Seven decades of water woes

While large projects offered more bang for India's buck at the time of independence, the idea hasn't evolved over time affecting the sustainability of natural resources.
Described as 'the temple of resurgent India', Bhakra displaced many people. Described as 'the temple of resurgent India', Bhakra displaced many people.

In the early half of the last century, two people in love with each other worked in their own separate ways to create the India of their dreams. Venkapaiyya worked in the district court at Kasargod, Kerala eventually retiring a few years before India became independent and spent his days administering the laws of British India. Rukmini was a satyagrahi who marched for India's freedom from the “alien” laws that were established by the colonial government. I, their granddaughter, today examine if our country has achieved the dreams of people like Venkapaiyya and Rukmini who struggled for the country and the Constitution.

Venkapaiyya's world
When the British first came to India in the 17th century, India was a collection of large and small princely states with each one managing their own water and other resources through complex sets of negotiated settlements. The British sought to institutionalise these traditional practices.

The British did not invent canal irrigation in India; inundation canals were noticed and documented by the Greeks when they arrived in India, and then strengthened by the Mughals. Colonial changes to infrastructure were first in the form of repair of the existing canals and then the construction of new ones.

What the colonial canals did was to revolutionise the way irrigation was managed. The old, complicated and endlessly diverse systems of managing irrigation networks was superseded by a pan-India and centrally-managed system, which in turn led to the creation of a revenue system dependent almost entirely on land ownership. This has led to a general assumption, reinforced by books such as Dying Wisdom by the Centre for Science and Environment, that colonial irrigation management led to the state control of waters and eventually, to the decline of traditional water management.

Rohan D'souza, a scholar of environmental history and political economy, argues against this simplistic assessment of the state of water resources in India both before and during the colonial rule. He says, “These systems were capable of ‘overlapping’ with other hydrological regimes. That is, Rajasthan’s unique water harvesting systems, were overlaid by or coexisted (and not displaced) with new types of modern hydraulic technologies, introduced by the British.”

This is also true of Himachal Pradesh where the codification of existing irrigation practices by the then British administration led to Riwaj-i-Apbashi--a detailed account of the histories, ownership and management of more than 700 canals, locally known as kuhls. The Riwaj-i-Apbashi continues to be used to settle irrigation disputes today, a testament to the continuing relevance of these traditional irrigation systems.

The Upper Ganges Canal was built in 1854; it carries water from the Himalayan snowmelt, diverted into the canal by a dam and provides irrigation for the surrounding land.In the unirrigated grasslands of Punjab which were considered the “wastes of Punjab” by colonial authorities, however, the establishment of “canal colonies” and the aggressive promotion of irrigated agriculture devastated the lives of nomadic tribes who used these wastelands.

Incidentally, the Indian government still uses the term despite protests by environmentalists who point out that grasslands without forest cover are valuable and are diverse ecosystems in their own right.

The laws implemented by the colonial government thus focused on codification of existing laws and the development of infrastructure, both done largely with a view to increasing the revenue. These were the laws that Venkapaiyya strove to implement, the impacts of which are to be seen in our policies and our points of view today.

As Rohan D'souza argues in his paper on colonial hydrology, the British hydraulic interventions, whether in the form of irrigation networks or the Railways, effectually altered the natural drainage, realigned the nation's social, political and ecological relationships with land and water. Philippe Cullet and Joyeeta Gupta, who work on environmental law, state that colonial laws also set the stage for the government control over surface waters, notably in the Northern India Canal and Drainage Act (1873) which recognised the right of the government to “use and control for public purposes the water of all rivers and streams flowing in natural channels, and of all lakes”. Further, access to water was linked to land ownership with both riparian and groundwater rights given to landowners.

Rukmini's dreams
When Rukmini joined the freedom struggle in the early 1940s, it was to realise a vision of a land governed by those who had called it home for generations. It was a tax on salt, that essential household commodity, that inspired the young housewife to join the freedom fighters marching to the seashore.

This tax was a hardship for householders; it also represented the people’s lack of control over the use of the resources of their land. After independence, for millions of citizens, sovereignty meant being ruled by laws that manage the country's natural resources in a way that was attuned to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. It was against this background that India set out to manage its water and forest resources in 1950.

It was important for the new nation to assert her identity and capability. When India began strategising over how to manage the natural resources well, the debate around the “small and natural” versus the “large and powerful” took centrestage. As Shripad Dharmadhikary writes in his book, Unravelling Bhakra, the planning for the dam also coincided with questions being raised about its “real” cost. He says such projects were “capital intensive in a capital short economy and makes relatively far lesser use of the massive human resources”.

Writing about Bhakra Nangal shortly after it's construction, K.N. Raj, a contemporary economist, makes a similar comment,“The construction of the project calls to a large extent for resources which are relatively scarce in the economy, involving, by implication, higher social cost, and offers limited scope for the use of manpower which the economy has in greater abundance”.

Large dams and ensuing displacement are a major cause for the alienation of vulnerable communities. That criticism of large water management projects and of our overall development strategy remains true today. In 1949, the Kumarappa Committee, appointed by the All India Congress Committee to recommend agricultural reforms, had pointed out the efficacy of what they termed as the “intensive agricultural district programme”.

They recommended an array of options including a ceiling on land holdings, collective farming and providing work to the landless to be implemented in a focused manner in selected districts. Today, we know a variation of this as the “watershed approach”.

Despite the knowledge that they had, why did Indian politicians opt for a more expensive and risky approach? The reasons have more to do with the state of the nation at that time than with irrigation efficiency. Dharmadhikary says, “The focus then was on harnessing technology and science towards bringing modernity to India. Centralised programmes have a natural visibility. And they are actually easier to implement. It is convenient to focus interventions in one place rather than spread it out.” Simply put, large projects offered more bang for India's buck.

It may have been the logical choice then, but it is more difficult to understand why India continues to follow the same path today.

The challenges we face
Water remains contested even today. We see evidence of this in the increasingly polarised and confrontational engagements between communities and the government. The Conflicts Forum, a network of people working on water conflicts, argues that to manage water accurately, we must redefine how it is viewed and managed. The forum recommends that instead of considering water to be a commodity, we look upon it as a public trust, a resource that we are entrusted with safeguarding for future generations. This also demands the inclusion of the “reasonable use doctrine” as well as a recognition of the fundamental right to water.

Despite this, there have been several changes that offer hope to India's citizens. The first is, despite an overall lessening of avenues of public participation, some opening up of spaces for women to participate- a crucial first step if management of water resources needs to be devolved to those who are responsible for managing it at the household level. Seema Kulkarni, who studies the intersections between gender and access to water, acknowledges that "the policy initiative of introducing quotas for women in public spaces is welcome and necessary".

At the same time, she cautions that this is not sufficient in a society ridden by all kinds of discrimination. Dharmadhikary finds hope in the government's recognition of environmental flows, seeing in this a "recognition of some environmental concepts in governance". He says, “Some of the new environmental laws are significant. For example, there is a provision in the new Land Acquisition Act for consent from people whose land is being taken. This offers hope and some leverage to people”'

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