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.
Dalits, Women, Tradition and Watersheds
- a case study of exclusive dalit watersheds of Deccan Development
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 ?
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:
On the last point there are serious arguments that need to be heard with rapt attention :
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.
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.
The DDS watersheds are another step in this path.
How are these watersheds different ?
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.
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.
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:
Besides this committee, one woman from Yelgoyi, Yapachettu Ratnamma,
monitors the progress of the watershed as a representative of DDS.
There was a written agreement between the community and the DDS on the following lines:
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:
The entire bunding and trenching around the people's lands was done on the basis of the decisions made by people in these PRAs.
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 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.
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..
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:
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.
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
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:
Activities till now
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 :
What will 1998 see on these lands ?
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%.
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:
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
Problems and difficulties
I shall end with the beginning by repeating those questions which I had raised about conventional watersheds.
The Dalit watersheds of DDS have tried and answered most of these questions.
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.