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The Hindu on : Farmers and dams - II

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, July 13, 2000

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Farmers and dams - II

By Gail Omvedt

WHY SHOULD farmers want dams? The answer may be not such an obvious one, because according to almost all the well-known environmentalists who have been writing on issues of drought these days, they should not. Leave aside the staunch no big dams eco- romanticists such as Ms. Medha Patkar and Ms. Arundhati Roy, even moderate environmentalists such as Mr. Anil Agarwal have been arguing that community-based rainwater harvesting is enough to stand the challenge of drought. For Mr. Agrawal also, dams are unnecessary and Green Revolution- style agricultural development is seen as something alien. Mr. Agarwal, head of the Centre for Science and Environment, has been opposing many of the extremes of eco-romanticism in many ways. On the one hand, unlike the tendency of the NBA and Ms. Patkar and others to target multinationals, the WTO etc., he has stressed the dire effects of the state bureaucracy on local communities' ability to handle ecosystem stress. On the other, he and the whole CSE group have worked with similar state officials and political leaders to represent India's interests in forums such as Rio and connected bodies. In other words, he is a reformist, not a revolutionary. But, just as Mr. Sharad Joshi and Prof. Nanjundaswamy agree that farmers need dams, so does Mr. Agarwal agree with Ms. Roy and Ms. Patkar that they do not need them. His has been the most eloquent voice recently arguing for a general localist position, that is, for a position that community action on water management (usually organised through NGOs but assisted by state efforts) is sufficient for drought-proofing and in tune with Indian tradition.

During the recent drought, Mr. Agrawal had argued, in a number of articles in major newspapers as well as in his own journal, Down to Earth, that local rainwater harvesting was sufficient to stand the test of drought. His claim is that if every village captured all the rainfall that fell within its own lands and associated Government revenue and forest lands, there would be enough to meet all drinking water and most irrigation needs. Citing examples from December-January tours by Down to Earth in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, as well as from Alwar in Rajasthan and with references to the water-harvesting practices of our ancestors, Mr. Agrawal's message is that big dams are unnecessary.

Without going into the details of Mr. Agrawal's calculations, it can be noted that many engineers and water experts, including environmentally-conscious ones, will disagree. Among these is Mr. K. R. Datye of Mumbai and his team of the Society for Peoples Participation in Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) who have worked extensively themselves with water management groups throughout India. While arguing for the importance of locally harvested rainwater and integrating traditional and modern methods of water management, they also clearly believe that it must be supplemented in drought-prone regions by ``exogenous water'' supplied from irrigation systems. They see such integrated systems as necessary to provide not simply drinking water, but water for all domestic and livelihood needs, including agriculture and pastoralism.

Two SOPPECOM activists, Mr. Suhas Paranjape and Mr. K. J. Joy, in a recent paper, focussing specifically on an alternative proposal for the Sardar Sarovar dam, favoured the integration of small and large, local and exogenous, water sources. They believe that exploitation of large sources is necessary if small systems are to provide a service with a high degree of reliability, meaning that large dams and their reservoirs are necessary to ensure that wells and tanks work on a sufficiently regular basis to provide a guaranteed livelihood. In contrast to the CSE group or the eco- romanticists, the aim of this team is to reconstruct large dams, to minimise their costs and spread their benefits, not to deny them or destroy them.

Lay people may find the statistics thrown around by teams of experts to be confusing. But some things appear simple. Basically, local watershed development, sometimes referred to as local rainwater harvesting, is in some ways a contradiction in terms. Watersheds may be very large areas; and without thinking and acting in terms of the whole area, true water management cannot be done. For example, if the village or locality is in a more elevated area, capturing all the rainwater that falls may simply mean that villages at lower elevations will be deprived. When a Down to Earth reporter tells us that some villages, which have built water harvesting structures, have solved their drinking water problems even in years of drought, while other nearby villages remain water-starved, an important methodological problem remains. The questions have to be asked: where are the villages discussed, how are they all located in a larger area, is it not possible that some villagers may be collecting rainfall at the cost of others? Is this not similar to the way in which farmers near the head of a canal grab water at the cost of those near the tailend?

(To take an extreme example that will clarify this point, look at the Krishna valley watershed, which includes the high hilly area of the Sahyadris, the valley near the Krishna river, and the dry high Deccan plateau to the east. The first has high rainfall, the second lower rainfall, the third is drought-prone. If all the rain falling in the hilly area were captured, stored and used locally, it would do nothing for the lower regions, maybe even deprive them of water. Only by capturing the water in the reservoirs of the Warna and Koyna dams is it possible to provide irrigation water for the Krishna valley, and only by lifting some of this water from the Krishna to the high eastern plateau can the misery of the farmers in the drought-prone area be relieved).

On the whole, Mr. Agrawal with his writing of how our ancestors learnt to harvest water and his tendency to talk primarily of solving drinking water needs - there is just no reason, he writes, whatsoever for thirst in India - forgets that for farmers thirst is not the problem, surviving on the land is. He forgets that growing food for the country cannot be done simply through water-saving crops such as millets and maize. He forgets that the ancestors of farmers today built quite big irrigation systems for their times. And just like the others he writes of Green Revolution-style agricultural development as if technological development in agriculture were unnecessary. It is no wonder that farmers are sceptical of environmentalists.

But farmers must realise that there are other kinds of environmentalists, who do understand something of the needs of agricultural production. This is also not unlikely. The fact is that while the ``kar seva'' campaigns to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar and Alamatti dams may disturb some environmentalists, neither Prof. Nanjundaswamy nor Mr. Sharad Joshi would support the sometimes mindless developmentalism of the Indian state. Just as they agreed that farmers need dams, they also seemed to agree on the principle of moderating this demand for more water. The Professor says he opposes dams such as the Bedti because it is in an area of biodiversity in the western Ghats, but has never opposed any dams in the plains. Mr. Joshi does not argue that the Sardar Sarovar dam should be raised to its full planned height of 138 meters, but would be satisfied with 110 meters, enough to let water into the canal. This is the height recommended by supporters of the alternative proposal of the SOPPECOM team, which would keep the height of the dam at 110 feet, prioritise water for Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat, and avoid 90 per cent of the eviction that would otherwise occur.

In other words, in spite of often-inflated rhetoric, name- calling, and even mud-slinging that goes on at the public level and in the media, there is room for a middle way environmentalism and a compromise between farmers and environmentalists.


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