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Rural distress, urban greed: Interview with Anupam Mishra

By Sunetra Lala

Gandhian and environmental activist Anupam Mishra has watched closely the ability of local communities to build and sustain ingenious systems for life-support and resource management. He has also watched the state usurping those resources. In this interview, he discusses what happens when, in the race to modernity, the autonomy and rights of the people are abandoned, the rights of ownership are vested only with the government or corporations, and all resources become capital to be exploited

Gandhian and environmental activist Anupam Mishra, who has spent decades in the field of environment protection and water conservation, analyses the collapse of our water management systems, the growing rural-urban divide, and the failures of government policy on water. Winner of the Indira Gandhi National Environment Award, Mishra has been associated with the Gandhi Peace Foundation since its inception. He has authored two books on traditional water management and water harvesting systems in India, titled Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Ponds are Still Relevant) and Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boonde (The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan). Here he talks about the relevance and need for a community-driven water management system.

You have spent so many years working on water management at the grassroots. What do you consider the most daunting problem in the water sector today?
Acute shortage of water is the most daunting problem facing both rural and urban populations today. Nature still gives us as much water as it always did, but in the last 10 years our water management system has collapsed. We have stopped collecting water.

In rural areas, traditional methods of collecting water in talaabs (reservoirs) could have helped the situation, but the problem has been compounded by the fact that today there is greater water usage. Therefore, greater demand for water. We have changed our cropping patterns and introduced crop varieties that require more water.

When urban areas first came up they were self-sufficient and able to meet their own water needs. It is said that Delhi once had 350 big talaabs and many smaller ones that recharged groundwater during the monsoons. There were also 17 streams in Delhi, all of which recharged the Yamuna. Today, these streams have become nullahs (drains).

The problem started when land began gaining importance over water. Waterbodies were filled up and replaced by housing complexes and shopping malls. Out of the 350 talaabs, we are left with only five or six today. Whatever little water we once got from surface runoff has gone. All the roads in urban areas are paved; we don’t even leave enough space around trees!  As a result, groundwater recharge rates have dropped drastically.

Today, both urban and rural areas suffer water shortages. But if there is a water shortage in a metro like Delhi people can afford to buy water. If there is a shortage of water in rural areas, or if waterbodies become polluted because of industries, villagers have to travel 10-15 km from their villages to access water. Most of Delhi’s migrant population constitutes villagers from Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan who have been uprooted from their homes because of acute water shortages.

What should be the policy on water distribution in rural and urban areas?
Nature dictates such policies. Our lifestyles should be based on the amount of water we have. For example, because the Konkan belt is water-rich it can afford to grow rice. Similarly, water-stressed areas should grow jowar and bajra -- crops that are discarded these days as they are considered the poor man’s diet.

The Bhakra dam was built in the hope that it would change the face of agriculture in our country. But it will only last for around 100-200 years, after which it is bound to silt up. When that happens the people of the state will have to once again shift from growing rice and wheat to growing bajra and jowar.

Nature keeps sending us reminders that what we consider to be development may not after all be development in the real sense. For example, Mumbai was considered a developed city until rains lashed the city in July 2005. Before that happened, people were not even aware of a river named Mithi in Mumbai. Now that it has wreaked havoc in the city we all know about it.

Similarly, there were once around 17-18 streams in Delhi, something that no one knows about today. High-rise buildings and malls have taken their place. It will take something like the Mumbai floods to bring back the memory of these streams.

Technological advances made in the recent past only help us distribute water, not collect it. Water will always have to be collected traditionally. Even a city like Mumbai relies on talaabs to meet its water needs. These talaabs are not located within the city but in the surrounding areas. Had there been a few talaabs within the city much of the floodwaters would have drained into them.

We have very few options. Demand for water in a populous city will be greater, so more spaces should be left for groundwater recharge. If this space cannot be accommodated within the city then politicians must ensure that space is made available in the surrounding areas.

Are the poor being deprived of their water rights?
Government policies seem to suggest that only the poor pollute. Slum evictions at Yamuna Pushta were carried out with this as the reason. Documentaries on pollution in the Yamuna all carry vivid pictures of dhobis washing clothes by the river. But the dhobis are washing the clothes of the entire city! It is not just the poor dhobi who is polluting the Yamuna, it is the entire city. Water from affluent colonies like Vasant Vihar in Delhi is probably more polluted, if not treated, than water from slum areas. Although there are treatment plants in Delhi they either do not function at all or do not work to full capacity.

The slums at Yamuna Pushta are now being replaced by the Akshardham temple and the Commonwealth Sports Complex. These development projects will pollute the Yamuna far more than the slum-dwellers ever would have.

There is a growing trend towards drawing water from water-rich areas of the country and making money out of it. Tankers go into these areas, lure residents with monetary benefits, and install tubewells in their localities. The tanker operators get maximum benefit out of such ventures; the residents lose out on their water resources only after a while. All the tankers that operate in Delhi have their water sources in the surrounding areas.

What are the grassroots reactions to vested interests in the water sector?
Today the reaction is one of surrender, not resistance. For years now our agricultural policies have been such that farmers are encouraged to sell their agricultural land to industrialists. In rural areas that border cities, vast tracts of agricultural land are being sold for short-term economic gain. For example, areas around Delhi like Noida and Ghaziabad were once agricultural areas. Urban expansion has always taken place on agricultural land.

Who suffers and who gains as a result of this?
In the long-term it is the farmer who suffers because his livelihood is taken away. The industrialists and builders gain in the short-term. Builders can build high-rises but they do not have access to any permanent source of water supply. The water that is available today for a small rural population will have to meet the needs of an expanding urban population with a much greater demand for water. A time may come when this water may no longer be available to anyone. After all, water that has been harvested in rural areas cannot match urban greed.

Can you suggest ways to counter this?
The paradox of our times is that when the government tries to save the environment, it ends up plundering it. For example, all industrial units operating in Delhi were asked to close down and were relocated to the surrounding areas. These are areas where farmers have invested in their talaabs for years to meet the needs of the villages. When industries are relocated to these areas they draw water from the talaabs, thereby depleting and polluting the water resources.

The Tarun Bharat Sangh has done some very good work in rainwater harvesting in Alwar district, Rajasthan. But land in those areas is now being sold to upcoming industries. Soon the government will designate it an industrial area. We can already see evidence of this in Bhiwani (Alwar), where water that was harvested for use by the villagers will now be drawn by industrialists and housing complexes. There is no doubt that the relocation of industries in Delhi will improve Delhi’s environment, but what about the environment of the surrounding rural areas? A comprehensive policy must be evolved so that both urban and rural areas can co-exist in a healthy environment.

Is privatisation of water distribution systems an option?
The government seems to have become resigned to the view that the tasks it has been incapable of performing will be better performed by private institutions. A good example of this is the privatisation of Delhi’s bus fleet. The private buses that were introduced did not serve the people any better. If anything, commuters face harassment every time they board a bus. They have no option but to accept these buses as their only means of transportation.

If this incompetence and inefficiency is reflected in water supply, the situation will become worse. I do not feel confident that there will be no flaws or fallacies in water privatisation. 

What according to you is the alternative to privatisation of water utilities?
There was a time in our country when the ability and sensibilities of the people served to build and furnish ingenious and pragmatic life-support systems and systems for resource management; the lives of the people were fully integrated in them. But with the passage of time, the state usurped their resources. In the race to modernity, the autonomy, self-reliance and rights of people were abandoned. Ownership of resources and the rights of ownership were vested only with the government, and all resources became capital to be exploited.

There is an example of the time when there was hardly any distance between state and society. The Chandel kings once ruled Bundelkhand (part of present Uttar Pradesh). From 219 AD-1105 AD, 22 generations of kings built 22 big talaabs. Jagatraj, son of King Chattrasal, heard about some buried treasure, which he got dug up. When his father learnt of this he was extremely annoyed. But the deed was already done. So the king decided to use the treasure to do good. He ordered his son to renovate the old talaabs built by the Chandel kings before him. Also, to build some new ones. It took 22 generations to use up all the treasure. These 22 talaabs in Bundelkhand are testimony to the good fortune of a society that used its fortune to make its people fortunate.

If the government today is incapable of managing the country’s water resources or distributing it efficiently, it will only be a matter of time before private companies claim their own stake in this market. After all, no society can function in a vacuum. But if governments can evolve an effective water management system by involving resident welfare associations and making bhagidari systems more meaningful, then the power to manage water may well remain in government hands. Should the government fail to do this, private companies will play their role in the water market, leading to serious conflicts in urban areas.

How can community participation help ensure an efficient water management system in the country?
Community participation is important not only to ensure efficient water distribution but also at the decision-making level. At this level it is the communities that know what their requirements are and what needs to be done.

There is an ancient story about four brothers -- Kuran, Buran, Sarman and Korai. They rose early to go to their fields to till the land. Kuran’s daughter would come with lunch in the afternoons. One day, on her way to the fields, the girl stumbled on a sharp stone. In pain and anger she hit her scythe against the stone. As soon as she did this, the stone turned to gold. The girl picked up the stone, rushed to the fields and told her family what had happened. Kuran knew that the news would soon reach the king and that the precious gold would be taken away from them. So he decided it would be better to go and tell the king the whole story. But the king did not take away the gold; instead he asked Kuran to invest it in doing good -- to build talaabs.

It’s difficult to say whether this is a true story or legend. But in the Patan region of Madhya Pradesh there are four big talaabs named after the four brothers. In 1907, experts visiting the region recorded the story from scores of people. An on-site inspection of the four big talaabs identified one named after Sarman. It was so huge that it had three different villages on its banks; the talaab linked all three villages. It is remembered as Sarman Sagar.

Because of local communities and their tradition of building talaabs and harvesting water, even today, low rainfall does not necessarily mean drought.

(Sunetra Lala has studied environmental management and environmental law. She works in the fields of waste management, biodiversity conservation, water management and environment education, and is associated with the Hazards Centre, New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005