Successive droughts causing a revival of traditional water management techniques in few Indian states…

No matter how much we boast about building Modern or global or smart cities, the traditional techniques were far superior on these basic public services.  Water was one of them. There was a broad sense amidst most people that water is a scarce essential good and it needs to be preserved at all costs. Ypu go around most old cities of India and you see this aspect of water conservation deeply ingrained.

Thanks to this modernism nonsense we have just lost the sense of importance of water. As all things can be brought under the sun as long as you have money, same thinking has gone to water as well. Back then people always feared droughts and now we think of it just as an exception. But then these things strike you hard once things don’t go as per plan.

The two years of successive droughts have led some states to wake up to reality. They have gone back to traditional ideas:

it has taken two consecutive droughts of 2014-15 and 2015-16 for governments and bureaucracies to take note of the obvious. Starting end 2014, some state governments have tapped into this innate, communal knowledge of water management for creating simple, but lasting local solutions, which do not require large capital expenditure repeatedly. Three states which stand out in their efforts in recent times are Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand.

Maharashtra launched the Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan (literally water filled fields) in December 2014. The target then was to cover a modest 5000 villages in the state with focus on restoration, repair, rejuvenation and construction of local water bodies in rural areas. The government also aimed to link these water bodies to nearby rivers, with a plan to dredge the rivers allowing a continuous, uninterrupted flow of water for local irrigation requirements. This program was further given an “on demand” makeover in the 2016-17 state government budget, where farmers can request state government to carry out farm works on their fields or get refunds for the investments they had made locally. The state government also engaged private donors, corporate and religious institutions to contribute capital and labour to the program. The results have been very positive with the 2016-17 monsoons holding up well thus far. Rivers which were virtually extinct are flowing in all their glory providing localised succour. Farm fields have stored water for winter and summer months and citizens are actively engaged in securing their future.

Rajasthan launched a Mukhyamantri Jal Swavalamban Abhiyaan (literally Chief Minister Water Self Reliance Program) in last quarter of 2015 after dismal rains. The objectives of this program roughly mirror the ones of the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan. This program started with creating village clusters put in charge of specific teams of state government officials. These teams were asked to conduct ground surveys in the villages they owned and to prepare specific village and cluster level plans. The detailed plans produced for each cluster are immensely useful in understanding end of end perspective of farming operations in the concerned region. The teams made various detailed recommendations in areas including crop patterns, farm credit, financial requirements, and on local water body needs. Based on these narrowed down, customised reports, the governments started implementing water storage and water body linkage initiatives. Like Maharashtra, the ground reports after the first good monsoon have been encouraging. The government had put additional focus on reviving ancient water bodies which were hitherto lying in dilapidated conditions like baoris and step wells.

 Jharkhand government decided to use the funds granted for the MGNREGA program to create permanent water assets in the rural regions. Before the onset of the 2016 monsoon, Jharkhand has managed to create more than 1,00,000 water bodies across the state. These water bodies are expected to irrigate about 50,000 acres of land under cultivation. With additional water availability, the government is now focusing on redirecting cropping patterns to include high value produce like mangoes and promoting businesses like fisheries,
The efforts of these state governments to revive time-honoured tradition of water management are commendable. Rather than dismissing the traditional wisdom using political binaries defined through tinted lenses, other states should also learn from these experiments. These programs are useful public policy archetypes – engaged and empowered citizens, corporate and individual donor participation, low capital expenditure, minimal operational expenditure with community management focus, good rate of program scalability, and demonstrable near term returns. The efficacy of these solutions makes for ideal marriage of good economics and good politics. Hopefully other states will learn from these successes and put their own skin in the game with quantified targets around increasing land under irrigation.

Actually more than state getting into this act, people should realise importance of water conservation. State will always react in a crisis and will just be all over the place. We don’t know and may be the above programs could have their own unintended consequences. The intent is right but this is how most govt programs eventually work out.

Water should be one of  our top priorities..


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