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Modern gods are failing

January 20, 2004 11:17 IST

I attended a jan sunwai (peoples' court) on the issue of water, convened by the National Federation of Indian Women. Women came from over 15 states to report on the state of water in their region.

There was distress in their voices and in what they recounted. Water was scarce, and increasingly polluted. Many wells had fluoride. Many had dried up. The government had promised to build pipelines and tanks.

But if they were built, they turned dry. Otherwise, the plans just remained on paper. Women suffered. They walked long distances for water, to draw from wells and handpumps that were not theirs.

It was their task to carefully manage with little water to cook, clean and drink. They talked about children who missed school because they had to collect water. They spoke of disease, and of their failed and futile attempts to secure water from government files.

This cannot and should not be. But if we have to work towards water -- clean water -- for all, then we also have to accept that we don't have the answers as yet. The way of the present is to build pipedreams. Take the government's accelerated rural water supply programme.

It has spent under Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion) in the past five years, with Rs 1,700 crore (Rs 17 billion) allocated for the current year. But, in all, only about 30 per cent of the villages targeted for this fiscal have been covered under the programme. And this is only one small part of the story.

The bigger problem is that the so-called "covered" village finds soon enough that either its water source has dried up, its pipeline has broken, its handpump is not working or its water is also polluted.

The result is that the number of "problem villages" -- those without a source of water in their vicinity -- does not go down but up. The mathematics in this case is: 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages is still 200,000 problem villages. No wonder water remains a terrible want.

Therefore, we will have to find new ways. We will have to revive old methods of holding and storing water in each habitation to build and recharge the groundwater reserves. As we keep stressing, as little as 100 millimetres of rainfall caught over just one hectare of land, would harvest 1 million litres of water. The women reminded me of this.

Even as they spoke of water destitution, they confirmed that they were rich in rain. More importantly, they were rich in the land to hold the rain. But they pointed out that the land did not belong to them -- it was government property, forest or revenue land. They also did not have the wherewithal to hold the rain -- tanks, ponds, dams and other structures and devices. So even as the rain god failed them now and again, modern gods were failing them all the time.

But if we have some answers, we are equally clueless about others. At this meeting, women also talked about new investments in water. They spoke about the dam being built upstream of their village. Of the new scheme sanctioned for their irrigation tank. Schemes meant not for them, but for the city, for the people living there.

This struck me again when I visited the Jaisamand lake in Rajasthan. The high court wanted to know if a particular resort should be built on this fabulous and ancient water body. I knew the pollution challenges. But I found a much bigger challenge was the survival of the lake itself. The city of Udaipur is its neighbour. It has an acute water shortage.

Bringing a pipeline from this lake to the parched city, 50 km away, was the promise that won many elections. It has cost money. It stills costs -- Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) a month in just electricity bills. But the city is a powerful electorate. In the name of the poor, it does not pay for this cost. In the meantime, the lake has been sucked dry. Now Udaipur planners are running around to find new lakes and build new dams for the city.

But why talk only of Udaipur? Delhi is going to get its water from the Tehri dam, a cost its citizens will certainly never pay. New politicians in Bhopal are promising the waters of Narmada to the city. The list goes on and on.

We will have to reinvent answers for these powerful enclaves. Cities use water and they also discharge waste. The waste pollutes the water bodies. Can there be answers here? Can Delhi think of treating its water to make it usable again?

Can it leapfrog in terms of technology and go from partial sewage treatment to full treatment so that it makes water again? This water can then be used to fill its rivers and lakes, so that it can recharge the groundwater for the city once again.

There will be challenges in doing this: challenges of technology, of affordability, of possible contamination. But solutions exist in the problems. We only have to look and experiment.

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Sunita Narain