Blind to Rain
With the spate of political support that the concept of rainwater
harvesting has received in recent weeks from Central ministers
and state chief ministers, the attack from pro-dam lobbies had
to come. The government of Gujarat appears to be especially
miffed as it had probably hoped that this drought would help
it to push through the Sardar Sarovar dam. Sadly for the Gujarat
government, in the entire political and media debate that has
taken place, the big dam issue did not figure centrestage and
the minister for water resources repeatedly had to say that
the Central government would give full support to construction
of big dams even as it would promote water harvesting programmes.
In an interview wth India Abroad News Service, Gujarats
major irrigation projects minister Jay Narayan Vyas claimed
that there is a hidden hand behind the current campaign
in favour of small dams and traditional system of water harvesting
because the so-called experts of water management and environmentalists
are keen to divert the attention of the nation from the Narmada
As the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has vociferously
campaigned for community-based water harvesting, I can assure
Vyas that cse definitely has a hidden hand and it
aims to make politicians like him understand that water management
is a complex issue, especially in a complex country like India,
and that they will run its poor people into the ground if they
dont stop becoming lakir ke fakir.
It is his intellectual poverty and water illiteracy which is
indeed appalling. Everybody knows that small dams alone do not
add up to the complex water management that India needs. And
I think I can even say this for the dozens of water harvesting
advocates, activists and practitioners from Gujarat itself whom
I have had an occasion to meet. But, equally, Vyas needs to
understand that big dams alone do not add up to water management.
And if that is all his government plans to do, then clearly
a large part of India and, particularly, Gujarats people
and lands will not get the benefit of the water that the country
is blessed with. These people and lands will continue to suffer
from declining surface and groundwater resources, and, ultimately,
in years when nature itself fails to bless us, as it did this
year, they will face an emergency situation.
Let me explain for the benefit of people like Vyas why this
is so. Firstly, no government water expert has ever claimed
that even after all the proposed dams are built and interlinking
of rivers takes place every piece of the countrys cultivated
land will get the benefit of canal irrigation. In fact, a very
large proportion of the countrys food production is already
beyond the ambit of modern surface irrigation systems. These
lands will have to depend either on groundwater or local water
harvesting. The two go together because heavy use of groundwater
can only be sustained if groundwater is recharged. Already,
in a normal year, groundwater contributes to more than half
of Indias agricultural production. In a drought year,
dependence on groundwater goes up even more. Therefore, its
contribution to agricultural production, too.
The second point follows from the first. Big dams can help to
create pockets of Green Revolution-style agricultural production
but they cannot drought-proof the country. As a
result they can create national food security, which
means a few districts generate a huge agricultural surplus which
is then used to feed the ones which are doing poorly especially
during drought years. But they cannot create local
food security, which means that all areas of the country have
water management strategies to ensure that local agriculture
is as productive as possible and stable even during water-short
years. On the other hand, water harvesting and groundwater together
can definitely drought-proof the country and create local food
security, which means Indias poor people and poor lands
do not have to suffer the ignominy they have had to this year.
Is Vyas trying to say India does not need strategies that also
support local food security?
There is a lot more that one can tell Sarvashri Vyas and company.
But let me respond to a technical comment he made. He wondered
during the interview how a series of micro-structures
like small tanks, check dams and traditional rainwater harvesting
could be helpful in the absence of regular, adequate and dependable
rainfall. It appears that Vyas has been briefed by extremely
incompetent people. He needs to speak to historians and water
experts to understand why micro-structures work precisely in
Firstly, Vyas should find out why is it that people living in
areas with low, irregular rainfall, like Rajasthan, Saurashtra
(in his own state), various parts of the Deccan Plateau and
Tamil Nadu, historically developed the strongest traditions
of water management through micro-structures. Secondly, he should
study what happens to rain when it falls on land. Will a big
dam with a one million-hectare catchment capture as much water
as one million micro-structures with one-hectare catchment each?
He will find that the big dam will capture not even half as
much. And in drought years the difference will be even greater.
Since Gujarat needs every drop of water it can get, micro-structures
suit it best.
for major irrigation projects needs to nderstand that
big dams alone do not add up to water management