The poverty of policy

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2004

It is often said that the next war in the world will be fought over water. I do not know if this prophecy will come true. But I do know that skirmishes and even full-fledged battles over water are here to stay in India. And I also know that these battles are not innate to our country. They are deliberate and willful creation of governments and their policies.

Let me take the latest case in Sriganganagar district, Rajasthan (see Farmers' uprising in Rajasthan). Four farmers were killed in police firing as they agitated for their share of irrigation water. They were killed as they attacked the local police station. Indian farmers are not a riotous lot: burning and looting government property is a sure sign of extreme desperation. The fact is that these farmers were settled in the desert by the government. They were brought there to cultivate the arid land, make it prosperous with waters of the Rajasthan canal. The government gave each farmer 6.32 hectares (ha) of land for a nominal long-term interest free payment.

The plan was quite simple. Rajasthan's desert was to bloom like the fertile lands of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers were encouraged to intensify their agricultural practices. By 1983, things were looking good: over 244,000 ha land was being irrigated and the desert was in bloom. The government's policy told farmers that the water was their's to take. The policy encouraged them to grow crops, which used up irrigation water -- wheat, cotton and even rice.

But there is one homily that never fails to hit home: there is never enough water. The fact is that government was planning a stage II of the project, when the canal would extend deeper into the desert and more areas would be brought under irrigation. The water was to be shared ultimately over an area, which would double the irrigated area of phase I. But the project had other water demanders. As cities and industries in the desert grew thirsty, the canal water was diverted to them.

Then there is the oft-repeated allegation that the upstream state has reneged on its commitment of releasing the water allocated to the canal. But monitoring and administrative mechanisms, which should confirm this allegation, do not exist. The government had had decreed by policy that farmers living on the sides of the feeder canal, taking water to the desert, would not use its waters: it was 'reserved'. But policy cannot dictate to thirsty farmers. The canal was breached and its water taken out, so allege its downstream claimants.

So, on one hand, secure in the policy of plentiful water, farmers increased water use. On the other hand, policy continued to create more demand. The situation was gently stoked towards a conflict. The fact is policy could have fostered a water-prudent society, if only it had been designed to accept that water will never be enough -- however plentiful, it might seem.

Let us go back to Rajasthan again. The fact is that water was brought into the desert, which has a specific agro-economy. It is based on animals, and not on crops. Water is scare, so it is used, not to irrigate crops, but to grow fodder for animals to survive. The land is used to grow grasses or trees, which provide fodder in critical winter months. The system is geared to optimise productivity, not of land but of each drop of water. It's meant to transform waterdrops into milk, wool and meat.

Similarly, if drinking water needs of rural households and even large urban townships are harnessed carefully from rain, the inhabitants will not need to appropriate from the region beyond.

Therefore, if policy had respected water frugality, it would have designed a supportive structure to enhance productivity, without succumbing to water greed. For instance, it could have ensured that irrigation water was given first to the common grazing lands, so that the desert economy prospered. Even the agriculture could have been centered on this animal-milk economy. Then, it could have maintained that all rural-urban centers and industries would have to first meet their water needs from their rain endowment and only the deficit would be made good by the water from the canal.

The fact is that we need to learn this policy prescription fast. Water tensions are on the increase across the country. When Chennai looks for its drinking water at the Veeranam lake, farmers agitate against the withdrawal for the thirsty city. When Rajkot wants water, irate farmers are fired upon and killed. These are but a few flashpoints. The desperation for water is real. And the conflicts will not just simmer but burn. Until policy begins to respect the idea that frugality is not about poverty. Until it acknowledges that scarcity is not about the lack of resources but about being wise in using resources; until policy is not poor.

-- Sunita Narain

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