All posts by Nitya Jacob

About Nitya Jacob

I am a development communications professional with 30 years’ experience in the media and development sector and an in-depth knowledge of water. I bring to the table strong project management and strategy planning skills. I have executed several documentation and evaluation projects on information communication technology for development (ICT4D), governance, universal birth registration, HIV/ AIDS and community radio. I have conducted action research on integrated water resources management, groundwater and reviving traditional water conservation techniques. I am a published author and have written Jalyatra, Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems, a book published by Penguin in 2008. My essay on water was published in Water Voices from Around the World, an UN-sponsored book of essays of global leaders. The Asian Development Bank selected me to participate in the Third World Water Forum, Mexico, in 2006 on the basis of my writing on development and water. I have researched, edited and published documents on several programs for all the major international donors and national business associations in India. The themes include Universal Birth Registration, role of youth in governance and media training for children. I designed, researched, wrote and produced a series of books and multimedia presentations on these programs. I have designed and executed training programs on ICT4D. I have completed an advanced international nine-month course on integrated water resources management from Sweden that exposed me to the current thinking on water management and practices in Sweden and Laos PDR.

The Waterman down the ages

The large eyes in a bearded face, topped with a mass of salt-and-pepper hair, fix you with their gaze. The voice comes out with polite Hindustani and slowly grows in volume as Rajendra Singh warms to his work. Dressed in a khadi kurta-pyjama with a blanket thrown over a shoulder, feet in sandals planted firmly on the ground, Rajendra bhai, as he known to his friends and colleagues, launches forth on his mission.

For a whole generation, Rajendra has lived and worked in the villages around Thanagazi, about 60 km from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, a desert state in western India. He was born a few hundred kilometres away in another small town of northern India, Meerut, but followed his calling when he was in his early twenties.

Rajendra is known as the Waterman, a name he attributes to the reporter of a small English paper who interviewed him in the mid-90s. It’s an apt description as water has formed the sum and substance of his work over the past two decades. In this part of the world, water is scarce and the local people had not learnt how to live within their means. Enter Rajendra the catalyst.

His greatest strength is the ability to translate traditional knowledge into action. “It’s not my work, it’s the work of the village people. Do not attribute all this you see to me,” he says, waving at the forest behind his ashram, “but to the people here. They have worked the soil, the water and the forests to get back from the brink of drought. Women who are the worst effected by drought have been instrumental in changing attitudes.”

The village people of the region have built anicuts, check dams, ponds and other water catchment structures themselves. No engineers with degrees have been involved in the work that has transformed this water-poor region into a water-rich one, a region that successfully weathered four drought years.

In 1982, Rajendra and a group of friends joined Tarun Bharat Sangh, a non-profit organization based in Jaipur, and two years later he became its general secretary. He worked with the nomadic tribes and village people in the region. In 1985, he set up a school in a village near where his ashram is located, in Gopalpura, to teach children. Children came, learnt and went away and life in the village continued unchanged, for many months. Then a village elder came to him and asked, “Rajendra, you have taught our kids for many months. Don’t you notice that despite this, the social fabric of the village is coming apart? Think of why this is happening.”

Rajendra didn’t have an answer, try as he may. The elder educated him one day not too long after. “We don’t have water, no crops. What will keep our youth here if there is nothing for them to do? Who will marry into our village? If you want to make a difference to our lives, give us water.”

That simple request flummoxed Rajendra, but didn’t defeat him. So he decided to continue his work of teaching and also put his ideas into practice. By then, TBS had its own building and behind it was a large patch of wasteland, stretching about a kilometer to the hill behind.

This is where he spent the next three years wielding a spade, sometimes assisted by believers but mostly alone, experimenting with the best way to stop water from running off and instead persuading it to trickle into the ground and recharge the groundwater. He hit upon a simple way of building little ridges, or check dams, of stones and mud, against which the water would stop and slowly sink into the ground.

Jagdish, who heads one of TBS’ programmes, says, “When Rajendra came here, he knew nothing of water harvesting. We taught him everything.”

In 1990, the check dams were in place. Then Rajendra would look towards the hill and say that it would be invisible in a few years. Invisible behind a thick forest of trees.

“I will not plant any trees here. There is enough root stock to care of seedlings. I will just ensure that water stays here long enough to trickle into the ground, recharge the water table, and also protect the saplings from cattle and villagers wanting firewood,” he told me in 1993.

Sure enough, in 2003 there is a thick forest around his ashram. The water table is up as evidenced by the water in an excavated pond just outside the ashram. “Wild animals from Sariska come and drink here, specially leopards.”

In just half a generation, Rajendra has managed to repair the ecology of the Sariska agro-eco-climatic zone. This protected forest about 840 square kilometers in area is some 200 km south west of Delhi. It used to be covered with dense forests about a century ago but the policies of the British and later, the Indian government, ensured their complete destruction.

“Ties between people, forests and water broke down as a result of these policies. Village people had a culture of protecting and sustainably using forests. When the government started giving contracts for cutting trees disregarding these sensitivities, and the contractors stopped villagers from using forest produce, these links snapped,” he explains. “I have worked to restore them and thereby the forests and water resources of the region and eventually the entire country.”

Rajendra isn’t satisfied with just rebuilding the ties that bind man and nature. There is a greater purpose to this work, to develop a “formula that will beat back the challenges facing river systems worldwide”.

One of the rivers near the TBS head office is the Aravari. This once was a perennial river but slowly turned into a seasonal river as is the case with many other rivers in the region. This is Rajendra Singh’s laboratory.

The Aravari river basin can be divided into the upper, middle and lower catchment areas. Villages in all three areas have participated in the revival of the river by building three kinds of structures – johads (excavated ponds), anicuts and check dams. Johads capture water running down from hills and store them, providing water for animals to drink and recharging the ground water. Check dams and anicuts do the same to water running down the river and the gullies that feed it. Forests and green areas have regenerated themselves, with help and protection from local villagers.

“From a vicious cycle of destruction of natural resources, people have switched to a virtuous cycle of regenerating them and using them,” says Rajendra.

The process has faced stiff resistance from several quarters, not the least from neighbouring larger villages where a small percentage of people are directly connected to the land. For example, people from Bhaonta village have taken the lead to create a sanctuary from the forests in the hills above their lands. People from neighbouring villages leave their animals to graze in the forest, cut down trees for firewood and fodder and overdraw the water in the ponds in the forest. There have been several fights over this.

Rajendra admits this is a problem with his ‘Aravari formula’ for reviving this eco-agro-climatic zone. The formula works best with small villages where most people are closely linked to the land but not with larger ones where fewer people are. However, he is confident that it is a matter of time before larger villagers also adopt the formula. “After all, we are trying to revive a cultural thing that has been destroyed over several decades and it will take many years to do so.”

This never say die attitude has seen him through many tough times. A couple of years ago while giving a speech he blamed politicians for the sorry state of the environment. A local goon knocked him down and he was badly hurt. It put him out of action for nearly 6 months but now he has bounced back, a little older and much the wiser for having flirted with politicians.

Further back, in the early 1990s, he had taken on the mining mafia around the Sariska wildlife sanctuary that was illegally running marble mines. The Supreme Court eventually ordered their closure but in the ensuing battle, Rajendra faced threats to his life, was accused of rape and embezzlement of funds. “At one time I had 12 cases of rape and murder against me. They have all been withdrawn.”

Another adversary is the government. His work in the Aravari basin and elsewhere has often run into opposition from the local authorities. They have opposed the construction of check dams on the river and other places. “When the administration has tried to demolish these, the villagers have used non-violent means to frustrate their designs,” says Rajendra.

Challenges from the government meant scaling up the Aravari experiment from the village to river basin level. The villages decided some years ago to build an institution that would be greater than the sum of its parts, the Aravari Parliament. This is the highest representative body of 72 villlages in the river basin that meets twice a year. It lays down the law for protecting forests and water, the penalties for violators and policies to deal with the government.

“I realized that people from individual villages were having a hard time defending what they had achieved from the depredations of others. In order to bolster their confidence, I encouraged them to set up this Parliament. It gives them strength and a bargaining chip vis a vis the state government. This is a policy making body and also deals with the government,” Rajendra says. “People’s participation needs to be at all levels, from digging wells and check dams to laying down the policy on managing water and forest resources. That is true democracy. It’s the only way that this work will be sustainable.”

Rajendra has not targeted women as a group but they figure equally with men in TBS’ work. The area he works in is feudal and women are very much second class citizens. They are also the worst-effected in a drought – the men go away to cities to find work and women have to walk long distances for fodder and water. They are exploited by government contractors offering employment. In their own way, though, they have contributed to rebuilding human-forest-water linkages.

“Society isn’t changed by a bullheaded feminist approach. Trying to be pro-women openly is a sure shot recipe for disaster in this society. I have involved women covertly in the work by asking the men to seek their opinion before deciding on any project. The men consult their women folk and then decide on where to build a johad or an anicut as the women have to use the water also. I believe if their life condition is improved, they will become more assertive in other spheres as well,” says Rajendra.

For example, villagers dug a well near a johad far away from the village to provide drinking water. The women of the village realized the well could have been closer and instead of using it, continued using the government-provided handpump that more conveniently located. Eventually another well was dug near the handpump.

Despite the Aravari Parliament, the process has not been smooth. A few kilometers away are the remnants of what is possible TBS’s most ambitious project in recent years, the Lava Ka Bas check dam near Sariska. The size of the project invited criticism and opposition from the state irrigation minister who did her utmost to ensure it flopped. She succeeded; in this year’s monsoon rains, the dam collapsed.

There are many sides to the LKB story. A panel of independent experts comprising people like M S Swaminathan, the father of India’s green revolution, examined the dam and said it was safe 2 years ago. They suggested some modifications to reinforce the structure. The people of 12 villages who wanted the dam built were working on the modifications when the government forced them to stop; the structure was incomplete.

It rained heavily for a few days this year and nearly 10 other check dams and anicuts constructed by the government as part of its drought relief measures upstream of LKB collapsed. “The flow of water from these partly washed away LKB,” says Jagdish.

The check dam was built two years ahead of schedule and had helped many villages get their agriculture back on track because of its large storage capacity. “Now they want the dam rebuilt and are willing to work towards it,” says Rajendra Singh.

While there is defeat in the collapse of the dam, there is victory in the people’s determination to see it built again.

In spite of tremendous success in mobilizing people and putting the control of water and forests in their hands, Rajendra Singh’s efforts received a jolt at the  macro level when in 2002 the Government of India formulated a national water policy which makes water a private resource, not a community resource. “This means that the government can effectively sell of water resources generated by the community to a private company.”

The people will oppose any moves by the administration to do this but it will have a long term impact on TBS’s work. “This is one of the greatest failures so far. I had recommended that water be made a community resource. My solution is that people oppose any decision by the government to sell community water resources to private companies.”

The Aravari formula is the solution, Rajendra says, to this policy and indeed the for problems facing all the river systems of the world. This small river has lessons for much bigger rivers. This tiny insignificant distributary of the Yamuna has thrived thanks to the labour of people who live beside it and depend on it for their livelihoods. Nearly all the river systems of the world face similar challenges – reduced water flow due to deforestation in their catchments, population pressures, pollution, siltation and a decline in riverine wildlife.

To spread his Aravari formula, this Magsayasay awardee has embarked on an ambitious Jal Yatra. Over the past 3 years, he has traveled the length and breadth of India addressing public meetings talking about how he has “beaten back the odds facing the Aravari river” and the lessons it holds for others. This is a lethal mix of grassroots activism and popular appeal.

The Waterman walks out of his jeep to examine one of the oldest johads TBS built about 14 years ago. The headman of Gopalpura village and a couple of others walk with him to the edge of the water. One of them cups a bit of water in his hand as one would hold a priceless gem. Another place and time: the Waterman is speaking to an elite audience about the Aravari formula. He speaks in Hindi and the translator is hard pressed to keep pace. He gets more animated as he speaks; the audience is spellbound. Rajendra has evolved the knack of distilling his Aravari formula and presenting it at international fora. Like everything else he has accomplished in his life, this carries the stamp of simplicity.

(I wrote this a decade ago for The Ecologist – it was not published)


Lest we forget, a minor detail is water

The pendulum has swung towards the sanitation extreme. Water is the forgotten piece of the sanitation, one without which the great Indian leap into the toilet can possibly come undone. Indians wash up after defecating and most also wash their hands with ash, mud or soap. At a conservative estimate open defecation needs about a litre of water for ablutions. Toilet defecation triples that amount to three litres if one adds water needed to flush and keep the toilet clean.

Figures in % Piped on premises Other improved Other unimproved Surface water
1990 7 57 32 4
2000 10 66 21 3
2012 14 77 8 1
Source: UNICEF-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme

While defecating in the open may not entail an additional burden on water providers, i.e., women, using toilets probably will. Women have to fetch water from the nearest source, usually a handpump, common tap (other improved), well, spring (other unimproved) or pond (see table). With the exception of the privileged 14 per cent who get water in their houses, the rest have to fetch from distances varying from 25m to 250m. By another argument, the government considers a habitation ‘covered’ if people have a water point that provides 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) within a distance of 100m. Of this, 10 litres is the amount calculated for ablutions. The new norms that have just come into force stipulate 55 lpcd.

In practical terms the situation is different. The access, yield, quality, etc., are calculated when the water source is installed. The agency putting in the handpump or piped water supply scheme finds a source, determines how much water it will produce and the amount needed by people who will use it. The water is tested after the installation is complete. There is no follow up to check if the scheme actually works. Government norms specify a handpump for 150 people, or 30 households. This has create a substantial category of habitations called partly covered. Government statistics put this at 21.7 per cent of the total number of 1.7 million habitations. Another 12.2 per cent do not have potable quality water, taking the total who officially do not have enough or safe water to 33.9 per cent.

A World Bank study indicated for handpumps, the difference between design and delivery of water from handpumps was about 10 per cent. In the case of piped water schemes 30 per cent households did not get water daily. The average coping cost (on storage, repair of private sources and time spent in getting water) was Rs 81 per month. That was for 40 lpcd when water for ablutions was provisioned at 5 litres. If this is raised to 55 lpcd, the failure rate will also rise.

To use a toilet daily, a family of five will need an additional 15 litres of water daily, or 3 lpcd. It may not sound like much till one considers how this water is fetched. If outside the premises, as it in 86 per cent of households, it entails at least an additional pot or bucket weighting 16-17 kilos. This will have to be carried anywhere between 25 and 250 metres (distance from source to house). In other words, it is a 7.5 per cent increase in water consumption per person per day. It is also an equal increase in the burden on water providers, mostly women.

The solution since Jairam Ramesh’s time as Minister for Rural Development has been to push for piped water to be delivered on premises. We have already seen the failure rate for this approach is very high. It is likely to be exacerbated by several other factors. This will undermine piped water supply as well as the Swacch Bharat Mission since the lack of water is a cause for non-use of toilets.

The other factors that bring piped water schemes down are their high running costs, a lack of trained people to run them, a lack of a revenue model, drying up of sources and poor planning. All these are critical factors. While Panchayats are mandated to manage these schemes, most are made by Public Health Engineering (or equivalent) departments in states. The costs of maintenance are high such as may be incurred if a pump breaks down or the chlorination unit runs out of chlorine. Electricity supply is erratic in most of rural India. Even though people are willing to pay for an assured safe supply of water, revenue models have seldom been worked out or put in place.

Then there is the source. About 80 per cent of drinking water comes from underground. Over the past three decades, groundwater has become increasingly scarce with the rapid expansion of groundwater-fed agriculture. Dug wells and handpumps that use shallow aquifers are the first to go followed by tubewells for drinking water. Of the 7928 blocks in the country, the Central Groundwater Board has classified about 14 per cent as over-exploited or dark zones; in both cases further groundwater exploitation is not possible. Added to the scarcity is the quality aspect. Natural and anthropogenic pollutants affect a significant percentage of groundwater. These include salinity, iron, fluoride, arsenic, nitrates, industrial pollutants and untreated domestic sewage.

Add to this the problem of unregulated toilet construction. There are norms for locating toilets at a safe distance from water sources. The minimum distance is 10 m (in silt) to 500 m (in gravel). A visit to any village where toilets have been made shows these are never followed. In fact, toilet makers have no idea of this requirement. Putting down a concentration of toilets without safeguarding water sources is a disaster waiting to happen.

Water, then, is going to be a major bottleneck in ensuring a Swacch Bharat. There are a few solutions to this.

One is to build toilets that do not need water for flushing but safely separate excreta from human beings. These also separate the solids from the liquids; the latter composts to manure in about eight months while urine can be used straight away with some dilution. These toilets can now be made for around Rs 12,000, the amount of subsidy the government provides under the new sanitation campaign.

The second is to ensure faecal containment. Bangladesh has done this successfully. This is the bare minimum that can be done to remove open defecation. Essentially people dig shallow pits, put two slats of wood across them and use them till full and cover them up. In India’s hot climate the excreta will decompose within a few weeks. The problem is this system is not viable during the monsoons or in wet areas or where the water table is high.

The third is to provide group toilets linked to a biogas plant. Several examples of this model exist in Maharashtra, Bengal and Gujarat. Mixed with animal manure, human excreta generates biogas that is used for cooking. The slurry is further vermi-composted into organic manure to be used in fields. There are issues with acceptability but these have also been successfully overcome. This option needs a large capital investment and may not be suitable for the poor. It also does not significantly reduce water use.

To succeed, the sanitation campaign has to be executed as part of a larger water cycle. The purpose is to improve health but without ensuring adequacy of water for ablutions, and safety of water from pollution, the cycle will not be complete. The toilets may well go in but Swacch Bharat will become another failed mission.

Free (for all) water

Freebies harm especially when they concern basic services. In the case of Delhi, the newly-exited Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) pledge to give up to 20,000 litres of water free each day to each household is just such a freebee. Not only will it harm the provider and the environment but also not reach the intended poor. The notification dated January 1, 2014 says it is only for households with working meters and excess consumption will mean paying for the full amount. This works out rather poorly for Delhi’s households with eight lakh out of 27 lakh piped water connections in households unmetered or having dysfunctional meters. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) admitted their metering records is poor so even these figures are guestimates.  Another 4.61 lakh households get water from tubewells which DJB is taking over; the initial experience from two large colonies, Sangam Vihar and Mahipalpur in South Delhi suggests the situation has worsened since.

DJB earlier supplied 6,000 litres a month free (till this notification) to poor households, though again poor distribution meant the really needy never got any of this. People in Rangpuri for example pay a monthly charge of Rs 60 for supply from a local tubewell owned and operated by a local goon and a connection charge of Rs 2,000. Water comes for an hour a day usually at low pressure so each house barely gets enough. This works out to about 100 litres per person per day, well above the 40 litres of free water DJB was giving till last year. The water is not drinkable and forces people to spend extra on buying drinking water or treatment systems. Similarly, 37 per cent people living slums are out of the purview of AAP’s freebee either because there are no pipes to supply water or they do not have meters.

Where did this 20,000 litre figure come from? Taking an average of five people per household, it works out to about 135 litres per person per capita (lpcd) that is the minimum recommended supply for an urbanite by the Ministry of Urban Development. But it does not reflect the quantity of water a person really needs and is instead the volume of water needed to keep modern sewage systems functional. Studies have found the actual per capita water use is just 78 lpcd, half the amount promised. It is lower than the 172 lpcd suggested in a draft water master plan for Delhi.

There is not enough water to supply the freebee. DJB provides about 3900 million litres of water every day (MLD). This is 215 lpcd. By its admission, leakages are 45 per cent to 50 per cent. The end-of-pipe supply is therefore 110 lpcd, much lower than AAP has promised. For AAP to fulfil its promise, it will have to supply 270 lpcd that works out to 4860 MLD assuming leakages remain the same. The total water available to Delhi under various agreements is 4186 MLD, including from the Yamuna, Ganga, Bhakra and DJB-owned Ranney wells. This is a shortfall of 674 MLD at the moment, not factoring in the growth in population.

Delhiites make up the shortfall by pumping groundwater that is about 2,100 MLD of which DJB supplies around 100 MLD; the other 2,000 MLD is from privately owned tubewells. Of the nine groundwater blocks in the city, seven are over-exploited and one is on the borderline. Therefore, this source is unavailable for practical purposes to augment supply to meet the current promised supply. Other attempts to increase local water availability such as rainwater harvesting have barely gained traction in the city.

The freebee will push DJB into the red again. Its budget is Rs 3952 crores with an Rs 234 crore surplus. A rough calculation puts its cost of producing a kilo litre of water at Rs 10 including sewage treatment. If it is to supply 20,000 litres free a month to each household, it will have to spend an additional Rs 115 crore. The additional free amount DJB will provide is actually 14,000 litres a month that will mean foregoing a revenue of Rs 33 per house per month at the lowest consumption slab billed at Rs 2.42 per kilo litre. This totals about Rs 10 crore a month or Rs 120 crore a year. In effect, the freebee will wipe out DJB’s modest surplus in a year and put it back on Delhi government support. In turn, this will affect its plans for upgrading and modernizing its supply network that is absolutely necessary to bring down water losses.

This calculation does not take into account the increased sewage generation. Delhi’s existing sewage treatment plants have an installed capacity of about 2,400 MLD and work at about 66 per cent capacity. This means they treat about 1,600 MLD sewage, the rest entering drains and Yamuna River untreated. If everybody gets the promised water sewage generation will jump to about 3,900 MLD. That means we will compound the problem of water pollution by discharging about 2,300 MLD of raw sewage into the city’s drains and river. This is not at all desirable.

What is possible is a step-by-step approach starting with fixing a very leaky system. Modern technology makes it possible to find and plug leaks to bring DJB’s losses down to an acceptable 15 per cent. Once this is done, the city will have adequate water to provide an acceptable amount to all. The second is to reduce the quantity of water but provide it in assured quantities and of certified quality. Again, studies indicate supply in the region of 100 lpcd is good enough for domestic purposes without cramping ‘modern’ lifestyles; this means a household supply of 500 litres, or 15,000 litres per month. The third is to expand the water and sewage network from the 75 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively, so everybody is covered in order to supply the water and collect the sewage. The fourth is to fix meters to ensure people are billed for water consumed, especially those who can afford to pay. If a Delhiite pays Rs 4.96 for a unit of electricity he/she can afford to pay for water. A cross-subsidy can help keep DJB in the black. AAP’s objectives maybe laudable but counter-intuitive since in countless surveys (and not all by the World Bank) people have said they are willing for an assured supply of good quality water.

In praise of the humble hydram

The hydraulic ram, or hydram, is an wondrous invention, developed by French inventor Joseph Michel Montgolfier (Wikipedia, in 1796. It came to India in the 19th century and established itself in the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal as a reliable and cheap means of pumping water up from running streams. This humble cylindrical device works all day, all week, all year, without power or pause and lifts water from valleys floors to the higher terraces where farmers grow crops.

Its simplicity is its beauty. With two moving parts, both valves, is easy to make and maintain. Essentially a hydram uses the kinetic energy of water to drive it up an incline using the basic principles of physics. Let me first describe the mechanics and then my impressions of this technology.

The device has a drive pipe, a waste valve, a connecting pipe, a check (delivery) valve, an air tank and a delivery pipe. The ratio between the diameter of the inlet and delivery pipehydram 02s determines the quantity of water and the height to which it will be pumped. The greater the ratio, the higher the height but the smaller the quantity.  See the diagram (courtesy Akvopedia, for details of the construction. It is made of mild steel suitably treated to resist corrosion.

Water from a flowing stream is channeled into the drive pipe, inclined at an upwards angle  or 30 or so degrees. These streams are usually perennial and flow rapidly in deep valleys. They are ideal sources of water for hydrams given their volume and incline, that rams water down the drive pipe. The momentum of this water against the waste valve forces it to close with a loud thump that reverberates up and down the valley every second or two.

The water accumulates and pushes open the check valve. It enters the air chamber and compresses the air. The check valve closes, the air expands and pushes the water up the delivery pipe. In the meantime, water in the drive pipe builds up momentum to force the waste valve shut again. So the cycle continues. Water flows out of the deliver pipe considerably higher than the location of the hydram. (Figure below)

hydram 01The valves wear out and need replacement after a few months, faster if the water is muddy. They are simple to fix, being rubber rings mounted on a steel disc. The rubber in most remote locations is from a tube that is cut to shape and screwed onto the disc. This simplicity makes it possible to make and repair them practically anywhere, and the main structure lasts for years.

The other main problem is the air chamber. The air gradually dissolves in water, though in well-aerated hill streams this is not so much of a problem. Over a period of years, its pressure falls and needs to be replenished. This is again not very difficult as commercial air compressors are available fairly easily at tyre repair shops along main roads, and it is a very occasional problem with the apparatus.

I discovered this remarkable water pump during my research for Jalyatra ( my book on India’s traditional water management systems. True, hydrams are not indigenous in the sense they have not been home grown but they are widely used in remote areas in the hills and in my mind, that is qualification to be indigenous. They are also made here now.

Ramesh Pahadi, a Sarvodayee from Gopeshwar in Uttarakhand, showed me these devices. We stopped on the highway to Kedarnath at the house of a farmer – he grows fruits and sells their jams and honey. When the car’s engine stopped, I could hear a faint thump-thump from the valley below. It was coming from the vegetation along the stream that flowed in the gorge. Ramesh and the farmer led me down the gorge, on a narrow path in the bright afternoon sun. It was warm in the upper reaches of the gorge but became chilly once we reached the bottom. A long steep climb to see the hydram.

There, half under water at the end of a long concrete channel, connected to an inlet pipe, were two cylindrical hydrams thumping away in unison. The blue cylinders looked like air compressors on their ends. From the channel, the pipe carried the stream’s cold clear water into the cylinder, and an outlet pipe carried it up the gorge to the terraces where the farmer grew his fruits. He had spent a lot of money developing his own irrigation system. The pipe emptied into the start of a concrete channel that zig-zagged down the valley watering plants as it went. He could have used drip irrigation instead and maximized his area. Excess water from his acreage flowed downstream to the next farmer.

The farmer had asked the irrigation department to instal the hydrams and paid part of the cost. The government’s subsidy for minor irrigation projects paid the rest. The irrigation engineer fixes them when the break down. A couple of farmers benefit from the Hydrams and they have an assured source of water. When one breaks down, the other keeps running till the engineer comes and fixes it. There are people in the local panchayat who can also fix the hydrams, but its not great business as there are only a few streams in the area suitable for installing them.

What puzzles me is these have not caught on. They are simple devices and can be made locally, just the way people make air compressors. You need wrought iron pipes for the input and delivery ends, and the tank of an air compressor. The valves are metal flaps, with hinges welded to the inside of the pipe, and covered with rubber. The cylinder needs to have some sort of inlet for topping up compressed air every once in a while. These are incredibly useful in any hilly terrain, such as I have seen in the Sahyadris. Streams abound, but farmers do not use hydrams preferring electric pumps instead. A simple transfer of technology would serve hundreds of them.

Hydrams can also be used for rural water supply as they run without power – they can cheaply boost water from a stream uphill for treatment and distribution. Most of these streams are contaminated with animal and human shit and the water would need chlorination, a cheap way to treat it, before drinking. The catch is they need a head of water to work, so are no good in the plains. But anywhere there is a head of water, a hydram can lift water to an overhead tank for distribution.

I hope this apparatus finds some takers among the self-proclaimed Indian rajas of technology in the IITs. If they can simplify its manufacture and improve the design it can be used much more extensively. Given the simplicity of design, all that is needed is a simple way to make them.

Backward waters

I was in Attara, a one-horse town in eastern Bundelkhand. The badlands of Uttar Pradesh, where murder and kidnapping is as common as the cycles on its dirty roads. Its a train ride from the Delhi, and emerging from the cocoon of the second class air-conditioned coach made me feel strangely vulnerable and elated. Attara’s railway station is a single platform affair, just a foot higher than the tracks so I had to clamber down the coach’s stairs bag in hand.

There were few people around waiting desultorily for their train. The exit was through a small multi-purpose building that served as the station master’s office, ticket office and coolie room. Outside the parking area was dust with an assortment of ramshackle vehicles – a fatfatia, a few autos with Kirloskar diesel engines, rickshaws and a tonga. Thankfully Suresh was there on his bike. We hugged and I clambered on a rickshaw, to follow him.

Lakshmi Guest House is one of two hotels in Attara. The less said the better. I went through the grill door, up a narrow flight of steps to their main room – large with a cooler and its own bathroom. The other rooms don’t have attached bathrooms and were inhabited by an assortment of men in their kachas. A boy brought in a jug of water and glasses, and tea a while later. The owner came and told me lunch would be served downstairs.

Suresh and I ate rotis, boiled cauliflower-and-potatoes, and daal. The cauliflower concoction was lousy but the daal was another matter. Fiery, it was the perfect accompaniment to rotis: daal roti khao prabhu ke gun gao. Anyway, this set the stage for many meals to follow. I could alleviate boredom by ordering scrambled eggs – egg bhujia, but there was no meat to be found in public at least.

Traveling in those parts in jeans is not recommended. Track pants (no shorts) or loose pants are the best. Dress conservatively and shoes are recommended as the dust enters everything and the streets are piggy. T shirts are OK, but shirts are better. It is cold in the mornings even in summer though the days get really hot.

The only ways to get around are on foot, motorcycle or jeep. Cars are useless as the roads are almost non-existent. This is a ‘backward’ part of India, surprising since it is fertile land that was once the centre of great kingdoms. Beautiful also, with thick forests and hilly terrain from where many rivers flow. But its backward in the eyes of the government because there aren’t industries here. Perhaps it’s just as well. This is the land of 1000 year old architecture, Khajuraho and mysticism. The Pandavas and Ram meandered here in the past. So did assorted ascetics and sadhus. Now criminals hold sway but heaven knows what they find to plunder in this beautiful desolation.

We head to Tendura, Suresh’s village, to see a few ponds. Crossing the tracks near the railway station, we drive next to a swamp of shit water, Attara’s sewage. Tendura is 5 KM through fields of sugarcane and wheat. He has an rambling mud and brick house that accommodates his large family and animals. Outside is an abandoned well. A short walk through muddy streets brings us to one pond. Legend has it a rich trader stopped there to rest 400 years ago and had a dream to make a pond. The next morning villagers found a bag of money and used it to make the pond.

Nearby is another, built on the instructions of a baba after the village suffered an epidemic of plague. He decreed nobody should fish there, but a man did and was struck low. The pond teems with fish. Suresh drops me back to the lodge for the night, and I lock myself in. The bathroom has a strangely curving wall that threatens to collapse on me at any moment, especially while squatting on the Indian-style shitpot. The lodge boy knocks and leave a bucket of hot water outside. I dilute this with tap water and have a welcome bath. Lovely, lovely. A short while later after dinner there is a commotion outside – a drunk cop is arguing with another drunk man but they soon kiss and make up, and go back inside to continue their binge.

Suresh comes next morning with a jeep to being our 4-day Bundelkhand tour of the Chandela and Bundela ponds – large artificial lakes built a millennium ago by the Rajput rulers. The jeep is necessary given the lack of roads and the piles of garbage on what pass for streets. It also gives us some gravitas in this overly macho outpost of the country that no car can provide. This journey is chronicled in my book Jalayatra –

The great drying

India is drying up. We are hurtling towards a future without water, created by political expediency, bureaucratic ineptitude, popular corruption and corporate avarice. In a few years, we will have exhausted our long and short term reserves of water. Tens of millions of tubewells sunk by farmers promoted by blind politicians will have dried up sub-surface water reserves in most of the country.

A deadly mix of politicians, bureaucrats and business would have raped the country of its minerals, leaving no space for rivers to flow or forests to grow. In turn this would mean less water all around – in the ground, rainfall, on the surface and eventually in the Himalayan glaciers that support most of India’s exploding population. The poor for whom our World Bank-pensioned PM and PC Chairman weep would simply be lopped from the bottom of the pyramid.

The rivers dependent on Himalayan glaciers are already threatened by dams, deforestation  and over-population along their courses. We take out water and return waste – farm runoff, municipal sewage and industrial toxins. We hope the water will carry that, and our sins, to the ocean but that is not happening any more. There is no water. The waste accumulates, enters the ground and our food chain, water chain. We lap it up in increasingly greater concentrations.

This is our future – dry. Every time elections come around, there is a round of political bullshit; give farmers tubewells, waive their loans, provide more free power. Sure, some of this is needed as farmers need help to eke out a living. But they don’t need more tubewells, free power or means to extract water from the ground. What they need, and what nobody provides, is how to use that water better. To make a good life, to save for the future.

Is our consumerist culture to blame? When everything is reduce to the unidimension of money, can you blame farmers for maximising the present, at the cost of everything else? Can you blame politicians, businessmen or bureaucrats to live as if there is no tomorrow? If our World Bank pensioner-rulers are busy pushing a single agenda, who do you blame. Have a pasta and a pudding, and damn the rest. But you need water to grow pasta.

So what. There has to be some credible thought for the future. In the business as usual scenario, it seems really bleak. If we maximise the present by wising up to water wastage and pollution, we can still save the future from going dry. Dry statistics – India will be water stressed by 2020 – are not scary. Drying water tables are. Dry or dirty rivers are. Disappeared glaciers are. Chopped down and mined forests are. The Indian public needs to be fed a staple of this information so it wakes up to the fact there is more to life than just money. There are things money cannot buy – water, forests, clean air, rain, life itself. They need to checkmate politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen out to finish the country as soon as possible. An apathetic public is its own worst enemy and indeed, the enemy of the state. We need to wake up now to prevent the great drying or all money in the world will be useless.

Holy shit

I’ve heard there are more cellphones than toilets in India. Now, there are more temples than toilets. Next, there will be more people than toilets. In India, there are always more people than anything else, except shit. So are there more people than temples? Does that reduce toilets ad absurdum? It does.

See, there is as much shit as there are people. Each adult excretes 150 – 250 gm of brown matter daily, the actual amount is proportionate to what the person ate. With 1.2 billion people excreting an average of 200 gm every day, Indians collectively produce 240 billion gm, or 0.24 billion kg, or 24 crore kg of shit every day. Your average idol weighs 100 gm, but not all Indians are Hindu. In fact, about 30 per cent follow other gods or are nature-worshippers. That means we have about 950 million Hindus, all of whom presumably worship idols. So the combined weight of the idols – one to a household – is 95000 million grams, or 0.95 crore kg of idols.

The problem is we are comparing oranges to apples. Now, we shit every day, but we dont get idols every day. Let us assume a family buys one idol a year. The per capita weight of an idol, every day, will be 0.28 gm. Therefore, we can assume all Hindu families in India will acquire (or produce) 0.00026 crore kg of idols a day. That is 0.00001 times the amount of shit all of India produces in a day.

Therefore, the ratio shit to temples is 1:10,000. No wonder Jairam Ramesh lost his job as the sanitation minister.

Now we come to cellphones. The number of cellphone connections is rumoured to have touched 930 million, including dead and multiple connections. That is, a person may have more than one phone. The actual number of users is likely to be different. Still, rural toilet coverage (whatever that means, covered with a toilet???) is around 65% and urban is around 95%. That means 40% rural people are not under a toilet, or about 480 million people are still free of this appliance in the country. So 720 million supposedly have loos. It is close, though, because not all those connections work and a rich person has more than one phone. For that matter, the rich have more than one toilet. Here, the ratio is much closer, not an absurd 1:10,000. I would hazard a 1:1 guess.

The problem is, we Indians overwhelm anything by the sheer weight of numbers. Strength is secondary, anything we set out to do is crushed by the number of people bearing down on it. Maybe a larger person excretes more, but all people excrete and even if the majority is malnourished, they still excrete some. The sheer number of excreting Indians outdoes any gains from their malnourishment or under-nourishment. Therefore, no matter how many toilets we make, idols families buy or cellphones the company would have us believe Indians own, excrement will win. Excrement is a daily occurence, but cellphones and idols are occasional buys. You simply cannot compare.

Water of ages, cleft for me

It was cool and dark in the cavern. I had not seen the sun for centuries since sliding underground, between the rocks into this crevice. High above through the rocks I could hear a high-pitched whirring sound that paused a few seconds, then resumed. Over many hours the sound grew louder till Splash! The roof of my world fell down.

A metal proboscis came through the gap, entered me and withdrew. Then a pipe took its place. Slowly I felt myself being drawn into the projection, unable to stop myself or hold onto anything. It was a like being born, only I was already alive. I didn’t want to be born. Far above, a clanking grating sound beckoned me, an unpleasant change from the eons of silence I had dwelt in.

I emerged into bright scorching sunlight through a metal pipe and splashed into a bucket. There were human faces I had not seen for centuries. So, this is what mankind looked like now – clothes had changed, language had changed as had their attitude towards me. I remember being taken as a fact of life in my earlier spell on the surface; I was an exotic commodity now.

The thing I had emerged through was called a handpump, sunk in a remote village in India. It was an invention so people could get me without their having to work too hard. I remember living at the bottom of a well earlier – people would throw down pots and hogsheads to fill me and use in their homes. I was invaluable, an integral part of life. They valued me greatly because they had to work hard to get me.

The handpump changed all that. Moving a lever up and down sucked me up from the depths, sometimes from as deep as 80 M underground, where I had lived for centuries. Many times, I absorbed minerals, some good and others bad. The good ones made me useful. The bad ones such as those containing arsenic and fluoride made human beings sick. If I had too much of these, human beings got terrible sores on their feet and hands that didn’t heal. Or their teeth and bones became deformed. I felt guilty, but was helpless. I had been sucked out of my lair by the Device.

The human beings tried to solve their sickness by painting these handpumps red; labeling them unfit for drinking. But if I was nowhere else to be found, humans use these handpumps even at the cost of permanent health damage.

I was used to flowing free and living free. If I was caged in a pit or a depression on the ground, I rotted and stank. When I seeped back down into the ground, ashamed of my stinking existence and seeking to clean myself, I found myself being drawn towards yet another Device. Human beings sank these Devices without thought, near places where I stood and stank, near rivers where I flowed and near ponds where tiny animals kept me fairly clean.

I existed everywhere – in the clouds, on the mountaintops, in rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, pools, pits, cesspools, underground rivers and caverns. There were handpumps near all my homes, save in the clouds and mountaintops. But human beings weren’t careful about what they did with me once they had used me – there wasn’t much respect for me those days. Once out of the Device, I flowed into the nearest cesspool or latrine. Soaked with filth, unable to cleanse myself, I was pulled inexorably back into the handpump to be used again.

From a life-giver, I became a life-taker. In the cesspool, bacteria bred in me. I became a reservoir of disease – malaria, jaundice, dysentery, cholera and gastro-enteritis, to name a few. When human beings drank me from handpumps near these cesspools or soak pits, they fell ill. Was I to blame for their folly of sinking a Device near a huge pond of disease? I felt the Device was the Devil’s own. It seemed to be worst thing human beings could have invented.

It had pulled me from my cavern. True, it gave my life-giving nourishment for a while. But then the handpump broke down. It had been made with metal, a material most people could not work with. It needed specialists to repair. In the meantime, those who had grown used to extracting me easily, suffered. Their women walked miles to find me at another place.

Then a brilliant human being, this time clothed in white, had an idea when he visited a village where the handpump had broken down. Why not sink many instead of just one for the whole settlement. That way, when one broke down, there would be others. So the white-clad man asked more engineers to probe the ground to find out where I was, hidden by rocks and soil. They sank drills – I had learnt my tormentor’s name by then – and discovered me hidden many metres underground. Where there was one handpump, now there were 50.

The white-clad one came and took money from the head of the engineers for giving him the order to sink 50 handpumps. I remember the colour of money – it changed hands right over my head, as I lay in a steel bucket under one of the new handpumps.

It was black.

But everybody – the chief engineer, the white-clad man and the people of the village were happy.

The villagers went on a handpump merry-go-round. When one broke down, they carried its parts home. Sometimes, they used these to repair other broken-down ones in their own homes. Sometimes, they sold the metal for scrap. Very soon, there were just five pumps left. The women who used them still got back-aches. I remember once a woman with a bloated stomach came and pulled me out with great effort. She collapsed when she lifted the steel bucket and there was a great deal of blood; she died later. The men seldom helped to carry me home.

In my earlier surface existence, I had filled a pond. The village, smaller then, used to bathe and wash clothes around me. The place was filled with banter and laughter. I enjoyed feeling little children swim in me, the women and men treat me with respect and care. I was the centre of village life and twice a year, everybody came out to celebrate life by holding a fair on the banks of the pond. I remember glowing. The village seemed one big happy family then.

It was so different now. It was the same village but people queued up at the handpumps to fill and take me home, or bathe. The higher caste people always jumped the line, or dirtied the pots of the lower caste ones. There were frequent quarrels if a woman had too many pots or took longer than necessary to fill enough of me. I grew tired of the constant bickering – the daily routine was no longer fun but a terrible chore. I empathized with the women. The handpump seemed to be slowly unraveling the village’s social fabric. It let only one person fill at a time and others, too impatient to wait their turn, turned quarrelsome. The situation became worse in summer because the human beings, in their wisdom, had put the handpump in a place without shade.

Some years later, the engineers were back. They fixed all the 50 handpumps and went away. This time, the villagers didn’t cannibalise the broken pumps because one of them had been trained to repair them. Things looked brighter, the quarrels were fewer and I flowed cleaner.

The caverns where I lived underground were refilled by underground streams and rivers, aquifers that ultimately captured rainwater. They filled slowly, sometimes getting nearly empty in summer and filling out only in the monsoons. In summer, some of the handpumps would stop working but there were enough to tide the village through the hot season. Then the rains would come and everybody would forget the hot hard months.

Slowly, slowly, the caverns filled less quickly and I flowed in thinner streams underground. More buildings on the surface gave me less space and time to reach the caverns. More handpumps on the surface drew out more of me, each up to 21 litres per minute. Human beings were less discriminating in using me and wasted me more. Cesspools filled with dirty ole me and bred diseases. Mosquitoes flourished and men fell to malaria. I mocked at the human beings who had invented the Device – they seemed to lack the intelligence to handle me with care. The means had become more important than the end.

When I had been first disturbed from my slumber of ages, I had rested a scarce 10 M below the ground. In the decade gone by, human beings had to dig up to 80 M to find me, and that too was getting harder by the year. Handpumps started drying up, rather than breaking down – they didn’t serve the purpose for which they were put there.

I had filled the belly of the earth, nurtured plants on her surface and animals at pools where I flowed out. The handpumps in a few years sapped my strength to sustain life. As I receded further underground, chased by the relentless drills and pump pipes, trees on the surface withered. Pools, once fed by my streams, started drying. Both wild and domestic animals found it harder to find me to drink in the jungle. The forests, with whom I shared a special relationship, started vanishing. The forests slowed me on my race from the heavens to the sea and showed me the way down into the caverns. As they disappeared, the caverns emptied faster.

As I finally evaporated and reached the skies, I could see the destruction that the handpumps had wrought. The village was dotted with them, each with its own captive cesspool. Human beings lined up at each, like ants attacking a dead fly to get a few litres of my nourishment. The handpumps drew me up in ever more contaminated litres. The human beings drank me and fell sick. They blamed me but instead of fixing the handpumps, that were the real culprits, they started devising other schemes to get me from far off places which, they thought, would be safer.

The man in a white came again and promised people that he would build a dam on the river and reach me from there to each and every house. Right, I thought, remembering the black-coloured notes that had changed hands years before. More money down the drain and the beginnings of a new problem.

In village after village, people forgot how they had cared and looked after me and I, in turn, had rewarded their efforts by keeping them healthy, their crops and cattle watered. The handpumps did not produce enough water to water crops or animals so it was mainly the human beings who used me, drawn through the metal monsters. These quick-fix solutions replaced the wisdom of ages for short-term gains. They were installed to give people safe access to me, but they spread disease. They were supposed to give easy access to me, but they broke down and weren’t fixed for months, if ever. When they worked, people wasted me and I accumulated in large cesspools, contaminating the underground caverns. The more they used, the emptier the caverns became. The deeper they dug, the more contaminants I emerged with. The land became drier and drier. The men in white arrive every few years to promise more and more, and delivered less and less. It seemed handpumps had started a vicious cycle. In the end, every man, woman and child fled the village and went to the city to find me coming out of broken pipes. But that wasn’t enough for them.

They had other men in white come and promise handpumps.

Little Voices on Little Drops of Water

Shanta Choudhury doesn’t look like an agent of social change. Just into her teens and under four feet tall, the thin diminutive girl from Nepal was at the second Children’s World Water Forum (CWWF) in Mexico City in March to show what she could do. CWWF ran parallel to the 4th World Water Forum (WWF) from March 16 – 22. 

“I will ensure that all villages in my district have toilets in the next few years,” she says simply. The lack of sanitation is an important issue in many parts of Nepal, as indeed across the developing world. The children in her school in the Dang district of Nepal have formed clubs, under a project of the UN Fund for Children (Unicef), to promote hygiene in schools and neighbouring village communities.

Shanta’s school has four such clubs. They work with the village communities on sanitation and water, the focus being on constructing latrines. There was a lot of resistance initially, especially from grown-ups. But that has faded away now as they have seen the benefits of building and using toilets. Also, children have been persistent. 

This was the substance of the presentation that she and fellow country-boy Suresh Baral made at the CWWF. They spoke about how their project began in 2005 as a means to teach school children about the importance of hygiene. It has since branched out into the community.

Suresh is from Pokhra, better known for its scenic beauty and hiking trails. His school has one sanitation club with 40 members, half boys and half girls. The participation of girls is significant. They normally do not get involved in ‘extra-curricular’ activities, but have found projects such as these to be emancipating. 

Shanta and Suresh were two of 112 children from 30 countries who attended CWWF to share their experiences on local actions. Their presentations spanned four days. Each was critiqued on five counts and then rated. The five best, from Laos, Kenya, Japan, Mexico and USA, were given a chance to speak at a special session at the WWF.

Mekhriniso Saidiso, 15, from Tajikistan said girls had taken the lead in her school to promote hygiene. The project gave them a chance to show they were as good as, if not better, than the boys. Most of the children involved in the sanitation project of her school were girls; this had also encouraged girls to attend school.

The pretty blonde, who had traveled 25 hours by a special chartered plane carrying other participants from Asia, said, “My project is a new way for girls to demonstrate their leadership skills and combat discrimination.”

In 2005, Unicef launched the hygiene projects, similar to the one in Nepal, in 400 schools in the country. Its activities involve building latrines and spreading awareness about hygiene and sanitation in schools. From the schools, the campaigns have spread to local communities. Mekhriniso is very active, almost fanatical, about her project, that focuses on water and hygiene.

Attending CWWF had widened the worldview of tomorrow’s leaders. For instance, Shanta and Suresh heard about other issues, such as the trafficking of Nepali women to India, at CWWF. They planned to include this, and other social problems, in their future campaigns.

Mekhriniso also said CWWF was an excellent place to share experiences. “I have learnt a lot about garbage management in other countries. There are innovative ways to dispose off solid waste such as by making fertilizer.”

Gathered in a large auditorium in the Mexican Olympic Committee’s facilities, the children lived, presented and played together for a week. Each country group, or individual, was chaperoned by an adult. The auditorium’s walls were plastered with posters painted by the children. It was a spontaneous expression of their world view, and it wasn’t flattering.

In their Call for Action, at the WWF, they wanted to be involved in local actions to overcome the critical global challenge on water and environment. They did not want to be left out of future decision-making processes, and wanted to know how their proposals would form part of WWF’s follow-up process. The children said adults forced them, especially in developing countries, to fetch water at the expense of education.

In addition to the presentations, the CWWF included a Global Water Education Village. This displayed education and training material and was coordinated Project WET International, one of the organisers. The other organizers were the Instituto Mexicano de Technologia del Agua, Unicef and the Japan Water Forum.

The objective of the World Water Forums is to provide a meeting place for all stakeholders working on water. The organizer, the World Water Council, felt “the voice of children must be heard at these events. Children should not be treated as mere spectators but rather, as active participants. Children have a view of the world that differs from that of the adults. Children will inherit the World and its resources.” However, the children got to participate at WWF in just two sessions, out of over 300.

This rather insignificant participation detracted from the importance of CWWF as a platform for children. In the end, CWWF’s output was limited to a 10-minute statement by 10 children at the ministerial conference, towards the end of WWF. That, and the couple of sessions, was the peep that the adults had into the world of children. And I wonder if they paid any attention at all.


View from First Nation, Canada

Sage Kent from Winnipeg, Canada, is from a native Indian tribe called First Nation.

“Water dams and water ways are impeding the natural flow of water. The land is flat and when the water floods, it kills trees and animals. People die because they do not get anything to eat. It is hard to understand why this has happened. My people suffer from water pollution and recurrent floods.”

She was at CWWF with a simple message to grown-ups.

“If corporations spare just 10 cents per dollar, all the children in the world can have clean water to drink.”

Sage’s parents raised money so their daughter could attend CWWF and give her message. Sage, at 9, was the youngest participant.

Sage’s mother Lee Anne Kent, felt CWWF had a very structured programme. This did not let children spontaneously express themselves. However, she felt it could be a powerful voice, given half a chance.

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.