In India, Communities Manage Water Resources, Empower Women

Community-based associations that put Indian farmers in control of water for irrigation—the heart of their livelihoods—nearly foundered until an ADB-supported project stepped in, engaging farming families.


By the numbers

50%
increase in rainy season paddy production (projected)
350%
increase in spring paddy production (projected)
120,000
families to benefit (projected)

Source: Report and Recommendation to the President (2005).


Salhe Bhatha Village, Chhattisgarh State—For the past 5 years, Gayatri Dhruw has been a committee member of her village’s Water Users Association. She says she has seen the harvests on her tiny 1.2 hectare (ha) farm improve due to a steady water supply and new planting techniques she has learned.

“We have better yields and higher incomes,” she says.  Dhruw is also the village leader of Salhe Bhatha, an arid cluster of homes east of the Chhattisgarh State capital of Raipur in northeastern India, and home to 200 families. The rest of the village, she says, has seen similar returns.

Dhruw grows scented rice during the winter rainy season, followed by vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, and chili peppers during the dry season. She runs her own farm, but many of her neighbors have opted to grow and sell their produce collectively. The Water Users Association permits this and—bringing farmers together—makes seeds, farm equipment, and fertilizer cheaper, while also resulting in higher prices for the crops.

Taking control of the water

Water Users Associations were first established in 1999, when Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh State. They were revived under the Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Program that kicked off in 2006. The program, financed in part by a $46.1 million loan from ADB, aims to improve small irrigation networks and how they are managed at state and community levels.

The associations had originally failed to get off the ground—or had become inactive—because the members were unskilled in water-system management or due to lack of finances because association water fees went to the state government, rather than feeding back into associations themselves.

Since then, this financial imbalance has been corrected, and the associations have been made more representatives of their communities. They now include more women, like Dhruw, and more members of otherwise largely ignored castes and tribes.

The first elections, in 2007, for the water user associations under the new Participatory Irrigation Management Act ushered in 2,598 women committee members—34% of the total—and 24 female association presidents—2% of all those voted in. Moreover, every association has a subcommittee that looks specifically at gender issues related to farming and cropping.

“Women are completely involved in the home, but they are also very involved in farming—they spread the seeds and they do the transplanting.”

—Sharad Kumar Singh, Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) Specialist, Water Users Association Empowerment for Improved Irrigation Management in Chhattisgarh

Today, both the men and the women have regular discussions about what crops to grow, how to grow them, and most importantly, how to ensure there is enough water to irrigate the fields.

“Women are completely involved in the home, but they are also very involved in farming—they spread the seeds and they do the transplanting,” says Sharad Kumar Singh, PIM Specialist and Team Leader of the nongovernment organization (NGO) Water Users Association Empowerment for Improved Irrigation Management in Chhattisgarh, one of three groups tasked with working directly with the associations and their representatives.

Upcoming elections at the 1,300 association branches across the state, scheduled for 2013, should see women’s participation remain steady or even rise, given the associations’ success in maintaining irrigation systems, encouraging two crops per year, and promoting improved growing techniques, says B.D. Vaishnav, project director for CIDP, Water Resources Department.

Ownership, inclusion, empowerment

Under the new Participatory Irrigation Management Act, water users associations now get to keep a quarter of water fees from users—levied at Rs92 ($1.67) per acre (0.4 ha). This provides the finances to carry out small repairs and upgrades according to members’ needs. Farmers have become more willing to contribute financially because they are part of decision-making processes and implementation.

“The training we have provided [the farmers] effectively tells them, ‘This canal is yours, and you have to secure the whole system.’”

—Sharad Kumar Singh, Team Leader, NGO, PIM Specialist

Sharad describes this process as “empowering.” He has trained representatives from 187 water user associations under the Chhattisgarh irrigation project. “The training we provide [the farmers] effectively tells them, ‘This canal is yours, and you have to secure the whole system.’”

The associations have been involved from the start with the state government’s Water Resources Department in the planning, design, and construction of the upgraded irrigation systems. The associations also have the final say for payments to contractors. This is largely thanks to a $2.7 million grant cofinanced by the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Water Financing Partnership of ADB.

The Water Resources Department has also been strengthened by new teams dedicated to training water user associations, as well as promoting social development and safety issues. New regional training educational outreach centers have also been established in Ambikapur, Bilaspur, and Raipur.

The project has been so successful, the Government of Chhattisgarh is looking to replicate it elsewhere.

“A second phase is being considered by the state government,” says principal secretary for Water Resources in the Government of Chhattisgarh, N.K. Aswal.

The neighboring state of Orissa has already adopted a very similar project, giving more women, caste groups, and poor communities in this rural region of India greater say than ever before over how they manage their crops and more opportunities to pull themselves out of poverty.