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

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

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

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,

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