“By 2050, India may have to import its drinking water” read the headlines of most major national newspapers around mid-April. Such news, in the time of an extreme drought is especially disturbing. A conclusion like this must make us recoil in horror and make us question where we as a country are going wrong. For a nation of people that worships our rivers as goddesses, and take pride in deriving our identity from the land of the Sapta-Sindhu, it seems modern India has scant regard for water.
For a country that is largely dependent on the rains, where even the stock market rallies upwards on a mere prediction of a good monsoon, there are very few local level initiatives undertaken to conserve water. While it has used huge dam projects to project an image of modernity, our ingenious ways of conserving water seem to be lost in our walk towards development.
Irrigation projects are often opportunities for corruption, while water from mega dams travel hundreds of kilometres away to quench the thirst of cities, it is increasingly clear that the solution to deal with water is not in centralising and bureaucratizing it. It needs to be understood that mega-dams or river linking projects have resulted in only two things – providing a profit making opportunity to the people involved, and in creating political fissures around water. There are ample examples for both – ranging from the 70,000crore Maharashtra irrigation scam or the politicisation of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Although unintended, mega projects have produced more headaches than they might have solved.
The time now is to flip this approach. In keeping with the PM’s vision of maximum governance-minimum government, we believe that it is essential to let water conservation project be at the local scale. Instead of pushing 3-4 mega project that are promised to be the messiahs in solving our water crisis, it is essential we push for hundreds of local water conservation projects throughout the country that can be undertaken by the local government directly.
Considering the diversity in the physical and socio-economic landscape throughout the country, let the local gram panchayat- at the rural level and the area sabha or mohalla committee at the urban level take the lead in conserving water. This can be aided by the central and state governments in terms of financial and technical assistance, but it is essential that the conceptualisation of the project be done at the local level, by the local residents and for the locals. Just the way net metering as a concept is applied for to promote generation of electricity, a similar mechanism can be devised to audit the sharing of water. Self-sufficiency of water being the aim, the modalities can be worked out such that only the deficit is supplied by the government. In case of excess, they can be shared into a larger water network grid.
This would have multiple impacts – the onus of water conservation falls on the people themselves, the responsibility of providing the infrastructure lies with the local body, and a reduction in demand for transporting water over long distances, thus reducing leakages and wastage. The result of this would be emergence of more such water-men of India like Rajendra Singh of Rajasthan, diversity of water harvesting-storing-conserving and recycling initiatives suiting the modern times, much like our indigenous baoris, stepwells and jhalras.