Climate Change

Drought, literature and the lessons

It is imminently important for us to spend considerable time researching the water woes plaguing India and the indigenous solutions, existing in the wealth of literary sources that we possess

By Swasti Pachauri
Published: Wednesday 15 July 2020
Water scarcity is being reported in India as it battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat / CSE

Even as India battles the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), with hand hygiene as the key ammunition to battle its calamitous impact, water scarcity is being reported of late from some parts of India. Reports emerged from Madhya Pradesh, of rural households facing water shortage. Many urban districts are back to witnessing the resurgence of tanker mafias.

Last year, approximately 44 per cent of India was reeling under a drought, underscoring factors exacerbating a water emergency, such as overexploitation of groundwater and delayed monsoons. It also highlighted the transfer of resources from the poor to the rich.

That India is under acute water-stress has also been highlighted by the Niti Aayog (2018). More recently, a study conducted by portal India Spend (June 2020) in five of India’s most populous states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh — found that a lack of access to drinking water, distance from water sources and poor sanitation posed various challenges in dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

Therefore, one needs to ponder as to why this water crisis resurfaces and haunts us repeatedly. For water paucity in India or the drought that follows is not sudden. Rather, it is a ‘careless construct’ of neglect, apathy and complacency built over the years.

It is something that makes each one of us complicit in the orchestration of a massive crisis that results in not just the erosion of ecology, but also social norms and capital governing a society. 

If we were to collectively and cautiously tide over this ruthless pandemic; it is imminently important for us to spend considerable time researching the water woes plaguing India and the indigenous solutions, existing in the wealth of literary sources that we possess. Some limited references are discussed under.

Tales from the past

For instance, Mahesh, a classic by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, essays this intersectionality of rural distress and a ruthless drought, the cruelty of poverty and the inter-dependencies of rural livelihoods and nature in the 19th century.

The story is reminiscent of the concerns of an average rural household of today. Gafur, a weaver from Kashipur village, finds himself in the vicious trap of circumstances and at the mercy of feudal landlordism — a drought, deprivation, and indebtedness threatening his survival.

His bull, Mahesh, is emaciated, hungry and is tethered — as grains lie in the fields outside. The household faces an abject shortage of water, food and basic resources. Gafur is seen feeding Mahesh with the straws of the thatched roof from their humble shelter made of earth and hay.

Come rains and the walls of the hut may collapse for the fragility of the structure — Gafur’s daughter Amina cautions him. One day, tired of hunger and thirst, Mahesh ventures into the fields and later narrowly escapes his ‘imminent’ comeuppance at the hands of local cattle buyers — thanks to Gafur borrowing money in an attempt to save his beloved Mahesh. After a warning or so, they are let off from the Zamindar’s court.

Soon after, however, Mahesh invades the grounds of the landlord and feeds on the flowers. When the landlord sends for Gafur, Gafur, tired of all the suppression and historical oppression, protests and resists. 

Finally, frustrated with anger, fatigue and exhausted at the inhuman injustices of poverty meted out, Gafur brutally punishes Mahesh. 

Later, he repentantly sets out with Amina to work at the jute mill.

Caught between the maladies of rural distress set in the colonial times, the resultant inequalities of a ‘water apartheid’ and the consequent de-peasantisation afflicting the agrarian economy, Mahesh is a telling account needing meticulous re-consideration in these times — when the hitherto absent realities of rural India have finally managed to grab the national attention.

A similar story depicting inequitable access to water is Munshi Premchand’s Thakur Ka Kuan, which deserves attention over the monopolisation of water resources by a select few dominating the rural superstructures.

The dehumanising impact of a drought

While a perpetuating drought has ecological, economic, and social implications, stories such as Mahesh depict the dehumanising aspect of drought and the humanitarian consequences that highlight an erosion of human values, resulting in violence and conflict over the blatant scarcity of resources.

Most importantly, a water crisis has long-term repercussions for landless labourers, tenant, small and marginal farmers, particularly women in agriculture and poses direct threats to rural livelihoods and food security. One must take note of the ‘water wives’ as has been reported from Dengalmal, Maharashtra in 2015, in a documentary movie. 

A drought, therefore, results in long-term deleterious effects on the social capital and the norms governing a society; disrupting the ecological harmony of even the most basic of all ecosystems, as witnessed in the news from forests of Madhya Pradesh of over 15 monkeys killing each other over a water fight, last year.

Revisiting Anupam Mishra’s work

The Government of India has raised the allocation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA under its economic package to fight COVID-19, focused on the revival of the rural economy. Now, a focused approach on MGNREGA-led traditional water harvesting structures, or revival of the existing structures could help mitigate the impact of the long-term water woes.

To this effect, the landmark work by the late Anupam Mishra, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab (1993) must be revisited. The book amalgamates the wealth of wisdom amassed over generations and the indigenous knowledge of communities and presents to us the decentralised practices in water management that combine ecological acumen and traditional heritage in water governance.

For instance, it recounts the community-driven efforts and wisdom of people that helped them construct ponds and small-scale water structures collecting rainwater. From rituals to daily chores, everyone focused on sustainably restoring and conserving water via participatory community approaches of development. 

The book offers evergreen water harvesting narratives from different parts of India and is laced with local vocabulary known to the rural people — the actual custodians of sustainable natural resource management, playing the most crucial role in replenishing thousands of water structures for posterity.

The importance of these water bodies is evident through the numerous anecdotes presented in the book; for instance, how the Santhals constructed beautiful ponds in Bihar and Santhal Paragana.

Mishra educated us on different nomenclatures of water bodies that existed then and now, known as saagar, sarovar, sar; many in twins such as pokhar-pokhari, taal-talaiya, johar-johari present extensively in central Indian states; diggi in Delhi and Haryana; guhiya pokhar in Bihar, aama tariya in Chhattisgarh — names given to these water bodies by people who benevolently constructed them, using principles of sustainability, combining those with farming, forestry, and water conservation.

With COVID-19 setting new norms of protectionism, sovereignty, isolation and reverse migration, works such as Aaj Bhi Kharein Hain Talab and Rajasthan ki Rajat Boondein (1994) merit the attention of governments, policymakers and bureaucrats toward creating effective systems in community partnerships harnessing indigenous wisdom, empathetic values and ethics in water governance.

In the wake of rising inward-looking tendencies and food nationalism; the ‘weaponisation’ of water may be an imminent policy challenge — with countries and states arguing over their riparian rights, water scarcity and resource sharing. Once the immediate public health hazards of COVID-19 settle, reversing this water poverty should be the top priority of the hour.

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