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Open letter to Prime Minister Vajpayee

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015 | 11:04:44 AM

Dear Mr Vajpayee,
A few months ago you spoke passionately about the need to involve local communities in water management. Releasing the national water policy document, you said harnessing every drop of rainwater is a national priority and then went on to say "This is a powerful idea, whose time has come."

Even though you spoke our language, I accused you, in these columns, of doublespeak. Your government, I reminded you, did not even begin to appreciate the concept of community based water management strategies.

I was angry then. But what gives me encouragement is that you are still pushing this message.

In your address to the nation, on Independence Day, you went back to this issue with equal passion. You said, "We will make a concerted effort to save every drop of water." And then you announced a new initiative for village water conservation, and a programme to revive one lakh traditional sources of drinking water.

It makes me want to believe that you care and believe in this issue. I realise how difficult it is to change governmental policy. The vested interests, and more importantly, mindsets are entrenched. To ask the water resources ministry to take serious note of what you have advocated is easier said than done. So what if you are the prime minister. Your officials will agree -- to do nothing.

But, it is important that you don't give up. The drought this year will cripple most of our country. We learn the situation is already desperate. If this is the scene today, during monsoon, what will happen by next May or June? People are fleeing their homes. Trains coming to cities like Delhi remind us of scenes from the partition -- with thousands perched on their tops. The worst thing about drought is that it forces people already living on the margins of subsistence to sell their only means of survival -- their livestock. As you know, this is the beginning of the spiralling cycle of destitution. Drought is not about lack of water or failing agriculture. It is also about non-availability of fodder for animals. This process of impoverishment is so adverse that rebuilding rural economies becomes difficult. Drought is not a temporary phenomenon. It is permanent and long lasting and it eats away at the very insides of the country.

It is for this reason that we must go beyond words, to effective action. We must have a plan not for drought relief, but for a relief against drought. And we must start this process, which will take time and constant investment, as soon as possible. Government after government has spoken of this. But done little to change the drought-relief mindset, which is well-versed in the famine code that the British left behind. Official machinery, in most cases delivers as it does in terms of an emergency situation. We have food in our godowns and if government is able to reach the food to people, it could avert famine. Water is already being delivered on trains. But this is not good enough.

We must use this drought as an opportunity to drought-proof the country. For this we need effective -- and I underline effective -- programmes which use employment generation schemes to invest in rural natural asset building -- ponds, tanks and traditional water harvesting structures. We must change the way we do business with local communities. And we can. We need leadership. With a deep commitment for long-term change.

Let us be clear, water harvesting does not bring immediate miracles. It takes time and investment to rebuild our rural capital. Think of it like a bank account, which we have overdrawn upon. Today, our groundwater aquifers are in deep trouble. We are not using the natural recharge in these aquifers, we are mining the capital. I hope you have read the article we published in Down To Earth (Vol 11, No 3; dated June 30, 2002), in which my colleagues revisited drought-hit villages for the fourth year consecutively. They found that only those villages, which have practised water conservation for some years, are able to withstand frequent drought of the past some years. The challenge is to build communities' relationship with water once again so that they can continue to invest in conservation, after the government officials have gone home to roost.

And this is possible. I believe in your commitment to making water conservation the most burning issue in the country. But, as I said before, you will need more than pretty words. It will need your personal time and experience. I would suggest the following urgent action plan:

One, that you go on a yatra (pilgrimage) through some of the worst districts of the country. The point is that you have to send a clear message. This yatra will also help to give importance to this issue by local officials. After all how many times have political leaders spent time travelling, talking about water and the desperate need for conservation?

Two, that you convene a water conservation group that you personally chair. Its agenda must be to report to you on the programmes of each state and justify its effectiveness.

Three, that you set up your own systems of information verification so that you do not get the typical answers that officials give politicians. For this, one option would be a research team within your own office, which travels and reports back to you. Maybe, you could launch a journalist fellowship programme so that you get independent reportage on what your government is doing. Essentially, knowledge based governance is what we need from you.

I hope you will take the right step.

Regards
Sunita Narain

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