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How many water warnings!
Yoginder K. Alagh

The American folk singer Joan Baez had a song which moved a generation, in which she lamented the number of times some evil must be repeated before it was stopped. Some of us have been warning, including this columnist, that there will be violence around water. Then last year three farmers were killed in Saurashtra when police fired on them in a protest march against an urban body which was planning to extract water from a `common'' below surface aquifier. A society whose social conscience has been appropriately cleaned by imported ``soap'' was not much impressed.

The Gujarati journalist Digant Oza couldn't take it any more, chucked up his well-paying job and started a language periodical in Gujarat exclusively on water. By October-end the writing was on the wall, for no more water comes from nature until the next monsoon. On an average it rains 21 inches in the Saurashtra meteorological region. This year it was 14 inches. But averages can be misleading. Anyway, on an average, the variation of rainfall in the region is 60 per cent, so in many talukas one would have expected around nine inches. In fact, it was as low as four inches. Four inches of water should be saved. A lot of it is, in fact, saved but it is very little.

Years ago when life for me ended with econometrics, with two of my colleagues, we had not exactly endeared ourselves to the Irrigation Department in Gujarat by publishing in a well-read economics journal a piece which proved that the probability of a dam, small or medium one in Saurashtra filling up to ``design'' levels, was only 40 per cent, which meant that it was safe to expect that in three years out of five, they wouldn't fill up. Given the scarcity of water there I thought these dams were still worth making, but I am told somebody started an inquiry on ``design'' faults. Watershed development and strong projects are terribly important, but go only so far. In the years when it doesn't rain they don't fill up. When it does rain, the need is much less. This year only nine per cent of their capacity filled up and it was gone before January.

Harvesting water helps, for even in a bad year, for some part of it drinking water is available. This is the lesson for Vivekananda in Kutch, AKRSP in many talukas, Hasmukh Patel's work in Radhanpur, the followers of Pandurang Shastri Athawale in many villages and many other unsung heroes. But this year in February, Hasmukh told me in his matter-of-fact tone ``Pani Nathi Dams Maa''. I remembered the weathered face of the old lady in 96, who told me in Hasmukh's territory, close to the Pakistan border, ``Sahib Deem jooyea'' (We want a dam). This was the worst year in memory.

Migration had started, the cattle left behind were beginning to die. On the second of March, in the discussion following the reply to Question No. 102, I reported this in the Rajya Sabha. The minister did not feel obliged to reply to this since the question was on Rajasthan. On my insistence that nature does not follow administrative boundaries, Leader of the House Jaswant Singh gave a sympathetic reply, pointing out that he came from the region and government would extend help.

Wisdom requires that we anticipate the crises and prepare for them. Grain is there. Water conservation techniques are known. The Sadvichar Parivar has decades of experience of saving the great cattle wealth of Gujarat, and adjoining areas in Rajasthan are not that different. These are the years when everything possible should be done. Somehow the emphasis on required policies is diminishing. The agro-climatic approach, which was a mobilisational method, largely in the non-governmental field, is still given lip service in the plan, but is shrinking in its impact under bureaucratic covers. If there is a plan to fight the drought, it is a secret. I am now told that emergency measures will be forthcoming. Given our priorities, I suppose one should be grateful for small mercies.

In Gujarat the anger is mounting. Those who would deny water to North Gujarat and Saurashtra on specious grounds must realise the enormity of the injustice they are doing. This year the Narmada was in flood in August. In many of these areas, the lower level canals can be seen in the fields, waiting for the tap to be turned on. If Narmada Sagar is delayed, as it has been, the water from the Narmada can be pumped higher in the plateaux as the original plan had worked out in a section on planning options and this can start with a low dam as many others have shown later. At the Hague Water Conference, knowing that the doubters will be there in the plenary kickoff speech on water and food security in South Asia, I gave the results of the Shedhi branch experimental work which proves that water can be delivered at the tail end in the Narmada system. It is high time that the file in which the last agreement was worked out between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh was activated.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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