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Tuesday, December 12, 2000

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When the river dries, the wells die
Purnendu S. Kavoori

One soothing note in the controversy surrounding the construction of dams is the view -- `small dams good, big dams bad'. The findings of a study currently being undertaken at Jaipur's Institute of Development Studies suggest, however, that in certain conditions, small dams too can contribute to livelihood deprivation.

The findings are part of a study on land use and bio-diversity on the banks of the main drainage system running across the Great Indian Desert, namely the river Luni and its tributaries. Fieldwork undertaken from August to October this year, covering the entire stretch of a major tributary of the Luni, namely the Jojri or Mithri river, shows clearly that over the last two decades or so the river has gradually ceased to flow. Villages studied along the entire stretch of this tributary, repeatedly reported that in the past the river would flow for at least a few weeks in a year. Like the Luni, the Mithri is a seasonal stream and remains dry for most of the year, however the short period for which it would flow was extremely critical to the rural economy of the tract. Here an agro-pastoral economy had evolved which depended on open well irrigation alongside the grazing of animals.

These open wells were, in turn, dependent for replenishment on the regular annual flow of the river. The drying up of the river has had the unfortunateconsequence that open wells that were flourishing earlier have now entirely dried up. The reasons for the drying up of the river cannot be explained entirely on the basis of natural causes but rather is a direct cause of development intervention in the shape of small dams. It is widely believed that it is only after the construction of these small dams, that the flow of the river has been arrested. This picture generally holds true for the entire stretch of the upper course of the Luni.

A specific instance may be seen in the effect of the construction of a small dam near the town of Pipar. Here we find that the construction of a bund in the village of Jhaliwara has had the consequence of benefiting a few villages but depriving a much larger number of villages of their main and indeed only source of irrigation water. Thus, some five or six villages that lie behind the dam have benefited enormously from a gaining in water levels.

However, within kilometers of crossing the dam one begins to encounter people bemoaning the falling of water levels and the drying up of wells, beginning with the town of Pipar itself. As we continue to move along the course of the tributary we find the same story being repeated in village after village. An estimated 40 to 50 villages that lie in the stretch from Pipar onwards, almost up to Jodhpur, have been completely deprived of water that used to be available from their open wells.

The problem is worse confounded by the fact that the entire tract is saline and the water from tubewells is largely unusable. Not infrequently we came across the long term negative consequence of tubewell irrigation where fields that were once fertile had been rendered saline and unfit for any use thanks to the water drawn from tubewells. The fact of the matter is that without the annual recharge from the seasonal flow of the river, groundwater is much too saline. The earlier system of open well irrigation had been based precisely on the recognition of this fact, being tuned to the ecological limitations of local conditions. Today, as a result of intervention, what existed earlier has been taken away from large sections of farmers, so that a fortunate few might benefit.

People recognise the injustice of this kind of lopsided development and sentiment against the construction of even these rather small dams is high.Repeatedly, in the course of field study we met with requests that the dams be dismantled or that at least their heights be significantly lowered.

The writer is a fellow with the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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