Rainwater rights

  • 14/08/2001

Rainwater rights It is an unnecessary controversy over ownership of rainwater. The johad (traditional check dam) of Lava ka Baas in Alwar district of Rajasthan has been in the eye of a storm and so has Kamla Beniwal, Rajasthan irrigation minister. Claiming rainwater to be government's property, she supported the demolition of the johad built by the people on one of the many small nalas feeding river Ruparel. The irrigation department termed the structure illegal and unsafe. Given that Gopal Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh ( tbs ), an Alwar-based organisation, has built more than 4,500 water harvesting structures, without one ever having been breached, this attitude of the Rajasthan irrigation department amounts to technical tyranny (see box: Gopal's genius ). Hell-bent on breaking the johad , officials came to a head-on clash with the villagers of Lava ka Baas who were determined to save the structure.

When the controversy intensified, tbs approached the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (see box: Chronology of a controversy ). cse contacted the chief minister ( cm ) Ashok Gehlot, met him with the irrigation department officials, and raised public support. It formed a group of eminent persons ( gep ) to visit the village and present their findings to the cm . The group included M S Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist; N C Saxena, secretary to the government of India; M C Chaturvedi, water resources expert who has designed many big dams; Om Thanvi, chief editor of Jansatta ; and, Mohan Gopal, director of National Law School University, Bangalore. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain of cse acccompanied the team.

The johad in question is a 220-metre long and 15-metre high earthen water harvesting structure that was built by the villagers of Lava ka Baas with technical assistance from tbs in a record time of four months. Out of the total construction cost of Rs 8 lakh, the villagers have contributed Rs 3 lakh. The rest came as a donation from a seth (trader) of Churu district. With only one handpump as a source of water to serve both humans and livestock and having borne three consecutive monsoon failures, the villagers decided to capture every drop of rain that fell on their land, scarcely realising that they would be stirring up a hornet's nest.

The Rajasthan irrigation department has cited safety of the structure, violation of the law and the adverse impact of the johad on water availability downstream as reasons for demolition. The gep addressed all these issues. The final verdict was: the structure is safe, does not violate any law, and would, in fact, benefit the people living downstream.

M S Swaminathan explained the vital role of water in achieving food security, right from increased production to sustainability of production. "Exploiting groundwater for irrigation raises the question of unsustainability. For food production sustainability, rainwater needs to be captured. Community-based rainwater harvesting is the key to water resources development in Rajasthan, where most of the rain falls in just a few days,' he said.

On the issue of safety, Chaturvedi says, "One must realise that this johad is a small water recharging structure and not a large dam. The safety factor to be studied for a large dam and a small water harvesting structure is not the same.' It is wrong to apply the safety norms for big dams like the Tehri dam to small structures. Regarding the impact on the flow of the river downstream in Bharatpur, he rules out any adverse impact. "On the contrary, the people living downstream would benefit from increased groundwater recharge. The people of Lava ka Baas are actually helping Bharatpur by storing water and promoting groundwater recharge. This johad will also reduce siltation in dams downstream,' he emphasises. Reiterates Thanvi, "The catchment of the johad is a mere one per cent of the total catchment of the river Ruparel. Besides, the johad is constructed on a very small nala of the Ruparel and not on the river, as is widely believed.'

Chaturvedi informs that the basin of the Ruparel river has little gradient. So both surface and groundwater flow is slow. More water recharge structures constructed in the river basin, better will be the groundwater recharge and flow in the river.

The group members also looked into the legal aspects of people constructing a water harvesting structure. Mohan Gopal informed there was no violation of law under the Rajasthan Irrigation and Drainage Act of 1954 or of the 1910 agreement between the then princely states of Bharatpur and Alwar. "Given the scarcity of water in Rajasthan, the law should promote and not deter community participation in rainwater harvesting,' feels Gopal (see box: Flaws in the laws).

Ironically, the Ruparel controversy comes at a time when Rajasthan is reeling under tremendous water scarcity. What is even more frustrating is that the only one per cent (39 square kilometres) of the total catchment of Ruparel's 3,250 square kilometres, (see map: Ruparel catchment ) is involved. While Gehlot has shown his support for community-based water harvesting structures, it is surprising that the irrigation department served an ultimatum to tbs to demolish the johad at Lava ka Baas or face legal action. More astonishing is the fact that Beniwal maintains that rain is the sole property of the government and that the people have no right over water resources (see box: Government owns the water).

Many have expressed their solidarity with the villagers. People wrote to the Gehlot requesting him to support the villagers in their efforts to meet their water demands. Balwant Singh Mehta, a 102-year-old veteran freedom fighter and a signatory to the Constitution of India, wrote that if the irrigation department continued in its efforts to demolish the structure, he would offer a satyagraha (peaceful protest). Likewise, G D Agarwal, a retired civil engineering professor from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, wrote to the cm ensuring his responsibilty for the safety of the dam. Some 200 villagers, which are a part of the Jal Biradari (water community) in Udaipur signed a letter requesting that the structure not be demolished. In addition, several people showed their indignation towards the the state irrigation department and wrote to the cm to take action.

The first structure declared illegal by the government was one built by people in village Gopalpura of Alwar in 1985. But stiff resistance saved the structure from imminent demolition. Since then, tbs has assisted villagers in constructing water harvesting structures across Alwar, Rajasthan. Lava ka Baas now faces a similar situation. But once again the villagers and civil society came together and prevented the government from demolishing something that they had created. Today, the johad remains intact. But the controversy has exposed the

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