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A new paradigm

Taming The Waters·Satyajit Singh·Oxford University Press·Price Rs 395

 
By M Zeyaul Haque
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The British built canals and d (Credit: Ganesh Pangare)the search for a post-colonial paradigm in areas ranging from economics to aesthetics and the struggle for a more just world economic and political order (less burdened with neo-colonial categories) are some of the defining features of the twilight years of the 20th century. The quest for an alternative model (vis--vis the colonial model) of water resource management is yet another facet of the larger quest for values, attitudes, development strategies and technologies appropriate to the actual needs of the people, rather than merely being of use to the ruling elite. The book is a bold attempt in that direction an attempt to delineate contours of an irrigation policy that is sustainable in the long run and independent of the colonial legacy.

The attempt is quite laudable because the present policies of irrigation a legacy from the Raj days are destroying the environment, hurting local people's health and well-being, and, in case of large dams, uprooting hundreds of thousands of poor, defenceless people.

The British dug canals, introduced tubewells and built dams (although not very large ones by modern standards) merely to earn revenue. The well-being of the people was the last thing on their minds. The result was that "a major chunk of the British investment was in the canal irrigation, a technology which led to both inequality in water distribution through the emergence of certain pro-perty rights, and ecological destruction, but which provided the colonisers with fat revenues".

Initially, there were reasonably good returns from the investment in canals for the British investors (in the form of irrigation revenue). But over a period of time, they failed to work, largely because the colonisers hardly had any experience in, or knowledge of locally deve-loped irrigation technologies that are appropriate to Indian conditions. Also, back in England, they did not have much agriculture that depended on irrigation.

The motive behind the British irrigation policies was profiteering for British investors, not the good of the indigenous people. That also explains the Britishers' emphasis on growing cash crops like indigo rather than staple like rice.

All this was being done in a land which already had a network of irrigation systems as far back as the Indus valley civilisation. As civili-sation and agricultural settlements spread to less fertile areas, cooperative effort was needed to develop larger irrigation works such as reservoirs and small canals. Irrigation developed with the peoples' needs and was hence adapted to the local social and ecological conditions. In the Raj scheme of things, the people were at the periphery and revenue was at the centre. No wonder, "Buckley, a proponent of this new irrigation technology, pointed out in the late 19th century that with the exception of the old repaired works, public irrigation schemes did not work."

After the disastrous experiment, the British started diverting new investments towards the development of railways, the latest profitable venture. The alienation of people from land and water resources also contributed to public disaffection with British rule. In the uprising of 1857, irrigation works were attacked by peasants in north India. Canal irrigation introduced by the British led to water logging and soil degradation. It also led to the spread of malaria throughout the canal-irrigated districts of the United Provinces (present day Uttar Pradesh) as far back as in the 1870s. These problems still remain, a legacy of the Raj.

The author compares two models of irrigation policy the traditional, which was people-centred and "environmentally-friendly", and the Raj model, which was revenue centred, formulated and designed by civil and military engineers of the Raj. The latter was different to the needs of the people and the environment. The author proposes a third model, rejecting the traditional as largely romantic and inadequate, and the Raj one as outright inimical to people and destructive of the environment.

He provides some idea of the magnitude of dislocation of tribals and peasants in the event of construction of large dams. The magnitude of the problem is staggering. How-ever, the alternative model that he suggests does have a number of positive aspects, such as giving people hydraulic property rights, implementing land reforms more consistently, and enlarging the scope for people's participation in framing and implementing irrigation policies. With the widening of democracy, the growth of ngos, and more importantly, the acceptance of environmental groups as legitimate participants in policy framing, the emergence of an appropriate irrigation policy is no longer impossible.

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