Patterns of social exclusion in watershed development in India
How have watershed development projects fared in India? Have they helped in better distribution of benefits among the poor and marginalised?
27 Nov 2020
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Watershed development: Towards equitable outcomes (Image Source: India Water Portal)

How have watershed development projects fared in India? Have they helped in better distribution of benefits among the poor and marginalised? Why is it important to talk about watershed development at this juncture?

This book by Dr Eshwer Kale dwells on these questions and explores issues around social exclusion among resource-poor people in watershed development projects.

The book traces the processes of the Watershed Development in India and highlights the limitations encountered in the implementation of these programmes in the country. The book argues that resource ownership, land, caste, kinship, and gender continue to be major determining factors for institutional inclusion in the village and resource poor groups are often denied institutional representation.

This provides them very little opportunity to voice their concerns and prevents them from getting a fair share of the benefits incurred such as increased water availability, for example, as a result of watershed development. The book suggests ways to strengthen social inclusion and participatory processes and to bring about the better sharing of benefits.

Social exclusion


Dr Eshwer Kale shares his experiences on his journey of writing the book and his reflections on the implementation of watershed programmes in India, with the India Water Portal and highlights what can be done to improve the outcomes of the programme in the future.  

Why a book on Watershed Development? Why is it important to discuss it at this juncture?

Integrated and participatory watershed development and management emerged as the cornerstone of rural development in the dry and semi-arid regions of India. These programmes initially focused on arresting soil erosion in catchments of large and medium reservoirs, but gradually grew in scope. Watershed development became one of the largest interventions in the country in terms of the scale, resource allocation, and agencies. The Government of India had invested more than US$2 billion, up to 1999–2000, for watershed development under various programmes.

In 2008, the Watershed Development Programmes were merged to form one comprehensive programme at the central level, namely the Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP).  However, a number of limitations were found in the implementation of the programme and the IWMP has been under review in recent years will soon come up with the revised guidelines.

This is because, along with increasing climate change, its benefits were not judicious and whole public investment was going in the favour of landowners. The other aspect that came under review was the institutional aspect and whether there were sufficient spaces for true participation by all sections of the society in an equitable manner in the programme. While guidelines for participation of women were there, the participation of a range of other social groups like rainfed farmers, landless labourers, SC, STs, OBCs were not seriously taken into account. It was mostly the Gram Panchayat leaders, Water and Sanitation committee members and their close relatives (kins) who reaped the benefits.

IWMP guideline is thus now being modified and the interesting thing is that a separate section on rainfed farming is also expected to add in the programme. The book is very important and relevant in this context as it talks about how IWMP can be improved and benefits shared in an equitable and just manner. The book provides lessons and solutions for inclusive and participatory processes in the context of IWMP.

What made you write this book?

Actually, this book can be said to be a part of my ongoing inquiry that seeks to understand and analyse various dimensions of water-resource governance, especially from the point of view of issues related to participation and equity in natural resource management (NRM) programmes.

I was introduced to the watershed development approach during my work with Society for Promoting Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) Pune, a research-based NGO working on NRM issues that not only helped me to understand the dynamics of the watershed approach at the village level, but also got me interested in further exploring the various dimensions of the watershed approach.

I worked on the “Multi-Location and Multi-Disciplinary Research on Watershed Development Projects in India” programme, initiated by the Forum for Watershed Research and Policy Dialogue (FoRWaRD) with the involvement of three organisations representing different states and project locations (SOPPECOM from Maharashtra, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development (CISED) from Karnataka, and Gujarat Institute of Development and Research (GIDR) from Gujarat). I was a part of the research team, which investigated more than 400 watershed villages covering various types of watershed projects and regions in Maharashtra.

The project found that although watershed development projects had succeeded in bringing water and land-based benefits to farming communities, they lagged behind in terms of institutional participation and equitable distribution of benefits among various groups. We found that the Indo-German Watershed Development Program (IGWDP) was best in terms of quality of work and land- and water-based benefits to communities when compared with other programmes. Later, I joined Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), India, which is a pioneering and in designing and implementing comprehensive watershed development programs.

I selected the IGWDP programme as a case to assess where comparatively successful watershed programmes stand in addressing social exclusion and inequity issues. The present book is an outcome of my findings from a watershed development project in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra in terms of its social, economic, and political realities.

Along with describing different patterns of social exclusion in participation and benefit sharing, the book presents the possible ways and means to address these challenges.

Ensuring gender inclusivity (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Ensuring gender inclusivity (Image Source: India Water Portal)

How did watershed development evolve over the years? What is the current state of WSD in India? Why?

Until the 1990s, watershed development and management was looked upon as an engineering problem needing technical solutions to control problems such as soil erosion, reduce runoff and flooding, and enhance groundwater recharge. Livelihoods and social equity issues rarely featured in the watershed intervention activities in this period. As a result, many earlier programmes during the 1970s and 1980s were unsuccessful, and farmers often showed less interest in technologies and practices.

Since the 1990s the concept of integrated and participatory watershed development and management increasingly became important components of the rural development programmes in the dry and semi-arid regions of India. A number of success stories such as those from villages such as Ralegaon Siddhi, Hivare Bazar, Mhasvandi, Kadvanchi and many Indo-German watershed development projects emerged during this time that showed that watershed development and management can be a good drought-proofing strategy. This also led to increased financial allocations to the programme by the government and other funding agencies in the 1990s and 2010.

A number of civil society organisations (CSOs) working in rural areas took up implementation of watershed development projects and watershed development began to be touted as a successful example of development in rural areas through collective action.

The watershed development programme has now gradually shifted from soil conservation in the catchment areas of dams to protect reservoirs from silting to a livelihood programme and issues of sustainability, participation, equity, gender, and quality of life now form a part of the programme discourse. However, studies and experience on the ground shows that in majority of the cases, watershed projects have not been able to address issues related to equity and social inclusion.

Also there seems to a gradual decline in the watershed development approach since 2010 among the government as well as CSOs with no dedicated funding for the comprehensive watershed development programme applying ridge to valley approach. Short term and quick fix programmes such as the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan (JSA) and Gaalmukt Dharan and Gaalmukt Shivar in Maharashtra have gained importance, which have been unable to deliver their promises over a span to four to five years.

I think it is time we once again seriously revisit and engage with a watershed-based developmental approach, by redesigning the programme by taking into account a number of changes that have occurred around such as land use changes, demographic shifts, changing livelihoods, and most importantly changing monsoon pattern due to climate change.

What is social exclusion and why the need and relevance in the context of WSD programme? Who all are excluded?

Social exclusion implies denial of equal opportunities imposed by certain groups of society upon others that leads to the inability of an individual to participate in the political, economic, and social functioning of the society. This deprivation influences multiple spheres of the people’s lives, and it is embedded in social relations and institutions and denies people economic opportunities. It deprives them of developing their capabilities to their full potential while leaving them in a state of poverty with poor access to basic necessities such as food, water, education, health.  

While majority of the watershed development programmes have been unable to address issues related to equity and social exclusion, evidence also shows that the outcomes have been very positive in places where user participation was involved. However the challenge lies in involving users from all the sections of the population that also include, poor, marginalised communities landless farmers and women in the processes involved and ensuring equal distribution of benefits.

My experiences during the field work that I conducted on the functioning of the IGDWP in a village in rural Aurangabad were very surprising. The village had equal number of Marathas, Muslims and Banjaras. While a number of developmental activities happened in the village under the programme, the benefits did not reach everyone equitably.

While I found that the Banjara women were very active and open in voicing their concerns at the village level, the women from the Maratha and Muslim communities were not. The landless communities, tribal communities such as the Bhils (ST), who mostly resided in the hilly areas were not involved in the developmental activities. These experiences helped me to gain valuable insights into the different layers of the society and their experiences with the implementation of developmental interventions.    

The watershed programme was fairly successful and improved water availability for irrigation and livestock, soil quality, land productivity and also succeeded in increasing labour availability and reducing migration. It had a positive impact on income and poverty reduction.
However, the benefits were not equally distributed among all. The better-off farmers who owned land and irrigation sources were more benefited, while those with few assets such as the landless and marginal rain-fed farmers were benefited much less in comparison, thus the pattern of wealth distribution was unchanged.  

Are WSD programmes relevant today and what changes do you propose in their implementation?

While watershed programmes continue to be crucial to address rural poverty and environmental degradation in India, there is a need to revisit the watershed approach. While the watershed approach needs to modify itself in the context of climate change, it needs to achieve a paradigm shift in terms of inclusivity by ensuring representation of the poor, marginalised, landless, women in its implementation and sharing of outcomes, and thus broader reforms at and institutional level.

Innovative participatory mechanisms need to be developed to ensure inclusion of the deprived. This is because experience shows that just ensuring quotas for women and other resource-poor groups does not really help in changing the prevailing gender bias or socio-economic and political relations.

The need for social fencing (community control and rule-making for sustainable and equitable use of natural resources) seems to be even more crucial in the context of ensuring inclusion of all sections of the society in the programmes. At present, rule-making in watershed programmes is only confined to the ban on open grazing and tree-felling and a limitation on water intensive crops. No rules are made to change power structures and the behaviour of the few powerful people who can exercise control over existing resources. Social and public control is required in order to avoid such exploitative behaviour.

Title of book: Patterns of social exclusion in watershed development in India
Author; Dr. Eshwer Kale
Publication: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK
Pages: 143
Price: £ 61.99 (₹ 6126)
The book can be accessed here 

Dr Eshwer Kale works with the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), Pune.

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