Monthly Archives: December 2010

India’s rich water wisdom

Water holds mystical significance in Indian tradition. While a few drops of sacred water link the newborn with the cosmos, it remains a powerful symbol of purification and regeneration in death, too. The Earth and the human bodies are bathed in water, projecting life as an inevitable jalyatra — a journey that seeks to confirm our origin and reincarnation in water.

Water, however, has seemingly lost its magic. Familiarity is partly to blame. Because it is so universal we take it for granted; we have stopped thinking about it, let alone appreciating it. No wonder water carries different meanings for different people. For a saint it is a heavenly bliss; for a farmer it is a nature’s boon; for an engineer it is worthy of a project; and, for a city dweller it is a fluid that must flow through the tap.

Our modern demands on this life-saving fluid have constricted its diverse meanings. Water now gets viewed from a quantity-delivery paradigm; how much quantity there is and how much can be supplied? Within this narrow confine, water has been turned into a commodity that can be stored, distributed and traded for profit. With demand outstripping supply, human rights over water have been usurped by vested interests.

Nitya Jacob’s Jalyatra through eight distinct zones of the country — from Goa to Shillong and from Madurai to Shekhawati — seeks to re-construct the fading images of a society, its people and its social institutions, that for long had treasured water in some of the most ingenious ways. From the erstwhile baolis of Delhi to the now defunct khazans of Goa, the familiar trail of destruction of traditional water systems is evident all across.

Using non-fiction story-telling style, the author details water systems and traditional institutions that have been under various stages of decay. Indian water bureaucracy has continued with British tradition. The East India Company destroyed the village institutions to pave way for a water bureaucracy that levied heavy tax; the post-independent era has seen the thoughtless extension of pre-colonial policies.

Thanks to electoral politics that sustains itself on a culture of subsidy, a bureaucracy that is saddled with inefficiency and a society that is wasteful in resource utilisation, water has become the scarcest resource. Contradictions abound in the policies and programmes on water, reducing a society that has been credited with some of the most creative techniques in water conservation to the one that is now at the end of a pipe dream.

Jacob’s Jalyatra seems an exercise in self-education. While the details of the travels have been meticulously mentioned, the author has seemingly written a self-serving treatise. Expectedly, he is neither eulogistic about the traditional systems nor advocates their revival. Instead, the argument favours securing a legitimate place for ‘traditional wisdom’.

Jalyatra lives up to its title, literally. While recording the dismal state of traditional systems, the author stumbles upon small initiatives that have brought about significant transformation across regions. It refers to noisy hidrums and creepy gharats in the hills, the technologies whose potential has yet to be fully realised. However, it admits that the average person is singularly uninterested in protecting the environment.

The author laments the unwillingness of people to play a proactive role in demanding accountability from the Government. Not only have people become dependent on the system, they are unwilling to lift a finger in their own interest either. The net result is that between development illiteracy and popular sloth, the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus makes hay.

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Declining traditions of water management in India

“In spite of surplus water, and one of the world’s richest traditions of managing it, India’s water crisis has reached critical levels. This, according to Nitya Jacob, is because inherited knowledge regarding traditional methods of managing and maintaining water resources has been consistently ignored.”

Of course, the condition of our water resources – traditional as well as new – is not a national secret. A walk through town, near the banks of rivers that have been converted to sewers, around lakes and tanks encroached upon to build colonies or past the dried up wells now functioning as garbage bins is sufficient to reveal the state of affairs. It was not always like this – till a few decades ago India had a rich and vibrant community managed water system that catered to the material requirements of water for drinking and agriculture, and were centres of the community’s social and cultural lives.

India has a vast heritage of highly evolved and diverse water management systems. Each system was different from the other as each had been shaped by local topography, climate, vegetation and other factors. These systems were not merely technologies or techniques but had their own complex management structures rooted in the social organisations of the community. These were both, managed by and accountable to the local population.

From the coastal areas of Goa to the hills of Meghalaya, from Chambal and
Shekhawati in Rajasthan in the west to Uttarakhand in the North, to Bundelkhand in central India and Tamilnadu in the south, traditional water systems evolved in sync with the local geo-climatic conditions, and the intricate management institutions that developed simultaneously. But interference by the British and then our own rulers led to the slow but steady deterioration of these systems.

Among the root causes is the alienation of the systems from the local communities by taking away their control on them, at the same time, by promising that the government will take care of their water needs, relieve local communities from the sense of responsibility that was the key to keeping these systems running. The result is decay and degeneration.

For example, the eris of Tamilnadu – the cresecent shaped water tanks … built against the slope of the land … earthen walls, sometimes lined with stones, making up two-third the sides…one-third … open, facing the slope from where rainwater flows to fill it. The overflow of one eri fills the next and the next one’s overflow fills the next.” These eris have been recorded as early as 3rd century BC and their average age is 700 years! These eris, and tanks, ponds and dugouts have provided irrigation and drinking water for people and animals and have recharged groundwater in vast areas of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The neerkattis are the water keepers who manage these eris. These neerkattis, appointed by the gram sabhas, are mostly from the so called lower castes, and once appointed, the job is hereditary. Since the so called lower castes have not owned  land, they are expected to be unbiased in their decisions regarding the management and distribution of water.

This is important as India’s traditional water systems – and the principles on which they have been organised – are among the elements that hold greatest promise to provide answers to modern India’s water problems, water needs and water crises.