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
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 Earth
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 hope!
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
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
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
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.