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 Watershed Development

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Combining Land Reforms and
 Watershed Development

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Bharat Dogra

Many landless (or almost landless) persons who got land under various land-distribution programmes in India could not actually occupy and cultivate their land due to the resistance of powerful big landowners, including those who had encroached village common land. However, even among the land allottees who could actually occupy land, there were many who could not cultivate the land due to lack of irrigation and various land-improvement measures such as land-levelling and bunding. In many cases the land allotted was poor-quality and isolated land without access to any irrigation source. This land frequently remained uncultivated or yielded very little despite hard work.

On the other hand, many irrigation and watershed projects did not benefit the poorest villagers simply because they did not have any land. The landless households were excluded from the benefits of irrigation, as well soil and water conservation work.

It is therefore very important to link land-reforms particularly land distribution work with irrigation and watershed development work. The poorest households who get land can then quickly also get the benefits of bunding, other soil and water conservation work as well as irrigation. Both efforts will thus benefit from each other. Land reforms will lead to new farmers from poorest families actually cultivating their fields and getting good yields, improving their food security as well as income. Watershed and irrigation projects will have the satisfaction of benefiting the poorest families in the village as well. Of course the bigger farmers will still get the bigger share of benefits, but the poorest households will not be excluded from the benefits of public investment in irrigation and watershed development.

Such a combination of combining land-distribution work with good watershed deve-lopment work can be seen today in some panchayats of Manikpur block (Chitrakut district of Uttar Pradesh). This is also known as the Patha region. Much of the credit for combining land reforms with watershed development and irrigation here goes to the ABSSS (a voluntary organisation whose full name is Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Seva Sansthan) which has implemented three watershed development project in this area.

At a time when land reform was being increasingly neglected at the national level, the ABSSS achieved very significant success (in very adverse conditions) in promoting land distribution work in its core work area of Patha region (Chitrakut district). At a time when Bundelkhand experienced a prolonged drought the watershed work of the ABSSS revealed how the thirst of this parched land can be quenched by cost-effective soil and water conservation work taken up with the involvement and support of villagers.

Till about three to four decades back, the Kol tribals in particular had been deprived of their land rights and prevented by powerful big landowners from cultivating the land legally allotted to them. In several villages they worked in conditions of bondage, but the local officials didn’t acknowledge this, so that the law enacted for the release and rehabilitation of bonded workers could not reach them.

However, when a survey by the Lucknow based government organisation UPDESCO tried to sincerely identify bonded workers, the ABSSS provided enough evidence at the field level to convince these researchers about the widespread prevalence of bonded labour in this area. This as well as the follow-up work done by the ABSSS put enough pressure on the government to take up the release and rehab. work of several bonded workers. Action was also initiated against some big landowners who employed bonded workers. All this helped to remove the practice of bonded labour to a considerable extent.

These efforts were accompanied by broad-based efforts for land distribution among the poorest sections, particularly the Kol tribals, and also helped them to occupy and cultivate the land earlier allotted to them. This work was sustained for several years despite the many-sided efforts of the big landowners lobby and the ‘dabangs’ powerful well-connected persons (who had been illegally cultivating a lot of land allotted to the kols) who resisted any effort to distribute the land to the kols and other weaker sections. This is a dacoity-prone area where several ferocious dacoit gangs have operated in recent years. Sometimes the terror of dacoits was also used against the weaker sections and even some activists of the ABSSS, but undeterred by all this the ABSSS continued its campaign for land reforms.

From the very beginning this organisation emphasised low-cost water conservation and collection projects including repair and better maintenance of traditional waterworks. The check dams and tanks constructed by the ABSSS attracted attention both for their better quality and lower costs.

The Patha area of Chitrakut district has been regarded as one of the most water-scarce areas of Uttar Pradesh. Pathetic stories of thirsty people and animals searching for water in scorching summer have been told time and again. A lot of potentially cultivated land, particularly the pattas distributed to the poorest households, remained barren due to lack of water and moisture. The situation worsened during the recent years of a prolonged drought in Bundelkhand.

It is in this distressing situation that the ABSSS made a promising effort to conserve and harvest rain water which has brought hope to three panchayats and water-shed areas of Manikpur block. These three small projects together present a very hopeful pictures of what small-scale water harvesting projects when implemented honestly and skillfully can achieve even in very difficult conditions.
The three projects taken up in Mangavaan, Ittwa and Tikariya panchayats were supported by the Dorabji Tata Trust, NABARD and the District Rural Development Agency respectively.

The Mangavaan panchayat (Manikpur block) has emerged as an inspiring example of combining land-reforms and watershed development work. Over 90 per cent of the population of this panchayat consists of the Kol and Mavaiya tribals. The situation about 25 years back was that only about 15 per cent of these households were able to cultivate their own land. The reasons for this were mainly four.

Some of them did not have any land. Others had been given land pattas but had not been able to cultivate it as follow-up action to identify and demarcate this land was never taken. Due to the absence of such essential follow-up work, either the Kol tribals could not cultivate the land or even if they worked very hard to improve land and make it cultivable, big landowners bribed revenue officials to transfer this improved land in their own name while tribals were given some rocky infertile land. Such unfair treatment demoralised them to such an extent that they stopped taking the initiative to cultivate land.

Another factor was that the big landowners who then controlled the bulk of cultivation land in the panchayat more or less forced the Kol tribals to give first priority to working on their fields and/or forest-areas contracted by them. As Kol tribals had to toil on their fields or forest areas throughout the day, they frequently could not get enough time to cultivate their own land.

Last but not the least, the land given to the kols under the pattas (land-distribution) was mostly rocky and unirrigated land. Without additional help for land-levelling, bunding and irrigation, they could not cultivate this land even if they tried hard.

To perpetuate this situation big landowners manipulated in several ways to tie-up the Kols in ties of debt-bondage. “I toiled for one year on a big landowner’s field for one year for a negligible wage after I took a loan of just Rs. 100. Both due to the high interest rate and our every low payback capacity, even such small loans were enough to tie us up for a year or so of debt bondage,” says Kodo Kol.

“We used to be in such a precarious state that we did not even have the money to pay land revenue and the lekhpal threatened to auction away our land if we did not pay up. In such a situation we borrowed small amounts, and ended up working as bonded workers for long periods,” says Bhailal.

In this situation, the ABSSS intervened at four levels. Firstly, it worked hard to end the practice of bonded labour at all levels. Secondly, it started a strong and sustained campaign for the proper identification and demarcation of the land pattas distributed earlier, as well as distribution of new pattas with all the necessary follow-up work. In this way the Kol tribals started getting actual possession of the pattas which could be clearly identified as legally belonging to them. Also as there was no pressure for forced or bonded labour they could now cultivate their own land by devoting more time for this. Thirdly mobilisation and unity of the weaker sections were helped and encouraged so that they could defend their newly acquired freedom and rights against any attempts to curb these.

However, all these effort were not adequate till extensive land-levelling, bunding and small-scale irrigation benefits could not be made available to these Kol tribals of Mangavaan under a watershed project, implemented by the ABSSS and supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. This watershed project apart from field-treatment and small-scale irrigation also provided the wider conditions of moisture conservation and increasing greenery from which all the cultivators could benefit and have assurance of some yield even in difficult years of low rainfall. This watershed project helped to bring a lot of new land under cultivation, while also significantly increasing the yield of the land cultivated earlier as well. Many Kol farmers report a five to six times increase in production, with year-long availability of foodgrains in the household and significant increase in food security.

Fortyeight-year-old Ramkishan Kol says that in his father’s time also the family had some land, but there was very little time and opportunity to cultivate it due to the pressures to give first priority to work on the fields of a big landowner. “We lived from day to day. If we did not earn on single day our family could remain hungry that day. The rainy days were most difficult. We often also made roties made from local grasses called urdavan and sumai. But now food availability is assured for my 8 member family throughout the year.” Ramkisan grows significant quantities of rice, wheat and (in favourable conditions) til, apart from growing modest quantities of moong, soyabean and vegetables. Somewhat similar are the success-stories of Rajaram, Purushottam and other villagers.

“Now I’m not afraid to fight for our water rights,” says Shakuntla Kol. “When big land-owners tried to take away our water, we fought it out and saved the water for our fields.”

This new assertiveness and consciousness, security of land rights as well as the many-sided benefits of watershed project have combined to create a situation in which over 90 percent of tribal kol-mavaiys households are cultivating their land compared to just to about 15 per cent 25 years ago. Even in water-scarce years, they’ve been able to protect their food security to a significant extent.

[Note: This article has been written under the CSE Media Fellowship.]

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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