PCDForum Column #6,   Release Date December 15, 1990

by F. Stephen

Traditionally, each community in India had its own system for the utilization of water, land, forest and fisheries resources based on two principles: distribution and renewal. Although hierarchies of caste and position concentrated benefits in the hands of the more powerful, everyone received enough to meet their basic needs and the resources were preserved for the use of future generations. Long before the arrival of colonial rulers, agriculture thrived in the dry areas of India. Sophisticated water management and agricultural techniques efficiently harvested available rain water and conserved the soil. Micro-watershed management, contour farming, and mixed cropping patterns were common.

As our villages became integrated into the national and global economy and population grew, the elements of the traditional community systems that provided for conservation and basic needs broke down. We were left with unrestrained exploitation of people, land, water, fisheries and forests for short-term gains. The loss of forest cover has been particularly detrimental, a major contributor to the expansion of drought prone areas and even the reduction of rainfall.

Green revolution technologies have exacerbated the problem. Although they raised agricultural productivity, in parts of India they also led to the concentration of land holdings, reduced labor demand, depleted natural soil fertility, and encouraged mining of ground water. The poor were deprived of land, employment and even drinking water.

In combination these circumstances have produced a continuing expansion in India's drought prone areas. Drought is no longer a natural disaster. It is a direct consequence of human activity. The resulting human suffering is enormous and growing.

Government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have responded primarily with relief measures. Efforts to dig more wells, deepen existing wells, and provide loans and alternative employment must all be included in this category as they attack only the symptoms, not the causes of the suffering. In many instances they even further destabilize the ecological balance. Awareness of the deeper significance of the problem of drought and its awesome implications is now spreading among Indian NGOs.

India's land, water and forestry resources must be rebuilt to reestablish an ecological balance and at the same time meet the basic needs of India's rapidly growing population. Success will depend on restoring control of these resources to the community and establishing new ownership patterns and distribution mechanisms that return to the poor their means of livelihood.

Appropriate technologies and social arrangements must be adapted to the conditions of specific localities. Yet action is required on a massive scale. Strong community level organization is essential to re-establish many of the land and water management practices that have fallen into disuse, including the construction and maintenance of terraces, forest areas, ponds and tanks to provide sustained water harvesting.

Cropping patterns appropriate to drought prone areas must be introduced. Crops that require little water and even help replenish the water table will need to be popularized and those like sugar that require enormous amounts of water prohibited. Food habits may need to be changed. Government programs like sericulture that will neither meet the people's needs for food, fodder and fuel, nor provide them a steady income, must be resisted.

To play a meaningful role, NGOs will need to think and work in terms of agro-climatic belts. They will need to develop more specialized competencies and join forces to complement one another's efforts. They will need to apply participatory action research methods to help the people understand the sources of the drought conditions that disrupt their lives and rediscover traditional means of preventing them.

Even while resisting inappropriate government programs, collaboration with government in the development of constructive programs will be essential. NGOs must come to the policy debate armed with concrete data and well developed analyses demonstrating the social and ecological consequences of alternative patterns of land and water use. Participation in international NGO alliances will be required to block destructive actions by international assistance agencies and to gain access to relevant international technology and experience. These are among the challenges that Indian NGOs are preparing themselves to address in the 1990s.

F. Stephen is executive director of Search, a major South Indian NGO training support organization based in Bangalore, and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This guest column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on the Search monograph "Drought: Roles and Perspectives for NGOs." For further information contact Search, 219/26, 6th Main, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore-560 011, India.

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