Development, Food & water | South Asia

24 September 2015

Informal groups and flexibility are the key to success in India’s watershed programs, Pranietha Mudliar writes.

Rural community initiatives in India are important, but the sustainability of these initiatives even more so. They are essential cogs in a wider wheel, with great implications for a secure future.

Watershed Development Committees (WDCs) are integral to watershed programs in India. Comprised of farmers, the objective of watershed programs is to improve agricultural productivity by developing degraded land and water resources.

Watershed programs are funded for five years; after this funding agencies withdraw financial assistance for post-project management such as maintenance of watershed structures. WDCs were conceived to continue facilitating post-project management, however, WDCs stop functioning after five years, with no institutional capacity to function without external sources of funding.

The Arepalyam Bailur Prakruti Watershed Association (ABPWA) in Karnataka is a rare example of a WDC that has continued to function after the conclusion of the watershed program in 1997. The APBWA formed in 2003, after a split from the Guru Mallayam (GM) Doddi Watershed Association that was formed in 1994.

Three villages, GM Doddi, Arepalyam, and Bailur were included in this watershed in the Cauvery River Basin. The watershed program was undertaken on a 70-30 component with the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA), a non-government organisation, implementing the program through a 70 per cent grant from Misereor, a German funding agency that provided a loan to farmers for the 30 per cent contribution. Instead of repaying the loan to Misereor, farmers pooled together their funds for post-project management activities.

In 2002, residents from the villages of Arepalyam and Bailur split from the GM Doddi Watershed to form a new WDC. There were three reasons for the split. First, fortnightly meetings were held in GM Doddi, which was two kilometres away from Arepalyam and Bailur. Second, members from Arepalyam and Bailur claimed that members from GM Doddi rarely attended meetings. Follow-up interviews revealed that farmers from GM Doddi were relatively better off than farmers from Arepalyam and Bailur and did not perceive any benefits from being a part of a group. Third, the local bank provides loans to groups with 20 members or less. Thus, in 2002, the ABPWA was formed with members from Arepalyam and Bailur.

To continue its sustenance, in 2003, the ABPWA transitioned into a micro-credit group. Currently, it has a savings of around Rs. 4,00,000 (around A$8440). The ABPWA is an exclusive group; membership is passed on to family members upon the death of members. My interviews with the ABPWA revealed that they turn down repeated requests from other farmers to join the group, citing reasons such as, “it will be hard to trust outsiders with the fund we have created”, or “we do not know whether they will follow the rules”, or “people only want to join our group because of the savings that we have created. Once they join the group, they will immediately demand a loan, and we do not have a guarantee that they will repay it.”

In June 2015, I attended one of their meetings where the ABPWA was discussing the issue of new membership.  Members voted on a proposition to allow new members if they regularly contributed to the common fund. Small loans of Rs.1000 (around A$20) would be given to monitor loan repayment behaviour, which, if satisfactory, would result in an increase in the loan amount.

In July 2015 a new member was inducted into the group with a vote of 12-5; however the 12 members later withdrew their vote and her membership was cancelled. The ABPWA is now again discussing the issue of membership. According to some members, one dilemma they need to resolve is that new members will not exploit the savings. Some think new members should pay a membership fee of Rs. 1000 (A$20) and contribute Rs. 25,000 (A$532) before applying for a loan. Others think new members should pay Rs. 1000 for membership, but only contribute for six months before applying for a loan.

The ability of the ABPWA to deal with change, such as the split from the GM Doddi in 2003, the transition from a watershed group to a micro-credit group, and recently, of deliberating the inclusion of new members into the group is critical to understand key factors that affect the sustenance of informal groups.

Although the ABPWA allows the immediate family of members who pass away to join the group, the newer generation might not perceive benefits of being a member of the ABPWA because of improved standards of living. This may affect the sustenance of the ABPWA in the long run without sufficient members in its group.

While it is inevitable that change is likely to disrupt the status quo of the ABPWA, it is just a matter of time when the ABPWA decides to embrace and adapt to the change, and allows new members to continue its sustenance as a group.

The ability to adapt to change and circumstances is vital for community initiatives and informal groups because they are an essential component of growth in rural areas. However, policies for community-led initiatives do not have a clear direction of how to address change and as a result, they fail to keep pace with informal groups that undergo transformation.

These transformations may or may not result in sustainable informal groups. Policymakers can incentivise sustainability by introducing funding mechanisms such as grants, or rewarding groups that generate their own capital when external funding runs out. Understanding contextual factors that can improve the capacity of informal groups to adapt to change to be sustainable is key for policymakers and members of informal groups.

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