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Respect Neer Nadi and Naari Rajendra Singh

In a candid interview with BK Jha the Waterman of India says the governments and people should respect Neer water Naari nature and Nadi river Excerpt

Rajendra Singh
The Waterman of India
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We are facing a severe water crisis in the country. How do you think this crisis can be resolved?

We are facing a severe water crisis and moving towards a major catastrophe within decades – if we do not learn how to better take care of water. We have plenty of rains in the country. Water harvesting and conservation should be combined with better management and disciplined use of water. Water crisis can not be resolved by lip services. We need to work hard for this. Once upon a time, India was global leader in water conservation and efficient use of it. Neer, Naari and Nadi need to be respected by the government and people. The present NDA government claims to be conservator of our old traditions and culture, unfortunately the claim is not reflected in their policies and deeds. It is pity that the Union Environment Minister informs Parliament that the government would allow those companies to start functioning which were closed by the previous UPA government on environmental issues. What could be more shameful! It is prime duty of the government to save and conserve water with people’s participation. But the government does not appear very serious about this. Instead working against its prime responsibilities. The government wants to commercialise water resources. Privatisation is also its main agenda. If water becomes a market product, it would be very disastrous for us.

Why do we lack a proper national river policy or water policy? Do you think the NDA government is serious about the river linking project?

In the past, civilisations have vanished because of the mismanagement of water resources. Therefore, introspection and urgent action on a river policy is imperative for the future of the country. Recently, in an undertaking given to the Supreme Court, the central government has claimed that it will clean Ganga by 2020. The single biggest threat to the existence of the rivers, namely big dams and hydropower projects with canal diversions, is neither a part of the river governance, nor a part of any policy or programme for sustainable existence of the rivers. The Centre is not very serious about proper and comprehensive water and river policies. Even the so-called river linking project appears to serve the purpose of industries, urban populace and to feed water to ‘smart cities.’

Why have governments failed in bringing a comprehensive policy?

Pre‐ and post India’s independence, there is a complete absence of any policy, law, institution or governance framework related to the rivers of India. Our government has shown no faith in democracy and development. This has led to a dispute over water whether at district, state or national levels and has only deepened the crisis. Disagreements among states and government have been a known phenomenon all over India. This is why the development of a National River Policy becomes more important than ever.

What are your recommendations?

As a part of a governance system, governments are the primary party for development of river policy, however, as users, all human beings and citizens have equal responsibilities and therefore, should also participate in the governance of rivers. The National River Policy should ensure that the rivers can be rejuvenated through participation of communities at all levels. Participation at grassroots level like the gram sabhas, local community, districts and panchayats can play a crucial role in this process. Culturally and spiritually the rivers play an important role, therefore, the religious leaders should also be assigned a role in maintaining the purity of rivers. Privatisation of rivers and water resources should not be permitted. It is possible only if all the water resources in the country are declared as common pool resources and water markets are banned. The National River Policy should call for allocation of more funds for this activity.

Agriculture sector requires plenty of water. How could we deal with this situation?

It is the government that must guide farmers to ensure that crops grown are suited to the semi-arid rainfed farming pattern. We have different agro-climatic zones. The government must bear in mind the relationship between rain and crop pattern. It must follow the agro-ecological conditions of the area. Any bulk extraction of groundwater does not bode well for the farming community.

Irrigation is the lifeline of agriculture. Earlier farmers used to sit and discuss rain patterns in the month of Jeth (June) and then decide about the crops. Now we have an accurate prediction about rains and that can help to decide about the crops depending on rain pattern. The rains should decide the crop pattern. Secondly, soil strength should also be taken into consideration. If soil is dark and not very strong then crop with deep roots should be sown. Thirdly, I strongly recommend that our marketing system with regard to agri business needs to be changed and in our Public Distribution System (PDS) those crops which consume less water should be given more value.

What could be done at the policy level for agri sector?

The policy should be such that the future water demand of the agricultural sector can be met without further investment in the new structures and significant amount of water saving is possible in canal and on-farm water management through institutional reforms and adoption of water saving technology by farmers.

Do you think low level of awareness and lack of people’s participation are responsible for the plight?

Awareness is the key. Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) principles are to be adopted in the management of all water resources in the country through people’s participation. People should be the owner and manager of water resources. It will require mass water awareness campaigns in the country followed by capacity building programmes at all levels. Governance of rivers should be completely transparent and participatory and managed by people by constituting an organisation called River Parliament. The logistics for formulation of this River Parliament can be organised for every 10 km distance of a river, and these Parliaments should have power of a local governance committee. There should be at least 50 percent members’ representation from the local communities. The committee should have legal powers to monitor the river and take corrective measures/orders as per the requirement to maintain the quality and flow in the river.

Finally, at River Basin level there will be an apex body namely River Basin Governance
Committee comprising of members nominated from local governance committees to form a River Parliament. State should consult the local committee and the River Parliament in planning any development or intervention in the river. Balance has to be maintained between surface and groundwater, use in all the river basins to check the
alarming status of groundwater across the country.

How could we make people more sensitive towards water?

The need of hour is to learn from the past and develop a new model that can safeguard the health of all the natural resources and ensure equity in access to them by all section of the society i.e., dalits, adivasis and other marginalised groups. People, educational institutions, cultural groups and religious institutions should be motivated to feel their responsibility in conserving and protecting the natural resources and reestablish the value system related to the use of natural resources, in the new generation.

Since Independence we have GDP or economic outputs in limited sectors that are planned at the cost of the health of the rivers. There is need to shift from the existing development planning model to a resource‐centered planning model. Water being the life, plans and policies should be water centric so that the future generations will have sustainable use.

What about use of technologies?

We can use of remote sensing technique in mapping of river basins and identification of existing water bodies and water harnessing structures. There is debate on the excess number on anicuts constructed under different rural development programmes, i.e. Watershed Development, MGNREGA, by NGOs under different projects, and encroachments in the catchment areas of water bodies responsible for reduction of flow in rivers and dams. Remote sensing technique can help in addressing the issue and plan for optimum number and at appropriate places. Even this issue can be taken care if traditional knowledge and participation of people is sought in IWRM planning. Prepare a surface and groundwater balance report and identify interventions to augment water flow in the rivulets to rivers.

Rural drinking water is a major challenge. What are the solutions?

The rural drinking water problems are mostly in the rainfed semiarid and arid parts of the country where the source is mostly groundwater or small surface water harnessing structures; therefore, rivers have very little direct role. It is the energy and pumping technology responsible for drinking water crisis in these areas. The solution lies in better understanding of the traditional knowledge systems and using complimentary appropriate technologies, especially where the quality of water is a problem. Many NGOs in different parts of the country have shown the strength of this argument in the effort to create access to clean drinking water. River linking may not be the first option to address these problems. We need to initiate water auditing and budgeting at all levels staring from village to river basin and plan for surface and groundwater augmentation and usage with one of the objectives as drinking water security to all.

How do you preserve water bodies? Thousands of villages of Alwar district in Rajasthan have benefited from your efforts. Are you impressed with any other states with regard to water conservation and use?

Our methods are very simple and we combine traditional wisdom with modern techniques. Our methods also prevent floods, restored soil and rivers, and brought back wildlife. Techniques of rainwater harvesting are not very cheap and simple. In Rajasthan, people themselves have done good works to conserve water by erecting and restructuring anicuts, check dams, taals and other water bodies. In Alwar, by our own efforts and energy, we brought social resilience and capacity to solve local water problems through participatory action, empowerment of women, linking indigenous know-how with modern scientific and technical approaches and upending traditional patterns of development and resource use. We started with one villages in Alwar district and now with the help of people 1,200 villages erected more than 11,000 anitcuts, check dams and other water bodies.
Our methods and techniques can be easily followed nationwide. It involves building low-level banks of earth to hold back the flow of water in the wet season and allow water to seep into the ground for future use. In dry seasons, crop pattern should be changed and those crops which use less water should be encouraged. Telangana and Madhya Pradesh have also made some progress regarding crop pattern based on rain-cycles.

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