Drought management: Successes in Solapur, India
The Solapur model under a Maharashtra government programme stands as a real example that could be successfully emulated
On being urged to by an activist friend in the water sector, I visited the district of Solapur in the state of Maharashtra, India in August of 2016.
Maharashtra, in western India, struggles periodically with severe droughts. In 2014, the state government launched the Jalyukt Shivar programme (henceforth referred to as JYS and roughly translated as “Water-filled fields”) as an ambitious attempt to permanently drought-proof the state by 2019.
JYS is a large-scale decentralized programme to conserve soil and water in the countryside. Existing programmes for watershed development, agriculture, groundwater management etc. were converged and made a priority for the district administration. Activities included watershed interventions like bunds, trenches, digging percolation ponds, recharging wells, tree plantation, desilting of water bodies and more. These interventions are not new and were being carried out already, though in a more ad-hoc and less coordinated manner.
My visit impressions were very positive though I did not visit a representative sample of locations and I do not have technical expertise in the interventions. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the programme, both in the government staff and the citizens that I met. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable. This is very rare for a government programme in India; few programmes are useful and well-run enough to garner genuine enthusiasm from field staff and beneficiaries. Many people talked of their dried-up wells coming back to life. Government staff pleaded with me to stay on for some more time so that they could show me more locations where the project work provided benefits. I was shown many pictures from the previous year of water accumulation in fields and wells as a result of the intervention. The most impressive statistic is with respect to drinking water tankers. In Maharashtra, during the peak water shortage period in summer, trucks (called tankers) are pressed into service to provide drinking water to the worst-hit villages. Solapur, like most of Maharashtra experienced low-rainfall years in 2014 and 2015, which caused severe stress in the summer months of the succeeding year that is March-June of 2015 and March-June of 2016. In 2015, 600 water tankers plied the district while in 2016, this came down to less than 40. The difference was a year of programme work under the JYS.
What explains the particular success of JYS in Solapur? One is, without doubt, the leadership of the administrative head of the district (the District Collector or DC) Tukaram Mundhe. His leadership in making JYS a success was universally acknowledged. One part of the leadership is sheer administrative excellence in implementation. The District Collector’s role is an enormous one with responsibility for all aspects of life in the district while also managing politics and vested interests. The DC has been a visible leader for JYS and pushed the administrative machinery to high-performance both in quantity and quality. Another most challenging aspect of his leadership is in work beyond JYS that nevertheless have major implications for water security. In the process, he often had to take on powerful interests. In fact, the word is that his transfer from his position as DC of Solapur was to do with stepping on too many toes. The DC has strictly enforced groundwater management rules like prohibiting/regulating new bore wells near public water sources commandeering private bore wells for community use during periods of water stress. He has also prevented the powerful sugar lobby from misappropriating water for the sugarcane crop at critical times. The DC has also worked on hard problems of the drinking water supply systems to the villages. Many of the systems are defunct for a variety of reasons, and progress on new systems was also slow. The DC has been able to correctly diagnose the reasons for non-functioning schemes and solve them, and expedite the new schemes. The average number of water sources per village jumped dramatically from 5.67 to 39.24 in a matter of a couple of years.
Another success factor is creating a package of practices out of JYS that enabled its success. The guidelines at the state level are fairly broad and leave considerable flexibility to the district for how to implement. Solapur has used this flexibility to create a low-cost high-value package of practices. For example, government officers repeatedly refer to ‘compartment bunding’. This is a process of trenching and bunding farmland plots appropriately to maximally retain water in the field (see picture). Government staff in Solapur insist that interventions such as this at the sites where water falls are most critical in harvesting the maximum amount of water. This work has been taken up as a centerpiece of JYS in Solapur. The same is not true elsewhere in the state and seems to be one of the reasons that they have not seen the same success elsewhere as in Solapur. Another very effective intervention has been well recharge, which is done with participation of the people including financial contribution. This has been received enthusiastically by people and the financial contribution from their side has reduced government expenditure. Well recharge is also a visible symbol of the improved water situation and has been very good for keeping confidence and enthusiasm high.
The new DC, Ranjith Kumar is keeping up the momentum created by Mundhe. With a bit of luck, in the next few years the same success can be spread to cover the rest of the district and the entire district could have a robust drought-resistance infrastructure in place.
In other districts of Maharashtra, JYS has been criticised quite strongly in some media reports. Problems seem to include unscientific and counter-productive interventions like stream widening and deepening, financial irregularities, thin spread of the interventions on the ground and inadequate benefits for the poorest farmers. While there have not been reports criticising Solapur, a good independent evaluation of the work in Solapur district would be very relevant and appropriate.
The Solapur model stands as a real example that could be successfully emulated. Well-designed and implemented government schemes are rare in India. While Solapur’s success has been recognized to some extent, there is no real attempt to study and evaluate it rigorously and to transfer the learnings to other districts and other states.. The opportunity to learn, improve and implement elsewhere is very palpable.
More about Jalyukt Shivar:
Official government notification on the programme: http://www.ctara.iitb.ac.in/tdsc/GR/JYS_GR_english.pdf
Official online data: http://mrsac.maharashtra.gov.in/jalyukt/
Vijay Krishna is a development practitioner with 8 years experience in water and sanitation at Arghyam, Bangalore, a philanthropic foundation
Featured image: Author with officials