A lesson not learnt

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 31 May 2003

Five successive years of debilitating drought. It had rained for barely a few hours last year in the region of Rajasthan I was visiting. I expected wasted lands, desolation and nearly-abandoned villages. Instead, I could see greenery, irrigated agriculture, people tending to vegetable crops and livestock. The village diary -- a one room stopshop with an electronic machine to detect fat content in the milk -- was lined with people bringing their product for sale. I found out: they had sold Rs 34 lakh worth of milk last year. I asked about water and was told that there were 103 wells in the village. People could use the wells for 1 hour each day to irrigate fields. The water was visible to the naked eye -- some 50 feet below ground level.

How could this be? I was asking this question in Laporiya village, located some 2 hours from Jaipur in Rajasthan. My hosts were the Gram Vikas Yuvak Mandal and its head Laxman Singh. He took me to a map displayed in the village centre. The green painted area was the village common land -- grazing land under government control. This, explained Singh, was the land they had to fight to regain control over, as it was encroached and degraded. On the map, squares had been painted. These denoted chaukas -- a unique water harvesting system designed by Singh and his colleagues to retain every drop of rainwater and to recharge the aquifer. All over the common land, villagers had dug rectangular trenches less than 1 feet deep, so that rainwater would 'jump' across the land till it flowed into the village tanks.

With this system in place, the village common land became a grand water collection area. Every drop was channelled and stored in the village's 3 connected tanks -- deepened by voluntary labour. Of the 1000-odd hectares (ha) of agricultural land, roughly 600 ha was irrigated. There was a gleam in Singh's eyes as he told me about the years of good rain when tanks would overflow. For the past few years the tanks had barely filled; today, they were bone dry. Still, the wells have water. Laporiya practices the conjunctive use of irrigation structures -- surface and ground -- that engineers love to boast about, but have no clue how to build.

But what was clear -- and this is the key policy message -- is that it was the years of water harvesting (over 10 years in this case) that had built up groundwater reserves. Built it up so well that even repeated years of drought and scarcity could be withstood. Rainwater harvesting is like putting hard-earned money in a bank account: we prudently and repeatedly replenish the aquifer, then live off the interest and not mine the capital of the groundwater reserves. But this takes time. It takes people who care about their land, so that they care to harvest their water.

This, unfortunately, is where policy goes horrendously wrong. Land is managed by a multitude of obdurate bureaucracies, water by another. By policy and in practice, we ensure that villagers are disenfranchised from the management of their resources.

For Laporiya and many other neighbouring villages, the most difficult struggle has been not to combat drought, but to regain control over the village common lands. These are some of the most abused lands in the country. Grazing lands -- village commons -- are vested with the panchayats, but remain under the control of state bureaucracies. Remember this is Rajasthan, where livestock-based practices form the base of the rural economy -- for milk, meat and wool. This is the economic wealth of the state. Roughly half the so-called common lands of the country are found in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. But these are the first to be encroached by the powerful, and the powerless as well. The fights in the villages I visited are legendary: the local member of the state legislative assembly, the district official and the local goon had joined hands to protect the cause of the encroacher.

India has one of the highest densities of animal population in the world. But the smallest amount of land is reserved for domestic livestock -- less than the land reserved for wild animals in sanctuaries and national parks. But politicians miss the point. Sadly, this includes even the more water-sensitised ones like Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh. His government has been graciously donating these lands to the dalit populations in the state. How much this populism will benefit the poor, I dont know. But I do know that this will destroy the chance of the villagers to effectively manage their common lands and water systems.

The British weekly The Economist recently carried an article about the privatisation of land in Mongolia, and how this has destroyed the livestock-based economy of that mountainous country. India is not listening. The fact is that India desperately needs a policy for common lands -- forest or grazing lands -- so that these are seen as the base to rebuild rural economies. These are the catchments for water, for food and for milk. Without the commons, little private wealth gets created.

Laporiya knows that in the drought-prone region it belongs to, animal-based economies are far more durable than agriculture. It uses its water to irrigate its grazing lands first, so that even after sustained drought there is some fodder for animals to eat. The precious water in the wells is used to grow animal feed, so that there will be milk and wool to provide sustenance to people.

But this is not a new lesson. It is simply one that we all forgot to learn.

As always.

-- Sunita Narain

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