After failing to provide regular water despite huge investments in watershed programs, the government is now encouraging community management of water delivery systems. 'Land to the tiller' plus 'water to the tiller' can help build prosperous villages. In Maharashtra state, where several Water Users Associations (WUAs) are operating successfully, this practice is showing significant results.
So much so, that WUA-like initiatives have been launched in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, which also suffer from water scarcity. Legislations dealing with transferring of water management to WUA-like groups are being formulated in all these states.
The WUA initiative was started in Maharashtra in 1990 by the late Bapu Upadhye of Samaj Parivartan Kendra in Nashik. He helped set up water users groups along the canals of Waghad Dam in Nashik district. Instead of depending on local government officials to manage irrigation systems, WUAs believe that farmers can do this job better. Since November 1, 2003, the government has handed over the management of the entire irrigation systems of Niphad block, where the dam is situated, to the WUA network.
Active community participation has shown significant results in Niphad block: there is more water in the villages and the area under cultivation has almost doubled. While the kharif yield (winter season crop) has doubled, the rabi yield (summer season crop) has increased seven to eight times in recent years.
In Pimpalnare village (Nashik district), about 200 farmers got together to form a WUA. The village had a water tank that the government failed to revive through a watershed development program. The farmers noticed that the tank design was flawed and the officials had made an inaccurate assessment of the catchment area while building the tank. WUA members rebuilt the tank in another place; and installed a pipeline to channel
water from a nearby percolation tank to their irrigation tank. Today 80 per cent of the tank is always full.
In Panora village (Akola district), WUA members dug two tanks and several farm ponds. The village now has enough water for both drinking and irrigation purposes. Farm output has also gone up.
Officials admit that in Maharashtra, the demand for drinking water is rising and has led to a shortage of water for irrigation. The Maharashtra government's irrigation projects cover only 12-15 per cent of the cultivable land.
Under this Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) system promoted by the government, the emphasis has shifted from government-appointed irrigation engineers to people who till the land, and use the water judiciously and productively. Says Ganesh Pangare, CEO of Indian Network on Participatory Irrigation Management, "If you want more crop per drop, you have to think of the farmer first."
However, the crucial issue of gender equality in WUA still remains. Almost all WUAs in Maharashtra don't have any women representatives. Although women are behind the success of many WUA-run irrigation projects, they are not allowed to be members as they don't own land. Parvata Bai is an exception. Her head covered with the end of her sari, Parvata sits among the men in a meeting organised by the Federation of Waghad Project Water Users Cooperative Societies, in Ozhar village, Nashik district. The federation is a network of 31 WUAs operating in different villages of Nashik near the Waghad Dam.
Parvata is a member of the Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Water Users Cooperative Society. At the meeting she is very vocal about how water should be managed by the community in the villages.
After her husband's death, Parvata decided to own and till her husband's 40 hectares of land instead of handing it over to her brothers-in-law. One of the biggest challenges she faced as a farmer was scarcity of water. Often, water meant for irrigation was stolen from the canals. She joined the WUA in her village; and along with four-five women started keeping vigil along the canals that were often breached for water thefts. Later, she also helped other villagers harvest water.
Some time ago, 200 women in Pimpalnare marched to the water tank and squatted to persuade the authorities to allow the villagers to implement their plan. But the village, which even boasts of a woman sarpanch, still does not have a woman WUA member.
"Of course, women have much greater role in this project. They lent their gold to raise money for individual farmers' contribution to the project," says Sadashiv Khandve, Chairman of Shriram Water Users Cooperative Society in Pimpalnare. He recommends joint membership for women in WUAs.
According to Soppecom, an NGO working in the area, change will come only if women are made co-owners of their husbands' land. Kalpana Vispute, a volunteer with Gomukh, a Pune-based NGO working on water management projects, says the community benefits if women are included in the collective thought process. During a meeting in a village that had long suffered from acute water shortage, Vispute asked women to give some ideas. An old woman recalled that as a child she used to fetch water from a nearby pit, which was now closed. On investigation, the villagers found that the spot mentioned by the old woman was indeed an old source of water. Soon the village's drinking water problem was solved.
Experts working on the water issue feel that control over water sources and its management actually empowers women. In 2003, at a paani panchayat (water council) in Rajasthan, women recounted how control over water management helped them improve their lives. They had more time to take care of children, educate themselves and even get involved in some kind of livelihood generating activity.
In WUAs, where women provide the knowledge and wisdom to revive traditional water conservation systems, their absence needs to be both questioned and countered.
Even as some WUAs have already been handed over the responsibility of managing the irrigation systems, policymakers, bureaucrats and intervening agencies have to make a conscious effort to focus on how to make women an integral part of these development initiatives.