It was a meeting with an amazing lesson. The subject was rainwater harvesting. But the
message was one on governance. And a truly stark one. If only India could learn from it.
Since the release of its book Dying Wisdom: The
Rise, Fall and Potential of Traditional Rainwater Harvesting Systems in 1997, the
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has been advocating the importance of rainwater
harvesting. Simply because its potential is enormous. A mere 100 mm of rainfall when
captured on one hectare of land gives as much as one million litres of water. Therefore, there
is no village in India, I repeat, no village, which cannot meet its drinking water and a
reasonable part of its irrigation needs through rainwater harvesting. And the same
goes for airports, railway stations, cantonments, industries with large estates, and a
whole lot of institutions. Today, CSE itself ensures that not a drop of rain goes out of
its premises. Through simple engineering structures, in a normal year, its
1,000-square-metre land area collects seven lakh litres of water which go straight into
the bowels of Mother Earth to recharge the depleted groundwater reserves.
But clearly, the acid test of the potential of rainwater harvesting will be the drought
season when there is a desperation for water, people are fleeing homes, and those who
remain behind are digging the riverbed for a pot of water. So when I heard that a serious
drought had gripped Rajasthan, Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh, a region in which many
communities have undertaken rainwater harvesting, Down To Earths reporter
Manish Tiwari went to see how these villages were faring as compared to those which had
not undertaken water harvesting previously. Manish returned extremely excited. While
neighbouring villages were desperate for water and many villagers were beginning to flee,
he said, the water harvesting villages not only had water to drink but also some water to
irrigate their crops. The concept of rainwater harvesting was thus standing my acid test
to the extent that people are saying that after this drought
many communities will demand support for water harvesting programmes.
Overall, the news was and remains bad. Gujarat was already suffering a serious drought
in September when the elections took place. And not surprisingly, it saw slogans like
Pehle Paani, Phir Advani. On December 14, the Gujarat police shot dead
three people and injured 20 in Falla village when villagers protested against the state
governments decision to reserve the remaining water in the Kankavati dam for nearby
Jamnagar town. With the summer in full swing, the states ruling politicians
themselves are sowing seeds of confusion and have set in motion a tug-of-war for the
precious commodity. While the urban politicians want to corner the water for their
constituencies, their rural counterparts want it for their villages. But few know how to
solve the regions water crisis where groundwater resources have been overexploited.
And now everyone is fighting for the limited resources available.
We were thrilled by what Manish had found and wanted to bring this important message to
senior decision-makers. We, therefore, invited water resources minister, C P Thakur, to
chair a meeting to which we invited two water harvesting stalwarts from Gujarat to present
their work and experiences.
Unfortunately, the minister fell ill and failed to come but the two made excellent
presentations to a reasonably large gathering. Who doesnt want to hear a message of
One of these stalwarts was Hardevsinh Baldevsinh Jadeja, sarpanch of Raj-Samadhiyala
villages in Rajkot district, and the other was Harnath Jagawat, head of a non-governmental
organisation (NGO), Sadguru Water and Development Foundation, working on water
conservation with poor tribal communities in Panchmahals district. Jagawat told the
audience, "When I discussed the idea of working on water problems in this area in
1994, many government officials and politicians laughed at me.They said: There is no water
here. They did not realise that I was thinking of rainwater." Jagawat got the
villagers of Thunthi Kankasiya, a village that was shunned by prospective brides, first to
build a check dam on the river Machhan and later take up intensive watershed development
work.Today the river was turned from a seasonal nala to one that flows round the year. And
even this year when the rainfall was only 40 per cent of the normal, the farmers have
irrigated 135 hectares and all the 23 wells have enough water to meet their drinking water
needs. Jagawat is today working with many such villages like Thunthi Kankasiya.
Jadeja also said that nobody wanted to give their daughters to Raj-Samadhiyala either.
But this was 15 years ago. Since then he has encouraged the villagers to build 12 check
dams and undertake watershed development. The result: Farmers have sown cotton, wheat,
groundnuts and vegetables this year even though the rainfall is less than two-thirds of
the normal. On the other hand, the groundwater level in most wells is only about three
metres. Jadeja, who left the Central Reserve Police Force to go back to his village,
further described with pride the gram swaraj that he has initiated in the village.
"We have several rules in the village," he said. "One of them is
that if there is a theft in the village and the person affected reports it to the police,
he or she is fined Rs 500. But if the person reports the theft to the panchayat, the
latter will find the thief and the money in 24 hours or else reimburse the person for the
entire amount." Just imagine what would happen if this rule was applied to the
police! The government would probably go bankrupt.
"Another rule we have," went on Jadeja, "is that if anyones
livestock even nibbles the leaf of a tree, the person has to pay a fine of Rs 5 per leaf.
And if the owner happens to be a panchayat member, the fine is doubled." Intrigued, I
asked him how much money had been collected in fines. "Rs 30,000," he said,
"last year." "And did you also have to pay a fine?" I asked probing
further. "Yes, as much as Rs 1,600. I own over a hundred buffaloes and everytime one
pecks away at a tree everyone comes running demanding money with excitement.And I have to
pay double," said Jadeja with great elegance.
After the meeting, a government official present at the meeting asked Jagawat,
"Since you make check dams on riverbeds, dry though they may be, do you take
permission from the irrigation or forest department." Like Jadeja before him,
Jagawats reply was telling and stark. "No," he said. "I never do.
Who wants to waste ones time with them. I work with the villagers. If the
government agencies dont like it let them tear the structures down. But then they
must be prepared to face the peoples wrath. There have been grumblings from those
quarters but nobody was dared to reverse anything."
These responses were, if anything, stunning. The disrespect for the rules and
institutions of the state among both Jadeja and Jagawat was incredible and by all strict
definitions of corruption, they were not only indulging in corrupt
practices but also encouraging others they were working with to adopt corrupt
practices. And what makes the situation even more amazing is that by any definition
Jadeja and Jagawat are in todays wide and big India two most committed, sincere and
honest persons. We really must sit back and ponder on what we have done to the governance
systems of this so-called democratic country.
Summing up, I had to tell the people assembled that the main message of the meeting had
turned out to be on the state of Indias governance and not merely on the importance
of rainwater harvesting to meet the thirst of India. The churlishness, arrogance and
incompetence with which government officials today behave with the public, especially the
poor, and the corrupt practices they indulge in has now reached unbelievable proportions.
No wonder nobody wants to do anything with the government, if they can help it. And yet
not a single political party wants to tackle this problem leading to increasing lack of
credibility in public institutions.An extremely unhealthy situation for any country at any
stage of its economic development.
Robert Putnam, in his brilliant study Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in
Modern Italy, which took him 20 years to complete, compares the stark difference
between north and south Italy while the former, full of civic participation,
civicness as he calls it, achieved one of the economic miracles of post-Second
World War Europe, the latter mired in feudal relationships still remains backward and
dominated by the infamous Mafia.In an effort to decentralise governance, the Italian state
created nearly 20 regional governments. Putnam analyses which of these governments work
and reaches the conclusion that civic participation is critical for democracies to
One of Putnams key finding is that though we all know that absolute power
corrupts, few of us tend to recognise that no power also corrupts. Not surprisingly,
nobody in India respects the highly centralised, non-participatory and autocratic
governance systems which political parties try to sustain not by promoting good governance
but by building strong patron-client relationships and creating a façade of serving the
clientele through the official loot of the treasury subsidies, special allocations of
projects and natural resources, you name it and you have got it. And beyond these
patron-client relationships, the political-bureaucratic systems encourages little
decentralisation or development.
Doesnt it remind you of what is happening today in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh and the
criminalisation of its politics!
Merely being able to elect a pack of incompetent politicians every few years is not the
end-all and be-all of a democratic society. For a country whose politicians love to shout
from the tree-tops that India is the worlds largest democracy all of you must have
listened to the political rhetoric during the recent Clinton visit the total lack of
democracy in its governance, where only baburaj and autocracy prevail, is indeed
pathetic. Democracy, my foot! We are living in an extremely sick democracy.
The problems of water, I am convinced, will only get solved when democracy enters our
governance system when Janashakti (peoples power) prevails over rajshakti (state
power). I hail the mutinous corruption of Jadeja and Jagawat and of all others like them.