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Features
Perspectives 
Why is India drought-prone?/Sunita Narain


Many will call the drought that is affecting Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh a ‘natural disaster’. But it is truly a ‘government-made’ disaster. When Cherrapunji with over 11,000 mm of rainfall faces a drought for almost 9 months of the year, it is important to realise drought is not just a matter of the amount of rainfall but the policy and practices of holding the water where and when it falls. With less than 100 hours of rainfall in a year in the country, the key challenge is to store this precious water for the dry season ahead.
Over the last one hundred years or so we have seen two major paradigmatic shifts in water management. One is that individuals and communities have steadily given over their role almost completely to the state even though more than 150 years ago no government anywhere in the world provided water. The second is that the simple technology of using rainwater has declined and in its place exploitation of rivers and groundwater through dams and tubewells has become the key source of water. As water in rivers and aquifers is only a small portion of the total rainwater availability, there is growing and, in many cases, unbearable stress on these sources.
Under the antiquated Indian Easement Act of 1882 which still governs water laws in the country, the government has the sole prerogative to ‘regulate the collection, retention and distribution of water’ in streams, lakes and all other water channels. In order words, every drain and nalla belongs to the government. Not surprisingly, when poor villages in Alwar district built rain water harvesting structures, johads, to recharge their groundwater, they were served a legal notice by the state irrigation department saying that the structures were illegal and had to be ‘removed immediately.’ Today, these these ‘illegal structures’ have regenerated entire rivers.
Groundwater is a pathetic story. Today over 80-90 per cent of drinking water and over 50 per cent of irrigation comes from groundwater. Groundwater is under the control of the owner of the land. But governmental policies on free electricity and cheap diesel have meant that with deeper and deeper tubewells this resource is being over exploited - not harvested. And without rainwater harvesting there is no recharge taken place. Today, the government would like to ‘manage’ this resource by legislating that only it would have the right to grant licences for the construction of groundwater abstraction structures. Imagine, a new tubewell and borewell licence raj!
Community-based rainwater harvesting - the paradigm of the past - has much strength today. A survey conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment of several villages facing drought in Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh found that all those villages which had undertaken rainwater harvesting or watershed development in earlier years had no drinking water problem and even had some water to irrigate their crops. On the other hand, neighbouring villages were desperate for water and planning to migrate when the real summer hit. Rainwater harvesting through tanks, ponds, check dams, percolation dams and many other structures all designed to catch and store the rain will, however, demand an integrated land and water policy. This is because the pond is only a hole in the ground without its catchment area - the land on which the rain falls and which needs to be protected from grazing or from mining. This can only be done through the involvement of communities.
But the real problem is mindsets. Rainwater harvesting demands a new approach to governance - a participatory rather than a top-down bureaucratic one. Politicians have created a culture of dependence and love to make promises, howsoever hollow they may be, that they will provide everything to the people. This must change first.
Sunita Narain
Centre for Science and Environment
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