Reverse brain drain can be a strain

At that annual ritual called the Indian Science Congress, the Union minister of science and technology read out the prime minister's speech. It mentioned the need to draw in scientists of Indian origin back to the country, to reverse the brain drain and deal with challenges like water scarcity. The intention was noble. Now, how will the expatriate scientist community help us solve water scarcity?

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- AT THAT annual ritual called the Indian Science Congress, the Union minister of science and technology read out the prime minister's speech. It mentioned the need to draw in scientists of Indian origin back to the country, to reverse the brain drain and deal with challenges like water scarcity. The intention was noble.

Now, how will the expatriate scientist community help us solve water scarcity? Witness an article that appeared on January 6 in The Hindu . It was called 'Rain harvests and water woes', and was written by T N Narsimhan, professor of materials science and engineering, environmental science, policy and management, at the heavy-duty University of California at Berkeley, USA. He dwells at length on the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where "exceptional stresses on water resources have led to rain harvesting as a means of intercepting flows that may otherwise be 'lost' as runoff to the ocean". The gist of his argument is that intensive rain harvesting could disrupt the hydrological cycle in the long run. He cites examples from the US of sensible water management based on a scientific understanding of the hydrological cycle.

This scholar can best be addressed by scientists. But it isn't a sin to apply the rules of common sense to a newspaper article that dwells at length on hydrology in three southern states but doesn't once mention the monsoon. Monsoon? That single most important hydrological phenomenon in India with unique characteristics? Narsimhan says rivers such as Palar are now practically dry because people living in the river basin made thousands of water harvesting structures. But we know that at least six different types of such structures, all of which recharge groundwater levels. In fact, the main purpose of water harvesting in India has been to recharge groundwater, and Palar's going dry has been linked to the disrepair into which the water harvesting structures have fallen. But Narsimhan only emphasises that it takes water away from the environs. There is no mention of the well-known fact that Indian rivers have been sucked dry by haphazard industrial and urban growth.

These omissions make the article easy fodder for those who thrive on the highly polarised discussion between those who support big dams and those who don't. This polarisation dominates the water discourse in India and certainly doesn't help solve the water crisis. Bringing scientific inputs into water management is not as simple as inviting non-resident Indians to bring in foreign investment, and even that hasn't been easy. Narsimhan is welcome to share his knowledge. But he must also be prepared to learn from the thousands of barefoot engineers who have managed water in India, over millennia.

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