Sustainable water supply: Time for synthesis between old and new

Legend has it that in late 1950s the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited a freedom fighter and social activist, Vinoba Bhave, in the central Indian town of Wardha, near Nagpur. Sitting in Vinoba’s Paunar ashram, the then prime minister broke his silence in front of many disciples. Nehru told the ascetic senior, whom he respected a lot, “My government has built hundreds of big and small dams and excavated thousands of miles of canals, still I find despondency and cynicism all around. Why are people so dejected? Why has the enthusiasm of building a nation withered within a short span of a decade?”
Vinoba, a gentle soft spoken man replied, “I told you, clean the village ponds and dig their wells a little deeper, that’s it and you will see the difference. But you never listened to me. You were enamoured with big and grand, so while there are many dams and canals, their waters haven’t reached the actual recipient and hence the despondency.”
Nehru listened quietly. He was respectful of his elders even when they would say things which he didn’t like. He asked Vinoba to prepare a new plan to help farmers. Vinoba nodded in agreement. Nehru went back and the conversation as well as the promise was lost in the daily grind of other pressing needs.
Today both the giants are no more but their supposed conversation still holds a lesson for all of us. It was a dialogue between two Indians – Nehru, the anglophile and Vinoba, steeped into Indian ethos. The conversation betrayed two diametrically opposite views about the most important element in life – water.
Nehru was educated in England from a very young age and had distinct tilt towards everything modern (which translated into everything western dominated by technology) and was a vocal supporter of socialist policies of Soviet Union. He steadfastly believed the view propounded by the New York Journalist Lincoln Steffens about Soviet Union where he said, “I have seen the future and it works.”
After Independence as the first prime Minister of India, Nehru went about unfolding his vision for the country. This vision was powered by heavy industry, modern education and scientific temper. He was a man in a hurry and it reflected in the way a gigantic industrial structure emerged in a short span of 15 years.
He believed, and rightly so, that all the ills that beset India, lack of scientific temper was the most important among them.
Vinoba on the other hand was a staunch believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s views of rural upliftment and everything Indian. He had a disdain for modern technology and grand structures.
The conversation between two competing views of India has shaped the course of water supply development and conservation movements in the last five decades.
The conservationists and environment activists have catalogued traditional methods of conserving river water, underground aquifers and rain water while the government has gone on a dam and canal building binge. Where water can’t reach by pipelines or canal, tankers are used and in the state of Rajasthan which is arid and part desert, tanker trains are run regularly during the summer months to provide water to the locals.
The Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO headed by Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, has revived many check dams using the traditional methods and brought water to a 1000 villages. Similarly, an experiment in Haryana village by the locals has revived the local economy.
During the drought of 1987, people in Rajasthan and Gujarat (two of the most arid and water scarce regions in India) realised that those villages where the traditional system of rain water harvesting was intact weathered the drought more robustly than those dependent on government’s help and modern water supply.
This experience cemented their latent hostility towards anything modern. Situation started becoming worse with the explosion of population and the unbridled dam building programme. People living close to the dams realised to their horror that now the stream that gave them water wasn’t offering anything and the reservoir just below their mountain dwellings was actually of no use. It was a case of “water, water, everywhere not a drop to drink.”
Well meaning but ill managed and conceived schemes added fuel to an already raging ideological fire. The flagship programme of the present government the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) promoted conservation and construction of water holding bodies. During the first phase examples of constant tussle between the age old wisdom and the modern technology and the technocrat was visible in many areas.
In the arid regions of Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district villagers kept telling the civil engineers of public works department to build a pond at the foot hill of a hillock as it would be closer to the village and the slopes will act as a natural catchment area. But the engineers refused and built the pond at the top of the hillock. It lies barren even to date.
Similarly in Northern Madhya Pradesh’s water scarce region of Bundelkhand work to repair an old pond was sanctioned without realising the fact that it was lying waste for close to two decades and its catchment area was now encroached upon by a line of houses built by the residents of the village.
The new guidelines for the types of work to be included in MGNREGA were released in 2012 and water conservation forms an important part of it. But the problem of perception still persists where the employer (in this case the government) thinks that the primary object is to provide rural employment and not create assets. So a lot of low quality and useless stuff is created which actually has no use. It makes the villager that much more incompetent and when they are faced with water shortage during summers their resentment rears its ugly head.
Experts and policy makers ask is there a way out? Of course there is. We will have to revert to the conversation between the two gentlemen, I mentioned in the beginning of the article. Both views are two ends of the solution spectrum.
While it’s true that modern technology is a powerful tool in addressing hundreds of problems faced by humanity today, it is equally important to accept the fact that traditional wisdom contains very relevant unique solutions tailored to their specific problems.
A symbiotic relation between the two is the need of the hour. The idea of centralised planning, governed by the arrogance of technocrats having all the answers while junking everything traditional or vice versa can’t go on for long. The technocrat will have to understand that 5000 years of constant evolution has accumulated enough wisdom for them to learn a few trick and enrich their own menagerie of talent. While the traditionalists will have to understand that there are limits to their age old ways, they can use modern technology as a force multiplier. It will enhance the effectiveness of their systems.
For a country like India the good thing is basic research work has been done. Late Anil Aggrawal, an environmentalist and a researcher and founder of Centre for Science and Environment, undertook a phenomenal work of documenting all the age old water harvesting techniques prevalent in India. The book titled, Dying Wisdom, painstakingly reviews the techniques and the social legal ways of sharing water. Most of these techniques are slowly dying and many of them are under extreme stress.
Taking this document as the base material the government and the NGOs can incorporate Information Technology, satellite and communications as well as latest developments in the field of civil engineering and building material technologies to revive the region specific technologies with less investments and greater effectiveness. Similar exercise should be undertaken at the global level.
When I first heard about the concept of water trains that fetch this precious source to many villages in Rajasthan, I was amused. Later when I visited the area and saw the water bodies in disrepair and in many cases completely destroyed, I realised the importance of this contraption no matter how outlandish and stupid it looked, seemed and felt. Similar eyesores can be witnessed in the form of ill conceived dams and dried up canals.
To avoid such costly monstrosities both the technocrats and the activists will have to come of out of their ideological silos and work together. Synthesis is the need of the hour. Confrontation has to give way to cooperation. An open mind, they say, can bridge over many divides.
That’s why one of the oldest treatises on Indian philosophical thought, Rig Veda, says, “Aa no bhadra kritvo yantu vishwatah (Let noble thoughts come from all the sides)”.

About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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