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Written by Malin Lenita Vik and Martine Kværner Roberts

It’s midday, the sun is burning hot in the dry and arid landscape of south Rajasthan, which opens up into the lush Hamarkhora valley. Between the green foliage and golden stems of the wheat fields, is Kerwas village, home of the of the Meena tribe with it’s 18 households and 72 people.

We descend into the valley and are met by members of the local watershed committee and representatives from FES, Foundation for Ecological Security, an NGO working for ecological restoration in rural India. The committee consists of all those above the age of 18 from the village and the Panchayat level. The Panchayat level is the lowest level of governance structure and normally has authority over two or three villages. The council meets regularly to address matters of common concern.

FES and president of the community council show how rain water is channeled into the four nalas of the valley. Photo: Junn Bjartung

In the middle of the courtyard a hand-drawn ecological map of the habitat is rolled out on the ground. The village is situated in what is both a dry and high rainfall zone. There are short and heavy monsoons and a dry climate the rest of the year. It is crucial to save water where it falls, and to consume the goods from nature in a sustainable way. The leader of the community group points to the map, showing us how the natural resources in the area are managed. The map also illustrates how the natural resources have been distributed since a working plan was implemented.

- We came into contact with the people of Hamakhora habitation in 2005 after conducting a survey of the Pratapgarh District. After initial trust-building between FES and the local community, the process of identifying challenges and solutions for natural resource management began. A working plan was developed on the basis of local knowledge and preferences, with FES as a facilitator providing financial resources and technical assistance, Nadini Singh, project officer of the Pratapgarh FES office, explains.

The outcome of the planning process was a construction of watershed developments, which means that the rainfall is channelled into several water bodies at the lowest point in the valley. The water is harvested and the water bodies provide for direct irrigation, as well as indirect irrigation through the recharging of groundwater wells. The community council regulates the usage of the harvested water, so that no direct irrigation uses the two water bodies in the upper ridges because they are needed to increase the water flow in the lower streams and recharge the wells in the valley.

India’s decentralisation experiment

India has over 600 000 villages with almost 4 million elected local representatives. It is the world’s largest experiment in decentralisation. The Central government is giving the power back to the people, by giving the local government the special role of implementing development projects. This is all true on paper, but in real life communities are struggling every day to reclaim their right to control their own land and resources. Even though the state has political control, they cannot control nature. Rain falls where it falls, and is therefore completely decentralised: rain needs no political programme.

Attempts to bring government even closer to the people have been made, as is the case with the PISA act of 1996, through which there are autonomous structures all the way down to the village level. The problem is that the actual implementation of the act still seems a million miles away. The vast number of Indian legislations is to some extent contradictory, as one law cannot replace another. This allows for strong, local communities to find innovative ways of reclaiming village power.

The Hamakhora valley: the home of the Meena tribe. Photo: Julie Ness

Local voices

FES believes that watershed management is more than just a technical fix, it is also a social and cultural phenomenon entirely dependent on organisation and the involvement of local people. There have been previous attempts made by government institutions to introduce water harvesting structures in the Hamakhora habitation. However, since the local people were kept out of the process, the structures became futile within a couple of years. During the FES program the government water harvesting structures have been repaired and are now being used as a part of the watershed developments.

Tamilbai, one of the elder women living in the valley, is an active participant in the Kerwas village council. She is a shy, small lady, hiding half of her face behind her green sari while she is talking. Tamilbai explains that the village council will come together whenever they have important issues of common concern to discuss. Most of the time these meetings will entail discussions about where and how physical infrastructure should be developed or maintained, and how the work burden will be shared among the households. Tamilbai goes on further, talking about the importance of taking part in decision-making concerning her livelihood.

– Before, the women used to voluntarily keep away from decision-making processes, but today 33 percent of the seats in the council are reserved for women.

– Since the decisions made in the council also have an affect on our workdays, the women here have understood the importance of participating in the council, says Tamilbai.

In Indian rural areas it is common that there is an indirect discrimination against the female sex, where the workload is heavier on females. This village is no exception; the women have the responsibility of the household in addition to having to take part in common work and attending to the fields.

Tamilbai, an elderly woman from the Kerwas village, talks about her participation in the community council. Photo: Junn Bjartung

- To participate in decision-making processes gives us an opportunity to influence the natural environment in our valley, and it also gives us a feeling of ownership of our common resources, Tamilbai says proudly.

- What are the effects of the FES programme in your village?

- Oh, the effects are many. The soil is much richer now that we have a proper irrigation system, and for the first time we are able to grow two crops a year, instead of only one. This means that we can sell some of the surplus of what we grow on the market. Before we used to have a problem with erosion, but that is not a problem anymore, after we built check dams and trenches on the hillsides. We have also started to grow soybeans, which we mainly sell on the local market, says Tamilbai.

Creating sustainability through ownership

-We are advising the village to grow mostly for self-consumption and to keep on prioritizing the traditional crops such as maize and pulses, wheat, mustard and gram, even though they have started to grow soybeans for commercial purpose, Shipra Cupta, another project officer from FES explains.

- In order to keep this program sustainable, it has been decided that direct irrigation from these wells should have a monetary charged. The income from the communal water project is deposited with the Panchayat. The funds are released when the community council needs to do repairs or maintenance of the water structure. This creates a management system that is self-sufficient, says Nadini Singh

The Meena tribe, and many other tribes in India, is directly dependent on natural resources for their survival. In order to have water and food throughout all seasons they have to think and act strategically. The watershed program they use today is a clean and viable way of managing nature as it is highly energy and cost efficient.