Knock-knock who's there?

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

To say that our prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee is not in charge of the country, after what is happening in Gujarat, would not be saying much. Vajpayee says he is anguished and ashamed about the senseless riots that Gujarat has seen over the last month, but can do nothing about it. The same is the case with the water policy of his government. He says he disagrees with it. But can do precious little to change the mindset of his policy makers.

So he releases the National Water Policy and at the release function gives a speech, which is totally contradictory to what is contained in the policy document he is announcing. A small disconnect or another sign that the man who is supposed to be in charge has abdicated his position.

The reason this doublespeak is appalling is that it is the job of the prime minister to set out the principles and rules on which the country -- from Gujarat to water -- will be governed. Just as in Gujarat he needed to take hard action to replace the chief minister, he needed also in the water policy to have made sure that his voice was being heeded and his message instilled in his government's framework.

Instead, what happens? The prime minister makes a laudatory speech. He outlines key principles on which he says the policy should be based. First, he says, the policy must "recognise that the community is the rightful custodian of water". He then explains this saying, rightly, that "exclusive control by the government machinery and the resultant mindset that water management is the exclusive responsibility of government cannot help us make the paradigm shift to participative, essentially local management of water resources."

But what does the policy say. The policy includes the term community only once, in the concluding paragraph, saying, "concerns of the community need to be taken into account for water resources development." We also understand that this line was inserted after the PM's speech, when the water ministry's officials went into a huddle -- the released policy was suddenly unavailable -- to find some way to insert what Vajpayee had said into the policy. But the sarkari mindsets prevailed and the prime minister's views were dumped without a second thought.

Vajpayee does not stop there. With great emotion he says, "let this meeting send out a powerful message that harnessing every drop of rainwater is a national priority." He takes what we have said so often to heart arguing that every village should earmark five per cent of its area for community water bodies. " This is a powerful idea whose time has come ", says the prime minister.

His officials don't think so. For them, rainwater harvesting is a quaint idea, relegated in the policy to the section on non-conventional methods like desalination of water. Saying simply "traditional water conservation practices like rainwater harvesting...need to be practiced to further the utilisable water resources."

In sum, not only has the prime minister been dumped, but also all voices, which have argued for community-based water harvesting strategies as being key to water security and food security, have been ignored in this rehashed water policy.

This is very unfortunate. I say not because I believe the water policy means much in this extremely anarchic and ungoverned country of ours, but because I believe the policy is the one chance the government has to lay out its framework for action and this framework must prioritise the national challenge to use water to eradicate poverty in our country. Currently agriculture uses over 80 per cent of the investment in water. We have overflowing godowns of food - -- in this destitute and desperately hungry country. Food surplus and total food insecurity.

Simply producing more food is not the answer. The answer lies in making currently rainfed and marginalised lands more productive so that rural communities have resources to buy food. In this challenge, water can turn a large part of the country's currently parched lands into productive lands, reduce poverty and increase incomes where it is needed the most. But to do this, as the prime minister pointed out, localised water management is most cost-effective and this local water management -- harvesting and storing water where it falls -- can only be done through community participation.

The policy should have recognised that water management, which involves communities and households has to become the biggest cooperative enterprise in the country. A water movement that values every drop of rain. Instead the policy repeats the disastrous formula in which the state has the dominant, indeed the only role, to play in water management.

But then what do you expect from the in-the-box-thinking of our water establishment. Particularly when the box has been sealed air-tight for so long that it gets no oxygen and certainly everything inside is long dead and rotten.

-- Sunita Narain

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