Exposure visits form crucial part of any training or capacity building initiative. It aims to bring forth the experience of what are the ‘best practices’ in a particular field. Planners/ organisers of such exercises attempt to inculcate an element of behavioural change amongst the participants of the exercise. The field of water (read groundwater too) is no exception to this. Many programmes devised by national and state governments aim to add the activity of ‘exposure visits’ for elected representatives or staff of a particular department to certain countries, areas, regions or communities wherein they may experience or ‘see for themselves’ the best practices in the field. This is equally true in the case of civil society organisations working in this space.
But how much of this is an experience that is non-contextual? How can this understanding or knowledge about a certain practice or a case be translated and transported to other areas or villages? And lastly, how much of this is actually a ‘see for yourself’ experience? I trace these questions through my experiences of organising, conducting, attending (as a participant) such exposure visits. I speak about these with a particular emphasis on water sector (to be more specific, groundwater) and largely around programmes aimed at watershed based, community led practices. Thus, I do not speak about large hydrologic arrangements like dams or its canals.
The contextual nature of an exposure visit
Most exposure visits tend to inculcate the idea of a model village or a watershed. While most programmes are designed with the focus on water management, it tends to bring forth those aspects while masking much of the socio-political connotations that may have played a role in making such a village or an area ‘model’ or ‘ideal’. How often do participants explore (or get a chance to explore) such a context is a larger question.
Lot of these examples often paint a pre and post scenario. Certain challenges persisted amongst community members with regards to managing water, those were tackled through an intervention of implementing a certain programme through an NGO, local leadership or government agency. While this is indeed a valuable lesson, it also points us to the question about how we define success in such cases.
The topographical context
Most of the model villages in my experience have been what are often termed as ‘classical watersheds’. Watersheds that may depict a ridge to valley view within one’s visual distance, wherein elevational or topographical variation becomes an important part of the design. If we see such model villages across, say Maharashtra, with the exception of Kadwanchi in Jalna district (which is touted to be a model village) we often see such a topographical connect.
Why is such a topographical context important in the making of a model village? It is, because, it enables people (participants of exposure visit, in this case) actually ‘see’ the interventions or visualise the movement of water. Water moves and hence it has to be stopped, arrested, percolated, channelized and controlled- basically manage it. The technical- engineering paradigm of water governance lends value to this exercise.
Imagine village/s on a plain topography. How does one visualise these actions pertaining to water in such a scenario? But in a topographically skewed village, standing in one location/at one point in the watershed, we can ‘see’ and ‘show’ interventions of watershed works, see large percolation tanks and how they sit at the head of the village watershed, see dug-wells in the farms and can see the multiple streams that flow and meet together to form the order of streams. This is not possible in case of a village in the plains.
This is equally true about the maps produced for such villages. With a lot of contours (imaginary lines depicting certain elevation), the map becomes quite an interesting artefact to be observed and discussed.
The localised nature of cause and effect
Aquifers (especially shallow) and watersheds are mostly localised in peninsular India compared to the alluvial plains in North India. As a result any interventions in the form of watershed structures may enable one to visualise their effects within a relatively smaller scale. This makes it possible to create a cause and effect story even within a single village or a micro-watershed. Unlike alluvial plains wherein effects can be contiguous over large areas, hard rock regions tend to have localised and distinct impacts.
Evaluating impacts or constructing what can the potential impacts be in the first place, is one of the most crucial indicator of ‘success’ in any story. Maharashtra’s specific geomorphology allows one to undertake this exercise at a village scale thus making it possible to demarcate success from failure. Being able to see and show, within a single village, the impacts of the work undertaken helps participants of exposure visit visualise the success better.
Emphasizing what can be seen
In many such exposure visits, the key resource person (which in my experience, are mostly men), tells us about the interventions that were done as part of the watershed works based on certain inputs and how that has enabled the village to overcome scarcity, improve groundwater levels etc. These again form part of ‘what can be seen’- the technical artefacts of water management. Without highlighting or going into how land distribution is spread across the village, which castes have come to dominate certain ‘water areas’, lands with good soil depth etc, we focus on the nitty gritty of such structures. Emphasizing such a structural/interventional approach wherein land plays a key role leads to further invisibility of marginalised communities who may be landless. Where should a structure be constructed may be a scientific as well as a political question. But with ‘scientific rigour’ we tend to overlook the politics of water (Politics with a lower case p) and put our eyes and mind to the numerous structures out there to see.
Seeing is a culturally and theoretically laden practice (see this for reference). Why a certain structure and its design is in a certain place does not come common sensically or instinctively to everyone but has to be inculcated as part of a training, education and experience.
Where do we sit? And with whom?
Many a times, when the visit turns towards discussion and a question- answer mode, we go into a Gram Panchayat (local council) office or a watershed committee office or as is the case sometimes, in temples. It is assumed that these are inclusive spaces, spaces that are accessible to all in the community and so makes an ideal place for such conversations. A lot of times (mostly), these are in the main habitation and hence may be at a distance for many hamlets, tanda, vasti, pada who may find it difficult (for want of time, ease of access) to come for such meetings and sit with us. I often see participation from a certain group (a given set of individuals, which again, in many cases, are men) who no doubt discuss matters pertaining to all communities in the village but may underplay the politics of water.
For example, whenever a scheme comes into a village (say an RO plant, water supply scheme etc), the main habitation often gets prioritised. This is not the say that others may not benefit from the scheme, but when it comes to prioritising scheme implementation, the order often begins with this habitation. Thus, it may enable to paint a ‘rosy’ picture about the benefits received, the beneficiaries etc, but may miss out on the questions of equity and accessibility of water.
So, the next time you are out there, do question yourself, are you really sitting in an inclusive space?
Once we understand the successes of such a model village and the institutional arrangements for the same, we intend to pick and choose the elements of these success that can be mobilised and implemented in other areas, villages and regions (recent example of this is the Atal Jal Yojana). We may, as well, succeed in understanding how a cement check dam works and may even construct it in some other place but can we create a similar story in other areas. We have seen that such models have often found places in policies and programmes that tend to pick and choose on the specific aspects of those success and tend to ‘scale up’ in other areas. However, we miss on certain key facets that I believe we need to think and ask more about:
- What are the specific socio-cultural, political and economic context within which the water problem village functioned and enabled it to ‘succeed’?
- Did we truly deconstruct the notion of community in such stories?
- What were the challenges that were faced by the ‘model village’ in the process to transform it? are these challenges contextual or can we learn from them so we are better prepared to engage with them in other places?
- What has been the role of ‘expertise’ in making this transformation possible? Can such an expertise be mobilised?
‘See for yourself’?
The idea of the exposure visit is to ‘see for yourself’. But do they really serve this purpose? Most exposure visits are often guided by some government official, NGO official, Key Resource Person (who is often from the area/village). They are trained, not consciously but through practice, to deliver, share and dialogue with the participants of the exposure visits. They often set the tone of the discussions, prioritise certain questions over others. It is not because they are avoiding certain uncomfortable discussion.
As participants of exposure visit, we tend to paint a picture about the village or area and build certain expectations of what we will see there (pre and post stories, actual technical artefacts etc.). This enables us to construct our questions. Similarly, the people from the village who engage with these participants have a certain understanding about why they are here. Hence, in the process, they emphasize certain facets of the programme, project, success story over others. As a result, the overall effort shifts away from ‘see for yourself’ to ‘see for yourself what is shown’.
Geologists often use the term exposure to point to certain rock cuts/sub surface elements that are exposed on the surface. Using these as references and making observations about underlying subsurface are an important part of any geological mapping process. However, a geologist undergoes training and education to study and analyse such exposures, which forms the basis of what has to be observed, how it has to be observed and making inferences about what it entails for local geology. Does this remind you about an earlier statement- seeing as a culturally, theoretically laden practice (see this, if interested).
If you have had the patience to read till this point, here is an unsolicited advice. While organisers and planners of such exposure visits make meticulous plans, I think participants be better prepared for reading such exposure visits and to make the most out of such interesting interactions. Only with a conscious and interested participant can we move away from staging exposure visits to engaging exposure visits.