Over the last four decades, watershed management has emerged as one of the most decentralised, integrated, persisting, innovative and effective programs to enhance natural resources such as water, soil and the vegetative cover as well as to provide means of livelihood to marginalised sections in rural areas. However, with life currently in flux and ever changing because of COVID-19, this year watershed management stands in sharp contrast to previous years.
The lockdown and ensuing physical distancing are taking a heavy toll on the watershed activities across the country. “MGNREGA, an important employment generator in rural areas almost singlehandedly fuels the watershed work in the country. An analysis of the last few year’s data indicates that April and May are the most engaging months with most activities being attributed to the water conservation head. But, the on-going lockdown has virtually brought this to a halt. The lack of earning opportunities is likely to land farmers into a vicious cycle of informal loans,” says Ashwani Kulkarni, Director, Pragati Abhiyan and a core member of the MGNREGA consortium.
“The month of April and May are very important in the annual watershed calendar. All the activities planned in the last few months are to be implemented in these months. Post the harvest of rabi crops, both farmers and fields are available for work,” says Amit Deshmukh, a watershed executive working in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra.
In these months, two sorts of physical activities take place. One, the repair of existing structures and second, the expansion of water harvesting structures in the various stretches of the watershed. By the end of May, all the major physical work activities of the watershed generally get over, and subsequently farmers get busy with kharif sowing as the monsoon arrives.
“None of the planned physical works could be undertaken in any of the sites this year. The lockdown restricts rural people as well as technical staff of the NGOs to do any of the markings on fields as well as any gathering for discussion and distribution of works. Last year, the unseasonal rainfall of very high intensity across Maharashtra had heavily damaged the water harvesting structures. This demanded urgent repairs before the arrival of monsoon, but cannot be done during the period of loackdown,” says Irfan Shaikh, Project Head at Manavlok Ambajogai, Beed, Maharashtra.
“It is not just water conservation that will be hampered but the watershed implementation organisations are also at the receiving end. We had made advance payment to the machine providers for large digging activities, but the circumstances left us in the lurch,” says Shaikh taking a stock of the work.
Other than water and soil conservation, watershed activities also provide livelihood opportunities to the rural people. In the lean season, when there is no farming work available, watershed activities generate wage employment options. In most cases, the wage earned this way finances the purchasing of seeds and farm preparation work for the kharif season.
The extension of lockdown will likely take a heavy toll on the country’s rural economy. The non-implementation of watershed activities, on the one hand, may lead to poor availability as well as the accessibility of water for domestic as well as agricultural needs. On the other hand, it may lead to low investment in kharif crops putting the landowner as well as landless farmers in a huge financial crisis.
“Overall, we have lost a year from the watershed point of view. The hard rock areas especially the basalt belt of Maharashtra will be the most affected due to the non-execution of watershed work, and this may lead to limited recharge of groundwater. The implication will be both in terms of ecology as well as the economy,” says Bakka Reddy, Director - Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), Hyderabad.
At present, the question of lives and livelihoods are at crossroads. On the one hand, physical distancing is very important to slow down the curve of infections and deal with the spread of COVID-19, and this implies restricted movement of villagers and engagement on an individual basis only. Further, the fear of spread, as well as the restrictions put forth by the local administration, is hindering the engagement of local NGOs personnel as well as barefoot professionals in the implementation of watershed activities. At the same time, the influx of migrant labour has increased the demand for income generation programs in rural areas.
Now, the lockdown has been extended through a second phase till 3rd May. The latest revised guidelines of Ministry of Home Affairs have attempted to address the abovementioned challenges related to watershed implementation. The guidelines have permitted agricultural activities as well as the implementation of MGNREGA with a major focus on irrigation and water conservation works. States and union territories have been asked to focus on individual asset creation under MGNREGA that requires 4-5 workers and allows for social distancing.
Now, the major task for gram panchayats and the local administration will be to plan and allocate the watershed work ensuring physical distancing while taking the local community into confidence. Under MGNREGA, the implementation of on-farm activities of the watershed needs to be done with minimal scientific measurements and administrative monitoring with a special focus on landless people.
Partik Kumar is a Master’s in Water Policy and Governance from TISS, Mumbai. He is presently working with the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture (RRA) Network, a pan India network working on the revival of rainfed agriculture. Partik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; +91 9967563707