Forgetting science

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Saturday 15 July 2000

Indian politicians take great pride in the country being a major scientific nation, what with all the nuclear power plants, missiles and atomic bombs that we build and the software exports we achieve. True, indeed, but if for one moment they were to look at the working of the government, they will find that there is no science in official decision-making. Almost as if the technocrats and bureaucrats have never heard of this word.

In the last editor's page, I had pointed out to the 'water illiteracy' of Gujarat major irrigation projects' minister, Jay Narayan Vyas, this time I would like to talk about a similar illiteracy afflicting most of the state's irrigation engineers. Business Standard, The Times of India, The Hindu and Indian Express (1-5) have carried articles over the last one month saying that the construction of check dams in parched Saurashtra, which the state government is promoting as a measure to fight drought, will mean that the medium-sized dams that have been built in the region to meet the needs of towns will be prevented from getting water and there will be major urban-rural conflicts. A columnist wrote in The Times of India, Ahmedabad edition, that "at many places in Amreli and Rajkot districts, people are engaged in building check dams on upper levels of rivers which must flow ordinarily to the reservoirs situated at lower levels. Once the river flow is impeded at the upper level, dams will hardly get enough water and this will create friction between urban and rural masses. It may happen that some of these check dams would be broken in the future by the people themselves suffering at lower levels."

The maximum opposition appears to be coming from the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, which is opposing the construction of check dams in the catchment areas of the reservoirs on the Aji and Bhadar rivers. It is being argued that the Aji reservoir has never overflowed in the last 15 years as there are around 40-50 check dams in its catchment. It is interesting to note that, in an article published in The Indian Express, New Delhi, all senior irrigation officials agree with the thesis that check dams will stop water inflow to the government's mega-structures which support the water needs of towns and cities, except for one senior irrigation official who defends check dams on the grounds that villagers, too, have the right to get water.

Indeed, check dams raise both moral and scientific issues. The moral issue is that a democratic government does not have the right to allocate water, which is such a basic human need, to urban people at the expense of rural people. It must ensure that all people get water and if it is in short supply, all must share the shortage equally. The government's large and medium water projects have largely benefited the urban people and the richer rural people, leaving the poor out. Now that check dams and groundwater recharge can help poorer people, the richer ones are showing off their 'technical wisdom' to argue against them.

It is amazing that even minister Vyas, a politician, supports this thesis. In an article published in the Business Standard, he is reported to have said, "With the construction of check dams in catchment areas of dams like Aji, Shader, Fofal and others in the Saurashtra region, their reservoirs will not fill up if it rains just 150-200 mm. This is because the earth is parched and water from the first few showers will percolate into the ground. Most of the water will be stored in the check dams, reducing the flow to the dams." So these check dams "could exacerbate the rural-urban divide and take a violent turn," says another article in The Times of India, Ahmedabad. There are now reported to be some 70 large and medium dams in the five districts of Saurashtra. After the last monsoon, almost 60 of them went dry while the remaining 10 only have scanty water, which could simply be, as I pointed out in my last column, because they were getting water from larger catchments which have a very low water yield in drought years. But when the government built these large structures to feed urban Saurashtra and calmly reallocated their water in last year's shortage to urban areas, leading to rural protests in which three people were shot dead by the police in Falla in December last year, it did not bat an eyelid.

Let's forget morality for a moment and talk about science. Will these check dams really reduce water inflow into the larger downstream reservoirs? This is exactly what the Rajasthan irrigation department told Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) when it built its first johad in Alwar district and ordered it to be pulled down. TBS refused and the officialdom could not pick up the courage to take on the ire of the villagers. TBS went ahead making many more johads and in the 503 sq km watershed of the 45-km-long Arvari river some 238 water harvesting structures had been constructed by the mid-1990s by the 70 villages located within its watershed. The work started in 1986 and, lo and behold, the Arvari, till then a drain that flowed during the monsoon did not dry up but slowly became a perennial river. In 1990, it had a flow till October and, by 1995, it had become perennial. TBS now lays claim to revival of five rivers. The Sadguru Foundation working in the tribal areas of Dahod district in Gujarat itself has seen the same revival of rivers by making a cascade of check dams across what were earlier dead rivers. Rajasthan irrigation engineers were dumbfounded by the revival of the Arvari proving their technical whims and fancies wrong.

Hydrogeologist R N Athavale who visited the Arvari watershed has made the following estimates based on his experience to explain the revival of rivers. Earlier, only 15 per cent of the rainfall would go into the soil 5 per cent becoming soil moisture and about 10 per cent going deep into the ground, most of it below the bottom of the wells and the level of the Arvari bed because of the depleted groundwater reserve. Therefore, only 5 per cent of the rainfall would slowly seep into the Arvari and villagers could use just about 1 per cent for drinking and irrigation. Now, with check dams, 35 per cent goes into the soil instead of 15 per cent. As a result, the monsoonal runoff to the Arvari has dropped from the earlier 35 per cent of the rainfall to only 10 per cent. But an estimated 22 per cent of the total rainfall now seeps into the Arvari from the recharged groundwater reserve in the post-monsoonal months to give it a perennial flow. The villagers themselves now use about 3 per cent of the total rainfall that falls in the watershed with which they can take two crops a year.

In other words, as Athavale puts it, check dams and other water harvesting structures do not reduce the quantity of water flowing into the lower dams built by the governments, they only streamline the flow over the year. But who is to teach hydrology to our irrigation engineers? For a few years indeed, as the depleted groundwater reserves are being built up, there may be reduced flows but then cities like Rajkot should also learn to catch their own rainwater and use water carefully something that no city in India feels compelled to do on its own simply due to the largesse it gets from the government. The trouble lies in the fact that our irrigation engineers, civil engineers as they usually are, have become petty wall-builders sometimes across the river and at other times along the sides of the river and have no understanding of hydrology. And, of course, less said about the intellect of our politicians the better. I won't even call them Gobar Ganesh because I have great respect for gobar (cowdung).

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