In recent years watershed management has become the focal point of agricultural and rural development in rainfed areas of India. Central and State governments, donors and NGOs have all been involved in implementing watershed programmes with varying degrees of success. The majority of the more successful projects share one or more of the following characteristics: (i) they often occur under specific preconditions which are not easily replicable; (ii) approaches to development are resource intensive and cannot easily be ‘scaled up’ to new areas; (iii) there is uncertainty over the long term institutional and ecological sustainability of rehabilitated watersheds.
This paper discusses the physical, social and institutional context for watershed development. It also considers the relationship between microwatersheds and the wider institutional and policy environment. It highlights the need to prioritise the watersheds to be developed on the basis of socio-economic and biophysical criteria. It warns that in some cases watershed development may not be the most appropriate programme.
If approaches to microwatershed development are to be rapidly replicable then the preconditions for scaling up have to be identified and incorporated into the project design. Ways of working need to be defined which allow the necessary degree of participation for interventions to be planned and function adequately, but at the same time are rapidly replicable. This will entail the creation of new partnerships between central and state government, district administration, panchayati raj institutions, NGOs, line agencies and communities and implies fundamental changes in their respective roles and responsibilities.
Many donors and NGOs have been criticised for giving insufficient attention to replicability in their programmes; expansion is dependent on replication of a blueprint model in another area. Government programmes provide funds far in excess of donors or NGOs and represent a unique attempt to institutionalise participatory approaches to rural development. There is a unique opportunity for all agencies to work together to support improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency of such programmes.
Careful monitoring in the coming years will be critical to enable decisions to be made over the optimum allocation of resources in terms of maintaining a balance between expanding coverage, whilst at the same time ensuring that the development process remains equitable and sustainable.