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Mitigating Water-crisis In Punjab : Empowering Society With Water Vision

By Umendra Dutt

25 October, 2006

The impending water crisis in Punjab has not only eclipsed its agriculture and economy but also ruined the ecology, health, life style and social fabric of the state. It has severely destroyed the water heritage and cultural value system also. One can find hundreds of examples across the state in this regard. The stress and strain due to water crisis is taking the Punjab into unending series of suicides. Recently a farmer Mohinder Singh and three of his family members has consumed pesticide in Khiyali village near Raikot owing debt accumulated over the years, and three of them died one after one. The water woes continued to hunt this family. There is no source of canal water for this area and further poor quality of ground water at depth of 100 feets pushed Mohinder Singh into debt trap and subsequently forced him to commit suicide. Water-suicides are emerging as a new social crisis in this prospers state.

We are on cross roads; we have to drive Punjab out of this devastation. Conserving water is like conserving life. But how this will happen? Who has to take initiative? And why the Punjabi society has become so ignorant about water? How the sacred relation between water and society has being lost? These questions have to be answered before evolving any conservation strategy and action plan. The civil society has to be recognized as the rightful custodian of water and its involvement for a larger role is must for the success of this rescue mission. The crisis has to be tackled holistically. The vision, the approach, the strategy and action has to be holistic. Man had taken control of whole of water resources and this control is absolute, it displaces other creatures and their natural right over water, this is a brutal attempt. It is an injustice to other forms of nature. This may ultimately lead to the destruction of human civilization.

We inherit the water tradition which was de-centralized and managed by community, the stakeholders their selves. Each community has its own water-order .That treats water as an integral part of nature not mere a resource used to meet ever increasing human demands. This water-order reflects in our social customs, traditions, beliefs and knowledge systems. It was so interwoven in a multi-fabric structure that it symbiosis with very identity of the society. Environmental justice to all living beings and sustainability are the foundations of this water-order. It covers all aspects of environmental, agricultural and economic sustainability along with social and cultural security. This water-order has an inbuilt institution of water conservation and enforcing water laws. It also defines our relation with water. Unfortunately, Punjab has lost its inherited water-order.

The water is creation of God; it is a gift of Mother Nature. It is sacred, divine, pious, sanctimonious and godly. Water is known for its intrinsic quality to purify every thing that comes in its contact. But we had made it most polluted, contaminated and even toxic substance. It is a sin and we have to pay the price for this. Our every holy place has a water body as an integrated and indispensable part. This signifies our own water vision. Water is for all , the every living creature on the earth has its water-right. Water belongs to nature, the rivers and the oceans. Man had only misappropriated it. We can take the water from Mother Nature as a child gets her or his feed from mother. We can draw water from nature but can not exploit it.

Then what could be the way-out for Punjab. How could we save water without proper water policy, a conservation strategy and action plan? What is water vision of Punjab and what Punjab government follows? Interestingly Punjab has no state water policy as of now. In 2004 a draft water policy was circulated with in governmental circles only and it is still not more than a draft. Ironically, there is no space for community initiative and participation in the proposed draft policy frame work.

To begin with, let the people of Punjab have a water budget. As we manage our finances by budgeting, the water has to be budgeted too. It has to be done on various scales, such as – individual, village, block, district, town, geo-climatic sub-zone, river basins and then entire state, then sectoral levels like agriculture, industry and domestic supply. This water budgeting shall be based on equity, sustainability and harmony with nature along with social and environmental justice.

We have to think about sustainable consumption pattern also. Gandhiji has said that earth has enough to fulfill everyone's needs but not for their greed. There is no limitation to consumption, if there is no budgeting. We are going on increasing water supply but there will be a limit, how far we can go? A systematic effort to reduce the man's demand of water is earnestly required. Western approach to consumption as happiness is like ever walking without ending according to Tagore. Can the people of Punjab think on this aspect? We have to identify potentially unnecessary consumption demands of man; we have to differentiate between need and demand by greed.

Water should be available to each one, without any discrimination and hassle. The systems imposed by new economic-order of globalization by World Bank and international funding agencies, will certainly left no scope for this inter-dependent life systems of shared and community governance. The new water pricing policy is going to rout our social systems too. The drinking water can not be and should not be controlled by the market forces. We have to prioritize the water supply according to social and environmental justice and made the pricing system based on these. Drinking water is very basic human right and government has to ensure that the public stand post must work.

First the community institutions were dismantled, the colonial regime has taken over entire control and it was continued even after independence and now GOI, Planning Commission along with World Bank is talking about community management. Now government proposed to hand over water supply to PRIs, but it will certainly not work. The society that has lost its capacity, its water vision and water-order could not manage its resources on its own. It was made handicap for colonial interests and we did not rectify this after independence. Earlier the society was striped of its sense of relation with water and now all of sudden the government wants them to manage.

Eminent environmentalist and Water Guru Anupam Mishra question this new fond love for new participatory concepts like Joint Forest Management and others. He said," let the rulers and planners clear, who had made management of our land, water and forest ' solo' first? Our society had shared management system since time immemorial". When state institution failed in managing the things then only they had started for community participation. But things do not work like this, society has to be empowered first, it needs to go through a capacity building process to reinstall its own water–order.

When a society loses its water vision and heritage it is bound to plunge into water devastation. The resource intensive development technology has converted the water into a commodity – only a consumer good. When there is no well defined relation then how society could move to conserve water. So, Punjabi society has to re-trace its relations with water. Water is considered and regarded as father by our Gurus - pawan guru, pani pita, mata dharat mahat. Is it like that now? We call rivers as Mother but do we treat them like that? It is degeneration of our water-order. A sincere introspection by entire community and institution is urgently needed in this.

We have to clear certain more things. If we want to conserve water then, what are the requirements of Punjab? Is it technology, Money, Guidance by developmental professionals and scientists from departments and Agriculture University or directions by World Bank? Punjab must look the other community initiatives, who have set examples by evolving their water-order and social discipline, to find answers for its problems. In Punjab also, Sant Balbir Singh Senchewal has shown the way with his great work on holy Kali Bein rivulet, but the entire governmental, bureaucratic and technocratic system is still lacking the vision and things are not moving in required pace. Because the present developmental paradigm is not native to Punjab and its people, we are still over taken by European motives and methods by forgetting the spirit with in our society. That is why our actions are poor in will, unsustainable in form and ineffective in results as they does not come from our own roots.

The initiatives of Tarun Bharat Sangh –TBS led by Magsaysay award winner Rajinder Singh in the district of Alwar and Laporia Navyuvak Vikas Mandal – LNVM led by water worrier Laxman Singh in Jaipur district, are two exemplary success stories from Rajasthan. With much less rain fall as compare to Punjab the villagers of these areas become self-sufficient in water without any help from government, without any technical assistance from governmental department or agriculture university. They had retraces their water-heritage, reenact water-order and made the community the real custodian of water. TBS has revived the six small rivers in that region; it is for the first time that a declared dark zone is converted into white zone and that too by the community work based on traditional knowledge. Then there is another example of Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sangthan situated in village Ufferankhal of Pouri Garwal of Uttarakhand state, where the people's toil brings the lost forest cover back. It was not only forest cover, but the entire biodiversity and wild life has a magnificent come back. The high mountain springs drayed due to deforestation and soil erosion once again become alive and perennial.

These all three places have one thing in common that is the initiative of community to formulate a strict water-order, social- discipline and urge for sacrifice. Punjab needs to learn from communities and villagers of these places and adopt their experiences in accordance with its own conditions, eco-system, culture and heritage. It is people's wisdom and their institutions that will sustain and show the path for future generations.

Punjab doesn't need technology, guidance by World Bank or developmental professionals; it needs only its water-order and water-vision. Just empower the society with these it will do the things on its own.

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission, Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO in Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail:

Umendra Dutt
Executive Director
Street-5, Hardayal Nagar,

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