It’s World Water Day, but here in Raipur, India, people are still decompressing from their festival of fire a few days ago. Holi was celebrated on Saturday night with bonfires under the full moon, depicting the burning of the evil sister who tried to kill her enlightened brother, according to the story. The next day was marked by drinking and smearing or throwing colored powder on friends and family, or sometimes strangers. That was Sunday, but nearly everyone took Monday off, and came to work only grudgingly today, Tuesday, mostly unaware the today is the international day of water. The memories of fire are still too strong.
Water, indeed, seems to be losing out to fire in modern India. Industries are slowly but surely extracting more and more water from rivers that would otherwise serve farmers, or maybe nature. However, the nature lobby is weak here, and industries rule, or would if not for India’s pesky Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, who takes his job seriously. The green political movement is not in evidence, however. The battle line is between farmers and industry, and the politicians are actively engaged in appeasing both. The losers, in this quest for votes (from farmers) or money (from industry) are the already stressed rivers who have silently served hundreds of generations of Indians but whose very existence is now threatened.
The priority here is improving the livelihoods of the poor. But how? In agriculture the standard response is to increase incomes by helping the farmers grow higher value crops, and market them to honest traders who will pay a fair price. That is the focus of the project I’m working on right now, the Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project (CIDP), funded by the Asian Development Bank. The project is building the capacity of large (ca. 1000 farmers) water user associations to help them take control of what are now government canals, and to market their crops collectively. The whole production systems starts with water that is retained in “tanks” (shallow reservoirs). Irrigation efficiencies are not great, but the wasted water infiltrates to the aquifer where it is either pumped out by other farmers, or flows to a river, perhaps to be diverted for industry. Yes, water is life, and it’s all related. That’s why water governance — the system of managing, planning, allocating, and protecting water — is so critical. Everyone’s interests are involved in one way or another.
Some of the members of the Crants Water User Association, Kawardha District, Chhattisgarh
The water user associations (WUAs) in Chhattisgarh were created, on paper at least, with the passage of the PIM Act in 2006 and elections the following year. The CIDP project is helping the WUAs through training programs and, for 70 lucky WUAs, personal help from community organizers. The hope is that the Water Resources Department, which now controls the irrigation canals, will be convinced to decentralize that control when they see that properly organized WUAs can do their own irrigation management.
Bilaspur Tank, Raigar Distrcit, Chhattisgarh: Bilspur Tank WUA president, Mr. Patel, cleans debris from the canal gate
The water user associations in Chhattisgarh are an expression of the social value of water. Opting for decentralized governance is a way to empower local communities, replacing the bureaucratic mode that India inhereted from the British. The lesson is not only that water governance reflects political values (e.g., democracy vs, tyranny) but that it actively reinforces those values. The social ethics of water use always confronts governments with choices. Do we want to encourage local self-reliance? Or dependence on the state? The rebellions in the Middle East suggest that the colonial concept of a rigid state bureaucracy is neither stable nor desirable. Change is coming, slowly perhaps, to water management in India.