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The Hindu on : Harnessing water

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, September 19, 1999

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Harnessing water

GAIL OMVEDT makes out a case for building dams in the interest of the 'greater common good'.

WATER is passionate. It roars in fury as it crashes down rocks, tearing out boulders from the earth, it beats away at mountains. It gurgles in streams. It meanders in rivers. Water is a natural gift; it seems a kind of betrayal to harness it.

Yet, from the perspective of humans, it is fickle. The lack of it leads to drought and famine; excess leads to flood; sufficient water judiciously distributed on fields produces food. Thus harnessing water has been part of agricultural production from the beginning. As the Sangam poet wrote:

"Those who unite water and soil create living bodies and life in this world. Even kings with vast domains strive in vain when the land is dry, when fields sown with seed must look to the sky for rain. So, Pandyan king, who makes dreadful war, do not disdain my words, expand quickly those watery places built where water moves across the land. For those who harness water harness rewards for themselves, and those who fail cannot endure."

While the Sangam poet spoke of "harnessing water", Kautilya's Arthashastra, at about the same time, establishes rules for building reservoirs and dams, writes of irrigated fields being more valuable than rainfed fields. In order to bring life to fields and the animals and humans who live on them - and to guard against the water death of famine and floods - dams, reservoirs, tanks and all manner of irrigation systems have been built for thousands of years. They have not always been successful; floods and famines existed even in pre-colonial times. But they made traditional Indian agriculture one of the most productive in the world.

Harnessing water these days has become problematic. Floods ravage lands in the north and northeast; people migrate from the drought-prone lands of the west and the south. Dam evictees live in misery, far from their homes and often without much compensation. The dam-afflicted and the drought-afflicted alike become ecological refugees, migrating to cities to work in informal sector jobs to survive, migrating to other rural areas to work in brickyards, as canecutters in the irrigated lands of sugarcane, anywhere they can manage. And disputes over the sharing of waters continue to rage. Tamils and Kannadigas fight over the Cauvery; farmers of Andhra and Karnataka find themselves at loggerheads over the sharing of Krishna water. Farmers at the tail end of canals fight those at the head; some fight to get water released from canals, others resist on the grounds that their fields and crops will lose.

Does this mean that the dam-building projects should be rejected? Supporters of the Narmada Bachao Andolan believe so. Ashish Kothari has argued that big dams either submerge vast areas of forest or displace unacceptable numbers of people; their benefits cannot possible match their human and financial cost. Medha Patkar has compared rivers to veins and arteries, and stated that blocking them is like blocking blood supply.

Arundhati Roy has compared dams to bombs and believes that irrigating fields to take two crops a year where one was grown before is like human beings getting hooked on steroids - it can provide a burst of energy, but it will not be sustainable. As an alternative, local level rainwater harvesting is urged - small ponds, tanks, check dams built at the village level.

However, those who believe large projects are unnecessary should consider the consequences of not having the projects. Population grows; it is now five times what it was in the precolonial period. Old cropping patterns, old varieties of seeds, old methods of production no longer suffice. However many varieties of rice, jawar, pulses and vegetables that existed, most people lived on minimal food and to feed the one billion population that now officially is said to live here, improved varieties of crop species, increase in productivity, and extended irrigation projects are necessary. Water has to be harnessed.

This is the conclusion not only of government spokesmen, but also of many activists involved in building small dams. For example, the Bali Raja Memorial Dam, built to irrigate 900 hectares in two villages on the Yerala river in drought-prone Khanapur tehsil of Sangli district in Maharashtra, has become somewhat famous as a "model" small dam. It not only provides irrigation water, but it also does so on an equitable basis, giving water rights to all alike, including the landless. But those living in Khanapur know that any number of similar small dams built on the Yerala will hardly touch the problems of the area. The average rainfall is less then 500 mm a year in this part of Maharashtra and the Yerala itself runs dry for 11 months. So those who fought to build the Bali Raja dam are also fighting for the implementation of a lift irrigation scheme to bring water from the Krishna river to the taluka - water released from the reservoir of the Koyna dam, a large dam in the Sahyadri western Ghats. With this, they have struggled for the principle that water from the lift irrigation scheme should be equally distributed to all the villages in the tehsil, and they have helped build a movement of 13 tehsils in the Krishna valley in southern Maharashtra to distribute water from the Krishna on the same basis.

There are certainly many drastic problems with the current models of harnessing water. Over-centralisation, bureaucratisation and rigidity. Irrigation projects seem fascinated with giganticism; canal colonies and huge concrete guest houses seem as much characteristic of the biggest dams as the water they provide to the fields. Displacement frequently passes any acceptable limit, while the State appears to ignore all demands for restructuring or for compensation unless it is pressured by movements.

Traditional irrigation projects had their limitations: they could not always prevent famine and floods; and they were nearly always linked to caste hierarchy, with dominant landholders of a village controlling even the decentralised tanks and bunds while dalits were mere servants of the system, in charge of releasing water but without rights to it. Still, traditional systems were structured around important basic principles that need to be remembered today: while engineers and employees of the central States built the larger dams or anicuts and the big reservoirs, and while State officials continued to concern themselves with the whole system, it was actually run in a decentralised manner at a local level. The systems were focused around local, village level tanks and channels to fields; operation and maintenance was local.

The primary departure from this began in the colonial period, when local systems were largely neglected and the colonial state focussed on bureaucratic, centralised large structures oriented to the most immediate needs of profit.

Critiques of this have been given not only by scholars and activists writing today; leaders of the peasants like Jotiba Phule in the 19th Century savagely attacked British irrigation policy. As he wrote, "with the promises of saving their crops but with the real aim of giving huge salaries to the engineers of their country and providing a flood of interest to European moneylenders thereby increasing the burden of debt on the head of India, lakhs of rupees of these loans has been used to build canals everywhere." Phule also noted the disregard of local-level irrigation networks, saying that while farmers were charged as much as could be squeezed out for the canal water, there was no provision to channel the land to their field. Local distribution systems were neglected, whether they were independently built bunds and small dams, or channels for taking water from larger projects. Thus the "scientific" irrigation model of the British had its costs. Production often grew, but at the same time huge systems led to waterlogging, spread of malaria and other diseases, and displacement.

The independent Indian state has to a large extent adopted the bureaucratic and extortionist habits of the British. Local systems continue to be neglected; huge reservoirs are built while feeder canals are left unfinished; top-down management is inflexible and impenetrable by the concerns of either those displaced or those excluded from water. These irrigation systems produce green islands in a sea of drought. While some new language like "watershed development" and "water users societies" is used, actual implementation and practice is slow to change.

But the solution is not to reject the dam-building project completely. Nor can all improved varieties of seeds, all new technology, all forms of increasing productivity be given up to return simply to traditional methods of agriculture.

The solution is that the projects must be flexible, control must be decentralised, local irrigation under popular control - unlike the traditional period, the popular control of all sections of the population, Dalits and OBCs as well as the traditional landholding castes - must be linked to larger irrigation schemes. Displacement must be minimised so that rehabilitation can be guaranteed. Crop production should be carried on with a "low external input sustainable agriculture" policy, using the minimum necessary external inputs of water along with local rainwater harvesting, mixing modern technology and traditional knowledge.

And, irrigation projects like Sardar Sarovar which do not meet these criteria, whose engineers go on building higher and higher regardless of cost to the people or any objection, should be reviewed. But, in the interests not only of the national - Arundhati Roy's "common good" - but also of the large majority of rural people who remain poor and backward, who are dalits, bahujans, adivasis - water needs to be harnessed. Rivers need to be tamed. Agriculture has to see a significant input of sustainable modern technology. How else to feed one billion people, and to prevent the crores of people living in drought- prone, dry areas to become themselves ecological refugees?

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