We will not close down our balwadis ...



Is it possible for community video and radio to play this role?



Dalit Watersheds

This programme was conceived as equity based model and as an alternative to area based watershed approach, with the overall objective of Creation of a new Watershed Model targeted entirely for the poor. This brings in a completely new dimension to the traditional watershed model, by consciously integrating new ideological positions on issues such as equity, gender, culture, food security, sustainable agriculture, etc.

It employs the same principles of soil and water conservation as any other mainstream watershed, but by consciously choosing to work only on the lands of belonging to the Dalits, the project focuses all its resources on the upper reaches of a catchment , where the lands of the Dalits are usually situated. Such lands are reclaimed and made cultivable and are used for raising food crops. (mostly mixed crops), so as to ensure food security for those vulnerable dalit households. In these lands, high cost external inputs like seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilisers are not used. Such an approach is designed to create a subsistence base for the Dalits through relocating control over agricultural processes and food production in the hands of the Dalit and other poor women. It aims to reduce their livelihood vulnerabilities.

Caption goes here

Dalits, Women, Tradition and Watersheds :
Can there be a harmony ?

- a case study of exclusive dalit watersheds of Deccan Development Society
by P V Satheesh, Director, Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, India

The context of exclusive watershed for dalits has to start with some fundamental questions about the present watershed approach in various parts of this country. Many of these questions have been raised in various fora individually and collectively. But not many answers have been found. Therefore it is imperative to raise them once again.

The first question relates to equity. Most watersheds are not evaluated for who they are benefitting . What about the outcaste lands which are generally owned by dalits and the poor? How much are these people benefitting ?

In the conventional watershed is there a risk of poor people's lands changing hands at the end of the watershed development ? In these watersheds the results are expected to come thick and fast. This results in the lands suddenly acquiring a new value and the poor owner of the land is not able to realise and handle this value addition. As against this, a slower, incremental improvement of lands allows the poor land owners time to absorb the development. This has the potential to facilitate the continuing ownership of lands by the poor.

The top priority of the conventional watershed is to treat the ridge. No problem with that. But is the question Who owns the ridge ? ever asked ? Isn't the ridge made up mostly of poor people's lands ? By making them to grow grasses and trees, do we always treat these lands as blotting pads only to absorb water ? The way the North wants the South to be its carbon sink, is investment being made on the ridge (owned by the poor) so that they act as a water sink and release water to better lands in the valley (owned by the rich) get further better ?

Caption goes here

Another strong cause advanced in favour of conventional watershed is the ecological cause. How much of the benefits of this cause will go to the poor directly? The environmentalists in the sixties, seventies and eighties made environment a people's movement. But the fruits today are going to transnationals working on a myriad money spinning projects. Environment has become a flourishing industry and the poor who lead the movement is the past are left gazing behind.

Conversely, are conventional watersheds really ecological in nature ? Have these watersheds lead to more organic ways of growing crops or have they encouraged increased use of chemicals in agriculture ? Rainfed areas are the last ecological niches we are left with as far as agricultural is concerned. Farmers in these areas are hesitant to use chemicals for fear of non-availability of water for protective irrigation. Once watersheds are established and a confidence that unending water supply is available, what kind of shift takes place in this attitude? In some of the most famous watersheds in this country, hybrids have replaced traditional and more adapted landraces. Monocultures have displaced crop diversity. Chemicals have replaced more earth-friendly soil nutrients. Pests have made their vibrant appearance for the first time. The ultimate loser in this process has been ecological agriculture.

Another question. How do we ensure food security through watersheds ? What kinds of crops does a watershed support ? Are there regular shifts from food cropping to cash cropping in these watersheds? Will there be an inevitable sense of de javu at the end of a watershed, with high external input agriculture coming in and displacing more diverse traditional agricultural systems? Will this lead to food security or a new food scarcity? Increasing commodity yields have decreased food security and increased vulnerability. In 1998 the unending suicides by a number of cotton farmers in South India should ring loud alarm bells for watershed people all over this country. Will conventional watersheds spread this canvas of disaster far and wide ?

Then the issue of water itself. Dr Hanumantha Rao, a leading watershed specialist puts forth an unexceptionable four waters theory. But the point that water levels will rise in the open wells and so people will take that water for irrigation might be a bit of misreading of people. As water retention capability increases, people will run after deep tubewells. More so in the era of globalisation and privatisation which seriously entertain the idea of declaring agriculture as an INDUSTRY.

Those who are working with dalits and women need to be bothered increasingly with these questions. Their basic interest lies in protecting the livelihood systems of the poor. In their concern to do good to the poor if they follow conventional watersheds, they may snatch away even the available livelihood systems from the poor.

In this context, is there a new watershed paradigm that we can think of ? A watershed, not so dramatic, not so expensive, but very incremental. A watershed that works exclusively on poor people's pariah plots. A watershed that increases the soil fertility and moisture levels gradually and incrementally. A watershed that can answer a series of questions:

  • Questions of Equity
  • Questions of Food Security
  • Questions of Food Production
  • Questions of Ecological Agriculture
  • Questions of increasing stake on the land
  • Questions of technology

On the last point there are serious arguments that need to be heard with rapt attention :

  • Watershed is a conceptual hangover from Tennessee Valley Project where the twin objectives were to see that maximum water was disposed off to the reservoir and minimum silt went to the reservoir. It was a strategy meant for the reservoir and not for the people who lived on the lands where the structures were built. Still it worked in the temperate climate of Tennessee Valley. But in a dry place like Kansas it collapsed.
  • Technology can be a barrier for people's participation.
  • Check dam is a disposal device; not as a storage device. Its priority is to see how much water should be disposed how quickly. However, water should be seen in totality. Not as head end collection at the ridge itself (the way check structures do it) but as tailend collectors (like ponds in Indian Hydrology).
  • Structures must be built to support vegetation; not vegetation to support structures; While trees grow, structures deteriorate.

It is in the background of these questions that the Deccan Development Society took up three micro-mini watersheds exclusively meant for dalits and managed either partially or totally by dalit women. In the following pages I will try to tell the tale of these watersheds.

Background and Rationale

Zaheerabad area in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, where the Society works, lies at the centre of the semi-arid tract. Ravaged by years of drought and plummeting groundwater table, agricultural lands sport a sorry face here. Year after year fallows expand as more and more people desert parcels of their agricultural lands, unable to cope with the rising costs of cultivation and depleting ground water table.

Caption goes here

Unlike in the regions endowed with fertile soils, where farm lands are invariably owned by the rich, most people in Zaheerabad own agricultural lands, however small they may be. For the poor these lands have either been gifted by the erstwhile feudal landlords for services done or by the democratic government as a part of its land reforms programme. But these lands are mostly of very poor quality. The landlords gifted those lands which were of less use for them. The government distributed degraded lands declared surplus under the land ceiling act.

One of the early strategies employed by DDS to cope with the problem of these degraded lands was to provide the women members of DDS sanghams 100 days of eco-employment every summer to better their own pieces of degraded lands through bunding, top soil addition, destoning etc. In other words what we did was to treat each farmer's land as a tiny watershed.

The scale on which this was done was not enough. To bring a qualitative improvement in the lands and lives of the people, it needed a lot more investment and much more planned work.

An important step in this direction was the programme on Alternative Public Distribution System, which had three aims : Local food production, local food storage and local distribution. Under this programme we made an investment upto Rs. 6000 per hectare. This has given an extra advantage to the poor people's lands by offering them the advantages of ploughing it with tractors and softening it and fertilising it with farmyard manure With this lands have become more productive. With that the stake for the poor on their lands has increased manifold.

Still the threat of Structural Adjustments hangs on their head. Big seed companies are eyeing cheap lands in large stretches of hundreds of hectares. The poor people's lands maybe the first casualty in this buying spree unless we further improve the productivity of these lands and with it the poor people's stake in it.

Wasteland plantations are also a new asset to the poor. DDS sanghams have started growing richly diverse plantations in their villages. Since 1994 more than 1000 hectares of public lands were brought under tree cover by the sangham women. These plantations comprise of a number of trees which give them fuelwood, fruit and minor timber in a sustainable fashion from the year 2002.

The DDS watersheds are another step in this path.

How are these watersheds different ?

  • Targeting poor people's lands

    Conventional watershed targets the entire village community. This may have its advantages. But the benefits accruing from this are likely to reach the richer farmers who traditionally own the lion's share of the fertile lower reaches. The ridges owned by the poor become catchment areas for percolating water to the lower reaches. Many arguments are advanced about employment provision for the poor under such watersheds. This is an illusion. The day rich landlords decide to mechanise or grow those cash crops which need less labour, the employment scene can change completely.

    Traditional watershed can also be an ecological disaster. In fragile ecosystems like Zaheerabad, once the water table rises in the lands of richer farmers who can afford external inputs, more and more monocultural cash crops like cotton, potato, sugarcane will mushroom as opposed to the present widespread practice of growing diverse food crops. The attendant problems of chemical agriculture, vanishing bio diversity etc. can only be counter-productive.

    In this context there was an urgent need for a different approach to watershed. A watershed that is completely oriented towards the poor.

    An argument pitted against this is that a watershed is a large area and poor have small parcels of land. Poor are outcastes, pun unintended. Their lands lie on the periphery of the village.

    This supposed disadvantage, we thought, could be converted into an advantage. Seen from a different angle, we can find that such peripheral lands from a cluster of villages form a separate contiguous large patch of degraded lands owned by the poor. These large patches of poor peoples' lands can be treated as a watershed by itself.

Project History : YELGOYI : the first dalit watershed

The work on the first dalit watershed began in 1996 on a 73 acre plot owned entirely by a group of dalit families in the village Yelgoyi in Jharasangham Mandal of Medak District. The primary owners of these lands are six families : Bayikattu, Chintachettu, Sirigeripalle, Nadimidoddi, Yapachettu and Tenugu. Each of these families now sub divided, consist of 62 families and together is made up of 312 members.

Caption goes here

The land on which the DDS watershed is being done is an Inam land gifted to these families over 60 years ago. Some parts of these lands are good black soils and some red soils and parts are hard rocky lands. Of the 73 acres, about 20 acres have been under cultivation since a long time. The rest of the lands had been abandoned as fallows by these families . The lands are about two km away from the village and unless their productivity is ensured, the people have no motivation to visit the lands and remain there through the day.

DDS has a 10-year old women's sangham at Yelgoi which is an interior village. One has to cover a dirt track distance of 10 kms to reach it. The levels of poverty are very high and as a consequence the capacity of the poor to come together for joint actions is low. There is a strong suspicion between families as well as within the members of the joint family. To get them to work on a common resource is a daunting task.

Project Progress

  • Consultation and PRAs

    Before the start of the watershed in early 1996, a series of meetings were held between the members of the Yelgoi Women's Sangham, the male heads of the six joint families and the staff of DDS to understand the community's points of view on how to develop the 73 acre plot, their involvement in the process and the way they can come together to work on it.

    This was probably the first time that DDS was working directly with men in the last ten years. All its activities were planned, designed and implemented by only women during the last decade. But in this case the women of Yelgoyi Sangham as well as some key members of DDS felt that men should be involved in the process so that there is no disharmony during the implementation. This sounded reasonable and the men were drawn into the discussion process.

  • Formation of People's Implementation and Monitoring Committees

In the beginning the men who headed the families insisted that they should be the implementation committee since they are the people who are heard by the other members of the family. At a stage when we did not have enough rapport with the men (as we have with women), a committee of men was formed for overseeing the progress. During the work and construction activity there were several arguments and dialogues about the contribution of women for the construction process. Consequently after three months a mixed group of women and men was formed to monitor and implement the programme. The men offered no resistance at this point of time. In fact, they welcomed the new committee.

At the present point of time, a group of six women and six men form the steering committee which implements this programme. They are:

Women Chintachettu Bichamma, Bayikattu Ushamma, Sirigirepalle Anjamma, Tenugu Manemma, Yapachettu Bonamma, Nadimidoddi Paramma
Men Bayikattu Yesappa, Bayikattu Narsappa, Sirigirepalle Laxmaiah, Tenugu Narsappa, Yapachettu Gundappa Nadimidoddi Yesappa

Besides this committee, one woman from Yelgoyi, Yapachettu Ratnamma, monitors the progress of the watershed as a representative of DDS.

Other agreements

There was a written agreement between the community and the DDS on the following lines:

  • Each farmer on the watershed contributes 50% of the cost of the works done on her/his lands. Of this 25% will be in the form of labour and the other 25% in cash through a deferred payment.
  • On public works like checkdams each farmer contributed 25% of the costs.
  • On every wage of Rs.25 that they earn, the people will save 10% towards future costs of bund repairing etc. This money will be placed in a separate bank account in the name of the community.
  • At least for the next ten years no one will sell her/his lands to outsiders.
  • Everyone will grow only food crops on her/his land and not exclusive cash crops like sugarcane, cotton, sunflower etc.
  • No chemicals will be used on the land.

P R As

A series of PRAs were done in the village to understand how people would like to go ahead with their Watershed. The PRAs involved the following:

  • Mapping of their fields and indicating the places where they would like to place the bunds, gully plugs and check dams.
  • Transect
  • Soil mapping
  • Cropping pattern mapping

The entire bunding and trenching around the people's lands was done on the basis of the decisions made by people in these PRAs.

Physical achievements

In 73 acres of land spread over three survey numbers 62, 63 and 64, a total of 14,513 yards of bunds were done in a period of 60 days by 52 persons. This created an approximate labour of 3000 persondays.

People also made use of the extended monsoon to start bund planting. Species like Kanugu (Pongemia pinnata), Vepa (Azadirachta indica), Korinta (Plantago ovata), Parki (Zyzyphus Oenoplia) were planted on the bunds.

The monsoon brought abundant water into the lands and an amazing amount of 43,539 cubic feet of water was harvested for the first time. More importantly, for the first time, 90 percent of the soil on these 73 acres stayed on the land and was not washed out of the terrain. This was an extremely significant gain. This resulted in ten acres of fallow coming under plough for the first time in 1996 in the very first year of the watershed work.

The amount of work done on the lands with no outside supervision and the quality of work was a testimony to the people's technology and to the community's commitment to their lands. Except at one spot, the bunds took the brunt of the unprecedented heavy rains of 1996.

Construction of check dams and indigenous knowledge

For us in DDS the construction of checkdams was the real test of the indigenous technical knowledge. As a first step in this direction, the Yelgoyi watershed community did a mapping exercise in June 1996 to identify the points where they will locate the checkdams along the main water course. Then the water course was transected by three teams of watershed experts along with the members of the community. As a result of these exercises, six locations were identified for construction of check dams.

On 19th July a group of consultative engineers from Pune were invited and came to visit the Yelgoi watershed community. Along with them the Yelgoi watershed community transected the watercourse and identified the exact spots where the checkdams should be located. Remarkably, the points decided by the people and those by "technical experts" coincided within a variation of 2 %. Initial estimates made by engineers and people separately have also tallied within a 10% margin. It was a proud moment for this community that their locations were agreed upon by the consultative engineering group with a margin of (+-) 5 difference.

After two dams were constructed, the Gangotree engineers came back and looked at the structures. Their complaint was more on the slowness of the work than on the quality of the structures. They were quite happy with the attributes of the work done.

This was followed with the construction of two more checkdams. Once all these checks were completed, the stone pitching was also completed in three dams. Then they started wasteweir work.

A disaster hit the project in April 1997 in the form of an unprecedented downpour. In one night about 20 cms of rain poured in one short burst. Since the wasteweirs had not been completed, two checks washed out, one completely and another partially. The village Yelgoi observed mourning for an entire day. Most women wept at the sight of the damanged checks and the entire community fasted for a whole day. This was the real proof of the amount of involvement and ownership the community had developed towards their watershed.

In a meeting to review the aftermath of this incident, the Yelgoyi watershed community which was in a stunned mood, offered to work free of cost to restore the checks. But we felt that this was an extremely unfair proposition that a community of the poor should take on the responsibility for a natural calamity and offered to pay 25 per cent of the cost.

Unfortunately, when this work started, a series of internal conflicts started inside the community. When the last check need to be completed, the work halted abruptly. This was a severe setback. Therefore to complete this work and finish the task before the monsoon, a neighbouring hamlet of the Lambadi tribes was assigned this task. They completed the job before the monsoon.

The yelgoi watershed was technically complete. The checkdams were in place. The bunds had been completed and nearly been consolidated. But the human and dalit aspect of the watershed had not jelled as yet. A great tension exists between us in DDS and the Yelgoyi watershed community. We felt that they had not kept their commitment. They feel cheated out of the job since we had assigned the last task to another group.


After several conflicts within their own community, finally the Yelgoyi watershed community came for a final reconciliatory meeting before the Dussehra of 1997 and decided to finish all the incomplete aspects of the watershed work. On completion they also decided to celebrate through a Panduga (celebration) on Vijadashami day. And they did it..

  • Each farmer completed her/his part of reconstructing broken bunds.
  • They planted 17500 plants on the bunds and other vacant spaces.
  • They ploughed all the fallows
  • The last checkdam which had been washed out in the unprecedented heavy rains of 1997 was reconstructed. The checkdam now looks better than before. The checkdam survived a couple of heavy rains which came immediately after its construction. The wasteweir concept had clearly gelled in the community's minds.

In this fashion more or less th Yelgoi watershed community completed all the responsibilities they had owned up. The further tasks they have agreee on are:

  • A five acre plot which is commonly owned between all the families will be developed as a silvipasture plot. A member of the community will be elected to manage the plot.
  • Of the three community irrigation wells which have been installed in these lands by the government, two wells are non-functional. The community will restore these wells. With such a restoration, it is possible that the greenery will increase on these lands which could result in an increased stake for the community over the lands. This in turn will deepen their relationship with these lands far more and ensure the maintenance of the bunds and other structures of the watershed. One irrigation well which is functioning is a pointer to this possibility . This well has a lot of greenery around and the farmers on those lands regularly visit their farms. Their structures are better looked after.

Project History : YEDAKULAPALLY

Yedakulapally is a village which has a majority of dalit population. Some traditional tasks which are perfored by like Tammallollu, Begarollu etc are performed by Madigas in this village. Probably because of this, dalits own significant amount of lands. But as is the history with other parts of this region, dalit lands are far away from the village : some lands about three kms.

Yedakulapally is an agriculturally rich terrain. It has a good irrigation tank continuously in use, a rare sight in these parts of Telangana. Soils are rich, black alluvial. These fertile lands produce paddy (at 20 bags an acre, achieving productive levels which are very high for these low-input farming systems), sugarcane, turmeric and recently ginger, all very rewarding cash crops.

But majority of the lands belonging to dalits are a far cry from this situation. Their lands are uplands. They are on the plateau of a hillock and hence they have no irrigation possibility from the tank. Their lands are severely degraded and their production levels are very low. Another factor which characterises these lands is they are strewn with stones and pebbles all over. Sometimes this makes ploughing impossible because the bullocks start slipping on these lands and plough at times cannot cut through the land. Most of all, even if some crop is sown, when women weed the crops, their knuckles constantly hit the stones and they come back home with bleeding knuckles. Noone will dare to go back and weed those lands again.

Though the slopes are not very steep, the fact that they are on a plateau which stretches uninterruptedly over vast vegetationless areas makes them vulnerable against winds and rains. Thus these lands lie severely degraded,
heavily underutilised and marginalised. After having to walk through several kilometres away from the village, when the dalit landowners confront such a series of hostile factors, their courage to farm these lands shrinks.

This has resulted in a growing alienation between them and their lands. The younger generation in particular seems to be moving farther and farther away from these lands. This has created a situation which is manipualted by the land sharks, the industrialists and the seed companies who are looking for cheap land. They tempt these owners with ready cash and buy large chunks of land at a very cheap price from them.

Just when such a process was about to happen in Yedakulapalli, the women of the sangham asked us for help. This is a five year old sangham and one of the more energetic, cohesive and active of the new sanghams that DDS started working with.

The women of these sanghams were very worried that an offer made by an industrialist to their men, may tempt them to sell off their lands. Therefore they said that if a watershed activity can start on these lands, they will improve its texture and productivity, build a new stake for themselves and help them retain these lands, the only resource that poor are left with. This was the beginning of the project which was distributed into four parts:

  • Clearing the fields off the stones and making them ploughable and weedable
  • Building bunds and trenches around them
  • Adding farmyard manure upto ten cartloads per acre
  • Plug the gullies and build checkdams along the huge gullies.

Activities till now

  • Two PRAs were done with the women of Yedakualpally in 1997. One PRA was on drawing the resource map of their lands and the second was a treatment map.
  • All rates for different activities was fixed up by the watershed community of the Yedakulapally dalits. They fixed what would the estimated cost of bunding; destoning and addition of F Y M onto their lands.
Item of work
per acre
DDS contribution
Beneficiary share
Stone clearing
Farmyard Manure
Rs.800 (advance)
  • A committee of five women and two men was finalised to oversee the work.
  • A total of 76 acres was cleared of stones
  • All the lands were bunded with the stones cleared from the land
  • Simultaneously a trench was dug to create drainage around these fields.
  • A total of about 900 cartloads of farmyard manure was added to these soils.
  • These activities created around 2500 persondays of employment till 1997.

A team of engineers from Gangotree visited Yedakulapally site and suggested to the group that they should construct a few farm ponds as a water harvesting measure. But the community, after reflecting on the cost of the ponds, rejected the suggestion and said that they would be happy to concentrate on the work they were doing now.

Along with the people's monitoring committee, the watershed is also being supervised by Perma Narsimlu, a dalit boy, who until seven years ago was a bonded labour. He is the first graduate of the Pachasaale, the DDS school for Permaculture and Sustainability. This is a matter of immense satisfaction for DDS because an activity like watershed is now being managed by local dalits who have grown up learning both the technical and philosophical aspects of landcare.

The situation in Yedakulapalli, until now, was such that some used to plough and sow their lands and some did not. The lands were full of stones and therefore was a nightmare for the ploughman. Nobody would come forward to plough certain lands. After a lot of persuasion some would get the ploughman to come over but by that time it would be the end of the season. Therefore even ploughing would not make much difference. The income accruing from cultivating these lands would be so less that all farming operations would be seen as uneconomical. This cycle of desparation had enveloped the 93 acres of Yedakulapally land.

In 1997 all the 35 members destoned their lands, ploughed it well, added farmyard manure to the tune of ten cartloads per acre. And then all the 35 farmers planted crops on all of their 93 acres of land.

The initial rains failed. In the absence of proper subsoil moisture, the germination was scarce. Later, when the crops flowered, and the early podding developed, rains failed again. This resulted in shedding of flowers. As a result crops failed miserably. In spite of such a failure of rains, some of the members had good crop because of the increased moisture holding capacity of their lands. But in September, due to heavy unseasonal rains, the greengram crop was completely destroyed.

Though crops were lost, the overall quality of lands have improved tremendously. With all stones removed, the lands are looking black and healthy. This has provided a good ploughing environment. Ploughing will be smooth and the bullocks do not tire. Consequently many ploughmen are showing interest in ploughing and\or sharecropping these lands. Thus a lasting difference has been made to these lands.

Undeterred by the failure of kharif crops, the women got their lands deep ploughed once again for the rabi crops. This deep ploughing destroyed weeds and made the lands good hosts for the new planting season. A variety of crops like sorghum, chickpea, safflower were sown on these lands. There was new hope in the air.

But again, the entire region experiences unseasonal, destructive showers during October and November. This resulted in an epidemic-proportional incidence of helicoverpa on chickpea, aphids on safflower and disease on sorghum. This was unprecedented for the region and points to the extraordinary environmental desruction that has gone in our times.

For the second time in one agricultural year the Yedakulapalli community lost their crops completely. But not their hopes. They see a number of undeniable gains :

  • Repeated ploughing has softened the lands and changed their face. Ploughing for the second crop has resulted in the surfacing of some stones. Once they are cleared, the lands will be free from stones. This will result in a great attraction of bullock-owners to come and work on these lands. Possibilities of sharecropping on these lands will increase.
  • The good addition of FYM will keep these lands fertile for at least three years and will result in good yields. This will increase the stake for the farmers on these lands. Thus a cycle of good returns, good yield and reinvestment will start surfacing on these lands.

What will 1998 see on these lands ?

  • The stones which have surfaced after the second ploughing are being cleared.
  • An additional amount of five carts of FYM per acre is being added.
  • Some bunds which have been damaged will be reconstructed.
  • Some large gullies which run through these lands are being plugged.
  • The bund planting will be strengthened in June 1998 with fresh planting.
  • The community has been helped to acquire two pairs of bullocks. This has helped them immensely to concentrate on their ploughing activities without having to interminably wait for other people's bullocks.

Since the stones were picked, there has been an increase in the variety of crops because the seed volume needed now is much lower because of less wastage. The absence of stones has increased seed : sprouting ratio by 30%.

Metlakunta watershed

This is the third watershed area of about 106 acres, exclusively owned by about 80 dalit families. An initial PRA was done to map the watershed, to locate the lay of the land and to identify the works to be done on it. People laid out their fields, slopes and gullies; identified the bunding spots on their lands. They also marked the actual places where checks and gully plugs need to be constructed. In the second phase a cost planning has been done with them. The people's costing and the costing done by an expert team compares as follows:

People's Estimate
DDS/KVK First Estimate
Check Dams
- 74,200
Tree Planting
Farmyard Manure
- 27,000
Tank Restoration

The Metlakunta sangham has elected a committee of women to supervise the work. The bunding work has already started.

Degree of Objectives achieved in these watersheds

  • The soils have been protected from erosion. Though there was a heavy monsoon in 1996, the bunds withstood its fury, and protected the topsoil from flowing into the huge gully at the centre of the landscape at Yelgoyi
  • A significant amount of water was harvested on the trenches, probably for the first time since the lands were owned by the people.
  • All lands, hitherto fallows, have come under plough this year.
  • People have gained enough confidence that they can design and implement their own watersheds.
  • People have also given the commitment not to sell the lands, not to go into chemical agriculture and not to raise cash crops in preference to food crops.

Major successes

  • Tapping poor and marginalised people's potentialities and channelising them into a creative land use activity.
  • People are implementing their own technologies and there are visible signs that they will succeed.
  • Dalit, poor and the marginalised have got a chance to design their own watershed.
  • The community of the poor has come together on an ecological goal. Poor have given strong ecological commitments.
  • In spite of initial hiccups, people can still work together. Local leaderships which can iron out their internal differences continue to exist.

Problems and difficulties

  • Finding sympathetic scientists and technicians who can play a complementary role standing along side people.
  • In spite of one's own faith in people and their technologies, it is difficult to avoid the lurking fear whether it will fail.
  • Making the poor overcome suspicion on each other and collaborate with each other.
  • When it comes to larger issues of property and land resources, gender takes a back seat.

Lessons learnt

  • Given a chance poor can wisely handle their natural resources.
  • People's technologies are sound and sustainable.
  • In cost estimation, the programme will need a little more flexibility. Presently the costs are estimated with a little bit of enthusiasm towards downscaling it. But the ground realities, when the work actually begins has a different story to tell. For example, when we started working on the checkdams harder rocky areas took twice as much time to dig than non-rocky areas. This meant people spent double their wage time on it. That upsets the calculation.

    Far more importantly, many of the land owners are older people. When they come to work, should we include them or turn them down? If we include them in the work force, the speed of the work slows down and the cost escalates. If we turn them down, will it be participatory and social justice? We would be behaving like the regular contractors who look for able-bodied people and leave the vulnerable people out.

  • Despite a strong women's sangam, it is still difficult for men to accept their leaderhip in joint programmes.

To end

I shall end with the beginning by repeating those questions which I had raised about conventional watersheds.

  • Who do conventional watersheds benefit ?
  • Is there a risk that poor people's lands change hands at the end of the watershed ?
  • Will the ridge become just a blotting pad ?
  • Is the conventional watershed an invitation to chemical agriculture ?
  • Is food security safe in conventional watersheds ?
  • How do conventional watersheds tackle the issue of gender justice ?

The Dalit watersheds of DDS have tried and answered most of these questions.

  • They have resolved the question of equity by concentrating only on dalit and poor people's lands.
  • Even at the beginning of the watershed work, there have been commitments by the community that for at least a decade they will not sell their lands. We hope that at the end of this time, they will develop such a serious involvement with their lands that they will never think of selling them. Community as a whole has taken this decision.
  • Ridge is treated not as a grassland or tree cover but as a vibrant food crop producing area.
  • The community has taken a vow not to use chemicals in their agriculture and continue their traditional organic practices.
  • The community has taken a solemn decision that it will only grow food crops
  • The leadership, planning, designing and decision making has been entrusted to women.

The work on these three watersheds till now has thrown up the major strengths and minor weaknesses of people's perception and their technologies. In the next couple of months, we will gain sharper understanding of these processes and look for a time in the near future, when we can hand over the entire programme to the people with total confidence that they will execute and implement this effectively.

These watersheds till date have been a goldmine of sociological understanding of people, especially men in their capacity to take responsibilities for common properties and regeneration of natural resources. It has also thrown up challenges to women's leadership when they are working along with men. The interaction and its dynamics will provide an exciting model for us in achieving a good gender mix in future endeavours. Within this project iself, this experiment will continue to bring up a number of issues, challenges and lessons.