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Mismanaging water can create a crisis and lead to panic. This is exactly what led to a water riot near Jamnagar in Gujarat

(This article appeared in Down To Earth, Jan 15, 2000)

At least three farmers, who died recently in Falla village 28 kilometres from Jamnagar town, felt this way. They were not alone. With them were almost half a thousand others. The farmers were unhappy because the authorities had taken a decision to tap a water source, in this case the Kankavati Dam, to supply water to Jamnagar town.

It is well known that Gujarat state is facing an acute water shortage — in fact, it is experiencing a drought. But the shortage and crisis applies to farmers as well. The rural folk, too, feel the need for water and also require water for irrigation to produce more food — most of which is consumed by the nearest town. They also carry out, at least some of them do, water rationing and water conservation and harvesting measures to ensure that water is always available in plenty.

It was only natural that the government’s decision to cater to the needs of the town’s folk first would be resented by them. Soon hundreds of farmers had turned out to protest against the move. The police were present as usual. The two were talking at cross-purposes. The farmers were crying for water, the police ready to open fire. In the ensuing violence three farmers died.

Water is both capable of giving and taking lives. The lesson is simple. But this incident provokes certain very valid questions. Why has the administration always failed to realise that town and village folk should be on an equal footing when it comes to allocating water? Why is there no equity in water distribution? Is it because most administrators belong to the most arrogant and inept elite in the world?

Then there is another ticklish issue, one of pricing water. Water can be transported over huge areas to a town, either through tankers or an intricate network of canals fed by a mega-dam project. An entire township may have been submerged to facilitate the setting up of this project. Are these costs taken into consideration while supplying this water to the town dweller? Or is the water supplied a highly subsidised commodity?

Given the present state of affairs, water is a highly subsidised commodity for urbanites. In Gujarat the above incident shows that it can even cost human lives. And all this is unnecessary. The result of pure and simple mismanagement.

Cities in India are designed in a manner to ensure that water is wasted. This creates an artificial scarcity to begin with. No attempt is made in any city to harvest rain, the only original source of freshwater in the world. On the other hand, it is allowed to flow unchecked into the city’s sewers. Sources of water recharge have been encroached upon and claimed for construction projects. Such is the fate of a lake or pond that becomes part of the urban or municipal area of a town. Rivers which were once a source of clean drinking water are dyed with effluent released by a host of industries and in Gujarat even groundwater has not been spared by rogue units which have directly pumped their effluent into the aquifer to avoid installing pollution control technology.

The government as a result is trying to bore wells about 550 metres deep to provide water for it’s thirsty town folk. The farmers is Falla village are all too justified in protesting. After two months if the water in the dam is exhausted even Falla may face a severe water crisis. For the villages here there is no other source of drinking water for the next six months.

While the people in Falla have been wise enough to realise that rainwater harvesting is an answer to the problem of water scarcity, the administration is yet to respond to their demand for five check dams to be built in the area to catch rain. As a result they have decided to go ahead with watershed management programmes of their own. And rightly so water should be everybody’s business, not just the state’s. Left to the state, water is mismanaged, left to the people it is a different story altogether.

But have the bureaucrats of Gujarat learnt their lesson? Only time will tell. They have to learn to catch water where it falls, manage it properly and prevent the desire to create artificial crises by mismanaging water or relocating it with the help of tankers. In any case they have a tough time ahead, Falla may have seen the first in a series of water riots which are likely to break out later in the year in March and April when the crisis worsens.

Gujarat is likely to be in for an exercise its short-sighted, file-pushing officials may never have visualised. Perhaps bureaucrats will never realise that files do not hold water. Rain water harvesting structures do, and proper management and control of water use in cities is the need of the hour in Gujarat.

Therefore, the time to do a quick rethink on water, water management and water-related issues is here and now. We cannot afford to delay and it is time we reviewed our town-centric approach to the handling of this problem.

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