"Water harvesting here is nota technique, but a culture"

ANUPAM MISHRA'S association with the Gandhi Peace Foundation (GPF) dates back to 1969. After working with the late Jai Prakash Narayan and the Sarvodaya movement, Mishra involved himself in the Tawa agitation. The agitation had been occasiorned by the construction of a dam on the Tawa river in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh, in 1980. One of the agitation's outcomes was the Tawa Report, brought out in Hindi by the GPF- Mishra, author of titles like Surrender in the Valley of Terror and Dam on River Tawa, speaks to Sinchita V Bhattacharya on his latest book, Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde (The Silver Drops of Rajasthan)

Published: Friday 15 December 1995

What do you think are the salient features of your book, Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde? How does Rajasthan tackle its persistant water crisis?
Given the fact that Delhi itself was on the verge of the worst ever water crisis this summer, can anyone comprehend the plight of the residents of Rajasthan, where the maximum rainfall is no more than 11 cm. pet year? And yet, people of the state do not migrate or agitate in front of concerned officials.

Instead, they have evolved an unparalleled tradition of water collection, conservation and distribution. This is called the water harvesting technique... no, I will not call it a technique; it is a culture. There is no link with gadgets here; the link is spiritual, which is passed down from generation to generation. There is no institute which conducts any short-term course for this method.

How have you described the native skills in building kuian, kundi, tanka, talaiya and talab (various ways of water collection) in your book?
Rainwater is harvested in a variety of ways by the locals. Collection of the water which falls on roofs, in courtyards or in farms are minor ways of water harvesting. The. Rajasthanis know bow to harvest water, for a year and to keep it clean, which is not possible even in good quality modern tanks.

Another interesting aspect about Rajasthan is that even if the monsoon fails one year and there is a water crisis in the state, drinking water will still be available in some households. The state gazetteer documents that about 95 per cent villages have drinking water; the same cannot be said about Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh (mp), Gujarat, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The statistics may be the government's handi- work, but the work is not. All the work has been done by the people.

Have there been changes in the state on these fronts?
Pre-Independance Rajasthan consisted of 20-30 separate estates. After Independence, all the estates were merged to form a state. In the beginning, there were about 27 districts; today there are about 31. Districts which border Gujarat and mp (Kota, Bharatpur, etc) do not face much water problem. In Rajasthan, the areas facing shortage lie on the border with Pakistan.

If the government's policy of providing water by installing pipelines is properly investigated, it will be discovered that it has failed at many places due to lack of electricity, and most of the time the equipment is being operated by diesel. For instance, in Jaisalmar, a tubewell has been dug to provide water to a cluster of villages. Diesel is usually brought in a truck for the purpose. Sometimes the truck may not turn up or the diesel may not arrive on time at other times the person overseeing the job may absent himself from work. Although the government has said that water will be supplied twice a day, many villages do not receive eater for days on end.

How optimistic are you about the new concept of making water available using modern equipment - initiated by the government - to the people in Rajasthan?
I do not think this system can survive. We will have to revert to the old ways of water harvesting. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Why is the government ashamed of using a rich tradition which has been refined and developed over the years? Why does it consider it back ward? It should see this system as progressive and practical.

What are the various ways of harvesting rainwater?
The main idea in harvesting rainwater is to stop the water whereever it falls. The design and the structure of the system determine how it is done. If the water falls in the courtyard, it can be harvested in an underground tank, with the roof tank attached to it through pipes. The capacity would vary according to the size of the house.

Some modern gadgets are also attached, like installing a motor for lifting the water into the overhead tank. It may look like a municipality connection, but it is not. It has been ' observed that though many houses are served by the municipality supply, they haven't dore away with the traditional harvesting system.

There has been degeneration of some tanks because of lack of maintenance and due to installation of municipal tanks. In Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Barmer, these collection tanks can be seen between fields or villages.

Every part of the tank is specifically and properly defined and constructed. The architecture is developed scientifically, keeping in mind the length and the breadth of the tank which would ensure the storage of the exact amount of water that it can contain. This knowledge has been passed down from genera-tion to generation. It has not been written or recorded anywhere, still even the youngsters are aware of this system. Right from brahmins (paliwals) to scheduled castes (meghwals), all know about it. The pahwals, in fact, were considered experts in the field.

Did you encounter any major difficulties while carrying out your research for the book?
The most difficult thing that we confronted was the conceptualisation of kuian. Rajasthan draws water from mini wells, locally called kuian, throughout the year. Y-shaped wooden pegs on the barren, dry patches indicate the locations of these mini wells.

Without any formal training in hydrogeology, the Rajasthani people can ascertain the number of mini wells that can be dug in an area. These wells are different from the conventional wells because these are not dug till the groundwater level; instead, they are dug upto an impervious rock strata. People know that groundwater is invariably saline in the desert.
,br> These mini wells are a marvel of human ingenuity as they contain the moisture embedded in the sand with the help of the impervious rock layer. These wells can be seen most easily in Churu, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer districts because people know that the rock strata runs beneath the soil in these areas. The depth of each mini well might vary, but the Y-shaped peg is there to help people draw a maximum of three-four buckets of water egry evening.

Another amazing facet of this tradition is that even if one is aware of the presence of the rock strata, one may not be able to dig a mini well. Over the years, a distinct group of people have gained expertise in this function. These people are revered by society. Upon finishing their task, these artisans are loaded with gifts and ceremoniously seen off by the villagers.

Each mini well is anywhere between 50-150 metres, and there are thousands of such wells in Rajasthan. These kuyians are a combination of both private and common properties, depending upon the jurisdiction of the panchayat. The water that is extracted from these kuiyans is very clean and sweet. A lot of effort is put into maintaining these wells. In fact, rope coil protects the mini well walls from collapsing.

What about the groundwater level in the state?
Groundwater level is very low here. In fact in three districts, it is lower than 300 ft. It is quite difficult to construct kuians. The government, instead of doing something, has acquired all these kuians. If you go and stay in government circuit houses or guest houses, you will find that all the water taps are actually connected to the traditional kuian.

We should preserve and maintain these traditional systems, some of which are exquisitely designed. They can earn us dollars from tourism and provide water to many villages as well. Here again, the tradition is rich where groundwater is concerned.

The people of Rajasthan classify water into three ways: surface water, groundwater and the impervious belt (the water available in between). The name of the book is derived from the value or importance attached to water in Rajasthan; the people value it like drops of silver, hence the name Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde.

Water is sacred here. Even prostitutes have been involved in building ponds. It is said that when the ponds made by puritans dry up, the ponds made by prostitutes provide water to many...

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