Tryst with rain

Following the monsoon failure of 1999-2000, two states - Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh - launched crash programmes to encourage water harvesting. An appreciable shift, because governments in India have always gone in for high-cost, high-technology solutions to our water crisis. Ignoring the fact that rainwater has helped India survive through millennia. Down To Earth scrutinises the programmes even as the region faces another year of drought

Published: Tuesday 31 October 2000

Tryst with rain

Water flows over the checkdam< (Credit: Eklavya Prasad / CSE)In our January 15, 2000 issue, Down To Earth had highlighted the situation in drought-struck areas of Gujarat. The conclusion was that villages with structures to harvest rainwater were faring much better than villages which had forgotten the value of rain (see: 'Standing the test of drought', Vol 8, No 16). They had enough water to drink; some had enough for irrigation, too. By April, as the effects of drought became more apparent, the media discovered what the Indian subcontinent has known and practised for millennia: that the only source of water is rain, and the monsoonal bounty has to be stored through apt means for use through the rest of the year. There was widespread acknowledgement of the fact that large water supply schemes of governments would never be able to solve India's water crisis by themselves. There had to be a paradigm shift in our management of water.

Two drought-hit states, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh (ap), came up with crash programmes that encouraged rural communities to build new water harvesting structures and revive old ones. The reason for these responses remains unclear; some say it is political, some say it is motivation from the civil society, some say it was the need of the hour. But the fact remains that

the Gujarat government launched the Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation Programme (sppwcp) in January 2000; and

the ap government launched the Neeru Meeru (Water and You) programme in May 2000.

No matter what their motive, the two state governments have to be congratulated for venturing into uncharted territory, into something essential that governments in independent India have consistently ignored. It becomes essential to assess the performance of these schemes. While it is certain that community-based water management, based on water harvesting, is essential to deal with drought, the future of this potential depends on how the Indian administrative establishment takes to it. If water harvesting falls victim to corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, India's future would be so much poorer.

To look into all these issues, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse), which actively promotes community-based water management and the seminal importance of water harvesting, sent two researchers from its Campaign to Make Water Everybody's Business. For about one month, they travelled to several parts of Gujarat and ap, visiting villages, panchayats (village councils), government departments, civil society groups, technical experts, research institutions, religious outfits, and what have you. Their experiences led to some conclusions.

In Gujarat's drought-prone Saurashtra and Kachchh regions, there were clear indicators that the government programme has made a significant difference. Despite the fact that the rains were very poor in the year 2000 monsoon, there are claims that water overflowed in more than three-fourths of the 10,500 check dams built under the government programme over the last few months. In several villages which have built check dams, the groundwater table had improved and dugwells have water. The Indian media -- at the regional as well as the national level -- reported quite a few success stories of villages which are confident about facing drought in the future. The fact that the media took note of these stories is itself a good indicator, because the Indian media, biased as it is towards urban centres, regularly ignores the problems and successes of our villages.

Not only did the Gujarat government learn from its past mistakes in water management, but it also learned from the successes of villages led by civil society groups. The sppwcp was formulated in a way that bureaucratic wrangling would be sidelined. The people responded with enthusiasm, submitting proposals for more than 25,000 check dams. This again proves that India's problem is its governments, not its people. Another factor worth noting is that the success rate of the programme was seen to be better where civil society groups were involved. This gave fewer opportunities of siphoning funds to corrupt government engineers and contractors. It also helped in mobilisation of villagers. But, apart from some cases of exceptional effort by villages on their own accord, the programme actually led to corruption in several places where civil society groups were not involved. So much so that the government resorted to withholding of funds in some cases, again revealing a willingness to learn from mistakes and rectify them.

AP was more of a disappointment. Although the Neeru Meeru programme was initiated only a few months ago and it is early days for judging its impact, the initial indicators do not bode well. While the programme covers several aspects of water harvesting, one of the major thrusts in the initial stages has been to desilt old tanks, which has been carried out in 3,348 villages. But the way the programme has been planned, has left a lot of room for contractors and engineers to exploit poor villagers. The programme does not encourage employment of the rural poor in desilting operations, relying on the machines and corruption of contractors. Some exceptional success stories apart, there are numerous allegations of corruption and nepotism. Let aside the opposition political parties, even neutral groups and technical experts are critical of the ruling Telugu Desam Party for using the community-based programme to build up its own cadres and political base, rather than finding a lasting solution to the water crisis. Several villagers complain of exploitation at the hands of local politicians, bureaucrats, government engineers and contractors.

In the following pages, we present two reports, one from each state, to assess which way these programmes are headed. It is crucial to do this at present, because the spectre of drought is looming large over several parts of western and central India after the monsoon failed the states again this year. The story of villages and governments that have made sound investments in water harvesting need to be publicised far and wide. Only after they get due credit and attention can their examples be replicated.

The lesson is clear. While harvesting rainwater is the right direction, the bureaucracy and petty politicking will ensure that instead of solving the water crisis, it becomes another excuse for mismanagement and corruption. This would be a real shame, because it might close the last door for a developing country like India to sustainably manage its water needs. It would be an even greater shame if it were to prove that Indians have little to hope for a better tommorrow.

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