totaling 8.7 million rupees when the value of voluntary labor is factored in (WOTR 2002:2). By 2001 the results were apparent. Barren hills and common lands covering 395 hectares had been planted with trees and grasses, with a 65 percent survival rate (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:6). Land under irrigation increased from 197 to 342 hectares, with maize, wheat, and vegetables among successful new crops. Grass fodder for livestock increased 170 percent as a result of the soil and water conservation measures (WOTR 2005). (See Figure 1 and Tables 1 and 2.)

Table 1In response to the grazing bans, many poorer households had sold their sheep and goats. Since the restrictions were lifted in 2001, however, livestock numbers have rebounded. More plentiful fodder has also enabled villagers to raise more valuable hybrid cows with high milk production. Higher-yield crops, milk sales, increased wages, and more days of available work have resulted in a fivefold hike in the village’s agricultural income (see Figure 2). Signs of increased household wealth and well-being include the arrival of kitchen gardens and individual latrines, as well as televisions, bicycles, and motorcycles.

“Our village has changed totally,” says Ramaji B. Phad, a Darewadi sheep owner. “The hills are now covered with trees which we planted at the beginning. The water in wells and the ground water level have increased. The average income of the farmer has increased. People are now able to eat good food like wheat, rice, and dhal” (WOTR 2002:5).

Despite three years of drought since IGWDP funding ended in 2001, the project’s benefits are continuing, testifying to the effectiveness of the regeneration and the Village Watershed Committee. The local water table has continued to rise, as have supplies of livestock fodder and the volume of land under irrigation. The availability of agricultural work and wage levels have held steady. In early 2005, 11 villagers acquired telephones (Lobo 2005c).

The transition to self-sufficiency in 2001 was eased by the IGWDP returning to the community the cash equivalent of 50 percent of the value of the village’s voluntary labor. The community deposited the money in a maintenance fund for watershed management activities. Contributions from villagers and penalties charged for rule-breaking are also used to top up the fund, and WOTR continues to provide village businesses with microfinance support (Lobo 2005b).

Perhaps most important for the long term are the links that villagers have built up with local government officials. With a new sense of confidence based on their record of achievement, they can now leverage these contacts to seek more development funding. “Before we would not talk in front of outsiders,” explains Chimaji Kondaji, deputy chairman of Darewadi’s Village Watershed Committee. “[Since the project] we get good cooperation from government departments, who we now approach with ease” (Lobo 2005b).

Improving Women’s Lot

The increased availability of wells, subsistence crops, and fodder has reduced women’s household labor significantly in Darewadi. Women are typically the chief providers of their families’ water, food, fodder, and fuel needs. Women also earned cash as project laborers and have benefited from drudgery-reducing assets made possible by increased incomes, such as kitchen gardens and household toilets (Lobo and D’Souza 2003:16).

However, as work on watershed activities is almost yearround, compared with the seasonal nature of farming duties, many women now work longer hours than before the project. According to Crispino Lobo, “women accept this load because it gives them additional income, which enables them to send their children to school.” Becoming breadwinners, he says, also “enhances their status at home.”

Table 2Empowering women, however, has proved more difficult than improving their material well-being. Faced with traditional rural attitudes about women’s subservient roles, the Watershed Organization Trust has taken a soft approach. While strongly urging village assemblies to elect women to Village Watershed Committees, they have not insisted on a 50:50 ratio (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:11). As a result, women generally number no more than one-third of Watershed Committee members in IGWDP projects (Lobo 2005a).

To encourage greater self-confidence and independence, WOTR also trains village women in record-keeping and organizational skills, and encourages them to form savings and credit groups. Darewadi village and its surrounding hamlets now boast eleven such groups as well as an umbrella women’s organization, the Samyukta Mahila Samiti (WOTR 2002:3). The women give each other small loans to support basic needs. Bigger loans—for example, to launch Darewadi’s women-run dairy—are available through microfinance arranged by WOTR (Lobo and D’Souza 2003:20).

Mixed Blessings for the Poorest

A community’s poorest families often receive limited benefits from watershed development, despite their greater need. The landless are unable to take advantage of improved soil and water conditions to plant more crops and vegetables. Those who own only a few sheep or goats may suffer disproportionately from grazing bans imposed on common lands. At the other end of the social scale, by the WOTR’s own admission, farmers with the most land have benefited disproportionately in Darewadi and other IGWDP project villages from new consumer items such as televisions, radios, motorcycles, and cooking utensils (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:10).

On the positive side, work on watershed projects can provide sustained wages for poor villagers with no livestock or crops. Families that earn enough to save can then lease, or even buy, small plots of arable land and pull themselves one rung up the economic ladder (Lobo 2005a).

In Darewadi, new agricultural work opportunities and the doubling of hourly wages for such labor have proven a big boon for poor families (Lobo 2005c). (See Table 1.) In the mid-1990s, two-thirds of households migrated each year in search of livelihoods. Today, people who had moved away are returning. In fact, additional farm laborers are now being drawn from nearby villages to work the new acres of cultivable land (D’Souza and Lobo 2004:11).

In another positive sign for poorer families, sheep and goat ownership has increased since 2001 as villagers benefit from the removal of grazing bans and increased fodder supplies (Lobo 2005c). “People do not have to go outside looking for work now and do not have to starve,” says Mrs. Zumbarbai M. Borade, a landless Darewadi resident. “The poor have benefited a lot from this project” (WOTR 2002:6).

The Challenge of Equity

Figure 2Nevertheless, Darewadi provides a microcosm of the difficulties facing Indian authorities and NGOs in trying to ensure that the benefits of development are equally shared. The issue of equity—particularly between landowners and the landless—is perhaps the trickiest problem facing the IGWP and other efforts like it, as they expand their activities across rural India’s drylands.

Dr. John Kerr, of the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University, led a research team that explored the impact of Indian watershed development projects run by IGWDP and other agencies in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Published in 2002, their report concluded that “by their nature, area development programs offer benefits to landowners, with landless people benefiting indirectly, either through peripheral program activities or trickle-down effects. In fact, watershed projects can actually make women and landless people worse off by restricting their access to resources that contribute to their livelihoods” (Kerr et al. 2002:xi).

The report, based on surveys conducted before Darewadi began its regeneration program, praised IGWDP projects for combating soil erosion and raising water levels, and for their participatory philosophy. “I was really impressed by the IGWDP’s approach of consensus-based decision making,” recalled Kerr. “Other programs typically require a two-thirds majority and this makes it easy to gang up on poor minorities. The IGWDP works to avoid this” (Kerr 2005). Nevertheless, his report noted that some villagers interviewed had complained of reduced access to common lands for fuel and fodder (Kerr et al. 2002:75).

For his part, Lobo acknowledges that in rural India “the poorest normally do not benefit (at least relative to the better off farmers) from watershed development programs where land holdings are greatly skewed, where social and power relationships are greatly inequitable and discriminatory, and where their concerns, interests, and involvement are ignored in project implementation.” Such circumstances, he emphasizes, do not apply to Darewadi (Lobo 2005b).

Addressing these tricky questions of equity and land distribution will require actions on both a local and national scale. Recognizing the benefits of people-led rural development, the Indian Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development established common guidelines in 2000 for village-based development that would promote equitable distribution of benefits and allow implementing organizations such as NGOs a year to build capacity among local citizens to manage projects themselves (Kerr et al. 2002:80-81).

To date, the impact of these broad guidelines has not been measured and analyzed (Lobo 2005b). Yet only if effective means can be found to implement them on the ground—tailored to the particular needs and social circumstances of each region—will the experience of Darewadi’s citizens be enjoyed on a wider scale.


Restoration Can Revitalize Watersheds and Communities. Villagebased restoration projects can be an effective route to restoring vital watershed functions and increasing the productivity of local ecosystems. In turn, this can increase farm income and make available more fodder and forest products that directly benefit village livelihoods and build the local economy.

Consensus-Building Is Key to Community Effort. To be effective, watershed restoration requires participation from a wide array of families from across the social spectrum. The Darewadi experience shows that generating consensus among these social groups is not only possible, but also the most practical way to avoid conflicts and promote fairness. If decision-making is based on simple majority (or supermajority) rule, it can easily end up marginalizing the concerns of the poor.

Nongovernmental Organizations Provide Crucial Support. NGOs such as the Watershed Organisation Trust can play both a catalytic and capacity-building role in participatory watershed restoration programs. Experience shows that watershed programs without such an NGO partner do not stand the same chance of success. In Darewadi, WOTR’s intervention helped empower, organize, and educate the community, and provided technical help and financial instruments such as microcredit programs to help the community turn increased environmental income into financial strength.

Unequal Access to Land Blocks Equal Distribution of Benefits. The most lucrative benefits of watershed restoration—such as greater access to irrigation—generally accrue to landowners. The landless may also benefit substantially through greater access to wage income and subsistence products from restored common lands, but these benefits tend to be secondary or indirect benefits. Mechanisms such as saving clubs that increase the ability of the poor to lease or purchase private agricultural land, or directly access the products of common lands, can help correct this imbalance of assets. Development of such support services must be a central feature of watershed project design if aiding the poorest is a serious goal.

Forging Links with Government Brings Future Benefits. Perhaps one of the most valuable long-term benefits of Darewadi’s watershed management program is the ties it has formed between the community and the local political system and development agencies. Villagers feel they have a new visibility and credibility with state officials, which means that they stand a better chance in the future of benefiting from state-funded economic development programs.