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Maharashtra is crowdfunding water conservation – but the money might go down the drain

Covai Post Network


Social and financial safeguards are being ignored as the government cedes responsibility to the people through its Jalyukt Shivar programme.

When the rains failed in 2014, hope dried up in Matola. The village in Latur in Maharashtra’s central region of Marathwada faced its third consecutive year of drought. Groundwater levels had plummeted, more than 400 families had migrated, and farmers in the village had shifted from growing sugarcane, a water-guzzling but highly lucrative crop, to the less-profitable soyabean and toor dal. Even those yields were falling.

A local politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Pasha Patel, who was a member of the state legislative council, visited the village.

“Patel asked, ‘There is drought here, what are you doing about it?’” recalled Dhananjay Bhosle, a resident of Matola. Patel came up with a suggestion: ‘Go and see the Shirpur pattern for two days.’”

Shirpur is a village in Dhule district in north-eastern Maharashtra that has acquired statewide fame in recent years for its approach to water management. Led by Suresh Khanapurkar, an ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the village had widened and deepened streams, built cement embankments on them and recharged its wells by linking them to canals.

A committee led by groundwater expert Mukund Ghare filed a report in 2011 critiquing the model for relying too heavily on expensive structures and for being technically flawed. The government rejected this report, commissioning another study by its own officials. The second report was more favourable to the model.

Untouched by the debate, the residents of Matola came back impressed. “We saw how despite the drought, Shirpur had a lot of water,” Bhosle said. “So we began to think, let’s do something like this.”

Bhosle and other Matola residents began a crowdfunding campaign in the winter of 2014. Those who owned land were asked to contribute Rs 500 per acre. Families without land were asked to give Rs 500. The village raised Rs 22 lakhs altogether.

Around the same time, in December 2014, the newly elected BJP government in Maharashtra notified a new programme for decentralised water conservation. Called Jalyukt Shivar, or Water-filled land, it brought together various existing government schemes, while also making provisions for the participation of local people, their elected representatives and even private organisations in water conservation projects.

Buoyed by the newly launched programme, the district administration and local politicians contributed another Rs 38 lakh for Matola’s water conservation plans. This included money from the development funds of legislative assembly member Basavaraj Patil, Lok Sabha member Ravindra Gaikwad and member of the Rajya Sabha member from Pune, Sanjay Patil.

Between February and May 2015, earthmoving machines worked non-stop to deepen and widen 10 kms of dry rivulets and desilt wells. On June 18, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had repeatedly described Jalyukt Shivar as a “people’s movement”, visited Matola. He found an example good enough to be tweeted about.

‘People’s movement’

It isn’t just Matola. In several drought-hit villages across Maharashtra, there is a newfound dynamism as ordinary people are actively taking the lead in funding and implementing water conservation projects.

Ironically, the villagers are spurred by a lack of trust in the government and bureaucracy.

Maharashtra has no dearth of soil and water conservation schemes. Some like the central government-funded Integrated Watershed Development Programme are supposed to involve local communities in drawing up and implementing water conservation plans.

But such involvement often remains on paper. Villagers say they are rarely consulted. The projects are controlled by government engineers and officials, who, the villagers suspect, siphon money off the projects.

“I’ll explain the scam to you,” said Bhosle, referring to water conservation schemes of the agriculture department.

When the department takes charge of these projects, the contractor skims off 20% of the funds, Bhosle claimed. Government officials take another 10% of the funds. In his view, only two-thirds of the money allotted to a project is eventually spent on it.

Even the failure of certain schemes is attributed to their inability to offer government officials avenues for making money. “Why did the demand-driven farm pond scheme fail?” asked Vithal Hajgude, who rents out earthmoving machines in Latur. Under the scheme, the government gives money to farmers from marginalised communities to build ponds on their land. “Because they [the officials] could not siphon off money,” Hajgude said.

By implementing the projects on their own, the villagers believe they can get more out of every rupee spent. “The water conservation engineer said one earthmoving machine would charge Rs 5 lakh for removing 300 cubic metres of silt,” said Bhosle. “We said, what do we know about cubic metres, just give us the machine on the basis of hours.” The village bargained to use a machine for 100 hours. The Collector agreed. Eventually, for Rs 5 lakh, Matola’s villagers ran the machine for 325 hours.

A formula for people’s participation

Not everywhere, however, have people organically taken the lead. As ‘people’s movement’ became the buzzword, with the chief minister frequently using the phrase, district collectors carefully calibrated the process in many places.

The collectors had been given the responsibility of implementing the programme. The targets were clear: 20% of villages to be covered every year, ensuring full coverage of the district in five years.

For this, the collectors had at their disposal funds allocated under various soil and water conservation schemes, funds contributed by elected representatives, and donations made by private groups and citizens. The challenge, however, was to involve local people.

What evolved, in the words of Pandurang Pole, the district collector of Latur, was “a formula” for public participation. “We tell people that their village has been selected and that they should at least do the work of two or three nalas on their own,” he said. Or the administration puts a pre-condition that only the villages that had gathered funds of their own would be considered for government funds. “So they feel that to get into the scheme, they will have to do this work,” Pole added.

The formula worked in Shelu, a bustling village in Washim district in eastern Maharashtra. It lies on the bank of the Adan river, which had gathered silt in recent years because of deforestation and the building of a dam upstream. When the collector Rahul Dwivedi visited the village last year, the panchayat members asked him for funds to desilt the river.

“He said he would give us more funds than we were asking for,” recalled Dattatreya Kaldate, the deputy sarpanch, “but first we need to show some initiative from our side.”

Taking contributions from bank societies, agricultural shops and the wealthy of the village, the residents of Shelu raised Rs 11.25 lakh and deepened 250 metres of the Adan river on one side of a bridge. Dwivedi in turn kept his promise and gave the village Rs 19.11 lakh from a corpus of corporate social responsibility funds resting with the district. With those funds, the village dug 800 metres upstream of the bridge.

To deepen the village’s sense of ownership, the collector entrusted the funds to the gram panchayat, making it the implementing agency, as opposed to a government department.

Public participation has driven Jalyukt Shivar in Washim as well, where around Rs 8.5 crore has been spent mostly to desilt streams and ponds.

“What has happened with Jalyukt Shivar is that there is now an awareness of the importance of water conservation,” Dwivedi said. “This is one of the most important benefits of the scheme.”

Projects involving an expenditure of more than Rs 3 lakh need to auctioned through e-tenders. The Shelu gram panchayat called for a tender but when contractors from other places called to make enquiries, the panchayat officials requested them not to apply. They wanted to use the services of local contractors who could be made to deliver more work for the same money. “Wo sab process manage kiya,” Kothale said. “It was a managed process. If we had not managed it, then so much work would not have happened.”

Who’s keeping track of the money?

But there are dangers to this approach.

If the mainstay of Jalyukt Shivar is an administrative flexibility that allows people and private organisations to participate in the state’s water conservation efforts, the flip side of the lack of financial monitoring.

Companies, charities, even film stars have donated to the scheme. In some places, they have gone ahead and executed the projects on their own.

A dispute widely reported in Latur highlights the pitfalls. Towards the end of June, Marathi newspaper Dainik Ekmat published a front-page story stating that two organisations, Art of Living Foundation and Sunflower Welfare Foundation, had both claimed credit for the work done to deepen and widen the Tawarza river near Latur.

The Art of Living Foundation claimed it had raised money from public contributions. Sunflower Welfare Foundation, on the other hand, said it had done the work using its own money.

Initially, Pole denied he had give any approvals to Sunflower Welfare Foundation. But the foundation produced a permission letter signed by him. Pole eventually issued another letter cancelling the earlier one.

It still remains unclear who did the work on Tawarza river.

District officials have not maintained records of the money spent on public works by private citizens. More alarmingly, they have not kept track of the work done. As a previous story in this series reported, there are serious ecological concerns over the reckless and unmonitored excavation of streams and rivers.

“Because of the last two-three years of drought, there is a mentality of people not to look through things rationally or scientifically,” said KJ Joy of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, a Pune-based water research organisation. “They want to believe there is a solution.”

With the government cheering them on, the people of drought-hit Maharashtra may have simply frittered away their time, energy and money on projects of dubious worth.

What happens to the poor?
Jalyukt Shivar could extract a social cost too.

The land near rivers and streams in Maharashtra is usually owned by upper-caste and wealthy people. Lower-caste people live in the highlands.

If rivers and streams are dug up without any water conservation work in the upper reaches, the rain that falls on higher ground will simply drain down into the river or stream, which is the lowest point in a region.

“In a drought, it looks good, but it is actually water being transferred from upper catchments to the river,” explained Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a Pune-based water management NGO. “What you are doing is transferring water from the poor to the rich.”

Older watershed development programmes adopted a mix of water conservation works. Decisions were taken by technical experts based on the lay of the land, and not necessarily by local elites.

Even though the government claims that this is a “people’s movement”, the people are not a monolith. Critics of the programme point out that it offers little to the poor.

Had it been used in conjunction with the centre’s Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, it could have generated work during the summer months when thousands from villages across Maharashtra left their homes. But in most places, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

For instance, of the more than 100 works done under Jalyukt Shivar in Latur’s Ausa taluka, only one was done under MGNREGA.

“Jalyukt Shivar has killed NREGA,” said Nilesh Heda, an ecologist working on planning a watershed in Karanja in Washim. “Until now, people were willing to wait and do things manually. Now they think watershed work can be done only with machines. There is an entire attitudinal change here which will be difficult to push back.”

Gopal Kale, a resident of Bembla village in Washim, periodically migrates to Mumbai for construction work, since there is no work for him at home.

This year, he dug a six-foot well in his village under MGNREGA, but has not been paid for four months. The work was not included in Jalyukt Shivar.

“There is no direct connection between Jalyukt Shivar and my life,” Kale said. “I receive no benefit from it, neither drinking water nor work.”

Only a small concrete dam has been constructed in Bembla under Jalyukt Shivar.

“This is not work for ordinary people,” said Kale. “It is only for contractors.”

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