Do you know, if you see turtles hanging around a river, it’s a sure sign that the river is living?
Do you know that rivers retain their surface levels drawing from the groundwater?
‘Can we ask the government to levy a small tax on the sale of bathtubs in this country? If nothing, it will force people to think about how much water they are using without bothering where it is coming from!’
The last suggestion came from Vikram Singh, a Member of Legislative Assembly from Fatehpur Cantt constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Many such riveting and revealing insights surfaced during a daylong meeting on water that I recently attended in Lucknow. It was ‘State-level Jal Chaupal in Uttar Pradesh’, an initiative to bring together activists working on water, community members, people from relevant government departments, think tanks and academia, and even religious saints, to deliberate on how to plan around water needs and thus ensure community ownership.
The word Chaupal has traditionally been used in north India as a space for rural communities for collective thinking and action.
The State Level Jal Chaupal was also a platform to share the learnings of a multi-country (Nepal, India, and Bangladesh) project, around the Ganga river basin, through this model. In India, the project focused on three Gram Panchayats, each of two adjoining districts of Kanpur and Fatehpur.
Barely a year old, the project focuses upon – (i) looking at water through a gender lens, (ii) climate change and its impact, and (iii) water budgeting at the community level.
The locations of the project face a deepening crisis with rapid decline (of up to 60-80 feet) of groundwater, and borewells chasing them deeper and deeper.
Savita, a local community leader revealed that women spent as much as 2 to 3 hours every day to fetch water, while the men were silent watchers for such a physically and mentally exhausting task. The process forced men and boys to acknowledge their responsibility of sharing the burden of fetching water alongside women.
The collective process also began to generate an understanding around the linkages between loss of groundwater and drying rivers, and the fact that rivers are not perennial but they depend much on the groundwater itself to maintain their flow levels. This demanded a collective decision-making around different water needs for different purposes, initiating a process of water budgeting, considering all available water sources – surface water, groundwater and water from above, i.e. rainwater.
Interestingly, the women have launched a campaign around rainwater harvesting with the slogan ‘Har Ghar Akash Ganga’, clumsily translated as ‘Ganga from the sky in each home’. However, the need for a larger systemic change was also realised, as the women could see that only a few households effort would not ensure large-scale water conservation at the community level.
Vikram Singh, the participating MLA, referred to Article 243 G of 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (enacted more than 20 years ago) which has mentioned that states ‘may’ transfer 29 services to the panchayats ensuring true devolution of power to the local governments in sync with the amendment. However, only Kerala and Himachal Pradesh had done this in the past and were witnessing far-reaching consequences in terms of local planning and empowerment of the people. Alas, Uttar Pradesh had transferred only 16 of the services, and that too feebly.
During extensive discussions on the dying rivers, people from varied walks of life talked about their ongoing engagement with the issue.
A religious saint, Swami Vigyananada Saraswati from Fatehpur, talked about how the district (comprising nine blocks) has five rivers flowing throughout the year, and yet it falls under the ‘dark zone’ in terms of water availability. While Ganga is unable to revitalise groundwater within 100 feet of its vicinity, Yamuna is only able to do it partially, that is when the river is flooded. The place has a peculiar topography that doesn’t allow land to be recharged (perhaps a question demanding more in-depth research itself).
He also went on to recall how in his childhood days, there used to be 2 more rivers called Sasur Khaderi rivers no. 1 and 2, which had dried long ago. His was a story of several padyatras (literally, travelling on feet) along the dried beds of the rivers; meeting people, trying to convince them about the need to revive these rivers and allaying their fears around potential loss of their agricultural lands. Reaching out to senior officials from the district to the state (from the pillar to the post), he assured them that if they gave permission for the work, he would find labourers to work under MGNREGA, the employment guarantee programme. It took 6-7 years and several rounds of negotiations and work when it all began. Within a day, according to him, 9300 labourers were mobilised to work on the project. Today, river no.1 is revived with perennial water flowing through it. The effort won not just him, but the district officials several national awards.
In the process, he also raised some serious thinking about our state dependent patterns of development where autonomous, self-empowered spaces for people have gradually disappeared which helped retain a resilience in traditional societies. Of course, we would also need to ask questions about why these traditional spaces disappeared in the first place and why questions around inequalities and gender need to be asked with a stronger emphasis.
Another story around rivers came from Dr. Venkatesh Dutta from Ambedkar University, Lucknow who did his own researches around river Gomti, very often undertaking his own padyatras. His travels along the river brought forth 5 points around river cultures:
The presence of the turtles is a sign of security of the river and their absence leads to… you guessed it right!
According to him, 55km of the river has already died, and to top it all the state undertook a glamorous project of creating a riverfront, a picnic spot for the citizens of Lucknow. Through several pictures of the riverfront in the making, he argued that there is a problem of hierarchy in our knowledge system where engineers take precedence over the locals and those who have worked around the rivers. By depositing earth from the outside, we forgot that rivers need breathing space and thereby, choked it. According to him, we concretise the river banks, thereby obstructing the natural way of storage of water underneath; by bringing perennial water inside, we forget that there is a natural pattern to rivers where lean flow during summers allows vegetation and breeding of species.
His final point: rivers make their own natural fronts; we need not re-draw them.
There was an interesting presentation by Sanjay from Parmarth, who is a part of the Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan, which began in 2013 and has now reached 22 states covering up to 101 river basins on the issue of river safety and rejuvenation. In a recent event at Bijapur in Karnataka, over 22,000 people participated, wherein they spent three days deliberating over these issues, thus underlining the crucial point of how the issue of drinking water is linked with the larger issues of water safety, and this, in turn, needs a larger societal churning.
Of course, there was government representation too. A senior official, while acknowledging the challenges, emphasised on the need to look at government’s efforts and the challenges lying before it. The fact that the state alone had 52,000 Gram Panchayats with very limited funds to work with needed to be considered. She made a further point about how most of these funds are disbursed downstream and we need to put bottom-up pressure towards their proper utilisation, something other speakers also referred to earlier.
All this rich discussion brings forth three key takeaways for me: (i) How do we integrate vital learnings from such a brief project in all our ongoing programmes, especially around community led, gender sensitive water planning; (ii) How do we do a larger systems thinking around conservation, revival and rejuvenation of our water bodies including rivers which are led by people and not by planners sitting alone; and (iii) How do we continue building on this larger space where people from different worlds get to meet and deliberate on common concerns, like water? This is the democratisation process, which will certainly lead to many more changes than we have seen in the short life of a project so far.
Avinash Kumar is Director – Programme and Policy at WaterAid India. He Tweets as @Avinashkoomar