The house that Digvijay built

  • 30/12/1998

The house that Digvijay built IN HIS very first address to the nation as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi had said that his government would launch an afforestation drive which would green five million hectares (ha) a year, making it the world's largest afforestation effort. In addition, he said, this entire exercise would be taken up through a people's movement.

Kamla Chowdhry, chairperson of the National Wastelands Development Board that was set up to oversee the implementation of the prime minister's mandate, would often ask me, "How does a government agency start a people's movement?" Indeed, an extremely difficult question to answer, especially in a country where government agencies do not have an iota of understanding of social mobilisation or the faintest hint of an inclination towards achieving it. I could not give Chowdhry any real answer.

However, I understood the answer to Chowdhry's question this August 20, on Rajiv Gandhi's birth anniversary, while addressing a public meeting of several thousand tribal people in Jhabua district. This was at the request of Digvijay Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (mp), who has personally overseen the country's finest people-driven watershed development programme which gave outstanding results in district Jhabua.

I call Jhabua outstanding because it is an effort to involve the people in land and water management on a scale and depth that no other government has attempted. The mp government's watershed development programme is now four years old. Already, satellite images show changes in the number of water bodies and the extent of the green cover. Jhabua would have made Rajiv Gandhi proud.

Today, Jhabua is truly a temple of modern India, to use Nehruji's phrase, in fact, a temple of 2 1 st century India, which shows how poverty can be eradicated from its roots by empowering the local people to manage their environment. Jhabua is today a temple dedicated to Goddess Earth. Its architect is Digvijay Singh, and it has thousands and thousands of tribal priests. Jhabua is also a place that would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud. Gandhiji had said that the 'last man' has to be the touchstone of any economic development programme. In Jhabua, that is the case indeed.

To see trees coming up in a place which in the mid- 1980s was a moonscape, and to see dug-wells literally overflowing with water on to the land in a place that was described chronically drought-prone is truly the most exciting thing I have seen in the country. It is a reversal that I have always known could take place, having watched the outstanding transformation of villages such as Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi over the last two decades, but never thought it would take place on such u scale. It is the result of political will combined with bureaucratic competence and commitment that I never believed I would see in India in my lifetime.

habua's future looks very promising. This is just the start of an ecological change that could result in a massive econom ic change. With increased grass production, villagers can move to improved animal-based activities and milk production; increased water will give them improved and stable agricultural production; and increased trees, depending on the type that are planted or regenerated, can give them both some shortterm income through sales of fruit, bamboo and other minor forest produce, and ultimately long-term income through trade of timber. If managed intelligently, the availability of these raw materials can generate secondary economic activities like small-scale industries. Increased incomes can, in turn, generate a growing demand for the service sector - from schools to shops. If Jhabua stays on the path that it has taken, 10 - 15 years later, nobody will be able to believe that this land and its people were just two decades ago among the most destitute in India.

But this ecological-economic transformation will require careful management and support, with the local society slowly moving out of the clutches of poverty into green wealth. This support will have to come both from the government and the civil society. A fine example of something that can easily tear apart this extraordinary programme is the surplus of water that it is generating itself. Now, if some powerful people in the community were to start setting up their own pump-sets, then they would lose interest in community cooperation, while others will feel cheated. Ultimately, the entire exercise could collapse. Some incidents of a few people wanting to do similar things and of expressions of unhappiness by others are already being talked about in jhabua.

This clearly shows that once a government seriously starts working with the people, it slowly begins to find solutions in decentralised, people-based governance, especially for the management of natural resources and the environment. As long as the government remains alive to these emerging problems, does not push them under the carpet, and finds nonbureaucratic answers to the problem, there is no problem that cannot be solved. In simple words, jhabua shows that if one single thing works in this country, it is bringing the spirit of democracy to the process of governance. Even though democracy is the single biggest strength of this country - a cynic may argue, it is its only strength given the state of India - it is often the one single element missing in India's day-to-day governance which is marked by non-participatory, secretive bureaucratic mind-sets.

The immediate question a sceptic may ask is that if all this is so easy, why does it not happen everywhere? There are two critical reasons for this.

The most beautiful thing I found in the state bureaucracy working with this highly participatory watershed development programme is the openness to discuss issues. They know participatory management is not possible without openness and transparency. The latest government publication on the mission states clearly: "The mission after four years has come to a stage where it confronts issues of inequity in the water management policy. The present water policy regime allows anyone with access to capital and technology to mine the resource of water through tube-wells, etc. Now when the conservation of that water has been effected through collective action, should not individual rights to appropriate that water be restrained? The mission proposes to argue for allowing communities who have come together as watershed committees to be given powers to regulate the withdrawal of water from those watersheds. New community- regulated water management policy can get experimented starting with the watersheds where work has been completed."

One, ownership of land in any watershed is highly fractured. Some is held privately, some by the revenue authorities and some by the forest department. Unless government agencies cooperate and coordinate among themselves and give power to the village community to manage the village lands, precious little will change. Unfortunately, both these preconditions are rarely met.

Two, the village community itself must work as a united force. Fractures within the village community will immediately spell the death of any such effort, even if the government is well-prepared.

Overcoming both these problems requires a vision. For jhabua, this vision came, as it has to come, right from the top: the state's chief minister Digvijay Singh. Nobody else has the power to ensure that different departments work together in ,unison, forgetting their territorial egos and rivalries. Singh had visited Anna Hazare and seen the extraordinary transformation of Ralegan Siddhi. He wanted to do the same in his state.Therefore, when he became chief minister, he started RGWDM and made his secretary the coordinator of the mission and then left it to the bureaucracy to work out the details. In many ways, jhabua is an outstanding contribution of Anna Hazare through the example he set in his own village. Thousands of people from jhabua have been to Ralegan Siddhi to understand Anna's work.

But a vision is not enough. As every industrial management guru will tell you, "God is in the details". So is it in jhabua, too. In order to deal with the lack of inter-departmental coordination and intra-village community tensions, a multiplicity of institutions have been created to start, support and undertake a people's movement for watershed management (see box: God is in the details).

The funds for the programme have come from the various Central government-sponsored rural development- employment generation programmes. Both the Central and state governments send their share of the money to the Zilla Parishad, which then disburses 80 per cent of the money to watershed development committees.

In Jhabua, the total expenditure till mid-1998 has been Rs 16.48 crore. Of this, Rs 11.95 crore has gone in direct investments into watershed development works, a large part of which has been spent as wages for the employment generated.

The programme encourages villagers to save a part of their wages to develop a watershed development fund (WDF) for the future; a gram kosh (village fund) for use by the village for collective activities; and, baira ni kuldi (women's thrift and credit groups) which women can use to help each other with soft loans.

All the WDFS of jhabua together have Rs 0.48 crore (some 3.5 per cent of the total expenditure on the programme), all village funds together have Rs 0.42 crore (about 3 per cent of the total) and all women's groups with a total number of 17,297 members have a total deposit of about Rs 2.44 crore (about 18 per cent of the total expenditure and roughly Rs 1,400 per member). In other words, the programme has not just resulted in an improvement of the local ecology but also an improvement of the collective and individual financial security of the local villagers.

ne question that I have been asking myself repeatedly is why is so little known to Indians about the change that is taking place in Jhabua. Why is the media so silent about it? Is it because the media does not care about our rural problems? This lacuna can have serious implications. The transfor mation of Jhabua, if it is to continue, requires a 'societal commitment', not just a short-term political commitment. Jhabua has to be properly supported and empowered for years to come. What happens when Digvijay Singh goes? Will Jhabua's transformation go on if there is no societal commitment? The next chief minister will then decide on his or her own whims and fancies.

But if everybody knows about the change taking place in Jhabua, values it, and insists that not only must this change continue in Jhabua but also be replicated elsewhere, then this societal commitment will get translated into a steady political commitment, regardless of who comes and goes - green, red or saffron. The media has a critical role to play in creating that societal commitment, which, sadly, it is not playing.

Yet another critical issue has bothered me about Jhabua. If Digvijay Singh has done such an outstanding job there, will he get any political or electoral benefit out of it? Till the elections in November, the answer looked'no'. It was a disturbing belief that if a politician is not going to get political returns from good work, then why would he or she do it? just out of goodwill? I think that is asking for too much out of political leaders. If the media does not focus attention on good work; if other politicians do not care; and, if the public is not bothered -except possibly for the tribals of Jhabua - then why will any politician do such things? Singh says that he has done this because this is what he thinks should be done. He is not looking for political mileage. And he did not think that he would get it. But clearly that is not a politically sustainable situation.Fortunately, the people of mp proved several sceptics wrong, including Singh and this author. Their votes have shown that they care for those politicians who deliver.

But the more I have tried to understand Jhabua, the more worried I have become about rural India's future and the future of the kind of people-based strategies we espouse. Good rural development, especially one which is based on good natural resource management, demands decentralisation of power and finances. Any politician who tries to do such a thing will fall afoul of his colleagues at all levels - from the national and state level to the district and village levels. Everybody wants decentralisation but only up to their level. When money reaches the public directly in a transparent manner, nobody is able to siphon it off.

In a country where corruption is a tidal phenomenon, which operates from the top all the way down to the panchayat level, where pelf, privilege and pilferage are the bottomlines of the political system, effective decentralisation will only earn political ire for the politician, not political support. The watershed development programme in mp did not receive the political support that it should have. 1n fact, there was a strong feeling among many people involved that there is an undercurrent of political opposition. Till the elections, this raised serious questions about what will happen to the process that has started in Jhabua after Digvijay Singh is not the chief minister.

The only solution to this problem lies in strong public consciousness, understanding and support of good acts by politicians. But that does not exist. This cannot be a good sign for democratic politics. I may be cynical but it seems to me that if Digvijay Singh had focused on Madhya Pradesh's industrialisation, instead of rural development, and succeeded as well as he has in Jhabua, he probably would have been a hero with the state's elite and media even before the election results surprised everybody. Fortunately, the election results have secured the future of Jhabua and of Digvij ay Singh.

I have written this piece because as a citizen of the country and as a vocal member of the country's civil society, I consider it my responsibility to support those political acts which show a new ray of hope for the country, especially for its poor.

---(The above is a revised version ofan article written by the author in The Hindu before the elections).

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