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The Hindu on : Droughts, dams and distress

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, August 08, 2000

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Droughts, dams and distress

THE CURRENT drought that has caused several deaths and misery to those alive and termed as unprecedented has drawn the attention of the people all over the country. Many articles and debates have appeared in the media including the TV blaming the planners, policy-makers and all those connected with water resource development since independence. The layman at large is getting highly confused as to who is actually responsible for the sad situation.

The people are misinformed about the country's potential, despite the fact that the country is blessed with adequate water resources. We have the perennial rivers from the Himalayas and an extensive ground water aquifer of the unique Gangetic plains fed by them in the North. We have also the southern rivers that flow torrentially during the monsoons. When we have such bounty in nature, where has the nation gone wrong?

To understand the problem and to be better prepared with appropriate strategy in future, perhaps a study of the historical perspective of water resource development since the dawn of civilisation would give the clue.

Human and animal habitations, in the beginning, clustered on the banks of rivers that flowed perennially, like the Sindhu (Indus), the Ganga, the Yamuna, etc., in the North, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Cauvery in the South. Hence the oldest cities are found on the banks of rivers. As population increased and agriculture developed for food and fibre needs, humans fanned out with their livestock into interior lands and again close to the smaller rivers and streams though not perennial but could provide water for a larger part of the year. With further increase in population and when the smaller rivers could not sustain for all, they looked to rainwater harvesting to collect, preserve and use it during the non-rainy days.

Mute testimony

That was the beginning of water harvesting activity, developing to create bigger collection pools for use. Later, leading the surface water flow, after the rains, into natural depressions or by throwing an earthen bund or obstruction across a valley to hold it, the concept of storage reservoirs took root. Actually tanks are nothing more than bigger water harvesting interventions. Likewise, the medium and the major interventions called by the currently often-abused word dam were developed to create larger and more reliable storage to last till the next monsoons to fill up as a renewable source.

It is said that the idea of building dams occurred to man after observing the beaver, the water animal that innovated the idea of holding back the flow of streams for useful purposes, instead of merely allowing water to go waste to the sea. The famous Beaver Valley in the U.S. is still a mute testimony of the animal's ingenuity which man copied for multifarious benefits because of his superior intelligence. Beaver can be said to be the first dam builder ahead of man. The biggest dam to the smallest water- percolating tank to tap the rain is nothing but water harvesting structures to function only by receiving water from the common rainfall. It is a question of scale in terms of catchment and dimensions. The basic purpose is the same.

With the increasing need for water for agriculture, man again looked at the rivers to divert the flows on to the land and transport it to deficient areas. Thus was created the Grand Anicut system across the Cauvery more than a thousand years ago built by the Chola kings. Later the Mogul rulers to grow better crops built the inundation canals diverting the flood flows of the Yamuna and the Ganga. Frequent famines due to drought conditions were there in the past and can be traced in history. But with small population and absence of quick communication, the impact was not felt that much as of now. Even then, many local kings and chieftains and even by community efforts, a number of tanks of various sizes and diversion structures across rivers to harness rain waters came into existence in increasing numbers with every increase in population and livestock.

Era to era, bigger and greater efforts were put in to increase reliability. Bigger tanks provided a better reliability while the smaller ones dried up during droughts quickly. Bhojpal Tal built by Raja Bhoj (Bhopal gets its name from Bhojpal Tal), now no longer in existence in Central India, was one of the biggest tanks during its time comparable to some of the big dams of the present times. The Mahsamand of Rajasthan, a huge tank, was built 300 years back by the then ruler. This tank that never dried up all these years has become waterless this year for the first time.

The British efforts

During the British period from the 18th Century to the beginning of 19th Century when famines used to sweep severely all over the country, wiping out millions of people, the East India Company took up the construction of large canals diverting huge flows of the rivers Krishna and Godavari in the South and the Ganga, Yamuna, Indus and its tributaries in the North. While, in all the British controlled provinces, a number of such water resource developments were taken up, even in the princely states a number of dam constructions were taken up and completed following the recommendations of the First Indian Irrigation Commission of 1903 to ward off the recurrent famines. Consequently the spectre of recurring famines was wiped out in the country.

At the time of Independence when the British handed over power, we were still importing foodgrains, a practice kept up by the British for their own interests. However, in the Nehruvian era, in order to save precious foreign exchange for other trade purposes, large-scale river valley projects were taken up all over the country, primarily with the objective of making the country self-sufficient.

This objective has been largely achieved due to these mega projects and we are even exporting grain to the needy countries. But the policy of the British in setting the head lines for large works and also declaring that water as it occurs is the property of the Crown or the State and that nobody could harness natural streams or flows except the government, is continued even after Independence till this day. The traditional practice by community efforts or by local chieftains or important personages to build small tanks and water harvesting structures got gradually smothered and got killed by the British practice of revenue collection from water.

In view of the greater reliability and their impressive sizes, all attention both of the government and the people diverted from the smaller tanks dotting all over the country to the mega structures of dams. There should have been an equal attention and care for both the big and the small, but this did not happen. In this process not only the governments but also the people in the rural areas are to be apportioned the blame for the calamities such as the current one.

It is in isolated locations such as the Arvari River in Alwar, Ralegaon-siddhi in Maharashtra or in some locations in Gujarat where the local initiative rekindled the old traditions of community efforts that we see patches of greenery and water even in the drought.

Cause of dislocated tribals

It is also ironical to note that during the last 30 years or so, some individuals and groups of individuals started the campaign against dams per se, taking the self-interpreted exaggerated cause of dislocated tribals and backward villages in the forests and deep in the interior. They argue against displacement, any change in the lifestyle of these people, as if the people living close by to the rivers own them for themselves, even though the rivers cause extensive damage to habitations including those of the tribals who may be even worse off during floods, while wasting enormous water into the sea as in the case of the Narmada.

Little do they appreciate that the natural river is not only meant for the people close by but to all those who can make use of it, be they away from it or nearby! How far is it fair to argue that the tribes and the people in undeveloped villages should continue in the same condition without ever enjoying the fruits of science, technology for better health and have a higher quality of life? Should they not be encouraged to seek greener pastures elsewhere if they can have access to it either through their own efforts due to information exchange or due to outside compulsions.

What is needed, in case there is a government initiative or compulsion for movement due to the developmental activities for the larger good, is that the government must ensure that those who move must be better off in the new locations at government cost. It is illogical to argue against dams per se adamantly. Environmental and ecological considerations must of course be given due consideration but can be tempered and at times proper channellisation of developmental activities enhances them.

Take the case of the Periyar Dam reservoir which has become an elephant sanctuary with thick green forests all round while at the same time wiped out famines that used to haunt the district of Madurai in Tamil Nadu before its construction. Or the Krishnarajasagar Dam which has turned the Mandya district which was once covered with shrub forests with wild beasts into a prosperous one with green paddy and sugarcane fields all round. The farmers of this district are repaying the debt of gratitude to the engineer-statesman Vishveshwariah by erecting his statues in almost all the villages on their own.

Instead of contributing in that direction for improving the developmental process though river harnessing, just opposing for opposition's sake or for gaining self-importance by some self- styled environmentalists has done more harm than good, particularly in the present drought conditions. During the last 2-3 decades, harnessing of water resources has received a setback. While the population explosion is going unabated, the development of water access and availability near at hand is not keeping pace. The inter-State river disputes and the slowness of tribunals in deciding the cases are contributing to the worsening conditions.

Integrated approach

There should have been a blend of all types of traditional water harvesting techniques as in the past including the current technologies for large dam construction in supplementing and complementing each other in an integrated and holistic fashion in a river basin. In fact, the aberrations have developed taking extreme positions, one by the self-styled environmentalists and the other, the government continuing only with the large river valley projects without giving equal importance to the other smaller time-tested interventions.

However there seems to be some realisation and thanks partly to the environmentalists' opposition, an integrated approach is now being appreciated by the governments. Take for instance the Government of Karnataka. It is setting right the imbalance by focussing on resurrecting the tanks, which are about 36,700 in number. Out of these, it is planning to rejuvenate about 500 tanks in the next five years and about 25,000 thereafter, with World Bank assistance. It is now integrating this effort with the watershed development project and other related schemes.

Populist measure

The historical perspective of surface water projects has been thus examined and also as to how unbalanced development during the last one hundred years contributed in some way to the unpreparedness to meet drought situations. There is another aspect to this scene. The worst culprit has been the undue emphasis given to ground water exploitation on the plea that it is easily available everywhere and can be extracted at a low cost as compared to the large surface projects. Compounding this undesirable concept is the free or highly subsidised power to irrigation pumpsets as a populist measure by several governments to win the votes in the rural sector.

In fact this trend is ruining the countryside. Ground water has been rapidly depleted and pumping has gone on beyond the natural recharging capacity of the local rainfall. Due to deeper percolation, even the surface runoffs to many of the tanks have decreased and are not filling. Rainfall is the common source both for ground water and surface flow.

The free or subsidised power supply is often intermittent, causing the farmers to put the power switch always on which has led to the wastage of enormous power and ground water to the point of deterioration of land and pollution of ground water. Due to the ingress of saline water from coastal regions and polluted water in other areas, water has become unusable. Despite the fact that ground water regulation bill was drafted decades ago by the Central Government, many States have not made it a law. Indiscriminate deep borings at closer intervals and near tanks have gone on, resulting in most of the open wells going dry and the tanks unfilled with reduced flows affecting the poor in the villages. In fact, it may not be wrong to state that free or highly subsidised supply of power to the agriculture sector is the main cause of the present predicament of drought and distress to the poor in the rural areas.

Droughts were seen in the past and they do not come all of a sudden. In the past ground water had not been depleted by deep borings by powerful rigs and there was not enough power for the pumpsets and there were no rigs. Open wells, recharged with whatever natural rainfall, always provided some succour. Tanks were also not affected, with any powerful drilling rigs in the past. It is time that that free supply of power was stopped and operation of rigs totally banned in the ground water deficit areas as has been done in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh.

Power for irrigation should be supplied during daytime that too for extracting water from open wells, so that the surface aquifer that gets recharged by rainwater is only tapped.

It is wiser to develop peaking power for the purpose through pump storage schemes for daytime supply and charge the farmers. Farmers during daytime will use the required power to pump water, just the needed quantum and not excess as they have to pay unnecessarily for power, to the crops to produce higher yields. With increased production for less effort, they will also be ready to pay reasonable charges. This is in contrast to inefficient pumping in excess using more power at nights with reduced yields due to excess use and the resultant inability to pay.

What are actually needed are a proper water policy, a land policy and an energy policy complementing and enabling each other in a judicious blend to empower people and farmers to increase wealth with ability to pay. Such a healthy development will environmentally sustain all the three elements for generations to come without deterioration.


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