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The Hindu on : Debating drought

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, May 04, 2000

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Debating drought

By Harsh Sethi

FOR RESIDENTS of Gujarat, it was evident for some time that the new millennium was unlikely to usher in new hope. As early as October last, the signals were clear that the State was likely to face its most serious water famine in living memory. The rains had failed, with precipitation recording a mere 30 per cent of the annual average. Worse, the groundwater had been turning saline as a result of over-extraction. In mid-December 1999, 28 km from Jamnagar town, the police opened fire on villagers from neighbouring villages protesting against the State Government's decision to reserve water from the nearby Kankavati dam for Jamnagar. Three people died and many were injured.

Yet, as recently as mid-April 2000, neither the State nor the Central Governments seemed to have woken up to the impending disaster. When the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, visited Gujarat as part of celebrations in memory of Sardar Patel, instead of being taken to the water-starved regions of Saurashtra and Kutch, he was shown the relatively prosperous villages in Kheda district close to Anand. No State Government official thought it fit to apprise him of the need to institute emergency measures. The Chief Minister, Mr. Keshubhai Patel, could not make himself available to meet the Prime Minister. Ostensibly, he was recovering from an exhausting trip to the U.S. to woo NRI funds.

With the Prime Minister now having made an unprecedented appeal to the citizens to contribute to the National Relief Fund, drought has become the flavour of the season. Moneys are being sought and disbursed so that water and fodder can be transferred to scarcity-affected regions for both humans and animals. Stories of starvation deaths have started doing the rounds, as are accounts of mass migration, both of small farmers affected by crop failure and pastoral communities in search of fodder. Once again we will hear of water tankers and trains, of large pipeline projects to carry water over long distances to urban conglomerations and, in Gujarat, about the dams on the Narmada as the only long-term solution for a water-starved State.

And yet, as Mr. Ramaswamy Iyer, once Secretary, Water Resources, in the Central Government and the person who, along with Mr. T. N. Seshan (then Secretary, Environment), was responsible for granting conditional clearance to the controversial Sardar Sarovar project pointed out in a debate on Star TV, ``Even the most enthusiastic proponents of large dams have never claimed drought proofing as a central objective. Power and irrigation, yes. But drought proofing has essentially to be met through local water conservation and harvesting solutions.''

All of this is well-known. The Narmada Valley Project is, after all, our most studied and commented upon development project. Numerous researches have pointed out that even under the most optimistic assumptions, in the absence of the dams, Indira Sagar and Maheshwar, closer to the source of the river, Sardar Sarovar as the terminal dam cannot work at full capacity. Further, the Narmada Tribunal award lays down that water be shared with Rajasthan, implying thereby that part of the water will have to be diverted away northwards rather than in the canals to serve Saurashtra. At its best, the dam can meet no more than 20 per cent of the water requirements of this region. And yet, the political leadership in the State across the spectrum continues to sell the illusion of Narmada as the final saviour to a water- starved people.

Over the last 15 years, the bulk of the resources for irrigation and other water projects have been diverted to the Sardar Sarovar project. Even if we discount the many stories of corruption and leakages, a near necessary accompaniment of large projects, there is no denying that insufficient attention has been given to developing and maintaining local water harvesting structures. To quote Mr. Ramaswamy Iyer again, ``Irrigation and water management in the country has always been dominated by a centralised, hardware-oriented, engineering approach which foregrounds large dams and looks at local structures as a minor additionality. What is needed instead is to reverse the proportions, to focus primarily on local solutions with large dams coming in as a supplement.''

Similar points have been made brilliantly in Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab by Mr. Anupam Mishra of Gandhi Peace Foundation or ``Dying Wisdom'' brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment. Recently, the President, Mr. K. R. Narayanan, broke with tradition and travelled to Alwar (Rajasthan) to honour the Bhaonta-Kolyala Gram Sabha for its incredible work in greening the area, even reviving what was given up as a dead river. The earlier work by Anna Saheb Hazare in Ralegaon-Siddhi in Maharashtra or the examples provided by the Sadguru Foundation in Dahod, Gujarat, the Raj-Samadhiyala project in Rajkot, Gandhigram in Kutch, Mandlikpur in Rajkot, Ghelar Choti in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, just to name a few, convincingly demonstrate the efficacy and cost- effectiveness of local water harvesting efforts.

Of course, these efforts demand an extraordinary degree of local initiative and participation, a zeal conspicuously missing in official projects. For not only do citizens have to contribute money and labour, they have to work out elaborate mechanisms for maintaining and managing the water bodies as also evolve norms for water sharing. Equally, care has to be taken about the cropping pattern, about not permitting heavy industry and urban concentration, both of which involve intense water use. Unfortunately, the country does not have an adequate legal regimen governing the use of groundwater with private entities permitted to install deep-bore tube-wells on their property, and surface water bodies under the control of the Government. The villagers in Alwar responsible for developing the watershed in their region and reviving a dead river are today locked into a conflict with the Government over who enjoys rights over the water - the community or the state.

To come back to Gujarat. Over the decades, in violation of all natural laws, a semi-arid region suited for subsistence agriculture and pastoralism has been dramatically transformed. Saurashtra today produces over half the country's groundnuts, a commercial crop. The growth of urban settlements is amongst the most rapid in the country. Large industry in the coastal region makes its own demands on scare groundwater, though the Reliance Petrochemical complex claims that it meets its water requirements through a desalination plant. It is today reportedly even supplying water to the citizens of Jamnagar. Outfits such as Gujarat Ambuja cements have been permitted to mine into the limestone belt without proper appreciation of the fact that this constitutes the only barrier against an inward incursion of salinity. It is not that the State Government did not anticipate the current crisis. From September-October 1999, it started tapping into the groundwater aquifer at Wankaner to supply through pipelines to Rajkot. A similar project of diverting water from the Mahi river to Ahmedabad was initiated. Obviously the Government felt that if it could meet urban drinking water requirements, protest could be contained. It seems clear that the rural voter in dispersed village settlement did not equally matter.

Decades of mal development in contravention of ecological principles has brought Gujarat to its current state. And while emergency measures, including transporting water over long distances may be necessary to avert serious water riots and to save lives, it would indeed be tragic if proper lessons are not drawn and post-monsoon life goes on as usual. Fortunately, the people of Saurashtra and Kutch, if not their elected representatives, have realised the importance of local water bodies and through NGOs and religious bodies such as the Swadhyaya and Swaminarayan sects are working hard at cleaning up and deepening the tanks and sarovars, making check dams and bunds, and restoring the watersheds. Reportedly, the State Government too is not being an impediment to these civic initiatives, at least for the moment. Hopefully if the rain gods do not continue to disappoint, disaster can be averted. Otherwise we will be in for a long, hot summer, made worse by the likely wrangling over drought relief.

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