Erosion Control in Maharashtra: Success with a Lesson

Jan. 1, 2002

Erosion control through watershed development is slowly but surely taking on the dimensions of a movement in India. The State of Maharashtra, through various benchmark projects and with the aid of formal and informal institutions, has pioneered the movement.

This article examines the evolution of the erosion control movement in Maharashtra, describes some of its early successes, and points to future challenges.

Different Perspectives

There are some major differences in how Maharashtra and the United States perceive and practice erosion control. In Maharashtra, “success” is a relative term; there’s still a lot of work to be done. After much trial and error, however, there are a sufficient number of pilot projects and successful replications to lead the state in a positive direction.

In most cases, conserving water and employing the rural masses are the main focus. Conserving soil, increasing productivity, and regenerating the ecosystem are lower-priority issues.

Erosion control techniques in India generally emphasize simplicity and low cost. Thus, it is untenable to compare the efficiency of India’s soil conservation efforts with that of the US.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governmental agencies–rather than private individuals–sponsor India’s erosion control projects, for the most part. Thus, profit is not a primary motive. In addition, these projects involve villages and farming communities. Tackling city projects is a long way off.

Current Scenario

India’s most pressing priorities are economic and social development and the eradication of poverty. After independence in 1947, efforts to increase agricultural production in this predominantly agrarian economy were concentrated on irrigation and improved inputs, such as seeds and chemical fertilizers. Major investments were made in large- and medium-scale irrigation projects.

In Maharashtra, however, even after 50 years of concentrated efforts, only 17% of the land is currently irrigated. The rain-fed areas, which constitute more than 70% of the land, lag far behind.

In 1960, the government of Maharashtra appointed an Irrigation Commission under the chairmanship of S.G. Barve. The Barve commission recommended that farmers assume greater responsibility in managing irrigation and noted that only 26% of the land in Maharashtra can come under irrigation even after the full realization of irrigation potential, leaving 74% to the vagaries of rains.

The negative effects of large dams, such as water-logged soils (of which there are approximately 1 million ha [2.4 million ac.]) are also becoming increasingly apparent. Many small and medium reservoirs are severely affected by siltation.

Water-induced erosion has taken on mammoth proportions in the state. Ashok Sharma, joint director of the state’s Water Conservation Department, reports that the rate of erosion in Maharashtra is the highest in the country. In fact, according to a recent estimate by the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, 96.4% of the land area is degraded to various degrees, and 40.6% is degraded severely (greater than 40.6 million tonnes/ha). The quantity of soil erosion per year in Maharashtra is 773.5 million tonnes, and 94% of that erosion is water induced. The detrimental effects of soil erosion are reflected in the land’s declining productivity.

For example, the black cotton soils of Maharashtra have lost 50% of their productivity. Moreover, agriculture, which accounted for 30% of the state’s income in 1980, accounted for less than 15% in 1999. Thus, it is increasingly apparent that conserving precious soil resources is an urgent task for the state.

As a consequence of its large tracts of rain-shadow zones, the state has had a long history of droughts. During early efforts to provide adequate drinking water, voluntary organizations adopted drilling technology, which led to an unbalanced exploitation of groundwater.

After an extremely severe drought in 1972, it became apparent that the means used to provide drinking water to the rural masses were inadequate. The problem was aggravated by the inordinate growth of cities and urban centers that relied completely on rural water sources. After careful consideration, the government launched the Technology Mission for Drinking Water, which shifted the focus to the water cycle itself.

In the past few years, these water- and soil-related problems have led to the conclusion that no permanent progress is possible without preserving both soil and water. Integrated watershed development was found to be the most useful and sustainable tool in achieving these valuable resources.


Maharashtra’s Watershed Development Program evolved from a large number of experiments in the state. The program gathered momentum following the 1972 drought. To stop the flood of people migrating to urban areas and to provide immediate relief and sustenance to the rural population, the government launched the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS). The objective was to provide work to anyone who needed it and to create permanent infrastructure assets.

One important objective of the EGS was “drought-proofing” the land. Although government agencies and NGOs undertook many emergency measures to mitigate the effects of drought, the approach was based on the exploitation of such natural resources as water. This exploitation led to further dependence on outside resources rather than on conservation per se.

Although some of the state’s early resource conservation efforts were successful, it was only after the results of the first watershed project by the Indian Council on Agricultural Research (ICAR) in early 1980s that the various agencies began a serious assessment of the overall outcome of the various projects.

Many NGOs–Baif, Vanarai, Yashwantrao Chavan Pratishthan, and others–conducted seminars, workshops, and meetings to discuss the issues involved. It became clear that unless more village communities and NGOs participated, successful projects would become the exception rather than the rule. It also became clear that streamlining government policies was necessary to integrate rural development efforts.

In 1992, an Indo-German bilateral program started financially supporting organizations through such banks as the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Even the state government came forward with the Water Conservation and Village Development program. The catalytic development support agency Water Organization Trust (WOTR) was set up in 1993. The central government has also pulled funds from various projects to support this program all over the country.

In the city of Pune, the Action for Agricultural Renewal in Maharashtra (AFARM) decided to undertake capacity building through experiential learning to enable a large number of members to participate in such programs. Most participating organizations receive comprehensive training as well as educational materials and the opportunity to go on field trips. A technical cell also supports program implementation by closely monitoring progress. In addition, the program helps the villagers establish a local development fund. The village receives a matching grant from AFARM equal to the labor or material the village has contributed within the determined period.

AFARM gives local technical agencies the opportunity to design the watershed development plans instead of relying on consultants from abroad.

A number of organizations that participated in the first phase of capacity building are currently implementing programs through NABARD. The state government, which found its Waterloo in providing drinking water, sincerely took up water conservation work by focusing on watershed development. The state also made the commitment to hand over 10% of the program to voluntary organizations. The Drought Prone Area Program, originated by the Indian government, has been taken up by the Council for the Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART).

Many productivity-enhancement projects based on the watershed approach are being implemented through centrally sponsored government schemes, externally aided projects, and private initiatives of local communities and NGOs. And success stories abound.

Lessons learned from past successful projects have been mainstreamed into central government initiatives. Through the Eighth Plan period–a national plan covering the years 1992-1997–a total of 16.5 million ha of land was treated through the watershed approach. During the Ninth Plan (1997-2002) and Tenth Plan (2002-2007) periods, the government proposes the treatment of 10 and 12 ha, respectively. And in 2000, for the first time, a Watershed Development Fund was established at NABARD. This fund gave states access to credit for the purpose of treating even larger areas under watershed development. According to S.K. Deshpande, deputy general manager of NABARD, the fund is a great step toward real integration of the existing structure and will give a boost to the watershed development program in Maharashtra.


According to the available data, 16.5 million ha of land is covered under various watershed-based schemes. The Indo-German watershed development program, for example, has been implemented by 39 NGOs in 21 districts and covered million ha of land (through March 2001).

“Impact evaluation studies both on the ground and through remote-sensing techniques have unequivocally shown that watershed-based interventions have led to improvement in groundwater recharge and increase in the number of wells and water bodies,” says S.B. Shelke, a social forestry official. Also, greater cropping intensity, changes in cropping pattern, higher yields of crops, and reduced soil losses were observed.

A recent NABARD study suggests that watershed development funds have yielded significant economic and environmental benefits. These benefits include higher crop yields, employment, and income; reduced variability of dry crop yields; increased resilience of crops to drought and other environmental stresses; regeneration of degraded lands; improved moisture availability; a rise in the groundwater table; better returns from alternate crop and land-use management systems; and improved fuel and fodder availability. It is interesting to note that small farmers have shared in the gains of this growth.

Success Factors

The crucial determinants of success invariably include development of appropriate technology, appropriate institutional support, and effective participation of the people in all stages of the process.

Simple Techniques

Many success stories in Maharashtra are based on simple and low-cost techniques–such as building Baif’s improved gabion structures. The improved gabion structures employ a thin (25-mm), impervious ferro-cement wall at the center, which goes below ground level up to the hard strata. They combine the best of gabion structures, which are used mainly for soil conservation, with cement check dams used for conserving water. Flexible, stable, and economical, the improved structures conserve both soil and water and have sufficient strength to withstand floods; the cost is about US $8-$16/m3–less then half the cost of cement check dams. “It was an experiment which was born in the field out of some practical problems,” explains Bharat Kakade, the Baif civil engineer who developed this technique.

Another NGO, Vanarai, has introduced a simple, low-cost, technical innovation to conserve water. Empty cement bags are filled with local cement and soil, and four or five bunds (embankments) are erected on the nearby streams, rivulets, or rivers at the end of rainy season–when the velocity of water is slow. So far, Vanarai has erected more than 5,000 bunds all over the state and made several villages water-tanker free. The bunds have provided seasonal irrigation to about 500,000 ac. of land, making several villages lush and green and increasing the income of farmers considerably.

The government of Maharashtra has approved such bunds and included them in the list of works under the Employment Guarantee Program. Other examples of location-specific erosion control techniques are the dams used in the village of Vilye in the Konkan region and A-frames, which were developed for contour marking.

Institutional Support

Institutions at the micro and macro level have played an important role in successful implementation of the work. This support includes funding institutions such as CAPART and NABARD; training institutions such as WOTR and AFARM, and informal organizations that include self-help groups of women and farmers at the village level. Formal institutions provide a mechanism for smooth and reliable money transfer, training, and coordination; local groups ensure proper utilization of the funds. The self-helps groups, in particular have given new confidence to the women in many villages, many of whom are involved in the work of contour marking.

External and Internal Aid

Several international and external agencies, such as the World Bank, European Economic Community, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (a German development bank), Danish Development Assistance, Swiss Development and Cooperation, and the Overseas Development Administration, have been involved in implementing watershed development projects in India with the help of both governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Although the relative area covered by external aid is small (about 6%), the aid has helped greatly in boosting erosion control work in Maharashtra. The Indo-German watershed program in particular, along with the implementing agency WOTR, has played an important role in training.

Local Participation

The single most important reason for success (or failure) is the degree of people’s participation in the planning, decision-making, and implementation process. In Maharashtra, NGOs have shown spectacular success in involving in a meaningful way the people who will benefit most from erosion control projects.

Both governmental and external agencies have recognized the role of NGOs, which are involved in implementing the watershed projects sponsored by various governmental departments and donor agencies. In fact, the outstanding pioneers of watershed development in Maharashtra are Ralegaon Sidhi and Adgaon, which were implemented by NGOs.

The success story of Ralegaon Sidhi also underlines the need for a leader. In 1975, when Anna Hazare, a retired army man, went back to his village in the Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra, he found the village reeling with drought, poverty, debt, and unemployment. He decided to mobilize the people and, with the collective support of all the villagers, began to introduce changes. “Our temple in the village helped me to motivate people to participate in the shramdan [voluntary work]. Within a year we built 45 gully plugs, five check dams, 16 gabion structures, and one percolation dam,” he reports. “After the rains, not only did our water table come up, but the area under irrigation also doubled. Within three years, the irrigated area increased from 80 acres to 1,300 acres, and the number of wells rose from 35 to 115. The end result of all this was rich agricultural growth,” recalls Hazare. Today the Maharashtra government and other states view Ralegaon Sidhi as a role model for other villages.

Literature and Training

Literature developed in regional languages has helped to increase understanding and awareness at the village level. In recent years, many institutions such as AFARM, Baif, and the Center for Management of Local Resources have developed useful and simple literature. Trainers educate field functionaries and local people at state-level training institutes and agricultural universities and through NGOs. In addition, AFARM has initiated a comprehensive training program leading to diplomas in Watershed Development, Role and Scope for Women in Watershed Development, and related subjects. The Center for Management of Local Resources has initiated a mail correspondence course on watershed development to educate village farmers and workers who are either unable or ineligible to complete the full-time training.

Governmental Policies

Governmental policies have evolved over time to support watershed development programs in the state. The various programs are slowly being streamlined, more funds are being allocated, and the role of NGOs is being recognized. Most importantly, management rights are being transferred to the people who benefit most from the programs.

Permitting farmers and other beneficiaries to play a greater role in development work represents a major shift away from the idea that the government is responsible for taking care of farmers. This change is consistent with other changes being carried out in natural resource management, such as the changes in forest policy that enable joint management of forests.

New guidelines since 1994 have thoroughly restructured watershed development policy, retaining the technical strengths of the older program and incorporating lessons learned from successful projects–especially the lesson of community participation. The new guidelines call for watershed development to be planned, implemented, monitored, and maintained by the watershed communities themselves.

Challenges Ahead

Despite major visible gains, the problem of sustainability continues to plague the first generation of watershed development projects in Maharashtra. Local communities are unwilling to operate and maintain completed structures and plantations on community property. This lack of cooperation, at least initially, occurred because the beneficiaries were too often merely passive recipients rather than active participants. Even today this situation exists, especially in relation to government-operated projects.

Equitable participation and benefit-sharing by tribal people, women, and other disadvantaged segments of the population are other major challenges for the planners and agencies involved. Ashok Sharma of the state Water Conservation Department notes that geographical equity is also an important matter. He observes that most of the investments are concentrated in the lower reaches, which are usually richer and more powerful. Providing development for the remote, poor, and powerless upper regions is a challenging task.

Improper application has reduced people’s trust in many good techniques, such as vetiver grass bunds. In many cases, the bunds were constructed without sufficient technical support, leading to failure. In fact, the overuse of vetiver grass to control erosion limited the impact and spread of vegetative measures. Many farmers were dissatisfied with vetiver and have not maintained barriers made with it.

In tribal areas, protecting the newly planted vegetation is difficult because of tribal people’s heavy dependency on forest resources such as fuel, fodder, fiber, food, and medicinal plants. Providing fuel alternatives such as biogas–a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide resulting from the decomposition of organic wastes–has reduced the problem to some extent.

All of these developments offer hope and once again underline the old principle: Empowering people is the only answer that can lead us to sustainability.