An open letter to the Prime Minister

Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

Dear Prime Minister,

This is a year of severe drought in Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh - an area that is well known for natural disasters of this kind. During the last general elections, your home minister, fighting for a fresh term from this region, had to face evocative slogans like " Pehle Paani, Phir Advani ". Sadly, he had no answers.

You have been quite vocal about the importance of water. You had waxed eloquent about the importance of drinking water in Parliament when it had debated the National Democratic Alliance's ( nda 's) plan of action in 1998. You had pointed out, "Water can also catch fire. The problem of water is going to become even more complicated. The problem of water is not just limited to India. This has become a global problem. It is possible that the next major source of tension in the world will be water, not petrol. The pollution of water is increasing. The quantity of water is getting reduced. The water table is falling. We all see this in our constituencies. We feel disturbed by the problems people are facing. Sangmaji, we are not giving an assurance that we will do everything in five years. Only in the case of water, we would like to give this assurance, that in five years there should be clean drinking water everywhere. And this is our commitment."

Those were such wonderful words. And we were absolutely thrilled to hear them.

But despite all these pious pronouncements we have not heard anything from your government that makes us feel confident that you can actually deliver your promise. It is not as if efforts have not been made to improve water supply in the past. Neither is the problem one of lack of water from Mother Nature. The problem is the highly bureaucratised state-managed paradigm. Simply throwing more money on the same paradigm will not pay you any dividends except to raise false hopes.

If you want to solve this problem, we strongly suggest you should visit the villages described in this issue of Down To Earth as a pilgrim in search of solutions. We are sure this yatra will transform you. Just like Digvijay Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, whose visit to Ralegan Siddhi showed him how he can start transforming the ecological and economic landscape of his state which suffers from enormous land degradation and drought.

For those villagers who have learnt the value of the millennial Indian tradition of managing their own rainwater resources, even this drought has become manageable. Life has remained bearable. The need to flee has gone down. And people feel proud of what they have achieved. There is social and economic stability.

But you will be able to find an answer only if you stop listening to your bureaucracy and start searching for solutions yourself. Decentralisation of water management will mean loss of power. It will also mean a lot of loss of "pocket money", both for your political colleagues as well as for a lot of bureaucrats. You may be aware that the biggest cuts are made in construction activity. Therefore, you will have to take the lead yourself. And you will have to humbly tell the people of India that neither the vast state that you preside upon nor your political colleagues are capable of delivering water to the people in a sustainable and satisfactory manner. You will have to tell them that it is only they who can manage their water supply. And that all you will or can do is to help the people help themselves.

It was the centralised state of the Western world which first came to believe that it could take on the responsibility of supplying everyone with water. Which was totally different from our own millennia-old tradition. And, not surprisingly, when adopted by us, the paradigm has proved to be a disaster.

You will, therefore, have to promise that you will personally work hard to redefine the role of your water bureaucracy. Their job will no longer be to supply water. But as good public servants, their job will be to serve the people to help them manage their own water resources. And that, in other words, your government will start a people's movement to manage water. Thus, Making Water Everybody's Business.

If you do all this, Indians will never be short of water. And you would have delivered your promise.

Anil Agarwal
Editor , Down To Earth

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