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Water Today: Source of Life or Death?

 

The Mumbai High Court yesterday asked the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) why millions of litres of water should be used for preparing pitches for IPL cricket matches in Maharashtra this month when lakhs of households are thirsty in Latur and several other districts of the state due to severe drought.

As unusual summer heat spreads around the continent this year, scarcity of water is likely to increase, and so the contestation over use and control over water increases. Nearly one-third of the districts of the country are suffering from severe drought and consequent scarcity of water is affecting the life of nearly 60% of the Indian population.
Neither droughts nor the scarcity of water are new. What is new is our inability to harvest, store and manage efficient use of water. Public investment in water storage and use has been an integral part of the national development programming for decades. Much of this has been designed and planned from Delhi and state capitals. Local realities, local practices and local knowledge of water harvesting and utilization have largely been ignored by such planning and implementation.

It is in this context that PRIA's recent interventions on water need to be situated. In many tribal regions of states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, traditional practices of water harvesting had evolved based on the hilly terrain of their habitations. Use of water was regulated through traditional community governance mechanisms based on the principle of water as a common resource. However, government programmes resulted in breakdown of traditional systems, without replacing them with new governance mechanisms.

In Jharkhand, PRIA has been intervening in Sahibganj district to bring certain harmony between the traditional and the modern. One of the key interventions in this location has been to support the preparation of local decentralized water security plans with the leadership of local panchayats. Even though elections to panchayats in Jharkhand have occurred (the last one in 2015), it is imperative that these local democratic institutions are enabled, capacitated and supported to take responsibility not only for ensuring water security for all households, but for all different purposes.

Can PRIA’s successful pilots in ten gram panchayats of Jharkhand be scaled-up in the entire state? What systems and practices need to change for such a scale-up to succeed? PRIA's previous experiences in Chhattisgarh and Odisha in decentralized governance of water as a common resource give partial answers to these critical questions. Sensitive officials, with support from some independent international agencies (like UNICEF, DFID, etc) could have scaled up such pilots in certain districts. But, systematic reorientation of existing policies and schemes did not happen.

At the heart of this dilemma is an essential principle: should water like any common natural resource be first governed locally? Only then, choice between use of water as a source of life or death can be made.

 

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