Photo by Austin Yoder

Despite large-scale water supply infrastructure built over the years in India, areas prone to drought have only increased. Communities having had to deal with changing climate and ill-planned infrastructure, innovate and look at simple systems to manage water requirements. Gopakumar Menon throws light on such best practices, and asserts the need of the Government to learn from these.

In October 2014, the Met Department released a map, with the sign of a cross, a metaphor no doubt for the need for hard prayer. The vertical of the cross – a thick drought line – ran down from Punjab to Rayalseema, while the horizontal ran through three of the seven sisters of the North East, all of which covered about thirty percent of India’s land area.

This was not the first such year for many of these areas, particularly in Central India, it was the fourth. Village after village, prepared for migration, many to never return in the sheer despair of hopelessly unprofitable farming, the mood in the air was grim. In the occasional posts of bold journalism, seen more on social media than in urban newspapers or television, the photographs and narratives at a micro-level, household by household, were compelling.

Yet, to India’s elite – in Government and the private sector – the continued drought presented a serendipitous, God-sent opportunity, no less. An opportunity to announce or demand canals; dams and river diversion on a scale never seen before at a cost that will boggle the mind; to seal the debate on the linking of rivers and to hush the dissenters with the deluge of crafted public opinion; and to divert the discussion and court action on the private pillage of public funds with the illusory promise of safe drinking water

Adding power to their elbow was the disgruntlement expressed in the business media of a much-abused statistic, that of GDP growth. Looking over the shoulder at China, this elite sees stagnancy in India’s GDP growth rate (about 5%), even though by most yardsticks elsewhere in the world, we are not doing very badlyHence, the umbrella argument that has been and will continue to be used to justify all clamour of lies in the magical words for GDP growth: infrastructure investment, that, as it grows, has an apparent multiplier effect on a nation’s economy.

The scale of investment necessary is no deterrent, it is rather the unique selling proposition in an exaggerated interpretation of the wisdom of John Maynard Keynes’ preference for demand generation in bad times by the act of the Government spending money.

Most, if not all, of the arguments for large-scale water infrastructure are specious, if not downright mendacious. Most of the developed nations of the World that embraced the dams-and-canals argument in the post-War years began to understand their error in the last years of the Twentieth Century and make corrections.

The United States, a country where the environmental agenda has little play, is not just moving away from dams, it is actively dismantling them: according to published data, quoted in, in the past 20 years, about 1,150 of America’s 85,000 dams have been dismantled. And, in a recent issue, the Economist, which has a strong propensity to back infrastructure investment, has strongly criticised the South-North Water Diversion Project in China –the World’s largest river diversion project – arguing that it will not solve the water problem, but will only exacerbate it and that such folly will come at an enormous human cost (see The Economist, ‘A Canal Too Far’)

So, who will benefit from this investment in moving vast quantities of water away from its natural flow.

  • Not the farmers, who will be persuaded to grow sugarcane instead of subsistence crops, which in turn ensures that the water deficit remains, perpetuating the dam-canal-sugarcane cycle.
  • Not the fishermen, who lose their livelihoods as fish stocks dwindle once dams are built – many river fish migrate upstream to breed and disruptions in their breeding cycle has probably already rendered a number of species extinct in peninsular India.
  • Not the average urban dweller, whose struggle for clean, potable water will continue.

So, to repeat, who benefits?

  1. The dam-and-canal routine is among the largest sources of funds for those in power and their rapacity can be insatiable. By all standards, Maharashtra has led the pack – Rs. 75,000 crore in the last decade, with no results to show. Nothing.
  2. Industry benefits of course. The cement, steel, pipes and aluminium corporations, the hydro-power satraps (including the callously inefficient National Hydropower Corporation) and the thousands of industries that need subsidised water for their operations. The chief villains in the latter list are, without doubt, the thermal power plants that use low-grade coal to power about two-thirds of India.
  3. Down to Earth’s study on coal based power (‘Coal Toll’ issue dated February 16th 2015) offered mind-numbing data – it estimated that the thermal power industry’s annual water draw was about 22 billion cubic metres, about half of India’s total domestic water needs.

    Every unit of power generated, it opined, needed about four litres of water, which then was not available for re-use in most plants in India.

In the chaotic din of activity and noise associated with water ‘infrastructure’ of this kind, of fake rationale and Hobsons choices, the deficiency is not of rainfall; it is of common sense, deliberately set aside.

Can we link every corner that faces or will we face drought? Indeed, if India’s vapid post-independence history of water management has taught us anything, it is that we have learnt nothin

An Alternative Model for Water, as if Common Sense Mattered

The choice before us is not of parched Earth vs river-linking projects. Rather, we must harvest water where it falls, at a landscape level – entire watersheds – treating it as the precious resource that it is and regulating, instead, the industries that use it with profligacy such as distilleries and thermal power, asking them to pay a price for water that incentives recycling. A fraction of the money used for river diversion can be spent in purifying grey water from urban India, for recycling with repeated success, which is water infrastructure as well, but of the right kind. Many cities across the World do this with success, most notably the city of London. Yet, Bangalore, for instance, barely recycles five percent of its water and none of it really for household consumption. The technologies of multi-level purification are well established and far more risk free than the elementary treatment of river water prior to its delivery to Indian urbanities.

At the fundamental level, if India is to achieve water security, we must heed the Beatles. “Get back,” they said, ‘get back to where you once belonged.” India needs an army of water managers who will re-learn traditional wisdom from their elders and existing documentation before it is lost for good. This ‘water army’ then must be provided with the tools of modern geology – the science of satellite imagery, for instance – that help their work succeed. This is hardly a novel idea: watersheds planned, designed and managed by water specialists in partnership with local stakeholders who are motivated, not just by payment, but by their involvement, have been implemented over many years and there are numerous examples of such partnerships that have worked including those of the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, BAIF Institute of Rural Development and the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS). As an illustration, about the TBS water specialist Ramaswamy Sakthivadivel writes:

Rajendra Singh of TBS has revolutionized the mass movement of the people of Alwar district in the semiarid Rajasthan state and built bridges of cooperation and solidarity among them. A group of young individuals from TBS took it upon their shoulders, with people’s participation and contribution, to rejuvenate defunct johads and construct new ones in the Aravari catchment at the foothills of the Shivalik hill ranges of Alwar district. Johads are ancient water-harvesting structures, constructed by the people, to store rainwater for multiple uses and to recharge groundwater. Many johads have come up on the tributary streams of the Aravari catchment in the last decade, raising water level in the wells and facilitating irrigation on the cultivated lands. The dead, dry watercourses of the Aravari, which had flowing water only during rainy days in the monsoon months, came alive for the full year. Today, there are more than 200 johads in the catchment of Aravari. The successful water harvesting and recharging of groundwater in the upstream of the river followed by scores of johads along the main river had transformed the once ephemeral stream into a perennial river. These and other similar movements that are instrumental in achieving productive benefits locally have given rise to many such initiatives in other parts of India.

At a fraction of a fraction of the cost of conventional thinking, many such initiatives have provided water security and incomes, while creating mass employment in agriculture itself and restricting migration. In this process, they have challenged another accepted norm – that development means moving people away from agriculture and into cities – yet, the defined scale of their work has meant limited national impact.

These examples must now be the keystones of water policy in India.

Rivers are not meant for ‘capacity utilisation’, of merely functional value; they are living ecosystems of ecological, cultural and social vitality.

It is the vacuity of thinking that leads the decision makers – the political establishment, a large part of the bureaucracy and private sector managers (who see themselves as do-gooders and nation builders) – to believe that rivers should not flow into the sea and be ‘wasted’. They believe that all solutions and a possible moksha must necessarily begin with quick environmental clearances,that voices advocating restraint are anti-development and that human science can slip one over Nature (“look at China!”). They ignore the humungous permanent cost that our country will bear for this transgression, as well as the impossible timelines and cost escalations involved.

India’s water security does not depend on mega-projects, meant for those who reside in towers of ivory. It depends, instead, on the application of wisdom, in combination with knowledge and humility. It is time we placed the issue of water into the hands of those competent enough to understand it on the ground and to ignore thosewho have abandoned common sense in pursuit of the pot of gold at the extreme end of a chimera.

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