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Special Report

Special Report 
Working without the state
Nivedita Prabhu & Nandini Raghavendra
AHMEDABAD
GOVERNMENTS have short memories. Only 12 years ago, a severe drought ravaged parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, killing thousands of cattle and inducing large scale migration. Unlike the current drought, where crop loss is estimated around 30 per cent only, in 1988, villages which had seen hardly any rain in three years did not even sow any crop. If ever these states got close to famine, it was in 1987-88.
The calamity was soon forgotten. Decisions to improve water availability died quickly. Now a crisis similar to the mid-eighties drought has the state governments spewing terms like water harvesting, watershed management and check dams.
But the people are a lot wiser now. Across Gujarat, Rajasthan and in fact across the country, villages are solving their water problems on their own. Relying on simple traditional knowledge, rural folks are recharging ground water tables and harvesting every drop of rainfall. The state is out of the picture totally.
Given its record in irrigation and provision of drinking water it didn’t much of an option on that. ``Since 1988, nothing has been done to improve water availability and even maintenance of existing structures was neglected,’’ says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. This could be the reason why hydrologically, the current drought has more serious implications than during the crisis of 1987-88.
``The Met department says that average rainfall in Kutch and Saurashtra was 11 inches. That means 275 mm. Since Kutch generally has lower rainfall than Saurashtra, it means Saurashtra had more than 11 inches of rainfall though some parts may have had lower than that,’’ points out Thakkar. So where did this water go? Why are the dams empty, even after eight years of relatively `normal’ monsoons? And how come industry does not face any water shortage? These are questions floating in the dry desert wind.
The answers are to be found in the politics of Gujarat and a mode of economic development that has scant respect for the environment. ``The state government has allocated something like 70-80 per cent of its irrigation budget for the Sardar Sarovar Project for the last ten years, leaving no resources for other watershed projects, other local water harvesting projects, maintenance of existing infrastructure and so on,’’ says Thakkar.
If instead of spending scarce resources on a single-minded pursuit of SSP, the government of Gujarat had pursued alternatives, this drought would not have happened, say NGOs working in the state.
But then again, water politics in Gujarat has had little to do with actual needs of the people. In 1993, Gujarat chief minister Chabildas Mehta, realised that waiting for the Narmada Dam to deliver water to K and S did not make sense. He proposed a project to lift water from the Narmada river. In 1995, Kesubhai scrapped the project. His successor, Vaghela revived it the next year but when Kesubhai came back to power in 1998, he scrapped the project once again. Now, he is talking about lifting water from the Mahi river at a cost of Rs 400 crore.
``These grandiose schemes are unnecessary,’’ says Thakkar. NGOs working on water issues in Gujarat believe strongly that the solution has to be local. The Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan, a network of 14 NGOs, has worked out a Rs 200 crore plan to drought-proof Kutch over five years.
NGOs believe that there is enough water for drinking and fodder needs in drought-affected areas. Only unsustainable practices have robbed the people of adequate supplies. Even now, both in Rajasthan and Gujarat, water is being provided from other parts of the drought-affected areas. For instance, three of the four places where water is being lifted from are in Saurashtra. ``If you have money, you can buy tankerfuls of water,’’ says Thakkar.
In Saurashtra alone, 30 crore litres per day is drawn by industry, according to Shamjibai Antala, who has helped recharge hundreds of wells in Saurashtra. So much for the scarcity of water! As for the quality, experts say sea water is ingressing into the aquifers because of excessive groundwater exploitation.
The drought, obviously, hasn’t affected industry. But it may one day have to face scarcity after having overdrawn groundwater without a thought for recharging.
Fortunately, atleast some drought prone villages have woken upto the importance of recharging ground water.
There is an increasing realisation that exploitation of ground water has to stop. This is one lesson that the government will have to finally learn. Digging more and more borewells or building elaborate plans for canal networks, is not going to do the job.
``Local systems of water harvesting have to be integrated with the big projects,’’ says Harnath Jagawat, of the M M Sadguru Water and Development Foundation. Jagawat’s organisation has build 170 check dams Dahod district of Gujarat and Banaswanta of Rajasthan over the past ten years.
Historically, before the British raj and its penchant for engineering solutions, rural India depended entirely on tanks, ponds, check dams and other structures to get year round supply of water. Even villages on the fringes of the desert like Jaisalmer were never starved of water during summer.
But these structures fell into disuse as the state took over the responsibility of providing water. An insensitive bureaucracy and corrupt contractors ensured that this responsibility was not taken seriously.
Village communities are now taking this responsibility and at a fraction of the cost incurred by the state. The work of Tarun Bharat Sangh, in reviving a seasonal river in Alwar, is almost legendary.
Pandurang Athavale recharged hundreds of wells and constructed as many in Saurashtra; in Jaipur district’s Laporiya, massive tanks keep the village green throughout the year. The list gets longer as villagers fan out and teach others to emulate their success with water harvesting.
Even in areas of acute rainfall deficiency, careful rain water harvesting can yield rich dividends, says Indira Khurana of the Centre of Science and Environment. She points out that 100 mm of rain captured over one hectare of land can generate upto one million litres of water.
This astounding potential of rain water harvesting is beginning to seep into the minds of communities in drought-prone areas. Hopefully, the government won’t interfere to dry up this initiative.



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