Programme plugged

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Quite frankly our friends in government would be right in saying that they are damned if they don't and even more damned if they do. But what can we say. It is truly amazing how our government agencies learn so little about how programmes can be made to work. Every idea is churned in the same mindless cauldron of bureaucratise and procedures and comes out exactly like the last: sterile and dead. Legislate, ban and then forget implementation. In the process alienate the very people who will be the custodians of the idea.

What makes me so angry? The grouse is the mess being created by the Central Groundwater Board (cgwb) in promoting the idea of rainwater harvesting in our cities. It is an idea we pushed and that is why it particularly angers me to see that instead of building proponents for this idea, the government agency in its zest will probably bury it for good.

We got a taste of what is to come recently. At a meeting organised by cgwb to "teach" people about how to harvest rainwater, there were no listeners. Only angry residents. They claimed that the government legislation to make rainwater harvesting mandatory in all buildings is another form of harassment. They are desperate for water, their groundwater levels are falling but they have turned against rainwater harvesting, fearing that the government dictate will lead to more problems with the local inspectors.

It has always been clear to me that urban rainwater harvesting will require a strategy that has different components. We have to recognise that just passing a law is not enough. It has to be supported with a massive campaign for public awareness and with hard policy actions, which provide incentives and disincentives for its effective implementation. It this case the incentives will have to come in the form of fiscal measures which support households to capture their rain, and the disincentives in the form of pricing of water and supportive urban taxation policies.

Chennai, for instance a city with dire water shortages, was one of the first to legislate that rainwater harvesting would be mandatory in all new buildings. But a survey carried out by the Madras Institute of Development Studies for us showed that most residents living in these buildings with rainwater harvesting had absolutely no idea about this system, which the builder was supposed to have built in order to get the completion certificate. These are fragile systems and, without active involvement of building residents, will get silted and choked in no time.

A similar story was repeated in Delhi. The Supreme Court ordered wisely that rainwater harvesting should be carried out in the Vasant Kunj area of Delhi -- a housing conglomerate built by the Delhi Development Authority (dda), which howls for water. Residents of this affluent colony spend over Rs 1000 each month, buying water from private tankers. The dda was given charge of implementing the project to harvest rainwater. It was clear from the start that unless local residents were involved and were asked to contribute in part to its funding, the effort would build another dead structure.

But nobody knew how to engage local residents. The government agency accused residents for not wanting to contribute to the project and their resident associations for being politicised and divided. On the other hand, residents accused dda for just not wanting to involve them in the programme. A stalemate continued on the issue of sharing the costs. Finally, it was agreed that the project would simply divert the water of the existing stormwater drains into a recharge pond, which dda would construct. At a meeting with resident associations it was agreed that drawings of the storm water drains of the building complex would be made public -- through pamphlets and posters -- so that residents knew about the system of rainwater harvesting and valued their drains. But then even this solution was defeated by officialdom: the drawings could quite simply never be located.

Finally, as with most other such ventures, taxpayer's money was spent by dda to build the pond to divert the rainwater, all to meet its obligations to the court. But what good it will do is anybody's guess.

A key issue that has to be addressed is why people would invest their money in harvesting rain, when the government is responsible for providing drinking water and it does it so dirt cheap. The answer would therefore be to design a fiscal package, which promotes this technology as it provides critical benefits to the city. For instance, in Germany, the households are taxed according to the amount of stormwater they discharge into the municipal system. The tax is calculated on the basis of the paved area of their building. It provides an incentive to the resident to store or recharge the rainwater to avoid being taxed. The state also benefits as it saves on its stormwater drainage costs. Similarly, in other parts of the world, property taxes are modified to give the water harvesters an advantage.

All this can only be done if we make people aware of the value of the raindrop. But for our government agencies it would mean that they would first have to value the participation of people -- not just in words but also in action.

-- Anil Agarwal

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