I’m just back from a month in India, whose sacred rivers are diverted and polluted, and where once idylic village ponds ooze with garbage and human waste. So much for cultural values supporting sustainable water management! The sacred Yamuna River which (sometimes) runs through Delhi is a skeleton of its former self. The river, famed as the goddess of love, has been utterly abused by the humans who once, and indeed still, worship her. With devotees like these, who needs enemies?
A workshop on the crisis of the Yamuna, organized by Yale University’s “Forum on Religion and Ecology” was held at Delhi’s TERI University Jan 3-5 to address the issues, and specifically how religious values might be able to inspire restoration efforts. A meeting in the holy city of Vrindavan the day after the workshop is reported here, and provides a nice summary of the issues.
I was in India for other reasons (see below) and did not attend the Yamuna workshop, but it nonetheless helped frame my thinking about water and development in India. I had three agenda items for my visit: (1) attending a conference in Hyderabad (South-Central India) of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (click here for the IASC Facebook page), where I presented a paper on The Role of Cultural Values in Sustaining Water Resources, (2) a consulting assignment in Raipur (Eastern-Central India) to evaluate part of the ADB-financed Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project, and (3) a long-overdue return visit to the two villages on the border of Rajasthan and Haryana (Northwestern India) where I conducted my PhD research long ago.
Through these three different contexts of research conference, development project and social visit, I brought the same question: How does the Hindu reverence for rivers and other water bodies play out in actual water management practice?
What I found was disconserting. In cities, towns, and roadside villages just about every pond, lake, or river was visibly polluted.
In the booming state capital of Raipur, trash combined with wastewater looks provides a perfect breeding ground for diseases as well as mosquitos. Whether this is a sanitation or water problem is not an interesting question to me; what is more interesting is how a religion that is fundamentally nature-worshiping can be so callous to water and land pollution.
In rural areas, however, the story is different. The irrigation reservoirs (tanks, in local parlance) which I visited in Chhattisgarh were well cared for by the state Water Resources Department and the local villagers who depend on the tanks for irrigation water, as well as bathing and fishing.
Why are some ponds filled with trash while others are well maintained? The answer lies more in organizational incentives than cultural values. Both the local community and the state water agency have clear responsibilities for the irrigation tanks and the villagers have strong economic incentives to keep the water clean enough so they can use it. The people with the most to gain or lose also have the organizational capacity to set rules for keeping the tanks in good working order. In fact, one of goals of the Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project is to build local capacity of water user associations so they can take over the technical management of reservoir releases. The rationale is that water management will improve if the people directly affected are given the responsibility
Small ponds which once served as the primary source of village drinking water, however, have fallen into neglect because drinking water projects have provided the villagers with new and safer water sources. The ponds are still used for animals, and sometimes for bathing, but there is less incentive to keep them clean. Large rivers like the Yamuna suffer from a different problem. Millions of people have a strong interest in a clean river that can be used for bathing, laundry, fishing, and religious rituals, but organizing everyone (including the cities and industries that use and pollute the river) is too overwhelming. The result is a free-for-all “tragedy of the commons.”
Is there a common governance solution to the tragedy of polluted ponds and dead rivers? The focus of the IASC conference in Hyderabad was on governing commons such as fisheries, pastures, water, and rivers. Elinor Ostrom, cofounder of the association and 2009 Nobel laureate for her pioneering research into the commons, delivered the keynote address, giving an overview of why active management of common resources is so important, and how to structure effective governance arrangements. The implication for big water ecosystems like the Yamuna River is that investing in governance is at least as important as investing in engineering infrastructure. Small village ponds should be far easier to manage, since local institutions such as panchayats are already in place.
The degraded state of local village ponds suggests that governance shortcomings is a symptom of deeper values. Only if the health of the pond or river is seen as a big enough priority will stakeholders be interested in looking for governance solutions. Water supply schemes that bring clean water to rural villages are undoubtedly needed, but not at the cost of undermining traditional water managment and creating new health problems. Click here for a summary of the report, Dying Wisdom, by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, which disucsses these issues.
New village water systems, such as the one depicted here from Janania village in northern Rajasthan, can complement traditional ponds by providing clean, safe drinking water, without displacing the older ponds that can continue to provide benefits for people, animals, and groundwater. Larger urban tanks can serve recreational functions while providing floodwater storage, aquaculture, and recharge. In Hyderabad, the city’s ancient tanks provide recreation opportunities both day and night.
Restoring health to the Yamuna River, while a much bigger task, also needs to start from a similar shift in values. A living Yamuna River is good for both the River Goddess and the river people. Models of competition and conquest over nature, need to give way to traditional values of synergies between people’s needs and the river’s well-being Managing the sacred waters of modern India is a serious and sacred challenge that demands creative responses from both engineers and philosophers.