Conservation for Transformation: Coming together today for a sustainable tomorrow

Mohini Saha, Ashutosh Nanda . January 8, 2022

Rather than depending on mega projects that will bring water to the villages, it is far more beneficial is it to have multiple, small water-conservation structures dotting the villages, ensuring not just its perennial source but also generating alternative crop and livelihood options, as experienced in the villages of Chhattisgarh

Context and Background

Chhattisgarh is one of the tribal-dominated states in the country, where 80% of the population lives in rural areas and their main livelihood is agriculture and agriculture-based small industries. Of the total workforce of 8.3 million, 5.9 million (71%) are engaged in agriculture and agriculture-allied wage work. A large variation in the annual rainfall (erratic rainfall) directly affects the crops and the sector. Clearly, irrigation is the prime need of the state for its overall development and, therefore, the maximum thrust must be for developing the irrigation potential of the area. The net sown area of Chhattisgarh state is 4.683 million ha and the gross sown area is 5.561 million ha (Source:

The villages in Narharpur block (Kanker district) are home to an agrarian (majorly tribal) community. There are numerous instances of inhabitants migrating in search of work to adjacent urban areas that offer some promise of employment. This is indeed ironic because 90% of the families own land.

The area has an average annual rainfall of around 1200 mm; lack of irrigation facilities coupled with erratic rainfall, however, makes agriculture risky and unprofitable, thereby increasing the vulnerability of small and marginal farmers. Besides, farmers cannot go for a second cropping season. This situation is especially so in the Masulpani, Dabena and Devgaon cluster of panchayats, comprising nine villages.

These villages, comprising 1020 families, are contiguous and have similar agro-climatic, livelihood and socio-economic conditions and political context. Most of the land is undulating, with uplands and medium lands. There are no irrigation facilities on the uplands and water run-off causes topsoil erosion. Heavy rainfall damages the crops in the lower lands and creates flood-like conditions, erodes the land and carries sand to the lower lands, which reduces productivity of the land. During kharif, families cultivate vegetables, maize and pulses on their homestead land; however, post kharif, the homestead lands remain unused due to lack of water resources. Even the dug wells dry up in the face of the decreasing ground water level. Although the average landholding is around 3 acres, the average annual income from agriculture has not been more than Rs 40,000 per household (according to a baseline survey conducted in FY 2018–19). In this cluster, 84% of the families fall under one deprivation index at least according to the Socio Economic Caste Census data.

Looking at their current problems, there was urgent need to create assets for land and water conservation, to strengthen local livelihood options. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guaranteed Act (MGNREGA) played a significant role in the creation of Natural Resource Management (NRM)-based assets, which enhanced accessibility and availability of water for irrigation during kharif and post kharif for small and marginal farmers.

However, from its inception, most of the works under MGNREGA were somehow focused on the development of community infrastructure such as making earthen or CC roads, desilting and digging community ponds and constructing community halls. The focus of the administration and the panchayats on creating individual assets was much less. The construction of technically inappropriate structures and inappropriate site selection led farmers to develop a mindset that structures such as farm ponds would be a waste of time and resources. The lack of participation of small and marginal farmers, especially women, in planning was a major hindrance in equitable access to water for irrigation.

Looking at the complex ecological situation such as low productivity, high runoff and erosion, erratic rainfall, as well as groundwater depletion, PRADAN intervened to address these issues using the Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM) approach. PRADAN collaborated with the MGNREGA cell, and the block and the district administration, around capacity building of women collectives, community members, MGNREGA staff and strengthening Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and local governance. Initially, with a grant fund Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT) and, subsequently, under the Cluster Facilitation Team (CFT) - Ministry of Rural Development in 2014–15, followed by the Chhattisgarh High Impact Mega Watershed project, PRADAN leveraged MGNREGA to build resources and promote community driven, efficient and sustainable management of water in the area. Women played a key role in the development of such management plans under MGNREGA, unleashing their leadership potential and enhancing their participation and decision-making over land and water. Through the capacity building of different actors, robust and community owned water conservation plans have been developed, which have led to changes in the system that support the execution of these plans in the panchayats. These works aimed at improving the livelihoods of rural citizens by investing in soil and water conservation initiatives, using a watershed management approach, integrating GIS technology, budgeting water and implementing scientific conservation and recharging methods.

Mobilization and Processes

PRADAN engaged at the community, PRIs/Gram Panchayat (GP) and block administration levels, to bring about changes in the system through INRM:

  • At the community level: Women, who contribute significantly to agriculture and water management at the household level, ironically remain excluded in the agriculture and water related planning and decision-making processes at family and village level. PRADAN mobilized the women into Self Help Groups (SHGs) and engaged with them, to build their capacity and knowledge on livelihoods, watersheds and MGNREGA. With the intention of enhancing livelihoods and increasing cropping intensity, the women were informed and educated about different soil-water conservation structures, about budgeting water and about in-situ soil-water conservation through the ridge-to-valley approach. PRADAN facilitated a decentralised participatory planning at the village level as well as the process for getting the sanction for the plan and implementing it.
  • At GP/PRI level: PRADAN focused on building the perspective of the Gram Rozgar Sahayak (GRS), the mates, the PRI members and community members on land and water conservation under MGNREGA and on building a system for accommodating the demands and grievances of the community. A monitoring process for effective implementation of the process was also set up as part of this plan. Technical training programmes for the GRS and the mates to help develop scientific and technically accurate plans and quality implementation were conducted.
  • At the block level: PRADAN coordinated with the block-level MGNREGA cell and administration to develop scientific and detailed plans using:
    • GIS based technologies: The geo-coordinates of each plan has been taken (latitude and longitude) and digitized for transparency and accuracy, and super-imposed with various geo-spatial layers such as ground water prospects, erosion map, land cover and land use, to ensure its technical feasibility
    • Water budgeting: Budgeting the available water is an important scientific tool for calculating the availability of surface water and the required measures for its conservation for double crop, human, livestock and other needs. For each GP, a water budget has been prepared looking at the catchment area, the evapo-transpiration losses and the runoff; the storage capacity has been calculated vis-à-vis the requirement, taking into consideration all these factors.

Orienting the staff on the potential of MGNREGA in livelihood enhancement beyond employment is one other aspect that PRADAN undertook besides developing systems to facilitate participatory planning processes under MGNREGA, to prioritize plans and to address the demands and grievances of the community.


Planning meeting in Masulpani with SHG members

Plan Development: Decentralized Participatory Planning


The planning process has been the key changing factor. The process is led by women collectives. Women collectives ensured the participation of more than 70% of the families, especially small and marginal farmers, in the planning under MGNREGA. There was active participation of PRI members (the sarpanch and the panch), the GRS, the Mates, the Technical Assistants and line departments. To develop a village-level plan collectively rather than planning in isolation, SHG members gathered to understand their village, terrain and issues and prepared social and resource maps. The social map gave a visual representation of the village so that it could be viewed on a single picture.

It identified the households associated with collectives, vulnerable families (such as the landless and the marginalized), single women; and the infrastructure available such as hand pumps, anganwadi, schools, roads, community halls, etc. The next was the resource map, which depicts the resources important for the livelihood of people in the village. It includes the land (upland/midland/lowland), the forest, the river, the streams, the existing ponds, the wells, etc. This was made on the cadastral map of the village. People identified the resources and land on it, and discussed the current use of the resources, the issues related to it and the possible solutions to address the issues and its optimum utilization.

A transect walk was led by the women collective members along with other community members—the elderly people of the village, the panchayat representatives, the PRADAN and the MGNREGA staff members. During the transect walk, the present use, the problems of the land and the expected or visualized land use was discussed. Accordingly, interventions were proposed. Activities and structures were finalized, with scientific triangulation, according to the interest of the farmers. All details such as the land owner’s name, the plot number, the problems, the probable structure to be constructed and the envisaged land-use data were captured in the planning format. After the field visit and transect walk to all the patches, people again gathered to share their plans and make the activity map of the work undertaken for four to six years of the watershed approach and deliberated on the priority of each work. The landless, single women were also taken into consideration, and a plan for livestock rearing was taken up. The entire plan was then placed before the Gram Sabha and process of approval began. This entire planning process enthused the community into proceeding towards their vision and dream of having sufficient water throughout the year.

From the experience in Narharpur block, it is evident that if decentralised planning, community participation and scientific approach can be ensured, the MGNREGA programme has the capacity to transform the agrarian economy in the state. Layering of different livelihood activities and integration with line departments, along with administrative and political will, is the key to change


Plan map of Masulpani GP after the identification of activities

Execution of the Plans

A six-year plan was developed for all the GPs in the Masulpani, Dabena and Devgaon cluster. This included creating 360 individual farm ponds, levelling the land of 216 farm plots (of different farmers), and completing plantation works of 70 farmers, to harvest 156.66 ha-metres of runoff rainwater.

The SHGs took the lead in preparing the files with help of trained community cadres/service providers and the GRS; plans for 294 works were submitted in 2019–20 and 2020–21 for technical and administrative sanction. After continuous and relentless engagement with the block and the district administration and the MGNREGA cell through coordination meetings, 187 works of Rs 283.38 lakhs got sanctioned on priority. Of this, 154 works have been initiated, and most of these completed.

The women collectives and MGNREGA field-level staff conducted Rozgar Diwas and village-level meetings, to raise demands and discuss the roles and responsibilities, to ensure speedy and quality implementation of the planned works.


Dug-well constructed under MGNREGS in Rajpur village

Livelihood Convergence

The families that received benefit under MGNREGA schemes were linked to different line departments through SHGs for convergence and departmental leverage. Hitherto, it was primarily the powerful people of the villages, who had access to government schemes; now, with the SHG women in action, the outreach of departmental benefits could be accrued by the most vulnerable families: 100 farmers are being benefitted with 59 units of 3 & 5 HP solar pump-sets through CREDA Department; and 138 farmers have been provided with kitchen garden kits worth up to Rs 1000 each through Horticulture department. Training and vaccination services for backyard poultry (BYP) rearing have been provided and Rs 22,000 each for 18 poultry sheds has been mobilized from the block to support BYP rearing. To promote an improvement in the variety of birds, 2200 chicks of Kadaknath and RIR have been provided at subsidized rates to SHG members, with support from the block administration, animal husbandry department, and State Rural Livelihood Mission (Bihan). Training for improved agricultural practices (such as trellis), SRI, use of organic components (such as trichoderma, pseudomonas), etc., have been provided to SHG members and other farmers in collaboration with the Agriculture Department, Bihan, to enhance productivity and reduce cost. Two tool banks, with essential farm implements, and one seed bank, with indigenous seed varieties of paddy and millets, have been established for ease of access and practice. Construction of farm ponds opened up new avenues for fish rearingand women are linked with fishery department for inputs, knowledge and exposures on fish rearing. Under the project, the PRADAN team has acted as a facilitator among the stakeholders for convergence, in terms of input and knowledge and as an agency for building capacity of the community members. Multi-stakeholder orchestration and healthy relationship between the different departments and the community have contributed significantly in filling the gaps and strengthening the livelihoods of marginalized families in the selected cluster. This may be replicated in scale.

Department Target Benefitted Inputs
Horticulture Department 138 Horticulture kitchen garden kits (including papaya and moringa saplings and vegetable seeds) for homestead lands
Animal Husbandry Department 57 Distribution of Kadaknath, Vanraja and RIR chicks for promotion of high-value and improved breed. Support in training of the community and the vaccinators, on vaccinations and BYP management
Block Administration 18 Construction of poultry sheds and distribution of Kadaknath chicks for demonstration of Kadaknath rearing in the backyard.
CREDA 59 Solar based surface/Submersible pump set for supporting irrigation infrastructure from farm ponds, rivers, dug wells and other water sources.
Fisheries Department 85 Training on best practices in fish rearing.

BYP Vaccination by Pashu Sakhi _Rajpur Village

Pashu Sakhi giving vaccination of Backyard poultry through the support of Animal Husbandry Deparment

Outcome and Impact

The number of families directly benefitted under MGNREGA and convergence programme for livelihood intensification, diversification and enhancement are 635. Over the last two fiscal years in this cluster, 76 individual farm ponds have been constructed under MGNREGA. NRM works on private land under MGNREGA are proving to be highly suitable and emerging as a climate resilient technology under the current circumstances. Farm ponds provide farmers with water in dry spells; besides water is lifted from the pond during the transplantation of paddy. Life-saving irrigation has been ensured in 56 ha of land in the dry spells, which has led to the safeguarding of crops and, thus, minimizing losses. The average productivity of paddy has increased from 2 tonnes per ha to 3 tonnes through protective irrigation, adoption of modern techniques of farming such as seed treatment, SRI, DSR, nursery beds, shed net, trellis, drip irrigation, and organic farming techniques such as vermicomposting. In addition, farm ponds and levelling in the uplands support the cultivation of pulses during dry spells and, through this, 20 ha of upland has been bought under crop cover. During the last kharif season, 155 farmers cultivated tomato in their homestead land for commercial purposes in the Agriculture Production Cluster (APC) approach in which each family earned Rs 6500 on an average from 5 decimals of land. Fisheries, the new activity, has also been added to their livelihoods basket. Last year, in the cluster, 85 families were engaged in fish rearing activities in their individual farm ponds, where water remains for more than 8 months. This provided an additional income of Rs 15,000, on an average, to each family. On the poultry front, the demonstrated model of Kadaknath and improved bird rearing with best practices have been very beneficial in yielding twice the income generated by BYP rearing as compared to the prevalent practices and also a threefold increase in egg consumption at the household level.

Of the 1,020 families in the cluster, 632 families have had gross annual income greater than Rs 1,00,000. This has led to enhancement in life status and the well-being of the beneficiaries and the participating families.

Furthermore, the average labour days of three GPs in the cluster are 100.3 as compared to 85.89 days in Narharpur and the state average of 60.15 person days during the last financial year. Also, assets of more than Rs 192.65 lakhs have been created in the cluster and 485 families (46% of the total families) have been engaged in more than 100 days of work in the last financial year, wherein 90% of the total work done was under NRM works. In these trying COVID-19 times, due to collective planning and awareness around MGNREGA, this cluster had sufficient amount of work sanctioned beforehand. Although farmers

I am a member of Jyoti SHG. My family and I reside in Masulpani village. We own 2.5 acres of agricultural land. Water availability is a major issue; it leads to crop losses during the kharif season due to sudden dry spells. As an SHG member and along with the other women, I participated in planning works under MGNREGA.

I decided to construct a farm pond to protect my kharif crop in 15 decimals of my low land, which could provide water for rest of the land. Now, there is water in the pond throughout the year! Even during the dry spells, we don’t have to face losses.

With the support of PRADAN and the Fisheries Department, we rear fish and earn Rs 15,000–20,000 annually from the pond. This year, with the support of CREDA and PRADAN, we have installed a solar pump set in our pond and are planning to cultivate pulses and vegetables in 50 decimals of land in the coming rabi season and are expecting an additional income of Rs 20,000. We have decided to construct one more pond under MGNREGA for fish rearing.

Sukdai Komra, Masulpani

were apprehensive about availability of agricultural inputs during the pandemic, they were confident about water availability in their land owing to the farm ponds that they had built and this gave them enough hope to stay back in their villages.


Augmentation and sustainable transformation of the living status of the villagers, in terms of social well-being, economical upliftment and political strengthening needs well-thought-out strategies. From the experience of the last six years, the learnings from the field, which can help frame and formulate policies and developmental projects in the future are:

  • For initiating change, a collaborative environment, which includes the state, district and block administrations, the GPs, the community-based organisations and the civil society organisations, needs to be fostered with the community at the forefront in planning and implementation activities,.
  • Investment in strengthening the capacity of all the primary actors (especially community members and block and district staff), in terms of knowledge, perspective and skills, is very crucial in effective planning and implementation.
  • Intensive engagement to strengthen community-based institutions to facilitate decentralized community led processes so that it can be harnessed to its fullest potential for the enhancement of livelihood and well-being in the long run.
  • Water availability for irrigation has always been one of the major hurdles in agri-based livelihood enhancement. In situ soil and water conservation techniques need to be promoted for a sustainable solution and model of practice.
  • Convergence plan is very crucial to link the assets created with livelihoods so that these are utilized well. A strategic convergence plan needs to be mapped when planning with CBOs, GPs and the multiple line departments. Post-implementation activities such as training of the participating households and CBOs on enhancing productivity, strengthening farm and non-farm livelihood activities integrated with overall well-being indicators (health, nutrition, gender) are a must to meet the objective.

Way Forward

Creating big dams and irrigation canals, extracting ground water through bore wells, or diverting river systems for irrigation have their own limitations such as displacement, conflict and deterioration of the groundwater aquifer as well the overall ecosystem. Additionally, mobilizing such huge investment and sustainability of such big structures has socio-political challenges. The vision “Har khet ko pani (Water for every field)” is still a far reality. Approximately, Rs 3000 crores are spent every year under MGNREGA for various works in the state, and Chhattisgarh is one of the leading states in the country in implementing such large-scale projects. From the experience in Narharpur block, it is evident that if decentralised planning, community participation and scientific approach can be ensured, the MGNREGA programme has the capacity to transform the agrarian economy in the state. Layering of different livelihood activities and integration with line departments, along with administrative and political will, is the key to change the lives and livelihoods in a state like Chhattisgarh.


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