Atal Bhujal Yojana: Bridging ambition with reality

Rethinking community engagement in the Atal Bhujal Yojana
Towards sustainable groundwater management (Image: IWMI)
Towards sustainable groundwater management (Image: IWMI)

As Amol Singh Yadav, a folk artist hailing from Dasania village in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, stood up to sing his song about the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY), one could imagine how ambitious and potentially transformative the ABY scheme is for the management of groundwater at the community level.

As he sang, his lyrics referenced diminishing community groundwater resources and encouraged his community, whom he fondly referred to as friends, to unite in taking action as guardians of this vital resource. Most government schemes either involve the government setting up incentives and expecting changes in human behavior or directly providing social benefits to farmers. ABY is somewhat unique in having incentives and direct benefits in its design, but it centres on groundwater as a common-pool resource, the management of which is a community responsibility. The state’s role is viewed as facilitating community capacity building and providing necessary instruments and logistics for effective groundwater management.

The scheme comprises two major components: the first addresses institutional strengthening and capacity development at all levels for effective groundwater management, and the second provides an incentive component (linked to indicators) for the implementation of water management plans through convergence with existing schemes.

The scheme guidelines follow a meticulous, step-by-step approach: training and capacity building of community members, followed by the measurement and collection of data on water quality, quantity, rainfall, etc. Next, the community prepares water budgets and water security plans with support from technical experts (hydrologists, agriculture specialists, sociologists, and IEC experts).

These water security plans must then be approved at the Gram Sabha level, after which they are aggregated across all Gram Panchayats (GPs) and sent for approval at the district, state, and national levels. Upon approval, funds are allocated to the states, which, in turn, distribute them to relevant line departments. These departments can then utilize the funds through their schemes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), to implement the works outlined in the approved plan at the village level. Another unique feature of ABY is its outcome-based fund disbursement (incentive component), ensuring that both short-term (open-access data) and longer-term (increased groundwater levels) goals are met.

These processes, as imagined in the design of ABY, are an excellent attempt at integrating the lived experiences of communities and the technical expertise and scientific knowledge of the experts at the District Implementation Partner (DIP), District Project Management Unit (DPMU), State Project Management Unit (SPMU), and so on. Also, focusing on participatory water management ensures the long-term viability and ownership of the scheme.  However, recent stakeholder interviews and field studies in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, as part of the CGIAR Initiative on National Policies Strategies, reveal the challenges of scaling up community mobilization at a large scale, as envisioned in ABY. Community mobilization requires leadership, and nurturing leadership requires time and resources, but the current format of ABY involves tight deadlines (implementation over five years, out of which two have been lost to COVID).

Consequently, in most cases, the DIP or DPMU is conducting the data collection, water budgeting, and water security planning with limited direct involvement from the community. Even in cases where villagers are aware of the need to conserve groundwater by avoiding wastage and adjusting cropping patterns, there remains a further need to strengthen their capacity to undertake water budgeting and water security planning. Most people still view the scheme as an initiative to help build infrastructure in the village but not as a responsibility of the community to manage groundwater.  

Based on our fieldwork, we argue that ABY needs to adapt based on learning from its initial years of implementation. Below, we outline some actions that might help in better implementation of ABY to achieve its core objectives.

Firstly, recognizing the challenges of community capacity development as a relatively technical process, more resources and time are needed for effective capacity building of the community. More continuous days spent on community mobilization and training in each GP would be helpful, instead of multiple single-day trainings with gaps in between (often for multiple GPs trained together). Also, since the scheme’s success hinges on convergence across departments, identifying one coordination person in each line department solely for ABY would be immensely helpful for its success.

Secondly, from the experience across different gram-panchayats, one could identify some improvements in the way ABY is being implemented, for example, improving the way training is planned (more practical learning in the use of instruments, reducing the gap between training days, exciting ways to engage the community like using groundwater games), improved ways for dissemination, etc.

The list is not exhaustive but is relatively straightforward and can have positive effects. But more importantly, what is needed, then, is independent monitoring and a streamlined feedback mechanism. Also, creating opportunities for cross-state learning would be hugely beneficial for the scheme to become more adaptable and improve over time.

Another important way to improve implementation could be to provide direct incentives for the panchayat and the DIP linked to their ability to reach the wider community. Although local panchayat leaders get the list of proposed structures approved through Gram Sabha, there is significant room for improvement in the participation of women, youth, and marginalized communities. Allowing some incentives to come to panchayats for implementation can create a sense of ownership and make the scheme more salient at the GP level. Also, these can be linked to a GP and DIP’s ability to bring the wider community to training and involvement in water budgeting and planning. Further deliberation and research are needed to identify the modalities of incentives that can work effectively.

Finally, given the vital role of DIPs in ABY implementation, it is imperative to identify the right CSOs with adequate capacity to work with the community. Also, there is a lot of potential to learn from the experience and best practices of different Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across districts. Creating scope for that cross-learning should be prioritized.

Although the above suggestions indicate some policy actions that might be helpful, they need further deliberation and also need to be implemented through action-research pilots to see how effective they actually are in solving existing challenges. Given the potential, the ABY scheme is worth pursuing with more resources and time, and it will be significant for the country’s management of groundwater resources.

The authors work with International Water Management Institute in India.

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