Conceptualising Small Watersheds as Infrastructures of Immobility to Address Distress Induced Rural-Urban Migration in India

In this blog, originally published as one of the inaugural Environment and History ‘Snapshots’ in February 2022, Shashank Deora and Pankaj Sekhsaria discuss rural to urban distress-migration in India and the role small watersheds might play as ‘infrastructures of desirable immobility


India has witnessed growing urbanisation and increased domestic rural-urban migration over the last few decades.[1] A significant fraction of this migration is for livelihood generation – 33 per cent of all male and 56 per cent of female workers in urban India are migrants.[2] As per the most recent census of 2011, the extent of domestic rural-urban migration for work in India is about 56 million people, of which 23 million are temporary or seasonal migrants; these numbers may be even higher as the data collection on migration is challenging due to its transitory nature.[3]

Among the multiple push-pull factors determining the extent of rural-urban migration for work, distress caused by marginal returns from farming and the absence of local alternative livelihoods is a primary reason for migration among the poor and vulnerable rural population.[4] There is no countrywide data available on the extent of distress migration in India. However, considering the evidence from the literature that temporary short-term migration is a survival strategy primarily resulting from the push factors – as opposed to the long-term migration practised as a mobility strategy by privileged households – a prominent fraction of the 23 million temporary rural-urban migrants in India are likely to be distress induced.[5]

As the migrants moving out of distress are primarily unskilled and untrained, they end up working in urban informal sectors such as construction and other manual labour under exploitative conditions.[6] Multiple research studies point to the precarious living conditions of these migrants in Indian cities – large slums without access to regular drinking water and proper sanitation.[7] Migrant workers were also among the most adversely affected groups by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in India in 2020; they lost their livelihoods in cities and were left without access to basic amenities or means to return to their native villages.[8]

Stranded Migrant Workers during Covid-19 lockdown, Delhi. Sumita Roy Dutta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This distress induced rural-urban migration is linked to an increasingly grim scenario in the agriculture and allied activities that are primary livelihoods for more than half of rural Indian households.[9] Returns from these livelihoods are diminishing due to rising desertification and land degradation; by 2019, close to thirty per cent of India’s geographical area was experiencing some form of land degradation.[10] This crisis is partly responsible for distress migration among the poor and vulnerable rural population.

We propose a conceptualisation of small watersheds as infrastructures of desirable immobility to deal with this crisis, arguing that it can help better understand the factors leading to distress induced rural-urban migration and contribute to preventing it. In the following sections, we elaborate upon this conceptualisation and ground it in the emergence of small watersheds as infrastructures of desirable immobility in the rain-fed regions of India.


Infrastructure usually refers to a ‘system of substrates … invisible, part of the background’ that ensures smooth running for other kinds of functions in society.[11] In this sense, natural landscapes such as watersheds can be understood as infrastructures due to the ‘functions, benefits, or services’ they perform as a system, rather than their physical form or characteristics.[12] Healthy watersheds facilitate the stabilisation of land and water-based livelihoods, thus addressing a primary reason behind distress induced rural-urban migration. Therefore, we propose an understanding of small watersheds in India as infrastructures of desirable immobility for those depending upon land and water-based livelihoods.

Infrastructures, particularly in migration studies, are understood to facilitate mobility which is considered positive and desirable.[13] This focus on mobility and mobility infrastructure relegates immobility to the background, defining it as the inability to exercise mobility adequately, thus assigning it a negative value. However, though often perceived negatively, immobility does not always result from a lack of choice and agency. People experiencing economic benefits from stabilising land and water-based livelihoods can exercise immobility as a choice, thus making it desirable. On the contrary, as noted earlier, mobility in the form of distress migration is forced, unlike the mobility identified in a substantial literature on migration that is by choice. Distress migration does not indicate an upward economic or social mobility and is, therefore, undesirable.

Conceptualising watersheds as infrastructures of desirable immobility decentres the mobility infrastructures and instead shifts the attention to the infrastructural work required to prevent forced mobility. Small watersheds in India emerge as infrastructures of desirable immobility in its rainfed regions, in contrast to the large water infrastructures such as dams and canals that are primarily concentrated in the water endowed areas of the country. The shift in focus from large water infrastructures to small watersheds has contributed to improving the livelihoods of rural communities in rainfed regions, thereby helping to reduce the incidence of distress migration. The following section discusses this emergence in more detail. 


India has a long history of community-based traditional water management systems catching and storing rainwater within small watershed catchments up to 1800.[14] However, Shah shows that during the British colonial period (1800–1947), the colonial state’s attention and resources shifted to a hydraulic regime characterised by large water infrastructures such as dams and canals created by modifying river basin hydrology.[15] This shift led to a neglect of the traditional water management systems, and also reflects an inadequate acknowledgement of the watershed’s function as infrastructure. Moreover, these large water infrastructures have been complicit in forcing mobility and displacement on millions of people across India.[16]

Digging off a percolation tank, Bastar district, Chhattisgarh state in India. Photo copyright: Badal Kumar Mandal.

However, the colonial administration also implemented soil and water conservation works in large catchments to minimise land degradation and increase land productivity.[17] Chhotray argues that, out of these two objectives, land productivity enhancement was the primary focus as it supported the colonial economy by increasing the export of raw agricultural produce from India.[18] These large-scale soil and water conservation works were driven primarily by a top-down and centralised approach.[19] This approach and the consequent neglect of small watersheds as infrastructures continued after India’s independence in 1947 through schemes such as the Soil Conservation Work in the Catchments of River Valley Projects. This scheme, launched during the Third Five Year Plan (1961–1966), aimed to reduce the siltation of downstream water reservoirs by treating large upstream catchments.[20]

Simultaneously, struggling to meet the country’s food requirements, independent India’s early agricultural policies emphasised increasing agriculture production.[21] The most significant of these policies was the green revolution implemented during the Third Five Year Plan. A primary component of the green revolution strategy was irrigation development through strict control of water resources.[22] Such a strategy was feasible in the plains and regions endowed with some surface water resources, and led to a significant rise in agricultural production and economic prosperity in these regions.[23] However, the green revolution irrigation development strategy did not work in the areas that are primarily rainfed, with relatively more undulating terrain. These areas are equally significant to India’s food security. Rainfed agriculture accounts for sixty per cent (approximately 84 million hectares) of the net sown area in India, contributing forty per cent of its food production and supporting forty per cent of its human population.[24]

As green revolution gains eluded the rainfed regions, these regions remained among the economically poorest in the country despite their critical importance to agriculture and allied livelihoods.[25] Due to their dependence on erratic monsoon rains, the rainfed areas experience regular uncertainty in economic returns from these livelihoods. As a coping mechanism, people in these regions have resorted to multiple alternative livelihoods, including migration. These regions are also more prone to distress induced rural-urban migration of the socio-economically vulnerable population than the areas that benefitted from the green revolution.[26] Ensuring healthy watersheds – leading to increased soil fertility and water retention in the form of soil moisture – helps improve rainfed agriculture productivity.

Acknowledging the need to focus on rainfed regions and improve economic returns from rainfed agriculture, the state and the non-governmental organisations initiated multiple programmes to ensure healthy watersheds in these regions during the 1970s and 1980s.[27] These initiatives also enlarged the scope of watershed development and management from only soil and water conservation to three broad objectives: resource conservation, productivity enhancement and poverty reduction.[28]

These watershed programmes implemented a variety of technological interventions to slow down and store rainfall-runoff on undulating watershed landscapes. However, most early, state-supported watershed programmes confined themselves only to the technological work without adequate attention to other social, political and financial infrastructural works. These other infrastructural works include, for instance, promoting the participation of rural communities to ensure the sustainability of technological interventions, and promoting institutions for equitable distribution of costs and benefits generated by watershed programmes. Due to inadequate attention to these other infrastructural works, early state-supported programmes failed to achieve their objectives as the ecological degradation continued apace despite their implementation.[29] These failures led to a shift in state watershed policies, advocating greater attention to social mobilisation around smaller watersheds that are more aligned with the social boundaries as against larger catchments where social mobilisation may be challenging to achieve.[30]

Development and management work on small watersheds has contributed to significant benefits in the rainfed regions of India. A meta-analysis of 636 studies evaluating watershed programmes across India finds that these programmes have led to a mean increase in cropping intensity of 35.5 per cent, mean increase in irrigated area of 51.5 per cent and a mean increase in annual employment of 154 days per hectare, while reducing rainfall-runoff by a mean value of 45.7 per cent and the soil loss by 1.1 tonnes per hectare per year.[31] Multiple empirical studies indicate a reduction in the extent and duration of rural-urban migration from different areas in India after implementing watershed development and management programmes.[32] Healthy watersheds thus play a significant role in reducing distress migration. State policy documents also emphasise reducing distress migration from rainfed rural regions as a rationale for investing in watershed development and management.[33]

A Nadi (small johad) in Laporiya village, Rajasthan. Photo by Amar Singh Kangarot, Wikimedia commons. A johad is a traditional water harvesting structure. It is like an earthen check dam that helps in rainwater percolation and groundwater recharge.

However, the review of watershed programmes in India also indicates that they have had a limited long-term impact on checking migration.[34] Deshingkar argues that achieving the objectives of watershed programmes may even lead to a rise in rural-urban migration – not due to distress but as a livelihood diversification strategy or as aspirational migration triggered by the economic benefits of watershed programmes.[35] The ambiguous relationship of watersheds with migration does not diminish their potential to prevent distress induced rural-urban migration.


The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the urban population in India will constitute more than fifty per cent of its total population.[36] However, the rural Indian population would still be very significant at 784.2 million.[37] Hence, the relevance of small watersheds as infrastructures of desirable immobility will not reduce in the next few decades. Instead, leveraging these infrastructures can facilitate the projected rural to urban transition without adversely affecting the poor and vulnerable sections of rural communities.

Moreover, watersheds’ importance will only increase amid the concerns of climate change and an increasingly fragile ecosystem that will adversely affect the land and water-based livelihoods.[38] These changes may lead to a rise in distress induced rural-urban migration in the future. Ensuring healthy watersheds can stabilise land and water-based livelihoods and maintain ecosystem health, thereby mitigating climate change-induced migration. However, it requires a foregrounding in the discourse and practice of small watersheds as infrastructures of desirable immobility. 

Studying the emergence and operation of small watersheds as infrastructures of immobility can improve the understanding of the challenges to maintaining healthy watersheds that force mobility upon the rural population. It requires more context-specific research into when and how a watershed fails as an infrastructure of desirable immobility for the poor and vulnerable sections of rural communities; what events, negotiations and decisions lead to this failure; and what are the consequences of this infrastructural failure for the diverse actors around the watershed?


We would like to thank Karen Jones and Sarah Johnson for their review and editorial support with the paper. We also acknowledge the support of CTARA, IIT Bombay in carrying out this research.

[1]. Jonathan Rigg, An Everyday Geography of the Global South (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 118–143.

[2]. C. Choithani, R.J. van Duijne and J. Nijman, ‘Changing livelihoods at India’s rural–urban transition’, World Development 146 (2021): 105617; MHUPA, Report of the Working Group on Migration (New Delhi: Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Government of India, 2017), 3–10.

[3]. Choithani, van Duijne and Nijman, ‘Changing livelihoods’, 1–4; N. Lokhande and H. Gundimeda, ‘MGNREGA: The guaranteed refuge for returning migrants during COVID-19 lockdown in India’, The Indian Economic Journal 69 (3) (2021): 584–590.

[4]. Choithani, van Duijne and Nijman, ‘Changing livelihoods’, 9–11. 

[5]. S. Desai and E. Chatterjee, ‘Male migration from rural India: Divergent pathways to long-term and circular migration’, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC, 2016.

[6]. H. Mander and G. Sahgal, Internal Migration in India: Distress and Opportunities, a Study of Internal Migrants to Vulnerable Occupations in Delhi (New Delhi: Centre for Equity Studies, 2010), pp. 1–22.

[7]. J. Jesline, J. Romate, E. Rajkumar and A.J. George, ‘The plight of migrants during COVID-19 and the impact of circular migration in India: A systematic review’, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 8 (1) (2021): 231.

[8]. Ibid., 7–9. 

[9]. FAO, FAO in India: India at a glance (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations). 19 Nov. 2021).

[10]. SAC, Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India: Assessment and Analysis of Changes over 15 Years Based on Remote Sensing (Ahmedabad: Space Applications Centre, Indian Space Research Organisation, 2021), pp. 18–33.

[11]. S.L. Star, ‘The ethnography of infrastructure’, American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3) (1999): 380.

[12]. A. Carse, ‘Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed’, Social Studies of Science 42 (4) (2012): 542.

[13]. M.R. Breines, P. Raghuram and A. Gunter, ‘Infrastructures of immobility: Enabling international distance education students in Africa to not move’, Mobilities 14 (4) (2019): 484–499; K. Schewel, ‘Understanding immobility: Moving beyond the mobility bias in migration studies’, International Migration Review 54 (2) (2020): 328–355.

[14]. A. Mishra, Aaj bhi khare hain Talaab [Ponds are still relevant] (New Delhi: Gandhi Shanti Pratishthan, 1993).

[15]. T. Shah, Taming the Anarchy (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 5–33.

[16]. A.K. Singh, ‘Development induced displacement: Issues and Indian experiences’, Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India 69 (2) (2020): 276–289.

[17]. V. Chhotray, The Anti-Politics Machine in India: The Making of Watershed Development in India (London: Anthem Press, 2011), pp. 51–84. ­­­­­

[18]. Ibid., p. 53.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Ibid., pp. 53–54.

[21]. Ibid., pp. 54–55.

[22]. Planning Commission, Final Report of Minor Irrigation and Watershed Management for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012–2017) (New Delhi: Planning Commission, Government of India, 2011), pp. 21–38.

[23]. Ibid., pp. 21–38.

[24]. Ibid., pp. 39–62.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. A. Shah, ‘Water scarcity induced migration: Can watershed projects help?’, Economic and Political Weekly 36 (35) (2001): 3405–3410.

[27]. Some early major state supported programmes for watersheds in rainfed area include Desert Development Programme (DDP), Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP), National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas (NWDPRA). Many non-governmental organisations such as Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India) started watershed development and management programmes during the 1980s. Also, see J. Kerr, ‘Watershed management: Lessons from common property theory’, International Journal of the Commons 1 (1) (2007): 89–109. For more details of the initial watershed programmes in rainfed area of India, see Planning Commission, Final Report, pp. 21–38.

[28]. Chhotray, Anti-Politics Machine, p. 53.

[29]. Kerr, ‘Watershed management’, 100–03; MoRD, Report of the Technical Committee on Drought Prone Areas Programme and Desert Development Programme (New Delhi: Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, 1994), pp. 1–15

[30]. Kerr, ‘Watershed management’, 100–03;

[31]. P.K. Joshi, A.K. Jha, S.P. Wani, T.K. Sreedevi and F.A. Shaheen, Impact of Watershed Program and Conditions for Success: A Meta-analysis Approach (Patancheru, Telangana: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, 2008), pp. 4–7.

[32]. P. Deshingkar, ‘Improved livelihoods in improved watersheds in India: Can migration be mitigated?’, in B.R. Sharma, J.S. Sharma, C.A. Scott and S.P. Wani (eds), Watershed Management Challenges: Improving Productivity, Resources and Livelihoods (New Delhi: International Water Management Institute, 2005), pp. 144–56.

[33]. For example, see consecutive reports of the Planning Commission (replaced by National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog in 2015) working groups on the watershed development, management and the rainfed areas for the Tenth (2002–2007), Eleventh (2007–2012) and Twelfth Five Year Plans (2012–2017). Planning Commission, Report of the working group on watershed development, rainfed farming and natural resources management for the Tenth Five Year Plan (New Delhi: Planning Commission, Government of India, 2001), pp. 26–36; Planning Commission, Report of the working group on rainfed areas for formulation of XI Five Year Plan (New Delhi: Planning Commission, Government of India, 2007), pp. 26–36; Planning Commission, Final Report, pp. 103–7.

[34]. Deshingkar, ‘Improved livelihoods’, pp. 145–47.

[35]. Ibid, pp. 150–51.

[36]. UN, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2019), pp. 33–54.

[37]. Ibid.

[38]. A.W. Bartlow, C. Manore, C. Xu, K.A. Kaufeld, S. Del Valle, A. Ziemann, G. Fairchild and J.M. Fair, ‘Forecasting zoonotic infectious disease response to climate change: Mosquito vectors and a changing environment’, Veterinary Sciences 6 (2) (2019): 40.

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