To tackle TN’s water woes, revive local water bodies

Government must spell out district-wise policies for management of water bodies keeping not just farmers in mind, but the entire village community 

New Kulam in Ramanayakkanpalayam village in Erode district was created on land donated by farmers under a programme to revive local ponds

Recently, scarcity of water has become a major issue in Chennai city affecting everyone from common citizens to corporate companies. The situation has been the same for decades in big cities and villages of the state. Each year the state government announces a few temporary ‘packages’' for drought hit districts and compares its handout with the previous government’s package! 

This year too in March, the Government of Tamil Nadu announced that out of 32 districts, 24 districts would be drought hit, including Chennai city. Seventeen of these districts would be severely affected, it warned. But after the government had announced that water scarcity would be a big issue, but then did nothing to tackle the upcoming problem. 
Issues like water do not arise all of sudden. It gets accumulated over a period of time. Plus, this year was an election year and any plan to tackle the water scarcity monster most likely got buried under the weight of the general election. The only thing left to be done was putting the blame on deficient rainfall or the neighbouring states!

While all of this may seem endemic, clearly we cannot afford to let things go from worse to desperately worse. 

The question to ask of ourselves is what quantum of rainwater have we saved through the efforts of various stakeholders in the system, including the government, in all water bodies from tiny check dams to the big dams. 

It is an irony that there is a department to tell us how about the quantity of rainfall every year but no official mechanism to measure how much rainwater has been effectively saved and in what ways and how much was wasted due to factors, natural or manmade, or due to a lack of ideas and resources. Much research shows that every year Tamil Nadu has more rainfall on an average as compared to its neighbouring states but fails to save it in its water bodies which are in a bad shape. 

Vanishing water bodies 

Noble Prize winning Scientist CV Raman wrote in an essay on water, “The Elixir of Life” in which he says that “There is nothing which adds so much to the beauty of the countryside as water, be it just a little stream trickling over the rocks or a little pond by the wayside where the cattle quench their thirst of an evening. The rain-fed tanks that are so common in South India-alas often so sadly neglected in their maintenance-are a cheering sight when they are full. They are, of course, shallow, but this is less evident since the water is silt-laden and throws the light back, and the bottom does not therefore show up. These tanks play a vital role in South Indian agriculture. Some of these tanks are surprisingly large and it is a beautiful sight to see the sun rise or set over one of them.

Where have all those water bodies in Tamil Nadu disappeared which were cherished by the village community for centuries? Free electricity is not the only factor responsible for depleting groundwater in Tamil Nadu. It is decades of wrong practices coming to us from government policies which have destroyed every water body. This has happened through bad politics of elected representatives,  cartels of big farmers and powerful landlords, encroachments on the banks of water bodies. This had led to the creation of slums both in rural and urban areas for vote bank motives.

It is imperative to make concrete efforts to bring a sustainable antidote to the water scarcity in Tamil Nadu -- a state which had an abundance of water for everything from safe drinking to irrigation. If we examine the centuries-old water management system of Tamil Nadu,  we find that these are among the best water management systems built in the world. Although built centuries ago many still ponder how these water bodies were created and offered protection from the most severe droughts. Some of these are Kallanai Anaicut in Trichy, Kaalingarayan Canal in Bhavani-Erode, Uyyakondan Canal in Trichy and thousands of lakes. 

In the last thirty years, most of the water bodies have been neglected both by the government and the elected representatives. Moreover, farmers and the general public, who were more responsible for protecting water bodies in the past, are disconnected. Now in every village and city, all kinds of solid waste is dumped and waste water is let out into the water bodies causing groundwater, land and air pollution.

Before the Government entered into the business of water management, water bodies in every village were managed well by the local community. There was regular de-silting which ensured saving of rainwater and access to all for drinking and irrigation purposes. When the government entered, it should have institutionalised the process by involving the local government but it did not do fearing a vote bank loss.

The quest of solutions

It is worth noting that the state wants farmers to be its dependent forever. What is worse is that it wants not just farmers but all citizens to be dependent on it for water. What else can explain  the government’s refusal to address water management issues once and for all? There are reasonable case studies of decentralisation that indicate that it is possible with concrete efforts to revive all depleting water bodies in a matter of two years. 

But the quest for solutions sometimes borders on the fanciful.  Recently some  economists writing from foreign shores have argued, on the back of desk-bound research and sans practical knowledge about either the history or the present condition of the people, that India should institute a water exchange for farmers. But water is a natural resource and is most essential for basic living of all species. It is not an absolute tradable commodity belonging to any one community, village or city or the state to take ownership of it. What has happened in the past is very unfortunate. Conservation of water is a shared responsibility of all stakeholders such as the local community, government, corporates and many others. 

What we need is clarity in public policy both at the state and district administration level to revive degradation of water bodies. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments of 1992 were aimed at achieving the above aspects partly but failed utterly to gauge the reality of the third tier of democracy. Water is a matter of collective responsibility of the local community which is now fragmented on social, political and economic factors.

There are a number of experiments involving local communities as a means to  revive depleting water bodies all over India which show how we can work towards better access to water for all. The state has to lend its only support by way of formulating a clear policy in order to engage local community to revive degraded of water bodies.

Between 2016-2018 one such community-led experiment was done in and around  Erode city in Tamil Nadu, where in a short span of three years, more than 34 water bodies were revived by de-silting, deepening and widening to increase the water storage capacity by five folds on an average. All 34 water bodies put together cover about 134 acres spread across the several blocks in Erode district. The Hindu on October 26, 2018 in Erode City noted that “...while the water storage capacity before de-silting, widening and deepening was 56 crore litres, the storage improved to 262 crore litres after the work.” Farmers and the general public in and around of the 34 water bodies were all happy that they could witness a substantial rise of the water table in their bore-wells and wells even this summer.

Further, the government has not constructed any new check dams for years now in the district. The local community has constructed two check dams which have saved several crores of water by recharging the groundwater. This, in turn, helps several villages nearby for agriculture and allied activities.

Therefore, the government has to spell out district-wise policies for management of water bodies keeping not just farmers in mind, but the entire village community. Their roles and responsibilities towards taking up initiatives to protect and maintain these commons -- with funds from various stakeholders -- must be clearly laid out. The policy should have adequate checks and balances with transparency and accountability to village institutions like panchayats with tie-ups with well intentioned NGOs working with the objective of contributing to water management. 

(B Chandrasekaran works in public policy)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Comments (+)