Blind to rain

  • 29/06/2000

With the spate of political support that the concept of rainwater harvesting has received in recent weeks from Central ministers and state chief ministers, the attack from pro-dam lobbies had to come. The government of Gujarat appears to be especially miffed as it had probably hoped that this drought would help it to push through the Sardar Sarovar dam. Sadly for the Gujarat government, in the entire political and media debate that has taken place, the big dam issue did not figure centrestage and the minister for water resources repeatedly had to say that the Central government would give full support to construction of big dams even as it would promote water harvesting programmes.

In an interview wth India Abroad News Service , Gujarat's major irrigation projects minister Jay Narayan Vyas claimed that "there is a hidden hand behind the current campaign in favour of small dams and traditional system of water harvesting because the so-called experts of water management and environmentalists are keen to divert the attention of the nation from the Narmada project."

As the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ) has vociferously campaigned for community-based water harvesting, I can assure Vyas that cse definitely has a 'hidden hand' and it aims to make politicians like him understand that water management is a complex issue, especially in a complex country like India, and that they will run its poor people into the ground if they don't stop becoming lakir ke fakir .

It is his intellectual poverty and water illiteracy which is indeed appalling. Everybody knows that small dams alone do not add up to the complex water management that India needs. And I think I can even say this for the dozens of water harvesting advocates, activists and practitioners from Gujarat itself whom I have had an occasion to meet. But, equally, Vyas needs to understand that big dams alone do not add up to water management. And if that is all his government plans to do, then clearly a large part of India and, particularly, Gujarat's people and lands will not get the benefit of the water that the country is blessed with. These people and lands will continue to suffer from declining surface and groundwater resources, and, ultimately, in years when nature itself fails to bless us, as it did this year, they will face an emergency situation.

Let me explain for the benefit of people like Vyas why this is so. Firstly, no government water expert has ever claimed that even after all the proposed dams are built and interlinking of rivers takes place every piece of the country's cultivated land will get the benefit of canal irrigation. In fact, a very large proportion of the country's food production is already beyond the ambit of modern surface irrigation systems. These lands will have to depend either on groundwater or local water harvesting. The two go together because heavy use of groundwater can only be sustained if groundwater is recharged. Already, in a normal year, groundwater contributes to more than half of India's agricultural production. In a drought year, dependence on groundwater goes up even more. Therefore, its contribution to agricultural production, too.

The second point follows from the first. Big dams can help to create pockets of Green Revolution-style agricultural production but they cannot 'drought-proof' the country. As a result they can create 'national' food security, which means a few districts generate a huge agricultural surplus which is then used to feed the ones which are doing poorly especially during drought years. But they cannot create 'local' food security, which means that all areas of the country have water management strategies to ensure that local agriculture is as productive as possible and stable even during water-short years. On the other hand, water harvesting and groundwater together can definitely drought-proof the country and create local food security, which means India's poor people and poor lands do not have to suffer the ignominy they have had to this year. Is Vyas trying to say India does not need strategies that also support local food security?

There is a lot more that one can tell Sarvashri Vyas and company. But let me respond to a technical comment he made. He wondered during the interview how a series of 'micro-structures' like small tanks, check dams and traditional rainwater harvesting could be helpful in the absence of regular, adequate and dependable rainfall. It appears that Vyas has been briefed by extremely incompetent people. He needs to speak to historians and water experts to understand why micro-structures work precisely in these conditions.

Firstly, Vyas should find out why is it that people living in areas with low, irregular rainfall, like Rajasthan, Saurashtra (in his own state), various parts of the Deccan Plateau and Tamil Nadu, historically developed the strongest traditions of water management through micro-structures. Secondly, he should study what happens to rain when it falls on land. Will a big dam with a one million-hectare catchment capture as much water as one million micro-structures with one-hectare catchment each? He will find that the big dam will capture not even half as much. And in drought years the difference will be even greater. Since Gujarat needs every drop of water it can get, micro-structures suit it best.

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