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How Traditional Customs Can Bring Water Security

Summer is here once again, and the scarcity of water in the country is acute. Traditional customs can bring water security to local communities, as PRIA's work in Jharkhand shows

Every year, we await the monsoons with bated breath. The impact of the monsoon rains on our lives is irrefutable. The first smell of rain on the parched earth, hot pakoras and chai with friends on a rainy afternoon, dancing in a downpour – such joy cannot be expressed in mere words. But we also dread the water-logging and traffic jams. A deficient monsoon affects rural agrarian communities, with poor agricultural output, rising prices and shrinking, polluted water sources.

Over the last several years, many rural areas across the country have been provided with drinking water supply in villages. However, the number of “slipped back” habitations increases every year because the same water source (e.g., an aquifer) is also tapped for irrigation water. Ongoing, unmonitored tree felling and unplanned, illegal mining has led to wetlands and rivers drying up due to reduction in the base flows which had earlier sustained them. The lowering of water tables has also caused, in many areas, water contamination due to arsenic, fluorides and other harmful substances seeping into the ground water.

For the tribal communities of Santhal Pargana in Jharkhand these are some of the realities they live with every day. “We struggle to protect water bodies in our areas. It is getting difficult day by day as the mining mafias engage in rampant and illegal mining and the increased numbers of stone crusher plants have resulted in natural springs in our area drying up. This is a threat to our water security,” says Marang Marandi, pradhan of Sri Ram Chauki-Santhali village in Ambadiha Gram Panchayat, Sahibganj disctrict, Jharkhand.

“Officials who are responsible to protect the interests of the tribal people do nothing to educate or protect us. Poor households are lured for a few thousand rupees to mortgage their lands to the mining mafia,” says Chamaru Pahadia of Demba village. “The mafia mints money from their land, destroying the ecological balance in the area. Ironically, the tribals who knew how to use and conserve water, now buy water from traders who are partners with the mining mafia.”

We need to protect not only our forest cover but also traditional customs in order to achieve water security. The Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (also known as PESA) is a simple yet comprehensive and powerful law that, if implemented in letter and spirit, can help achieve this. PESA provisions promote people-centric governance in tribal areas and provide a central role to the gram sabha to directly address issues that emerge in their daily lives and manage natural resources in accordance with traditional customs and practices. Under PESA, it is mandatory that states having Scheduled Areas make specific provisions to give wide‐ranging powers to gram sabhas on decision‐making for their village’s own development. 

Most water bodies at the village level were managed by traditional, community-based systems. Over the years these systems have begun to break down. Water bodies and structures that were created or regenerated under government programmes have not been very successful in aligning or integrating themselves with community-based needs and have not recognised or supported traditional systems. Further, strengthening of state control over common natural resources, weakening of people’s customary rights and acquisition of the individual’s and the community’s natural resources for (mostly private) industry in violation of PESA provisions is the leading flashpoint in several Scheduled Areas in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Lack of proper governance to address the issue of common property (of which water management is a part) compounds the problem. The state is also emerging as a principal violator of the very laws it is meant to uphold, e.g., ignoring a gram sabha’s opposition (under PESA) to land acquisition, and calling village assemblies under heavy police presence to push through land acquisition plans. Tribal communities are tragically ill equipped to navigate available institutional mechanisms and legislation to mitigate their problems.

PRIA has been working in the Scheduled Areas of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand for the past 3-4 years to ensure active participation of the community in managing their own development.  Communities and gram sabhas are being empowered to directly address and become involved in the issue of accessibility to regular and clean water and effective management of water, including planning, developing, recharging, distributing and optimum use. The debate around community-based management of resources (through a model of water management) has been central in the strengthening of local governance institutions. Government officials and elected representatives have learnt to collaborate together and with the community to understand problems and find possible solutions by keeping the gram sabha at the core of the planning and implementation process. The community has gained knowledge on PESA provisions and the functioning of the gram sabha. 

Most importantly, the local tribal community has realised that they can use new knowledge regarding legal provisions under PESA together with their traditional practices to gain control over their own resources, and take responsibility to create a more viable and sustainable model of development for themselves.



























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