At the height of the June summer in Madhya Pradesh, Mannubai Chamariya heaved boulders from the banks of a dry stream to a site where other workers arranged them in a tiled wall, filling the gaps with cement.

The work was arduous but Chamariya and the others did not mind it.

They were building a small check dam in the hope that it would bring water to their parched fields – and prosperity to their lives.

“Normally this nala [stream] is full only during the monsoon,” said Chamariya, a woman in her 40s who lives in Sangvi village in Bhikangaon block and grows cotton and soyabean in its black loamy soils. “But this dam will help us get water even in the other seasons.”

Such dams usually have sluices or metal gates that can be opened to allow the flow of excess water when the stream is full.

“The gates help silt to flow out with the water,” said Radheshyam Patel, an agricultural engineer with Samaj Pragati Sahayog, the non-profit organisation that is helping the villagers build the dam. “Without them, streams get clogged with siltation and their water storage capacity reduces very quickly.”

This makes gated dams crucial for water conservation.

But the district administration, which is funding the dam, nearly did not sanction money for the gates – all because of a controversial shift in India’s water conservation policy under the Narendra Modi government.

From integration to irrigation

The check dam under construction in Bhikangaon block is part of a watershed development project under the central government’s Integrated Watershed Management Programme.

Watersheds are basin-like areas that collect rainfall water, store a part in the soil and drain the rest into streams and rivers.

The Integrated Watershed Management Programme, started in 2009, aims to fight drought in India by holistically conserving water along with soil and forests, through hundreds of projects, each operating at the level of a watershed spread over 5,000 acres of land.

For decades, this integrated approach has been widely recognised around the world as a successful method of ecological conservation in water-scarce regions.

In India, experts say it is absolutely essential.

More than two-thirds of the country’s area is covered by drylands and 53% of its agriculture is dependent on the rains. With climate change affecting weather systems, the Indian monsoon is becoming more erratic. The pre-monsoon showers this year have been the second-lowest in 65 years. In the third week of June, 43.62% of India was facing drought conditions. Chennai, the country’s fourth-largest city, is running out of water.

India badly needs to conserve every drop of water – and watershed management is considered the best way to do it.

But the Integrated Watershed Management Programme is dying a slow death.

One year after the Modi government was elected, in July 2015, it launched a new scheme for farmland irrigation called the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. The aim of the scheme was pithily summed up in slogans: “Har Khet Ko Pani” – water for every farm – and “Per Drop More Crop”.

Experts say this narrow focus on farm irrigation is a sharp departure from the broader framework of watershed management, which not only seeks to conserve water, but also tries to rejuvenate the local ecology. It also promotes sustainable uses of water by weaning away farmers from water-intensive crops.

The Modi government has not ended the Integrated Watershed Management Programme – it was made a part of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana as its Watershed Development Component. But for all practical purposes, it is being phased out.

In the last four years, central funding to the programme has drastically dropped,’s analysis of government expenditure shows. From Rs 2,284 crore allocated in 2014-’15, central funds for watershed work shrunk by 35% to Rs 1,487 crore in the first year of the policy shift.

Agricultural experts believe the programme’s best features have been compromised. In Bhikangaon, for instance, after the Integrated Watershed Management Programme was merged with PMKSY, “district officials have only been giving sanctions and funding for structures that result in direct irrigation outcomes, like dams without gates,” said Radheshyam Patel, the agricultural engineer. “They are denying permissions for structures meant for soil conservation.”

Worse, since 2016, the government has stopped sanctioning new watershed projects. From watershed development work over 39 million hectares of land, the programme’s aim has narrowed down to bringing just 11.5 lakh hectares of land under irrigation coverage.

“By shifting the focus [to farm irrigation], the government is taking water conservation efforts back by 20 years,” said Vijay Shankar, a founding member of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, the non-profit organisation that is implementing the 5,046-hectare watershed management project in Bhikangaon.

The Integrated Watershed Management Programme was the culmination of two decades of careful deliberations by several committees of experts and countless experiments by grassroots organisations on the ground.

The decision to sideline it, however, appears to have been made without any consultations. The rural development ministry, which oversees the programme, had no representation on the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs that approved the proposal. It is not clear if the ministry was consulted at all.

Questions sent by to the rural development minister and the secretary heading the department of land resources, which implements the watershed programme, went unanswered.

An official of a drought-affected state described the merger of IWMP with PMKSY “a foolish move”. Watershed projects need at least 10 years to start having a significant impact, said the official, who did not want to be identified. Recasting IWMP into an irrigation scheme has been an interruption to its momentum. “In this transition [from IWMP to PMKSY], the government has lost the plot,” said the official.

Mannubai Chamariya at the check dam construction site in Sangvi village in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Why watershed management matters

“Watershed” is a term used to describe a geographical unit of undulating land in which rainwater flows down from elevated areas to feed a drain or stream in the lowlands. Streams from many watersheds eventually feed a river or lake.

Conventional irrigation schemes that involve the building of dams, bunds or farm ponds in lower regions, known as “valleys”, do nothing to conserve rainwater in the elevated regions, known as “ridges”. As a result, ridge areas suffer from depleted groundwater and greater soil erosion.

Integrated watershed management takes a holistic “ridge-to-valley” approach. In ridge areas, structures like farm ponds and contour trenches allow rainwater to collect long enough to increase local groundwater levels before excess water drains towards valleys. In valleys, various check dams, stop dams and earthen dams are carefully mapped to harvest water in multiple locations, including common grazing pastures for cattle.

Structures like farm ponds, contour trenches and gated dams simultaneously prevent soil erosion from farms – increasing agricultural productivity. This also avoids siltation in streams and drains.

Since soil conservation is crucially linked to water conservation, afforestation is part of the strategy.

In India, this integrated ridge-to-valley approach has been adopted in various forms since the 1980s, based on guidelines recommended by experts, culminating in a national programme in 2009.

Positive impact

From 2009 to 2015, the Ministry of Rural Development sanctioned 8,214 watershed development projects covering 39 million hectares of land in 28 states, at a cost of Rs 50,740 crore.

Each project covers between 2,000 to 5,000 hectares of land – usually, eight or ten villages – and lasts for five to seven years. While most projects are run directly by government agencies or panchayats, some are contracted to NGOs.

Aiming to involve the local community right from the start, the project implementers first educate local people about the science behind watershed management, before building various structures for water and soil conservation. These are eventually handed over to trained village committees to manage.

In Khandwa district, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme implemented a watershed management project in 2012-’17. It claims to have seen a clear positive impact.

“Irrigated land has increased, so farmers are able to grow crops over a larger area,” said Bharat Moghare, a regional manager for the non-profit. “Some are being able to grow two crops a year, and a monsoon crop is ensured even in a low rainfall year.”

Afforestation has also increased, he said.

Long-term sustainability, however, depends heavily on a local community’s collective understanding of the need to match water conservation with water utilisation.

“When watershed management leads to increase in groundwater, it could be that the water is collected and conserved in one part of the land and not another,” said a watershed management expert who did not want to be identified. “Ideally, beneficiaries should share that water equitably. But often we end up seeing islands of greenery, because farmers in one area use up the ground water for themselves, by growing water-intensive crops.”

Weaning farmers away from water-intensive crops is a clear challenge under the IWMP, which has also been plagued with patchy implementation, said the state official. But the shift towards irrigation-centric schemes like the PMKSY has not helped fix the problems.

Changes in funding pattern

One of the first changes in IWMP after its shift to PMKSY was the funding pattern. Earlier, the ratio of central government and state government contributions to the programme’s budget was 90:10. Since 2015, the ratio was changed to 60:40.

This meant the central funds for the programme drastically dropped from Rs 2,284 crore in 2014-’15 to Rs 1,487 crore in 2015-’16. While state governments made up the shortfall that year, since then the combined central and state funds have been below the levels achieved in 2012, when most of the projects came on-stream.

In 2017, the government told a Parliamentary Standing Committee that it was focusing on developing existing projects and bringing 11.5 lakh hectares of land within them under irrigation coverage. This was a dilution of the original target of carrying out watershed development work over 39 million hectares of land.

The committee report also pointed out that the progress on existing projects was “lackadaisical”: of the 8,214 projects sanctioned from 2009 to 2015, as of July 2017, not a single project had been declared officially closed.

Six months later, there was marginal progress: 1,140 projects in 13 states were declared complete by December 2017.

Watershed development is one of three sub-components of Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sinchayee Yojana. The other two are Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme and Per Drop More Crop.

Many states have compounded the Centre’s neglect of watershed management.

When the Centre-state funding ratio for the watershed programme changed to 60:40, Telangana, for instance, began diverting most of its water management funds towards Mission Kakatiya, a state scheme to conserve water through restoration of minor irrigation tanks and lakes in villages.

“States are interested in spending on big, contractor-driven infrastructure projects like restoring tanks,” said MV Rama Chandrudu, the director of the non-profit WASSAN Foundation. “Restoring irrigation tanks is important, but it is local work – it is not the same as integrated management of a watershed.”

In Maharashtra, similarly, the state government is diverting money from IWMP to Jal Yukt Shivar, a scheme which is focused on widening and deepening rivers, which researchers say is unscientific and harmful. “In a way, we are going backwards,” said KJ Joy of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management.

What fund cuts mean on the ground

The shortage of funds has led to work grinding to a halt in many places.

Since 2010, WASSAN had been implementing two IWMP projects in Telangana’s Vikarabad district, but a severe funding crunch from 2014 to 2016 forced them to stop work for two years. Although the projects were eventually completed and handed over to villagers in 2018, Chandrudu claims that IWMP has been “killed” by lack of political will.

In Madhya Pradesh, the budget cuts show up in unexpected places.

For instance, before 2015, project implementing agencies would get funds for employing at least four key team members: a social worker, an administrative worker, an agricultural expert and a technical expert, such as an engineer or a geologist. “Now they only fund two team members – an engineer and an agricultural expert,” said Moghare of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme.

In Bhikangaon, the Samaj Pragati Sahayog had to plead with district officials for two months before they were finally granted sanctions and funds to build gates in their check dams in Sangvi. It faced the same problem with two other watershed projects in Dewas district.

“In most other IWMP projects, especially those run by the state government, soil and forest conservation efforts are being abandoned,” said Patel.

A gated check dam under construction in Bhikangaon, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Aarefa Johari

This seems to be the crucial problem with the government’s watershed management efforts under the PMKSY. In official documents about the irrigation scheme, the stated aims of its watershed development component continue to be the same as that of the original IWMP: an integrated approach towards water, soil and forest conservation that will improve agricultural yields and enhance rural livelihood generation.

But on the ground, the government has been steadily undermining its own programme by focusing heavily on short-term, tangible irrigation outcomes rather than integrated ecological conservation.

Like the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Moghare’s organisation has also had trouble getting sanctions or funding for structures like farm ponds and contour trenches which help soil conservation work in ridge areas. Both NGOs are trying to build these structures anyway, by raising funds from private companies with corporate social responsibility programmes.

Missing convergence

According to a central government official who did not wish to be identified, funding for ridge-area structures like farm ponds have been “partially stopped”, not because of the shift from integrated watershed development to irrigation, but because of the government’s decision to pool resources from other schemes – officially called “convergence”– in the PMKSY’s implementation.

“Under PMKSY, these structures are supposed to be built in convergence with the NREGA scheme,” the official said, referring to the scheme run under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that guarantees 100 days of manual employment to every rural household that demands work.

Both NREGA and PMKSY are schemes run by the union Ministry of Rural Development. “But that convergence has not happened smoothly,” the official said. “Under NREGA, structures are separately, not in sync with the scientific ridge-to-valley approach of watershed projects.”

This, according to the government official, is also why expenditure of watershed development funds has been low since the programme was moved to PMKSY. “State governments are expecting some of the funds to come from NREGA,” the official said.

Chandrudu of WASSAN Foundation pointed out that watershed management in the rural development ministry is no longer handled by senior bureaucrats drawn from the Indian Administrative Service.

“A programme like this needs powerful central steering, and now that has been weakened,” he said.

Those who pay the price

Ultimately, those impacted by shifting policies are the people who live in regions prone to water scarcity, like farmer Asif Khan from Kholwa village in Madhya Pradesh.

“Our groundwater is very low right now,” he said. “We need to build structures like farm ponds before the rains come. If the government will not help us build them, we will have to do it ourselves, if we can afford it.”

He added: “But what about those of us who cannot?”