Pacific Institute Insights

Notes from the Field: A Success Story in Participatory Irrigation Management in India: The Waghad Farmer Managed Irrigation System

by Veena Srinivasan, Research Affiliate 
July 15, 2011

Awards for Waghad Irrigation SystemLast week I visited a farmer-managed irrigation system in India’s Waghad Medium Irrigation Project. I passed by the Waghad Project in my quest to locate Multiple-Use Water Services (MUS) systems around the city of Nasik, India. The Pacific Institute is currently working on understanding multiple-use as a potential for funding for improvements in the water sector. Although Waghad is not strictly an MUS case because of its size, it is an interesting case study because it highlights how “soft” options alone — information, participation, social norms, and wise use of water — can achieve dramatic results.

The project represents a highly successful “bottom-up” farmer taking over of the irrigation system and the huge prosperity it has brought to the region. What was once a decaying irrigation system where farmers received no water and the Irrigation Department received no revenue is now a thriving region where incomes have grown 50-fold and Irrigation Department Revenues went up 10-fold within 15 years. The success of this project, in part, resulted in the state government passing the Maharashtra State Farmer Managed Irrigation Act in 2005, in a bid to replicate the success elsewhere. The project’s success has been recognized by many awards including one from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) which allowed the project to compete for a water efficiency award as a private company.

There are 24 Water User Associations (WUAs) and nine Lift Irrigation User Associations in the Waghad system. There is also a Project Level Association (PLA), which co-ordinates between the WUAs and the Department of Irrigation. This blog entry (the first of several to come) is based on interviews with farmers, the local NGO, and members of the PLA and WUAs. The interviews were conducted at two locations: Ozar village, which houses the offices of three tail-end WUAs, and Mohadi village, where the PLA office is located.

History and Background
Ozar is a village 18 km from the city of Nasik. Ozar village falls under the command area of a Medium Irrigation Dam called the Waghad Dam. The command area of the Waghad Dam is about 10,000 Ha (hectares) and serves 15,000 farmers. The average land holding is about 1.5 Ha. About 10% are smallholders with holdings of 0.5 Ha or less. The dam is located 45 km upstream of Ozar.

The Situation in the Late 1980s
Until 1991 the dam was managed entirely by the Department of Irrigation. Ozar, which falls at the tail end of the command area, was receiving no water at all. But even in the head reaches of the Waghad canal system, farmers were barely earning an income of Rs 2,800/Ha, and farms at the tail-end of the minor canals in the head reaches were receiving very little water. The Irrigation Department’s revenue from the entire project was barely Rs 2 lakhs (about $12,000 in 1990) according to Shri Kulkarni, a local farmer who showed me around. These numbers were backed up by other members sitting in the PLA office. Corruption was rampant and farmers had to bribe irrigation officials to get any allocation of water at all. As the revenue from the project was so low, the Irrigation Department had no incentive to maintain the structures and the structures were gradually degrading.

Importantly, at the time the prevailing attitude among the farmers was that it was the government’s job to deliver water and the farmer’s job to receive it. Farmers were uninterested in taking over the government’s “job” – even though they were unsatisfied with the situation. Mr. Kulkarni opined that this was a distinct shift from the long history of community-level water resources management in India during the colonial period where water resources management was bureaucratized and run by British engineers who viewed it their job to deliver water and collect taxes. However, the poor state of the system meant that the level of trust in the Irrigation Department was very low. Lacking any trust in the ability of the Irrigation Department to deliver water, the farmers did not attempt to cultivate any “risky” high-value vegetable crops and as a result their income was very low. Wealthier farmers had borewells which they had to run round the clock.

The Transformation
The Ozar Water User Association was formed in 1991, one of three WUAs formed with the help of a local NGO founded by Shri Bapu Rao Upadhyay. Shri Upadhyay, founder of a local NGO called Samaj Parvitan Kendra (translates “Societal Change Centre”) was a visionary who understood the difficulties the region was suffering from and had the foresight to argue that if water was not managed it would one day “burn like oil.”

Initially, it was not difficult to persuade the tail-end farmers to agree to form a WUA. They were receiving absolutely no water from the project. Once they co-ordinated and formed the WUA, they collectively worked to improve the physical structures and persuaded the Irrigation Department to meet their obligations to supply water. As Shri Bharat Kulkarni, who now heads Samaj Parivartan Kendra, explained, the initial change was establishing trust between farmers. This was necessarily a gradual process – it involved building trust farmer by farmer over a period of 15 years. Once they showed some early successes that the WUA could collectively bargain for water, more farmers joined in.

It was clear to me why the tail-end farmers who were miserably poor were willing to join the WUA. But the big question is why the head-end farmers joined in. Older members who were active 20 years ago said that even the head-end canals were not receiving much water: only “head-end farmers in head-end canals were actually getting water.” The Irrigation Department was not maintaining the structures at all and the water was not being released at times they needed it and Irrigation Department staff needed to bribed to open the canal outlets. The farmers were frustrated that they were being asked to pay for water and bribe officials for water they could not rely on.

As Shri Kulkarni put it – even though everything appears “fair and lovely” now, the present success is because of protracted negotiations and trust-building over 20 years. Waghad appears to be exceptional in remaining untouched by caste divisions and political rivalry. Other farmer-managed systems in India have not been similarly lucky in managing to stay depoliticized, particularly in the elections of Chairman of the PLA. As one board member in the PLA put it, “We leave our differences at the door when we enter the WUA building – otherwise the whole organization would fall apart – our focus is on water and only water.”  I was not able to understand how the WUAs managed to work this miracle although I asked this question in different ways a few times. The only answer I could get was that there were inspiring leaders who were extremely committed to the cause of maintaining a de-politicized environment within the WUAs and ensured that these became part of the rules early on by simply not permitting any political or religious rhetoric.

The Current Picture
In 2011, the Waghad Irrigation Farmer Managed System is touted as an exemplary case of farmer-managed irrigation. The Project has won numerous state and national level awards and local WUA members are regularly invited to guest lecture or conduct training sessions at Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) workshops all over the country. Today the Irrigation Department revenue from the project is almost Rs 27 lakhs (about $60,000).

Farmers said that their average income from agriculture is in the range of Rs 1,20,000 per Ha (about $2500) — almost 50 times what it was 20 years ago. In an area where they could not dream of growing fruits and vegetables, farmers now regularly grow perennial crops and vegetables which require high levels of reliable water supply. Farmer participation in the WUA has stayed consistently high for 20 years.

What Steps Were Taken
Based on my conversations with farmers, the success of the Waghad project can be attributed to two types of measures: first, development of robust water institutions around monitoring and enforcement and second, widespread adoption of water efficiency measures. I will discuss this more in next month’s entry!

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