No news is bad news

APRIL has been the cruellest month for the much-hyped department of wasteland development, when it came under ruthless criticism for the perennial drought of information regarding its performance. Little is known about the department's performance, even 2 years after its inception. Its annual report, presented in the 3rd week of April, fails to mention its actual achievements in terms of plantations raised, employment generated and local needs met.

"Very little information about the department filters down to us," complains Arvind Khare of the Delhi-based NGO, the Society for the Promotion of Wastelands Development (SPWD).

Board bifurcated
The department was created under the ministry of rural development in June 1992, at the instance of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, The National Wastelands Development Board (NWDB), which was created in 1985 under the ministry of environment and forest (MEF) to manage waste lands, was bifurcated so that degraded land outside forests could be used to meet rural needs.

MEF retained the wastelands within the forest, while the forests, while those outside went to the new department. This included both private wastelands and degraded village commons. It was hoped that this would mitigate firewood and fodder shortages in rural areas and reduce the pressure on forests. But Khare says, "At least the NWDB had an information network, which included newsletters, to create awareness about their programmes and achievements. In the new set up, no one knows what is happening."

Officials say this because the department's role is limited to providing policy guidelines and giving financial and technical assistance for projects submitted by the district rural development agencies through the state governments. Though the state governments are behind schedule in providing information, officials say the information "should be available soon". T K A Nair, additional secretary in the department, adds, "We have commissioned some agencies to evaluate and monitor our projects."

The report focuses on the Integrated Wastelands Development Project (IWDP), which uses up more than 80 per cent of the department's budget. It also outlines other projects such as the grants-in-aid programme, which aims at involving non-governmental organisations in nursery raising, soil and moisture conservation and creation of awareness.

It says that a scheme to promote private investment in wastelands and investment in high value plantation crops, such as cashew and tea, will be implemented shortly. The report added that a taskforce to enlist the services of ex-servicepersonnel will soon be established.

Support scheme
Besides, a promotional and critical support scheme to create a central database for the "optimum utilisation and management of our wastelands" has been proposed. This programme would initially concentrate on the preparation of a database on wastelands in a few districts only. Kamala Chawdhury, former NWDB chairperson says that preparation of a comprehensive database on wastelands is essential. "This is a pre-condition to any realistic planning," she says. While wasteland maps, based on data provided by the National Remote Sensing Agency, are available, these have not been crosschecked against ground conditions.

These plans are ambitious, especially if one considers that, according to the report, the department has not been able to meet those targets that it had set itself. Disbursement of funds has been a problem. IWDP, which aimed at growing fodder and fuelwood in village commons and private land has been able to achieve only 50 per cent of its target.

Since July 1992, 50 IWDP projects have been taken up, mostly in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Haryana. However, last year only Rs 22.12 crore of the allocated Rs 40.72 crore could be used to cover 23,000 ha against a target of 40,000 ha. Besides, for about 53 projects under the grants-in-aid programme only Rs 85 lakh have been disbursed.

Nevertheless, department officials think it is too early to expect significant progress. Wasteland development minister Ram Singh says, "The department is still in its infancy. It took some time to get our staff together and the infrastructure is in order."

The officials are, however, unhappy about the insufficient back-up finance for the department. For the Herculean task of greening 94 million ha of non-forest wastelands in the country, the department had made a budgetary proposal of Rs 200 crore but was allocated only Rs 60 crore. This is just marginally higher than last year's allocation of Rs 50 crore.

Singh does not believe that this is an indication of declining importance being attached to the department. "I am sure more funds will flow as and when we formulate more programmes," he says. Funds available under the programmes such as the Jawahar Rozgar Yojna will be pooled and channelised for wasteland development, he added. Besides, a scheme has been proposed to encourage panchayats to invest funds that they receive for developmental programmes, by offering them matching grant from the department.

Investment promotion
Despite all this, Singh says, "The government does not have the resources to reclaim the millions of hectares of wastelands. We must channelise resources from the private sector. The ministry of rural development has proposed an investment promotion scheme under which it will give a grant of 25 per cent of the cost of reclamation and 50 per cent will come from financial institutions. The remaining part will come from the industry.

The government has been flayed for allowing industry to enter village commons. "This is not good news. This will subvert rural needs to industrial needs," says V B Eswaran, former director of the Society for the Promotion of Wasteland Development (SPWD). According to him, money cannot be of overriding importance, especially when there are a variety of cost-effective approaches to wasteland development.

"Successful experiments in community participation in resource management, such as those in Sukhomajri in Haryana and Ralegan Sidhi in Maharashtra, have shown the cost-effectiveness of participatory management. Why do we need industry in the village? It is dangerous when even government officials admit that only 20 per cent of the wastelands are in village commons," Eswaran says.

Officials say that the village commons will not be destroyed as only those wastelands that lie at a distance from the villages will be leased to industry for a long period. Non-governmental organisations are, however, sceptical. Khare says that the Rajasthan government has already offered approximately 2,300 ha of wastelands almost free of cost to industry, though the entrepreneurs are shying away from the cost of reclamation.

NGOs also accuse the government of scuttling voluntary action by subverting it to "uncalled for bureaucratic interference". Says Khare, "There should be greater flexibility in the guidelines and cost norms for projects so that voluntary agencies can develop projects that are more appropriate to the local situation." He argues that it is not realistic to fix cost norms, such as planting assistance of Rs 3 per plant on government land and Rs 1.50 on private land, or Rs 1,200 per ha for soil and moisture conservation on common lands and Rs 600 on private land.

Meagre funds
Besides, the meagre funds available for the grants-in-aid programme is another cause of complaint. The funds available for this was cut from Rs 5 crore to Rs 85 lakh and only this year was it raised to Rs 3 crore. NGOs have also complained about the delay in the disbursement of funds.

The Prime Minister's attempts at integrating land-based programmes of the ministry of rural development with wasteland development, to meet the basic needs of the rural people, might have given a new direction to wasteland development.

However, Kamala Chawdhury says, "Bold political statements have been made, both by Rao and Rajiv Gandhi, who had set up NWDB in 1985, stating that land should be regenerated to meet the needs of the rural poor. But in the face of the current signals, the department should be careful not to deviate from the original mandate of increasing biomass availability, especially fuelwood and fodder, for the rural poor."