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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : Drought-proofing

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Saturday, June 17, 2000


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Drought-proofing

By Gail Omvedt

IN THE midst of India's most fearsome drought in a decade, people are looking for genuine ways of ``drought-proofing.'' Often mentioned as an example is Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Rainwater harvesting was one of many campaigns taken up after Anna Hazare, an army driver who was apparently miraculously saved after his entire platoon had been killed in a battle, returned home to dedicate himself to social work.

In Maharashtra, Ralegan Siddhi's watershed development, along with programmes of anti-alcoholism and an all-women panchayat, was taken as the model for a set of government programmes, and helped to promote the slogan ``catch water, store water.'' This year, as the agony of drought spreads through so many districts, Ralegan Siddhi (along with Alwar in Rajasthan) was one of the examples cited of drought-proofing through local rainwater harvesting.

Ralegan Siddhi combines the water it harvests from rainfall with water provided by largescale irrigation systems. About 40 per cent of the village's water needs are supplied by the Kukadi canal, that is from one of the many dams built on the tributaries of the Krishna.

Ralegan Siddhi, then, is a model not simply for watershed development but for drought-proofing through what the Chinese used to call ``walking on two legs'' - combining locally-oriented and traditionally developed forms of watershed development with modern systems of irrigation.

The Bali Raja Memorial Dam, built in Sangli district of southern Maharashtra on another tributary of the Krishna, has also become something of an environmentalist model. It is a peasant-built small dam, combining local labour and activist enthusiasm with technical help from progressive engineers in Mumbai, and has been financed largely by the right to sell sand from the Yerala river which remains dry for 11 months of the year. Its water irrigates about 900 acres of land in two villages adjoining the river on a principle of ``equitable water distribution'' - every family, whether its own land or not, has a right to water. The Bali Raja dam has thus become a symbol of the ``small dams'' which can provide alternatives to the big dams which displace so many millions of people and flood so many millions of hectares of forest.

However, the activists and farmers of Mukti Sangarsh, spearheading the building of the dam, have recognised that small dams by themselves are insufficient in drought-prone areas which get less than 500 mm of rainfall a year. The dam provides water to two out of 108 villages in the taluk and even a string of similar dams built along the Yerala would leave the majority starving. Thus the people began a campaign for implementation of the ``Takari irrigation scheme,'' a medium project designed to lift water from the nearby Krishna - water originally released from the huge reservoir of the Koyna dam in the Sahyadri hills. However, the activists did not simply accept the government plan, which would have provided water to only 23 villages in the taluk; they fought for an alternative. Their argument, backed by evidence from experimental farming with low inputs of water, was that the same amount of water could be sufficient to provide all villages in the taluk enough for food, fodder, fuel and cash needs from tree crops.

Both the autonomously peasant-built Bali Raja Memorial Dam and the revised ``Takari scheme'' have involved sustained movement effort, demonstrations, dharnas, fasting, united front campaigns with various left organisations in the district and university seminars discussing the principles of the movement. At the same time, these social movements have rejected one of the most common dichotomies seen today - between ``big dam'' developmentalism and anti-dam eco-romanticism.

There is a tendency to either uncritically endorse or totally reject the ``large dam'' projects promoted by the government since independence. The one is a form of developmental extremism, the other of eco-romanticism. Farmers in drought-stricken regions, whether southern Maharashtra or the agonisingly water- scarce areas in Saurashtra and Rajasthan, are told that they should either wait passively until the canal water of big dams like the Sardar Sarovar reaches them or go ahead on their own and solve their problems at a local level through traditional rainwater harvesting methods, check dams and bunds and other means of catching every drop of rain.

In reality, the choice between mindless developmentalism and eco- romanticism is a false one. The alternatives are meaningless by themselves. The government-promoted irrigation projects are highly centralised not only in production but also in distribution: they tend to concentrate the water provided in privileged areas that would become green islands of development in an ongoing sea of drought. The rainwater harvesting schemes, on the other hand, in spite of their value, are insufficient by themselves in areas of really low rainfall - and there is also the danger that effective water-harvesting in areas of higher elevation can cut off water to rivers which might otherwise carry it to lower areas. Both extremes take apparently opposite attitudes towards the state, yet there is a commonality - one would simply let the state go on building irrigation projects as its experts have decided, and the other would have the state do nothing at all and give all responsibility to the localities. Neither involves a project of people joining together from diverse backgrounds and over a wide area to try to influence state policy, formulating and struggling for an alternative plan.

Such an effort, though, is being made in the Krishna basin districts of southern Maharashtra. Here, using experience from such struggles as that for the Bali Raja dam and the Takari scheme, and building as well on movements of dam evictees, a new alternative which seeks to provide a ``walk on two legs'' solution to drought is coming up.

Farmers in the region are demanding that the government put in its resources into completing the irrigation schemes on the Krishna and do so in a way that will provide water for all the drought-prone villages, not simply to a few favoured green islands. Their Shetmajur Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana - Organisation of Agricultural Labourers and Toiling Farmers - was formed in 1993 and includes the ``dam afflicted'' as well as the ``drought-afflicted,'' farmers whose lands would be flooded by dams and those from drought-prone areas which would not otherwise get water from the planned projects.

The evictees come from the areas of both new and old dams. Some are displaced by Koyna and Warna, two biggest dams on the Krishna's tributaries, fighting for fulfilment of old promises. Some are from the areas of dams still being built, such as Urmodi in Satara district, Uttar Mang or Marathwadi, and a few have given alternatives, like the villagers affected by the proposed Uchangi dam in Kolhapur district, who have argued for two smaller dams to replace the one which would flood their land.

And, like angry workers fighting for wages, they have time and again held dharnas on the sites. Yet, just as workers would not want their factories to close down, none of these farmers is opposed to the dam as such. Like farmers throughout southern Maharashtra, they know the difference that assured water can make to agricultural production and farm livelihood. They are getting, in fact, alternative land in the command areas of the same dams, and some of them have also won an unprecedented gain - an award of Rs. 600 per month until irrigation water reaches them. Rather than an apocalyptic campaign to halt the building of all large dams, theirs is a trade union struggle aimed at gaining a share of their benefits and a fight for what might be called workers' participation with a full-scale plan of restructuring the irrigation system on the Krishna. And the Maharashtra government has agreed to consider this genuine alternative offered for drought-proofing.

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