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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