By Arti Das*
As India celebrates 70 years of independence, the recent flooding in states like Assam and Gujarat and droughts in places like Tamil Nadu and Marathwada remind us that we still need to go far to achieve independence from water woes.
According to water conservationist Dr Rajendra Singh, popularly called the “waterman of India”, the situation has become worse over a period of time with India facing 10 times more flooding and eight times more drought than it faced 70 years ago. Dr Singh, who was in Goa to kick-start the Water Literacy Yatra from Goa to Guwahati, spoke about the water issues the country is facing. This yatra, started on July 31, is led by Dr Singh and comprises a team of water experts, conservationists, farmers and social activists and will cover more than 3000 kilometres.
Earlier in June, another leg of the yatra had set off from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to highlight the alarming crisis of water and rising cases of droughts in the country. Both the yatras will finally culminate in a national conference on Drought Free India on August 15 at Bijapur, Karnataka.
During his interaction with the press before the yatra, Dr Singh, who shot to limelight with his water conservation work in Rajasthan, spoke on various issues related to water, ranging from nationalisation of rivers to climate change, interstate water disputes and what we can learn from the parched land of Rajasthan where water conservation efforts have turned eight dry rivers to perennial ones.
How he transformed Rajasthan rivers
Dr Singh, who won the Stockholm Water Prize, an award known as the Nobel Prize for water, in 2015, transformed Rajasthan villages with his water conservation efforts. Explaining in detail how he achieved it in a region that gets only nine to 16 inches of rainfall, he says:
“We (the Rajasthan villagers under his guidance) started water conservation efforts in the 1980s in one village, Gopalpura. Now it spans to 1200 villagers covering 10,840 square kilometres. We never took fund from corporates or the government.
With the help of the poor and the illiterate people, we built 11,800 water conservation projects which recharged 2.5 lakh wells. In 17 years, Arvari, which was once a dry river, is now perennial. Not only this, other rivers like Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani, Jahajwali, Sahibi, etc are also perennial now. How did we achieve it? It is not magic but science. We did less withdrawal, more recharge. So the water level increased and rivers started flowing.
It took us 34 years to achieve this; it takes a minimum of 16 years to alter the geography of a place. People used to leave for cities for work before but when the geography of the land changed, reverse migration started happening. We did indigenous cropping that helped sustainable farming. We used the resources of a village in that village itself.”
About nationalisation of rivers
When it comes to the water crisis in India, the government seems to have found a solution in interlinking rivers. Speaking of the move to nationalise rivers, Dr Singh alleges that in the name of nationalisation, the government is facilitating privatisation of rivers. “You can nationalise banks and roads, not rivers. Every river has its own gene pool, diversity, character, quality and flow. The state governments are not interested in rejuvenating small rivers that run through the states.
The clean and continuous flow of the river is the responsibility of the state. When governments want to run away from their responsibilities, they come out with such slogans (of nationalisation of rivers),” he says. He is certain that only dedicated efforts from the respective state governments can save these rivers from destruction.
“We need a river rejuvenation policy in every state. Each river has three rights—first is its right to the land. You can’t alter the land that belongs to the river. The second is the right to the ecological flow of the river. By damming, we are killing the rivers. Yes, we need electricity. But for that, the design of the dam needs to be changed. The third right is to remain separate from sewers,” he says. “Every state needs its rivers. Then why do you need to nationalise them? They (government) want to do privatisation and corporatisation of rivers,” he adds.
He sees encroachment, pollution and exploitation as the three major threats that plague the rivers of the country. He stresses on the pointlessness of spending crores of money on reviving a river. Taking the rejuvenation efforts on the Ganga as an example, he says: “The BJP government has already spent Rs 20,000 crores on its rejuvenation but look at the state of the river! We have a corporate-driven democratic government. I strongly believe that the Ganga or any other river can’t be cleaned until and unless you change the character of the government.”
Dr Singh believes the development that we see around now is a false one. He says the government has compromised the foremost right of the river–the right to its land–by selling it for infrastructural development. “Our rivers are narrow now. It will change the character and flow of the river,” he says.
Do not make Mhadei another Cauvery
The states of Goa and Karnataka have been locking horns over the water from Mhadei river. The fate of the river is in the hands of a tribunal created to come to a decision on the dispute which is about 14 years old. Karnataka has plans to construct 12 dams across the river to divert 679.6 MCM (10 TMC) of water to the state.
He believes that a solution to this dispute is possible only if the government, the representatives of the society and experts sit together and have a dialogue. “The tribunal’s judgment will not be an appropriate solution. The three states–Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra–should resolve the Mhadei river dispute by applying the norms of ecological and social justice,” he says.
Dr Singh wonders why Goa needs to depend on water tankers when the state is blessed with abundant rainfall annually. “Nature loves Goa. But then when you are the favourite child, you tend to get spoilt. Goa must take up rainwater harvesting soon. Even if the buildings and societies are old, they should follow this practice,” he says.
Global warming and rivers
Speaking on the pressing issue of climate change, he says that the erratic weather patterns and cloud bursts are all indicators of climate change which can lead to siltation and erosion of rivers and also change its ecological flow. Emphasising on the need for climate change adaptation, he brings in the example of Rajasthan where they brought the temperature down by three degrees.
He explains, “We worked on building moisture in the soil and expanding green patches. Now, due to this effort, the average temperature in the area where we worked in Rajasthan doesn’t cross 46-degree celsius where it used to be 49-degree celsius. All this is climate change adaptation. We have been doing this for 35 years, making regions drought and flood free.” He believes water literacy can take care of the myopic view our politicians have about water conservation. “So we are doing these yatras. We are going to schools, colleges and learn from the other water conservationists and share our knowledge,” he says.
About his journey
Dr Singh, who worked for more than 30 years in different villages of Rajasthan, never aspired to be a water conservationist until he met an old man in Gopalpura. “I worked for the government of India for four years in Jaipur in the 1980s but was not happy as I didn’t have the freedom to do my work. I resigned from the job and went to Gopalpura village where there were only women and children at that time (men had migrated to towns and cities for employment). Most of these women had night blindness. As I am a medical doctor by profession, I started my treatment and within months, they showed positive results. But then, one day, I met an old man named Mangu Meena who lamented that I am not doing good work as they needed water not medicine,” says Singh.
He then surveyed the dry wells of that village to understand the nature of the groundwater and how to trap it. “In those two days alone, I made the most of my PhD in water science, water chemistry and geoscience. I learnt that we have to recharge the underground reservoirs. We also worked on increasing moisture in the soil and thereby increasing the greenery which helped in getting rainfall,” he adds.
Dr Singh suggests that one of the reasons we are failing in our water conservation efforts is the loss of local wisdom.“We have an indigenous knowledge system. But our modern education is based on the principles of extraction and exploitation of natural resources. Also, our education is management oriented where you “manage” a situation and move ahead. We are taught to destroy something to develop something else, which created displacement of knowledge, destruction and disaster. And when you question it, you become the enemy of the government,” says Dr Singh.