Usharmukti, a project of the Government of West Bengal, is being carried out in collaboration with civil society organisations in the western part of the state, to carry out watershed activities under MNREGA to conserve soil and water. In this note, Ashwini Kulkarni describes the main idea behind and working of the innovative project from her visit to the project area.
When a farmer says that with potato in Rabi season and duckery in their Hapa (farm pond), their family’s income will increase by Rs. 50,000 to 60,000 in that year, that optimism remains in your mind for a long time. Given the ongoing rural distress across the country, it is not difficult to accept that this is a rarity – more so, when the family is that of a marginal farmer with no assured source of water. A simple Hapa in his farm land generated the optimism. It is not a single activity but a part of a systematic plan for the restoration and conservation of water and soil, based on a meticulously prepared watershed-based plan of activities.
This is the scenario across blocks in the western part of West Bengal. One such area is the Jangal Mahal area, which is hilly and receives annual rainfall in the range of 1,000-1,500 mm. It is populated by small and marginal SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Tribe) families who are mainly involved in monsoon-dependent farming, and lack access to irrigation facilities. This area is traditionally known to be an economically backward region of the state – and now with degraded soil and depleting groundwater level, the situation could only get worse. For this a project called Usharmukti (freedom from drought) was designed by the West Bengal Government.
The watershed activities were prepared over more than six months. Civil-society organisations (CSOs) working in this area have worked closely with villagers – involving women at each stage through their self-help groups (SHGs) – to prepare maps and activity plans in a consultative participatory process. Of these CSOs, seven across 55 blocks are supported by Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF), an organisation promoted by Ministry of Rural Development. BRLF has been working in Central India’s tribal belt to increase livelihood opportunities of the tribal farmers since 2012. BRLF provides CSOs with financial and capacity-building support, and facilitates crucial technical knowledge transfer. The CSOs got basic training of watershed techniques from BRLF, and passed it on to the village volunteers. Organising villagers around the principle of watershed and ensuring their participation in the planning process has been achieved because of villagers’ trust gained by the CSOs. In an area affected by left extremism, gaining this faith is not easy, to say the least!
Once the plans are prepared, the villagers discuss them in Gram Sabha1 and put them in the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act)2 budget of the Gram Panchayat (village council). Here comes the part of the government. The state government has committed itself to giving priority to these plans, ensuring that work is made available when people need it, and completing the set of activities in the planned manner.
Institutions working together for soil and water conservation
There are three actors – the local CSO, BRLF, and the state government – that work together as a sangam (confluence) of institutions to rejuvenate the seven rivers that flow through this region. They have a formal agreement with the MNREGA department of the state government to restore the soil and water situation of this difficult terrain. The efforts of the villagers in planning, executing, and monitoring the watershed plans are being facilitated by these actors.
Projects based on watershed principle have proven to be significant and are probably the only way to conserve soil and water. Yet, over the years, they are losing their significance in the Union and state budgets. Although the technical part of watershed is quite clear, its social engineering part needs a nuanced approach. The Usharmukti project has valuable insights in this space.
The broad aspects of such projects are the technical design of the set of watershed-based activities, the coordination of different actors, and the capacity-building of each of the actors in terms of their role and finances.
For the watershed-based structures, a template has been designed by CSOs and BRLF. All these structures neatly fit into the permissible works under MNREGA. The capacity-building of the CSOs and the basic coordination between CSOs and the state officials was carried out by the BRLF, while the coordination amongst the district and local officials was carried out by the CSOs. This implementation design is one of the insights of the Usharmukti project.
The second valuable and heartening aspect of this project is making MNREGA what it is meant to be. MNREGA is used here in the most appropriate way, putting all its objectives in order. If one reads its guidelines carefully, MNREGA is meant to support soil and water conservation measures as its first priority. It is meant to strengthen the processes of Gram Sabha, and most importantly, provide the much needed wage employment. This project area is a known place for seasonal distress migration. Thus, making wage employment available in these villages by creating assets that enhance livelihood opportunities, and which are planned by farm labourers themselves, is a ‘dream come true’ level of MNREGA implementation.
The Government of West Bengal has been spending more than Rs. 50 billion, even going up to almost Rs. 80 billion last year under MNREGA. The average person days per family is higher than the national average, and that in the Usharmukti project area is higher than the state average.
None of this can ever be easy; the initial period of coordination is crucial. Building consensus and a basic understanding of all the players involved requires time and energy. Though time-consuming, the democratic processes –deliberations amongst the CSOs and villagers, CSOs and BRLF, BRLF and state administration – are vital. This is the basic foundation of the story; the numbers and achievements come later.
Achievements of the Usharmukti project
Usharmukti’s achievements are many. There are mango orchids spanning several hectares on the previously barren land, there are other fruit trees, and social forestry trees too. All of these will yield benefits after a couple of years. In just two years, villagers shared that the earlier grasses, the earlier medicinal plants which had become scarce, are being seen in the areas where moisture is getting retained. The people consider this as nature’s response to their efforts.
This is the way to go. If the Government of West Bengal has found such an innovative way of creating a sangam of institutions for Usharmukti, is it difficult for other states to be novel in their implementation of MNREGA?
- Gram Sabha means a body consisting of all persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls for the Panchayat at the village level. It exercises such powers and performs such functions at the village level as the legislature of a state. For instance, it approves the plans, programmes, and projects for social and economic development.
- MNREGA guarantees 100 days of wage-employment in a year to a rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual work at state-level statutory minimum wages.
First published by Ideas for India on 20 Jan. 2020