Twenty one years ago a man named Anupam Mishra wrote a book in Hindi language, titled – Aaj bhi kahre hain talab (loosely translated it means “Ponds are still dependable”).
Written for the Gandhi Shanti Pratishthan (Gandhi Peace Foundation) the book has acquired a cult status among the Hindi speaking world and has been translated into other native languages. The book makes an impassioned plea for preserving ponds and traces the history of ponds in large parts of India.
The book also sketches a picturesque social history of pond building exercise and how society connected itself with the exercise. Earlier people who acquired wealth thought it was their duty to build a pond as it would bring them good luck, social prestige and will also earn them credit points in their afterlife.
It tells the story of builders and their communities. Many of the builders were tribals and they were adept at the art of building large ponds. The biggest pond or man-made lake in India, the Bhopal Lake, situated in the central province Madhay Pradesh’s capital was also built by local tribals at the behest of King Bhoj.
However, according to the book, in the last 200 years the tradition of pond building fell by the way side and the social importance attached to it diminished. In the 20th century some traces of it are still visible in the form of rich and powerful people commission people to man earthen pots full of water or finance repair of wells.
The iconic Birla business family is known to have funded well repair along with other construction activities as their social initiatives long before the concept of corporate social responsibility was born in the West.
Birlas’ efforts apart the state of ponds has been deteriorating throughout the country. Rapid urbanisation has spelt death knell for the water bodies in and around the expanding cities.
The real estate developers along with government officers have worked around environmental laws to fill up the water bodies with waste and build housing complexes on them.
Where houses couldn’t be made the water bodies were left to decay and dry. Lack of maintenance has led to drying up of many water bodies that were healthy till recently. A case in point is Ramgarh Lake in Jaipur, India. In 1982, the lake was the venue of kayaking competition during the Asian Games. Today the lake has turned into a dust bowl with its catchment area being constantly encroached by advancing concrete jungle.
In this backdrop when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (in power between 2004-2014) initiated national rural employment guarantee act (NREGA) it found that most of the work was done in the field of water conservation.
The scheme wasn’t about crating assets. It just wanted to provide employment. But the government found that the water conservation or harvesting assets built under the scheme had a big share and the quality of the work too was better than other assets.
Based on the inputs in the first 6 years of the work the revised guidelines of the scheme put a huge emphasis on water conservation. It has now become the prime target for the upcoming projects.
However, the planning Commission of India data suggest that the allocation of funds for the scheme is coming down steadily. With the new government being openly opposed to such entitlement schemes the funds will shrink further.
Still the issue of water conservation and rain water harvesting remains a priority area as India is facing a spectre of weak monsoon in the near future and wide spread water stress and scarcity in the long term perspective.
In such a scenario massive funds are needed to get started. The obvious choice can be that the corporate India that is now bound by law to spend 2 percent of its net profit on CSR activities can play a vital role.
The corporate houses should come together and create a fund to repair and rework the ancient ponds. The fund authority should use the latest GIS (Geographical information System) and satellite technologies to map the ancient pond networks and their catchment areas.
After cataloguing them they should see how many can be restored and to what extent. Based on this information they should start seeking those traditional builders who had developed and perfected the art of pond making.
These people should be then given the charge of reworking the ponds. If need be modern technological support from civil engineers can be provided.
This will revive the ancient and huge network of ponds that will act as the first and potent line of defence against chronic droughts and water stress.
An added benefit would be the social relevance these tribals and marginalised community will receive that will lead to their emancipation and also hasten the process of their integration within the society.
When their talent would be utilised in repairing thousands of ponds across the country the tribal community will regain their relevance that was lost in the process of blind modernisation in the last two centuries.
This employment oriented CSR activity will create shared value. A value based on integration where the society will not only iron out its age old systems of social hierarchy but also prepare itself to deal with the impact of erratic monsoons and dwindling water supply.
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