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Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkaar—3 players that can save both India’s rivers and urban colonies

In 'Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach', Rohini Nilekani outlines her philosophy of restoring the balance between state and markets.

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As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk. But in some parts of India today, water is more expensive and less accessible than milk. Groundwater resources are depleting, and NITI Aayog sees a crisis by 2020. So how do communities, policymakers, and corporates create constructive solutions to this problem?

The Relationship Between Rivers and Cities

When we talk about reforming policy or making a change which would actually impact people positively on the ground, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, which Dr Mihir Shah, with his experience on the planning commission and his work in Samaj Pragati Sahayog, puts across succinctly. The first is to be in a position to reform government systems and processes because we cannot solve problems like water without involving the government.

While drafting the Twelfth Five Year Plan for India’s water policy, Dr Shah created a working group of experts from outside the government, despite resistance from the Prime Minister’s Office. He brought in experts like Tushar Shah and Sunita Narayan to influence policy which was focused on arriving at a common ground on water. Everyone was forced to put their fundamentalisms outside to arrive at this common ground and make compromises. However, they were able to sign off on a document that represented a paradigm shift in how water will be managed in this country.

This is one sort of model if we are to re-imagine the relationship of rivers and our urban settlements, where we create working groups, bringing together elements of the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. You cannot solve complex societal issues without reducing the friction to collaborate between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, and this example shows us the way forward. We know that the Bazaar has a lot of innovation, including technological innovations to offer the water sector and I think we’ve not deployed enough of those. From Samaaj side, sometimes there has been a resistance to using technologies but I think the time has come when we seriously need to look at many new technologies which need the Bazaar’s active involvement to put them out into the world, with policy support from the state.

With these working groups that were set up under the Planning Commission, there was a paradigm shift in water management governance as well. As Dr Shah points out, we applaud higher rates of growth, but do not realize that these cannot be sustained unless we also take care of the larger ecosystem, the ecology that is sustaining this process of economic growth.

For example, if we look at the relationship between cities and rivers, there is an engineering cliché, that rivers which flow into the sea are a waste and they should be dammed to bring water to the cities around it. But if we remember the lessons on the hydrological cycle that we learnt at school, we would know that it doesn’t make any sense not to allow rivers to flow into the sea. Many of our rivers today are not reaching the sea and that’s going to have serious consequences on the hydrological cycle and the monsoon patterns over time. To say that we are wasting water when we let it go into the ocean is ignoring very basic science that we learnt in third grade.

Instead, we are redirecting rivers to our cities, encroaching on the drainage lines which means encroaching on the channels through which these rivers are flowing themselves. If the water is not allowed to flow through its natural course, when heavy rainfall or climate change events arise, we then face problems of urban flooding. Life and livelihood on the subcontinent could be deeply threatened. So, if we don’t understand ecology and how to sustain our rivers, then we are already dooming ourselves, and our cities.

Also Read: A British scientist’s quest to scientifically explain the ‘mythical powers of the Ganges’

A Problem of Imagination

The situation in Bangalore is particularly interesting because we bring water from the Kaveri at great expense and at a great energy cost. We actually pump up the water from a great distance, but so many of us in the city take the Kaveri for granted. We don’t think about who is being deprived of that water by this relocation, and instead we use it, pollute it, fail to treat it, and then we send it off, creating a lot of negative downstream impact because of that.

ATREE, an organization that I support, has been doing a lot of work on the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavathy – two rivers that were tributaries of Kaveri, that were flowing through our city. Vrishabhavathi originates from the bull-temple itself, and the Dakshina Pinakini is not far from the city, originating in the Nandi Hills. There are a lot of people trying to understand how we can revive these rivers and drive back the Kaveri because Bangalore does have enough rain and lakes, and we would also have rivers if we are able to rejuvenate them. We really don’t need to bring Kaveri water to feed this thirsty city. But as of now, the Vrishabhavathi is nothing but a drain. The imagination of citizens with their rivers is destroyed, so we have no relationship with the idea of a river anymore. Nobody remembers a healthy flowing river in this city anymore, which is a real pity. But imagine if we could bring back these three rivers, the Dakshina Pinakini, the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavathy – that would mean so much.

Some of the research that was conducted at ATREE showed that one of the reasons why the Arkavathy is not flowing anymore is because there has been so much groundwater pumping in an unrestricted fashion, which is affecting the base flow of rivers. In India, we have an un-channelled groundwater regime, and so our river flows are getting seriously affected because people are sucking groundwater from anywhere, without any regulation. Usually, after the monsoon, these rivers gain water from the groundwater basin. However, since groundwater has been extracted, deeper and deeper, the water now flows from the river into the ground, which results in them losing water and eventually drying up.

As Dr Shah notes, we need policy changes as well as a people’s movement to protect our water. This work cannot be achieved by the government alone, citizens also need to understand the management of groundwater. As of now, the government has initiated the Atal Bhujal Yojana as part of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, with six thousand crores (three given by the World Bank and three coming from India). However, along with cooperation from bureaucrats and hydrogeologists, we need the citizens, who are the primary stakeholders, to come together. The dissemination of this information to people who are actually using this groundwater will ensure that they use it sustainably. So, it’s a complete relationship of interdependence between different forms of water and between nation and society. That interdependence has to be embodied in powerful partnerships for change. Without that, we will continue to make mistakes and the paradigm shift will not come.

Also Read: East India Company to World War: How Brahmaputra river was militarised

So, we need to focus on local solutions which are reviving lakes, roof-water harvesting, managing the groundwater more sustainably, and using wastewater more creatively. Wastewater is another problem, as Dr Shah mentions, because water quality is becoming a very serious issue in India. Unless we are able to recycle water and make it of the requisite quality, we are causing a great deal of ecological damage. Our cities only imagine treatment plants at the ends of its bounds, but actually they need to be throughout the city so that clean water is being returned to the stormwater drains. We can see successful examples of this in Jakkur and small towns where, instead of making the same outmoded mistakes, we are able to bring in 21st-century technologies to treat wastewater. So, it’s a question of breaking down the pure engineering paradigm, understanding the power of decentralization, and keeping an interdisciplinary, ecology-based, landscape-oriented design.

Excerpted with permission from Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach by Rohini Nilekani.

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